Masterpiece with war wounds

The tragic history of the restoration of Rossellino's relief "Mary with child"

Mary with child (c. 1460) by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Antonio Rossellino 
Virgin and Child
ca. 1460–70 

The sculptor Antonio Gamberelli was called Rossellino because of his red hair: rosso means red in Italian. He was born in 1427 in Settignano, in the outskirts of Florence, and began working in the Florentine workshop of his elder brother Bernardo. He soon became famous for his representations of the Virgin and the Child, as shows one of his masterpieces now in the Bode Museum in Berlin. 

The marble relief combines forms in high relief, such as the face of the Virgin, and almost flat surfaces, such as the angel that has a baby head and two wings (known as cherub).

Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and wears a cross around his neck – a hint, named prefiguration, of his future death by crucifixion. His mother delicately supports his head with her left hand, a naturalistic gesture that adds intimacy to the representation.

Antonio Rossellino carved every detail with great care. This is the case of the right armrest of the Virgin’s throne, decorated with an eagle, possibly referring to the patron of the work.

Presentation of the Madonna Relief by Rossellino in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum between 1919 and 1933 by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The work was purchased by the Berlin Museums in Florence in 1890. In the Kaiser Friedrich Museum – the former name of the Bode Museum – it had a preeminent place during the early 20th century: one sees the Virgin and Child  at the very centre of a wall adorned with paintings and sculptures from the Florentine Renaissance. 

Destroyed Flakbunker Friedrichshain 1946 by UnknownBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

During the Second World War, the Madonna of Rossellino was stored – like thousands of other works of art – in an anti-aircraft defence tower located in Berlin, the Flakturm Friedrichshain. In May 1945, the tower suffered two devastating fires of unknown origin. Many works perished forever. Other survived the war heavily damaged, as was the case of our Madonna and Child.

Mary with child by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This tragic fate was also shared by another Virgin and Child by Antonio Rossellino from the Berlin Museums, this time made of terracotta.

Mary with child (Fragment) by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Only the face of the Virgin remains of the original. But, beyond drama, it has won a fascinating aura at mid-distance between African masks and portraits from Ancient Egypt.

Mary with child, stato bfore restoration 2012 by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 1946, the fragments of the marble relief were secretly taken to the Soviet Union by the Red Army, which had entered Berlin.  In 1958, the Soviet Union returned many works to East Berlin, including the Virgin and Child by Rossellino. The fragments were mounted on a marble plate in order to make the composition readable again. However, the bulk of the background was missing, as were the Virgin’s veil, parts of her knee and the haloes (the round-like crown, which denotes a figure’s sanctity). Only half of each cherub's face was present and the Child was missing a piece of his mouth. The masterpiece had become a ruin. 

Mary with child, Painter’s model after Antonio Rossellino, "Mary with child", in the holdings of the Gipsformerei since 1902 by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The destructive violence of the war did not touch, at least, the plaster casts gallery set up by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in Charlottenburg, where moulds and patterns of the sculpture collection were kept. Among them, there was also a model, made in  1902, of the Virgin and Child by Rossellino, which had been painted in the presence of the original and thus allows us to know the original colour of the marble.  Charlottenburg was located in Berlin’s West  Sector. A comparison between this model and the marble relief only became possible after the Reunification of Germany in 1990. 

Restoration of Rossellinos "Mary with child" in the exhibition "The Lost Museum" from 2016 by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In 2012, the museum decided to complete the missing parts of the original relief with a moulding of the plaster cast. This was understood as a reversible process: should a future generation prefer the fragmentary condition, all additions can be easily removed.

Mary with child (c. 1460) by Antonio RossellinoBode-Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Rossellino's masterful composition can once again be perceived in its entirety.

Its tragic history should, however, not be forgotten: at close range, one can still distinguish between the original and the added parts.

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Daniela Ranzi

Concept: Daniela Ranzi / Neville Rowley

Editing / Realization: Malith C. Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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