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The Botticelli Coup
Treasures from the Hamilton Collection on Show at Berlin's Kupferstichkabinett

16.10.2015 to 24.01.2016

In the 19th century, the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett played a pivotal role in the rediscovery and revival of interest in Sandro Botticelli: In 1882 it acquired, from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton, Botticelli's spectacular series of drawings illustrating scenes from Dante's 'Divine Comedy'.

The wider British public only became aware of these masterpieces when rumours of the Berlin museum's attempts to woo the Scottish Duke started circulating in the press. No less than Queen Victoria herself and her daughter, wife of the German crown prince, appealed for these art treasures to remain in the UK. In spite of their efforts, the Berlin museums - and in particular Friedrich Lippmann, then-director of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett - pulled off a sensational coup by purchasing the unique Botticelli drawings, together with nearly all objects in the duke's priceless manuscript collection, directly from the duke before the scheduled auction. The sensational purchase and subsequent publication of the Botticelli drawings as collotype plates made these unique works of art known to the public and art historians alike. They are a cornerstone of the Kupferstichkabinett's collection and raised its public profile enormously abroad.

This year, Berlin's Kupferstichkabinett will hold an exhibition tracing the exciting circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the Botticelli drawings and manuscripts from the Hamilton Collection. On show will be a selection of Botticelli's drawings, rarely shown in public, as well as some of the magnificent manuscripts from the Scottish collection, including several of the most beautiful and important illuminated manuscripts in the world. The display will primarily feature Italian manuscripts from the time of Botticelli, including such famous books as the monumental 'Hamilton Bible', which Raphael depicted in his portrait of Pope Leo X, and the lavish missal of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici. What connects the glowing golden manuscripts with Botticelli's Commedia drawings is not only their shared, spectacular acquisition history. All these works are in fact bibliophile treasures of the highest calibre, created by the best artists of their day for illustrious patrons, members of the leading families of Italy, first and foremost the Medici. The manuscripts' splendid variety and luminous colours exemplify what Dante termed the 'smiling pages' when describing, in his Commedia, the art of manuscript illumination which so captured the public imagination in 19th century.

Sandro Botticelli: Dante and Vergil in the Eighth Circle of Hell (Inferno XVIII), after ca. 1480–1495
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

10785 Berlin

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The special exhibition The Allure of Rome: Maarten van Heemskerck Draws the City can also be visited on Tuesdays (10 am to 6 pm).

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Museum and the City: „Backstories: Der Botticelli Coup“ on the blog of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (German only)