The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, or Taddei Tondo (1504-5), has been the Royal Academy’s greatest treasure since 1829

How not to lose your marbles

Selling the Royal Academy’s greatest treasure would be risky and morally wrong


This article is part of a Museums Special. You can also read Alexander Larman on Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum here and Charles Saumarez Smith on The British Museum in the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In the world of art, the choicest of this past summer’s silly season red herrings was unquestionably the report that a small splinter group of Royal Academicians were planning to argue that the Royal Academy ought to sell its greatest treasure by far, the Taddei Tondo, in order to balance its books and save threatened jobs.

Since the RA budget relies so heavily on visitor income, it has been particularly adversely affected by the Covid crisis and will remain in difficulties until the happy day when life returns to normal. The Observer claims the RA’s deficit for this year as £8 million, and the possibility of redundancies is therefore horribly real. However, that does not mean selling the family silver — or, in this case, marble — is the right way forward.

The powers that be at the RA have made it abundantly plain that they have no intention of heading down this route, and the President, Rebecca Salter, is said to be “horrified” at the thought, so there is absolutely no need to start manning the barricades, but explaining why selling the Tondo would — to quote from 1066 and All That — be such a Bad Thing is still a worthwhile exercise, not least to guard against future insanities of this kind.

It does not really seem necessary to take the trouble to make the case for Michelangelo’s status as one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, since his extraordinary genius was already recognised long before he reached the age of 30 and — with slight ups and downs over the centuries — has remained unquestioned ever since.

It is probably right to say that — in these days of the triumph of the two-dimensional thanks to our relationship with cinema, television, and computer screens — he is most celebrated as the painter of the titanic and glorious vault of the Sistine Chapel. Nevertheless, as far as he was concerned, he was first and foremost a sculptor. He famously pronounced: “Io non sono pittore” (“I am no painter”), and commonly signed his letters “Michelangelo scultore”. Long ago, British passports included the holder’s profession, and — if he had had one — Michelangelo would definitely have put “Sculptor”.

Given the sheer physical weight of sculpture, and especially sculpture in marble, in combination with the awe in which Michelangelo has always been held, it may perhaps come as no surprise that almost no sculptures by him have ever left Italy. There is a ravishingly beautiful marble group of the Madonna and Child in Bruges, which was commissioned from the artist by one Alexandre Mouscron, a Bruges cloth merchant with offices in Florence and Rome, for his altar in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame back home, which has been there ever since it reached its intended destination in 1506, and there are two monumental marble Prisoners — also sometimes referred to as Slaves — in the Louvre.

There are precisely two other candidates for Michelangelo sculptures outside Italy

Originally intended for the tomb of Michelangelo’s great patron, Pope Julius II, they never joined his Moses on the monument in the Roman church of San Pietro in Vincoli, and instead in 1546 he gave them to a friend, Ruberto Strozzi. In swift succession, the latter went into exile and settled in Lyons, and they entered the collection of King Francis I, who died the year after in 1547. As a matter of fact, therefore, all three sculptures had already left Italy during Michelangelo’s unusually long lifetime — he was born in 1475 and died in 1564 — and there was only one subsequent escapee, the Taddei Tondo.

The uncomplicated reason why it acquired that name is that — by a perhaps not so weird coincidence, given how many of them there must have been — its first patron was another cloth merchant, this time a Florentine called Taddeo Taddei. Michelangelo evidently failed to complete both it and a second, slightly smaller marble tondo, known — once again after its original owner — as the Pitti Tondo, which is now in the Bargello in Florence, before he moved to Rome in the early spring of 1505.

It may be that Michelangelo, at least initially, hoped he would one day find the time to finish them, but in the event he was never to return to his native Florence. Be that as it may, in the meantime they were evidently handed over to Taddei and Pitti, which tends to support the notion that — for all that they were unfinished — they were regarded as distinguished productions and not mere works in progress.

What is for sure, moreover, is the fact that the young Raphael, who also worked for Taddei, copied the tondo in a drawing now in the Louvre. Interestingly, in the biography of Michelangelo in both the 1550 and the 1568 editions of his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari records that “he began, but did not finish, two roundels of marble — one for Taddeo Taddei, which is now in his house, and another that he began for Bartolomeo Pitti, which was presented by Fra Mariano Pitti of Monte Oliveto, a man with a rare knowledge of cosmography and many other sciences, to Luigi Guicciardini, who was much his friend.”

At some indeterminate later date, the Taddei Tondo evidently left the family collection, and it is next documented in Rome in the possession of the French painter and collector, Jean-Baptiste Wicar, from whom it was acquired by Sir George Beaumont in 1822. Understandably, its arrival in London that very year caused a sensation, with the painter Sir David Wilkie RA remarking that it “became the chief talk of all the artists”.

The Taddei Tondo is the only sculpture by Michelangelo that could ever conceivably become available on the market

It only passed to the Academy in 1829 on the death of Beaumont’s widow, Margaret, and a short week after its arrival there no less a figure than the newly-elected RA, John Constable, would hail it as “one of the most beautiful works of art in existence”. Not least since its meticulous and revelatory cleaning by John Larson in 1991, its extraordinary visual power has been more abundantly clear than ever.

With the exception of the Taddei Tondo, there are precisely two other candidates for Michelangelo sculptures outside Italy, a Cupid in New York, currently on loan from the French Republic to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but formerly in the Cultural Services office of the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, and a Crouchling Youth in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, but — crucially — neither is by any means universally accepted as the work of the master.

It is true that hitherto unknown or lost works by even the greatest artists do still very occasionally turn up, as Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks and Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi — respectively found in the 1990s and the 2000s — prove. Sadly, when it comes to running across a new sculpture by Michelangelo, the chances are anorexically slim. The single even halfway realistic possible candidate would be his bronze statue of David, which was last recorded in a French château around the time of the French Revolution, and — if it made it through all the turmoil of the period — might in theory still be lurking in some neglected garden or attic.

The result of this state of affairs is that for now the Taddei Tondo is the only sculpture by Michelangelo that could ever conceivably become available on the market. If it were to do so, there would be two main options — a private sale or a public auction. Given what happened in the case of Leonardo’s aforementioned Salvator Mundi, which sold at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017 for $450 million against a pre-sale guarantee of $100 million, it is not hard to see why auction might well seem the best course to take.

In theory, as happened in 1962 with Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with Saint John and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, better known as the Leonardo Cartoon, which up to that point likewise belonged to the Royal Academy, an arrangement could be made to establish a value and to sell it to a national museum (the Cartoon went to the National Gallery for £800,000 against an agreed open market value of £1,000,000).

A decently conservative guesstimate for its value could easily be in the region of £500 million

This scenario is indeed part of the scheme outlined by the lobby that allegedly wants the Tondo to be sold. What is more, at least as reported in the press, the proposed destination would once again be the National Gallery, and one does not know whether to laugh or weep at the ignorance displayed in a proposal that would land the Tondo in the National Collection of Paintings, where sculptures do not belong.

Ironically enough, in 1826, two years after the National Gallery was founded, Beaumont’s collection of paintings joined those of John Julius Angerstein to form the core of its holdings, and the fact that they did not belong is the very reason why both the Leonardo Cartoon and the Taddei Tondo went to the Royal Academy. For the record, the Victoria and Albert Museum houses the National Collection of Sculpture, although the British Museum, which boasts illustrious holdings of Michelangelo drawings, might also want to throw its hat into the ring.

Be all that as it may, the amount of money involved, even allowing for heroic fundraising efforts, makes it inconceivable that Boris Johnson would follow the example of Harold Macmillan and in effect fork out. Moreover, unlike a number of other countries, of which Italy is only the most obvious, the UK does not have a list of works of art that can never leave the country.

Our system allows for an export stop for national treasures in the aftermath of a sale through the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, but only in the form of a matching offer. The head swims at the thought of what that might need to be.

Given that the Salvator Mundi is the opposite of perfectly preserved, and that there are those who doubt that it is even by Leonardo — I should add that I am not of their number — a decently conservative guesstimate for the value of the Taddei Tondo could easily be somewhere in the region of £500 million. If so, the most obvious problem with this particular brainwave turns out to be that — instead of being too poor — the Royal Academy would run the very considerable risk of ending up too rich. Even if Wallis Simpson was almost never wrong, where the RA is concerned her “You can never be too rich or too thin” motto would prove to be an exception to the rule.

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