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Botticelli Goes to Japan

July 22, 2015

CMA Registrar Amber Schneider escorted Sandro Botticelli’s The Nativity (c. 1473 – 1475) to the Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan, this past spring. The painting was on loan for the exhibition Money and Beauty: Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence. The entire planning process for traveling this priceless work of art was over a year in the making. 

Transporting any work of art internationally, let alone a Botticelli, is a complicated project. Among the many considerations are the condition of the work, security here and abroad, costs, and staff time. The Nativity, gifted to the CMA in 1954 from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, had never left Columbia. When the Bunkamura requested the work, the only Botticelli fresco outside of Italy, it had to be approved for travel. “You have to weigh the risks of traveling a masterpiece with the great value in sharing it, and sharing carries a lot of weight,” says Chief Curator Will South. There was one major roadblock to approving the loan: The Nativity had no frame. The Tokyo museum felt the work was essential to their exhibition and agreed to fund the building of a custom frame. 

The CMA needed to commission a frame replicating Renaissance styles and materials, and it had to be made within a year. Curatorial staff contacted custom framer Troy Stafford, whose specialty is hand-made period-style frames. Stafford first studied existing tabernacle frames (a frame that mimics the architecture of a church) from the same time period as the Botticelli. The design process involved dialogue among Stafford, South, and CMA Exhibition Designer Mike Dwyer to ensure that every part of the frame, from motifs to arches, was appropriate. Traditional techniques like sgraffito, the process of painting over gold leaf and scratching the surface to reveal elaborate patterns, were employed. The finished piece is a magnificent hand-carved and gilded frame that weighs almost 100 pounds on its own. It had to be shipped to Japan in separate pieces and assembled per the CMA’s careful instructions. 

“The museum has a responsibility, on top of preserving precious objects, to present art in a historical context,” says South. “This frame gives The Nativity the feeling of religious architecture that was lacking.” When the Botticelli returns and is reinstalled in the museum, it will be seen in an appropriate context. South summarized the experience as “part luck, part opportunity, and the dedication of our staff.” 

To welcome The Nativity back, Taylor Society members and above are invited to join us on Thursday, September 10, 2015, at 5:30 p.m. for a special Out of the Vault program. Following a wine and cheese reception, Chief Curator Will South will give a talk on the story of the Botticelli, its travels, and its new frame. To join the Taylor Society and attend the event, call Elizabeth Wolfe at 803-343-2210.