Botticelli’s ‘workshop’ pictures: making and meaning

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER, 18.00–19.30

Michelle O’Malley (The Warburg Institute)

In the art historical tradition of thinking about Renaissance painting, we conceptualise pictures as ‘autograph’ or ‘workshop’, admiring the former and often denigrating the latter. But these two strands of production were not divergent: both were outputs of the business of a master painter, and both involved, in varying degrees, the input of the master as well as that of his assistants. Taking Botticelli as a case study, the paper aims to widen and complicate our understanding of Renaissance painting. It will look particularly at two aspects of ‘workshop’ work: how such pictures were made and how they were considered in the fifteenth century. Both strands of inquiry are particularly meaningful in the light of the reputation for excellence that Botticelli enjoyed and the high demand that such a reputation engendered.

The first and main part of the paper will draw on the technical analysis of pictures to demonstrate Botticelli’s hitherto unrecognised flexibility of management strategies and production techniques. The second part will enlist tenets of scholastic thought to suggest that the outputs of a painter’s business were seen as homogenous. The paper will argue that the production of Botticelli’s ‘workshop’ pictures calls into question some of our most fundamental tools for assessing attribution, and that post 18th-century ideas of connoisseurship obscure the understanding fifteenth-century pictures engendered in their own time.


Michelle O’Malley is the Deputy Director of the Warburg Institute, London. She is the author of The Business of Art (Yale 2005) and Painting under Pressure (Yale 2013), and co-author of The Material Renaissance (Manchester 2007) and Re-Thinking Renaissance Objects: Design, Function and Meaning (Wiley-Blackwell 2010). In 2015/16 she was a Fellow at the National Humanities Centre in North Carolina, where she began research on her present project, focusing on the production, ownership and reception of pictures commonly called ‘workshop work’. Currently, she is investigating issues of management, style mediation, production and reputation, aiming to conceptualise a master’s workshop as an integrated workspace in which several artists engaged in production for two markets: commissioned work and direct sale.