The Ashtray

Nicholas Penny

  • The Study and Criticism of Italian Sculpture by John Pope-Hennessy
    Princeton, 270 pp, £25.10, March 1981, ISBN 0 691 03967 4

‘Late one evening, leaving a dinner party at the American Embassy, I ran into David Carritt, who told me he had come across a circular bronze relief of the Virgin and Child in use as an ashtray.’ The narrator is Sir John Pope-Hennessy and his nocturnal encounter was with one of the most hawk-eyed art-dealers in Europe. ‘ “Was it double-sided?” I asked him. “Yes,” he replied, he thought it was. Next day it was brought to my office …’ And there Pope-Hennessy turned in his hands a bronze relief of the Virgin, her head bent tenderly towards that of the diminutive Saviour, surrounded by four still smaller, highly excited angels. From the crimped and crinkled surfaces, the nervous linearity, the extraordinary variety of the finish, it must have been immediately clear to him that he was holding an original masterpiece by one of the greatest of all European sculptors, Donatello. Furthermore, he was already familiar with the design.

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