Botticelli and the Crisis of Humanism in Renaissance Florence

“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine”
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

School of Botticelli, Altar Piece, Montelupo

1. Enthroned Virgin and Child with St. Sebastian, St Lawrence, St John the Evangelist and St. Roch by student of Botticelli. Tempera on Panel (Altar Piece). ca. 1495–1500. Pieve di San Giovanni Evangelista, Montelupo, Italy. All numbered illustrations are of pieces shown at MFA exhibition. Click to enlarge any picture.

Fifteenth century Florence experienced one of the more remarkable periods of Western cultural history. Politically, if any place saw the West emerge from corrupt theocratic feudalism it was Florence. Florence was a republic, a form of government rare enough over the past millennia and a half, but it became the center of a useful trade, textiles, which united, at least commercially, most of Europe and less directly the much more enlightened Muslim world and places further east. With Dante (who was a soldier in the political struggles of the time) Florence became a (arguably the) center of post-medieval literature. In the 15th century (the early Renaissance proper) he was followed by Florentine writers such as Boccaccio, a pioneer of the novel form, and Machiavelli, a pioneer of political theory. And in between Florence was a center of Neoplatonic research. As for sculpture, Florence produced, among others, Donatello, who seems to have channelled the Hellenistic approach to produce works, virtually without immediate precedent, which we recognize as vital and startling even today. And of course a century later Florence would produce Michelangelo, who would define High Renaissance sculpture and painting in the 15th century, both of which remain a standard by which Western visual art is measured. Leonardo da Vinci was also born in the Florentine Republic and began his career there, and Raphael spent significant time there. Indeed, before the Renaissance, Giotto, the most innovative painter until that time, lived and worked in Florence.

But there is no denying that paintings during the period between Giotto and Michelangelo leave us early 21st century nonspecialists completely cold, and perhaps not only us. Even art historians who try to engage us with the paintings of this period, urge us to make allowances. Mather, for instance (p. 157), tells us that even the more famous of these artists, such as Fra Filippo Lippi or Ghirlandaio, are “by no means great artists” and that while their importance to the history of art is “slight,” they are “very important” in the history of taste. Even the frequently over-the-top booster Bernard Berenson cautions us (II:1) that painting “offers but a partial and not always the most adequate manifestation” of the personalities of these Florentine painters, because in addition to painting, often they were sculptors, architects, poets and scientists as well.

There are a number of reasons for the emotional distance we have with these painters—a distance we do not have when experiencing great art of cultures we have almost no understanding of (say, the cave paintings of Lascaux or the sculptures of early Hindu and Buddhist votaries in Southeast Asia). The typical work shown in museums are tempera painted panels. Whatever this may look like in natural Tuscan sunlight, in a museum these works have an annoying glare that make them nearly impossible to see as a whole (and this is the case in the MFA exhibit I am going to discuss, which used harsh overhead halogen lights). A more significant problem from our point of view is that these artists had not entirely mastered all the techniques to make what we consider a harmonious composition. It is unfair to blame them, because they were essentially inventing things like 2-dimensional perspective, compositional settings, color harmony, and so forth, since, unlike sculpture, the Greeks did not leave behind two-dimensional pictorial art for the “re-born” artists to follow. It is nevertheless something that bothers our sensibilities. But the overriding objection we instinctively have is that the subject matter of 15th century (the Quattrocento, as the cognoscenti call it) Florentine painting of this period is largely confined to a very few number of types, repeated endlessly: virgin seated with child, adoration of the Magi, and so forth. Portraits, generally from the shoulders up, show people who although wearing much more interesting costumes (Florence was, after all, the center of European textile trade), have expressions and postures almost as unapproachable as that in early New England portraiture, an art form that solidified the reputation of New England Puritans as among the more forbidding people ever. And historical or mythical paintings (and even religious ones) contain iconography teaming with such esoteric symbolism that we cannot hope to understand it and have little interest to try.

Botticelli, Three Graces

The Three Graces, a detail of Primavera by Sandro Boticelli. ca. 1482. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. (Not in MFA exhibition.)

But all of the foregoing notwithstanding, there are two images from 15th century Florence, parts of two different paintings, that connect with modern viewers: the Three Graces in the painting Primavera (shown left) and the Venus figure in The Birth of Venus. The Graces may be the very first important nudes in Western art, but independent of that their pose expresses a dance of such spontaneous lissomeness that we immediately see them as the personifications of “grace.” The Venus figure expresses a kind of wistfulness so resonant that it has been used in the logo of a software company, among other desecrations. The paintings from which these figures come were fashioned by the same artist: Sandro Botticelli. And so the exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” which runs until July 9, gives us an entry into this representative of Quattrocento painting in Florence and allows us to examine our own, and Florence’s, attitudes about what makes art.

The Boston show contains neither The Birth of Venus nor Primavera (they are by far the most popular possessions of the Uffizi and therefore probably travel rarely) but the MFA is now showing one of the two solo Venus paintings (probably by Botticelli’s workshop) and another famous mythological work as part of its small but representative collection of Botticelli’s career which includes a handful of significant masterpieces. The exhibition is organized around Botticelli’s vision of what constitutes the “divine,” from the earliest of his works through the period when liberal Florence encountered the singular Hell-preaching demagogue and reformer, Girolamo Savonarola. Representative works from each stage of his development are shown, but to consider them with appropriate grounding we should probably first trace the highlights of his life.

Brief Biography of Botticelli

Very little is known of the public life of Botticelli, and essentially nothing of his inner life (except his paintings to the extent they are a reliable guide). He left behind no memoir or correspondence and his contemporaries recorded next to nothing about his sayings or doings. Over a half century after his death, Marsilio Vasili gathered together such stories and sayings about Botticelli that were handed down and added to them plausible fictions designed to make certain moral, aesthetic and political points in his collection of The Lives of the Painters (first published in 1568). As a courtier to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Vasari had great antipathy for Botticelli, whom he believed had gone over to the opposition when the Medici were driven from Florence in 1494. Although Vasari acknowledged Botticelli’s importance as a painter, it is obvious that he minimizes his work and fabricates unflattering stories. Nevertheless, much of what he says is still uncritically passed on because there really is not anything much else to offer.

From tax filings by his father we know that Botticelli was born ca. 1444. His father, Mariano di Vanni d’Amedeo Filipepi, was a tanner, and the family lived in the Ognissanti parish of Florence. Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Botticelli was the youngest of four boys to survive childhood. The name “Botticello” was first applied to his oldest brother, the pawnbroker Giovanni, evidently based on his appearance (“little barrel”), The first record of its application to Sandro is a 1470 document referring to Sandro Mariano Botticello.

Giovanni’s upward mobility allowed the family to move to larger quarters in the same parish in 1464 on the Via Nuova, and Giovanni would inherit that house. Botticelli, who remained a bachelor his entire life, never left that home.

It was probably when he was around 14 that Botticelli was apprenticed. If so, he had a considerably longer liberal arts education than most youths destined for a craft (and painting was also considered a craft). Vasari says that Sandro was apprenticed to a goldsmith. This might have been his own brother Antonio (who may have been in business with their father acting as the beater of gold leaf). Vasari says that Sandro came into contact with painters in that position (painters used gold leaf in their paintings for wealthy merchants and bankers) and decided on a career in that field. Possibly with the assistance of influential figures in the neighborhood (the Vespucci lived there and later commissioned Botticelli for work at the Ognissanti church), Sandro’s father arranged for him to be placed in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi no later than 1460. In 1469 when Fra Filippo died, his son Filippino Lippi joined Botticelli’s workshop. The activities of Botticelli between 1460 and 1469 are not documented, but many, based on the differences between Botticelli’s work in the 1470s and Fra Filippi’s own work, have speculated (with no documentary support) that Botticelli studied with both Antonio Pollaiolo and Andrea del Verrocchio. These latter two artists are supposed to have taught Botticelli how to give his figures more “volume” as well at the rudiments of anatomy.

Botticelli, Portrait of Young Man Wearing Mazzocchio

2. Portrait of a Young Man Wearing a Mazzochio by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1480. Tempera on wood. Galleria Palatina, Florence.

In 1470 Botticelli finished his first dated work, Fortitude, commissioned by the Tribunale dell’Are della Mercanzia, the important tribunal of the association of merchants of Florence. The work hung among others painted by Pollaiolo, which indicated Boticelli’s growing reputation. During the 1470s Botticelli must have attracted the notice of the inner circle of the Medici because after the aborted 1478 Pazzi conspiracy (in which a merchant faction attempted to overthrow the Medici interests which ruled Florence and nearly resulted in the assassination of Lorenzo de’ Medici), Botticelli was commissioned to paint the effigies of the executed conspirators. (This wall painting no longer exists.) Before then Botticelli executed portraits for the Medici circle, and after that time he painted historical works and devotional pieces which his workshop became famous for. Botticelli’s portraits (e.g., #2), were unlike the traditional approach to that genre. Rather than paint idealized version of the subject, he painted them true to life, making them seem harsh to some. When he placed real figures into historical, mythological or religious settings, he continued that approach. For example, in the Birth of Venus we can speculate that the two flying “wind” deities must be based on real models because they are so individualized.

Botticelli’s reputation had grown to such an extent that he was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to paint several frescos in the new Sistine Chapel. During that long-term engagement he worked out a solution to issues presented by the visual narrative, a form he would explore in a number of ways in the future. When he returned to Florence in 1482 (never to leave again), his reputation secured, he became a Medici favorite in the 1480s. This, of course, was helped by the fact that his major competitors had moved out of Florence: Leonardo da Vinci had moved to Milan in 1482, not to return until 1500; in 1484 the Pollaiolos left for Rome and in 1489 Verrocchio removed to Venice. The last three never returned to Florence. It was during this period that Botticelli painted the four pioneering works of Renaissance humanism: PrimaveraBirth of VenusPallas and the Centaur and Venus and Mars.

Vasari wrote that on his return from Rome, Botticelli made a close study of Dante and began his long project of illustrating the Commedia, and he added this rather odd assessment of the value of the project:

[Upon completion of the paintings in the Vatican] he returned immediately to Florence, where, being a man of inquiring mind, he made a commentary on part of Dante, illustrated the Inferno, and printed it; on which he wasted much of his time, bringing infinite disorder into his life by neglecting his work. He also printed many of the drawings that he had made, but in a bad manner, for the engraving was poorly done.

Boticelli continued devotional paintings in the 1480s refining his approach to Virgin-and-Child work to such an extent that it was copied throughout Italy and beyond. His fresco of St. Augustine for his parish church, commissioned by his neighbors the Vespucci, was completed in the early part of the decade. By the end of that decade he began experimenting with stylistic distortions that would anticipate Mannerism by decades.  Those experiments would continue, and his works would become increasingly stylized, symbolic and expressionistic for the rest of his life.

In 1494 a combination of the French invasion, a popular uprising over Medici mishandling of it, and clamor for more wide-based sovereignty led to the exile of the Medici and the rise of a firebrand, puritanical reformer and apocalyptic preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. This one-time Dominican monk soon dominated all of Florence’s religious and political life. He led a movement that not only democratized the republic but also entirely reversed its cultural orientation, substituting severe piety and an ascetic view of morality. As a result Botticelli no longer had a market for humanistic works and his output was restricted to religious paintings, but not the celebratory works of the past. Rather, they took on a mournful, austere look and were filled with symbolism relating to suffering (of Christ, of the Virgin and John the Baptist, of the saints, of Florence and mankind in general). At the same time he continued his movement towards a kind of expressionism that rejected the tendency of the art of the past quarter century to emphasize space, perspective and natural approaches to subjects in favor of a mannered and in some cases severely exaggerated stylization, together with esoteric references and symbolism, this time to religion rather than the humanistic teachings of the scholars in the Medici circle.

His brother Simone’s diary entry for November 1499 says that the followers of the overthrown (and executed) Savonarola used Botticelli’s studio for their clandestine meetings, and from this (and Vasari’s accusations) many have concluded that Botticelli himself was a follower of Savonarola during his last years. But Botticelli’s name was not among the signatories of the petition of Florentine citizens to the Pope to lift the ban on the friar’s preachings, and even during the height of the enthusiasm for the friar anti-Savonarolans visited Botticelli openly.

Among Botticelli’s last works was a 1496 fresco for a convent just outside the city of St. Jerome, which was destroyed in 1529. The very oddly symbolic and pensive Mystic Nativity, the only signed and dated work of all existing Botticellis, was painted in 1500. By the beginning of the 16th century Botticelli’s works (both his earlier ones and his new expressionistic ones) fell out of favor and attention was turned to the new High Renaissance style of the other Florentines, former citizens and residents da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. So precipitous and deep was the plunge of Botticelli’s reputation that it was not until the mid-19th century that a revival began (mostly of his early highly decorative works) and not till the turn of the century, when another full-scale crisis of European liberalism acted out, that reappraisal began.

Botticelli’s Influences and his Early Devotional Works

The Boston exhibition begins with a half dozen works by Botticelli’s master, Filippo Lippi, a Carmelite friar who quit the monastery (although not released from his vows), became, among other things, the chaplain of a nunnery in Florence. During an engagement for the cathedral in Prato the former monk violated his vows (and other things) with a novitiate of the cathedral, whose union produced a son, Filippino Lippi, who would become an apprentice of Botticelli (thus squaring a circle I guess). The works illustrate all the reasons we find 15th century Florentine painting off-putting, which I sketched above. One painting illustrates an even more  fundamental reason—we view the function of an artist entirely differently than they did.

Filippo Lippi, Virgin with Angels and Saints

3. Virgin and Child with Saints, Angels and Donor by Filippo Lippi. ca. 1430s. Tempera on panel. Venice, Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

In Fra Filippo’s early work Madonna and Child with Saints, etc. (#3) has all the (lack of) immediacy, but none of the heuristic value of a piece from the High Middle Ages. Perhaps the linear perspective is a bit better, but the use of it does not enhance the picture. The figures are oddly shaped, strangely grouped and their faces have no expression. The angels playing the musical instruments show no joy; indeed, they look pained. But the painting highlights a contemporary figure in the foreground—the patron of the painting, and this illustrates the most important difference between painting of that time and the painting we are most familiar with: the role of the artist.

In the 19th century Romanticism introduced the conviction that artists (in all arts) were the creative agents of their works, motivated by some ill-divined inspiration-producing force. But before then, artistic inspiration was something that was unheard of in post-classical times in Europe. And while Greek poets (and their Roman imitators) ritualistically sought the aid of the Muses (see, for example, the first lines of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid), no one really wanted in-spiring, which meant divine possession, and almost always resulted in madness, for example, what happened to Ajax in the play by Sophocles.

In the Middle Ages artists were merely craftsman, as Thomas Aquinas makes clear in the typical circular manner that scholastic writers’ thoughts ran. In a gloss on Aristotle Aquinas wrote: “Art does not require rectitude of appetite.” You can explore in detail the thinking behind this conclusion by reading Singleton’s essay (cited in the Sources below), but here is the abbreviated version: Aquinas divided human activity into two mutually exclusive categories: making (facere) and doing (agere). Practicing art, he rather laboriously explains, is making, and is judged by the good of an external thing (bona exteriora). Doing (which he illustrates by such things as thinking, willing, hoping, seeing), however, is evaluated by the subjective intention of the doer (humana bona) and therefore requires prudence. Art, however, does not because it is simply a mechanical task. not an expression of the subjective intent of the artist.

Filippo Lippi, Virgin and Child, Medici Riccardi

4. Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi. ca. 1466–69. Palazzo Medici Riccardo, Florence.

Baxandall, by citing numerous example, has shown (pp. 3–27), that the analysis of Aquinas would continue to be valid in the early Renaissance, not because of Aristotle but based of a commercial fact: Unlike the market for art that we are familiar with, paintings of the 15th century Italy were largely designed, not by the artist, but by the customer. (In Aquinas’s day, art was commissioned by the Court or Church almost exclusively.) Of course the buyer generally could not come up with an entirely new pictorial composition, but repeated tropes could be used (virgin and child, adoration of Magi, annunciation, etc.) with variation. The customer could specify who would be added, what color their costumes, how much of the expensive pigment or gold flakes would be used, and so forth. All of this would be reduced to a written contract, and sometimes the artist would provide a sketch of the composition to be appended. On occasions a third-party arbitrator would be appointed to certify progress of completion or when payment was due or even whether the final work was of sufficient quality to comply with the contract (perhaps something like our merchant contracts which require a “warranty of merchantability”). As Baxandall put it (p. 3), “in the fifteenth century painting was still too important to be left to the painters.” Of course, what it was important for was also important: private devotional use, furniture decoration, gifts to business partners, political figures, churches, public aggrandizement, etc. In one respect, however, there is a similarity: both contemporary patrons and and those 600 years ago commissioned portraits. Early Renaissance ones may not have had the variety or flair of modern ones, but they yoked artist and patron in much the same way.

Botticelli, Madonna of the Loggia

5. Madonna of the Loggia by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1467. Tempera on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The commercial customs in which the artist had to operate greatly restricted much of what we consider the artist’s purpose—to create an individual work that expresses the artist’s personal vision. The talent of the artist, and indeed his individuality, was not to be seen in the overall work but rather in subtle handling of details. This way of experiencing visual art does not allow us to experience large emotions like the grandeur we feel on seeing a Greek or Hellenistic frieze, the power of a Caravaggio, or the wonder of new ways of seeing things that Picasso showed us. But we can, if we spend enough time, appreciate the development of artistic sensibilities over time. In all respects, for example, the late 1460s Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi (#4) is in almost every respect a vast improvement over his effort in the 1430s (#3). Staying with this same visual trope we can see how Botticelli emerged from Fra Filipo’s studio to develop his own more lyrical style—the thing we notice in the Venus or the Three Graces.

Skipping over the works in the show that might be attributed to Botticelli from Fra Filippo’s studio, Botticelli’s earliest independent works exhibit a more mature concept of composition, a more realistic modeling of the figures and an attention to the emotional life of the figures that his master’s works lack. The infant’s eyes gaze lovingly at his mother, while the virgin emanates contentment and devotion.  The Madonna of the Loggia (#5) is a private devotional work in the mother-child tradition, and the arcane iconography we avoid (there is a dove representing the Holy Spirit among the clouds) is minimized. And while the architecture surrounding the figures gives off a sense of claustrophobia, the abstracted landscape with the river which outlines the back of the child gives the composition a gracefully (not artificially) abstracted look.

Botticelli, Madonna of the Book

6. Madonna of the Book by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1479. Tempera on panel. Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan.

Botticelli would become a master of this visual trope, which he (and his studio) elaborated in a number of ways. The Madonna of the Book (#6) shows the Virgin teaching the child to read. The book she is reading (the Horae beatae mariae) contains phrases from Isaiah 7:14 & 15, the so-called prophesy of the virgin birth (Lightbown II:40). Her hand rests on the book and the child touches it in a very lifelike manner. The tenderness of that touch is matched by the child’s gaze into the virgin’s eyes. The emotional connection is quite realistically enhanced by the attention to detail to the surroundings, such as the bowl of fruit behind the child, the tassel that drapes over the child’s lap and onto the virgin’s leg and the veil that covers her head. What I particularly noticed in this show is that the virgin in several paintings (and Venus) have a remarkable resemblance, as though they are based on the same model—the shape of her nose, the placement of the cheek bones and especially the color and texture of her hair. In this painting the hair on her right side dangles with the same body as does that of the Venus in the show and the one in Birth of Venus as it droops down the side. The intimacy of the relationship is enhanced by the overall composition. The figures take up most of the work, and the color organization unites the work. The central flesh tone colors are surrounded by the virgin’s cerulean blue robe on one side and the dark corner of the room on the other. Behind the robe is a window showing the light blue sky. The haloes above the heads are subtly rendered, giving only a slight gold touch to the overall color palette.

The symbolism is as lightly inserted as the haloes. The cherries in the bowl represent Paradise, the insignia on the virgin’s left shoulder is an unknown (at least to me) emblem and the crown of thorns around the child’s left arm of course foreshadows the crucifixion. The gruesomeness of the last association is not apparent until after close inspection and reflection; it could easily on superficial examination be seen as a bracelet. In short, the dogmatic Catholic associations are subordinated to a view that could easily be a domestic genre setting.

The figures in that painting and others of the same time have a natural three-dimensional roundness entirely absent from Fra Filippo’s works. Credit for this “advance” in Botticelli’;s style is often given to Antonio del Pollaiolo. Some believe Botticelli worked in the studio of Pollaiolo after leaving Fra Filippo, although this view seems to be based on inferences from stylistic development in Botticelli’s work. Another more plausible suggestion is that Botticelli must have studied Pollaiolo’s work around 1470, at the time he was commissioned to add one of the Virtues (Fortitude) to a series of seven originally to be completed by Pollaiolo and his brother. Visiting the Pollaiolos’ studio was probably necessary so that Botticelli could create a work similar to that of the others in the Sala Tribunale dei Sei. This last point is quite likely but one has to wonder how drastically and fundamentally one’s style can be altered no matter how long one simply studies another’s work. The MFA exhibition has two works by Pallaiolo to allow us to make comparison. The first is one of the existing prints of the only known engraving by the artist from the MFA’s own collection, The Battle of the Nudes, which has two sets of five nude men fighting each other with swords, axes, dirks and a bow and arrow, all having thrown down their shields.  Vasari, writing in the next century, assures us that Pollaiolo’s treatment of the male nude was superior to all his predecessors because he had actually dissected corpses and knew how to define muscles.

However Pollaiolo stacks up against predecessors and contemporaries in treatment of nudes, it is clear that it had little effect in that regard at least on Botticelli, who rarely portrayed male nudity. When he did, it was nothing like the way Pollaiolo did. One need only compare Pollaiolo’s Martyrdom of St. Anthony, with its careful treatment of the saint’s contorted body and tortured expression, with Botticelli’s own treatment of the same scene with the saint’s body in essentially the same position. Botticelli makes no effort to show the physical effect of the torture on his body; in fact, the saint looks uncommonly serene and unharmed (except, of course, for the arrows piercing his body).

Pollaiolo, St Michael Killing Dragon

7. Saint Michael Killing the Dragon by Antonio del Pollaiolo. 1465 or before. Oil on canvas. Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence.

The MFA show has one other Pollaiolo, Saint Michael Killing the Dragon (#7). The work shows the saint in action; indeed, he has much the same posture as one of the warriors in the foreground of his Battle of the Nudes. Fully clothed and with armored leg-wear, the archangel strikes a pose that Botticelli never tries to recreate. Moreover, his battle-wear is unlike the elaborate (or at least lavish) costumes of the characters in Botticelli’s works. The latter’s figures very often have robes or other wraps which allow Botticelli to concentrate on the rendering of flowing fabric, trimming and occasionally embroidered patterns. But the main difference between this work and Botticelli’s is the subject. Botticelli never portrayed struggle and conflict of a physical sort. Even his two-panel portrayal of Judith and the beheading of Holofernes does not show the act itself, although it depicts the grisly aftermath and Judith’s maid carrying off the severed head. In the latter of those two scenes Judith walks, sword still in hand, seemingly unruffled by her act or the battle that is taking place in the distant background.

Botticelli’s choice of subjects had to do with the clientele he had developed, and it was the cream of Florentine society—the Medici. And the Medici of Botticelli’s generation were more interested in transcendent emotions than war.

Botticelli and Medici Humanism

The Medici dominated 15th century Florence financially, politically and culturally. Cosimo (1389–1464) turned his father’s bank (which started as a local money-lending operation and became an important pan-Italian business) into an international financial organization with offices in the major cities of Europe. That financial reach and Cosimo’s strategic alliance with Cardinal Baldassare Cossa (later Pope and then Antipope John XXIII) allowed it to become the preferred financial institution for the Holy See giving the Church’s vast army of collecting agents a place of deposit and supplying the Vatican’s monetary needs by means of its lending facilities and material needs with its associated trading businesses. The bank’s association with [anti-]Pope John XXIII first gave it great ascendency, then threatened its existence when John XXIII was arrested by the Emperor (eventually freed by Medici money). But the bank survived, and Cosimo emerged a wealthy enough man to control Florentine politics without ever having an office. He did so though his control over the men who did. Despite its formal nature, the Florentine republic was an oligarchy but one dominated by Cosimo. Like all oligarchies, Florence was subject to jealousies and political instabilities, and in 1433 Cosimo fell into a trap which resulted in his exile. But the precipitous drain of merchant capital that resulted from the absence of Cosimo and his capitalist followers soon had the Florentini calling for his return, and when he came back in 1434 he secured a power that would not be disturbed until his death in 1464.

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes

Judith and Holofernes by Donatello. ca. 1457–64. Bronze (and originally gilded). Copy in Palazzo Vecchio of original in Sala dei Gigli, Florence. (Not in MFA show.)

During the last 30 years of his life Cosimo used his vast fortune to promote one of the most outstanding flowerings of art and culture since Athens. He guided public works which acted as guides for future Renaissance architecture and the Duomo di Firenze, engineered by Brunelleschi, a project that might as well have been a monument to Cosimo. He commissioned some of Donatello’s most daring sculptures as well as painters, including Fra Filippo. but his deepest influence may have been literary. Cosimo was the builder of libraries and the collector of books. He subsidized the translations of ancient texts. And significantly promoted a new form of Platonic study when he founded the Platonic Academy in 1445.

That academy, which was really more of a loose association of classically inclined scholars who met informally and once a year held symposia, was under the direction of Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), who would become the leader of the form of humanism associated with the Medici and their literary and artistic clients.

At ease in a villa granted him by Cosimo in 1463, Ficino translated the entire corpus of Plato into Latin for the first time. But his lasting imprint on Renaissance thought was the introduction of a kind of humanism based on a watered-down version of the Neoplatonism of the 3rd century (C.E.) metaphysician Plotinus. (Ficino of course stripped the teaching of the thorny gnostic concept of demiurge and all the anti-orthodoxy that implied.) Contrary to later popular characterizations of Renaissance humanism, Ficino did not turn away from Christian theology toward some naturalistic view of the world. Indeed, he attempted to combine Platonic thought with Christian teachings in such a way that the ancients were not viewed as pagans but rather as precursors to the revelations of Jesus. This conclusion was not new (Aquinas held to it), but Ficino did reject the method of evaluating philosophical arguments employed by the scholastics (who were the semi-official intellectuals of the Church during the Middle Ages) in favor of an approach that included what passed for science in his time. His explorations of astrology got him accused of magic by the Church and his last works flirted with heresy.

Jacopo de S ellaio, Psyche

8. The Story of Psyche by Jacopo da Sellaio. ca. 1480. Tempera and oil on panel. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ficino’s contributions (I here follow Kristeller) can be grouped into: 1. Ontology and its relation to epistemology; and 2. the implications of the foregoing to human morals, psychology and aesthetics. As for the first (I summarize with broad brush and much omission): all material things exist in a receptacle called “prime matter” (materia prima), that this abstraction, while existing outside the human mind (contra the scholastics), can never be directly understood by humans, but certain attributes can be comprehended, that its existence is the basis for the immortality of the human soul and that approaching it organizes human morality. The One (as in all Neoplatnism since Plotinus) has emitted a series of emanations, the first being Nous (the Mind), then Psyche (the Soul), which contains all individual souls. At the farthest reaches of the universe is the material realm, and humans participate both in the material and the spiritual worlds. The purpose of human life, according to Ficino, is to transcend the material to the spiritual realm. That men can do this, by contemplation, demonstrates the existence of the immortal soul. Moreover, that men can actually contemplate the divine is shown by their apprehension of Beauty, one of the attributes of the One. Complete transcendence requires the exercise of Platonic Love (a term invented by Ficino). Finally, that Ficino’s thinking was not pagan and opposed to Christian teachings is shown by his teachings that the aim of morality is to “separate the soul from the passion of the body” and to remove the “dirt and filth of the body.” (Kristeller, pp. 301, 332).

Ficino was not simply the beneficiary of Cosimo’s patronage, he was the tutor of Cosimo’s grandson Lorzenzo the Magnificent (1449–92), and the two remained lifelong friends. Il Magnifico assumed the role of magnate of Florence on the death of his father in 1469, and he skillfully guided Medici-connected interests for more than two decades, aided at least once by luck when he escaped an assassination attempt. But Lorenzo’s fame rests on his promotion of Florentine letters, building, sculpture and painting during Florence’s Golden Age. Lorenzo himself embodied what it was to be a Renaissance man by his activities as political puppeteer and diplomat, by his encouragement and support of the arts and by his own poetic writings. He and his circle championed the use of Italian in literature, and his friend, the poet, philologist and scholar Poliziano, helped lead a revival of interest in classical literature by translating portions of The Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Plutarch’s Eroticus and Plato’s Charmides, among other classics, into the Tuscan dialect. The advent of printing helped disburse works of literature and scholarship, and soon mythological stories became subjects of paintings (e.g., ##8 & 9).

Botticelli, Judgment of Paris

9. The Judgment of Paris by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. ca. 1485–88. Tempera on panel. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Galleria di Palazzo, Venice.

It is not known whether Botticelli himself subscribed to the Neoplatonism of Lorenzo’s circle. On the one hand, his formal education could not have extended beyond his 13th year and so navigating the various elements of Neoplatonism that assumed knowledge of a variety of classical writings probably would have been daunting. But his keen interest in Dante, shown by his detailed illustrations published in 1481 (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s copy is shown in the MFA exhibition), and continued later (and his “commentary” if Vasari was right that Botticelli wrote one), suggests that he had an interest in literature. Whether Botticelli himself was steeped in Ficino’s Neoplatonic thought or whether he took directions from Lorenzo or someone close to him, in the early 1489s Botticelli produced four remarkable allegories which fairly drip of Neoplatonic symbolism. I referred to two of them above: Primavera (1481–82) and The Birth of Venus (1484). The other two were Venus and Mars (1483) and Pallas and the Centaur (1482–83).

Botticelli, Turin Venus

10. Venus by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. 1484–90. tempera on wood. Galleria Sabauda, Turin.

The MFA show has a relic of The Birth of Venus in the form of one of the two large-scale Venus portraits produced by Botticelli and/or his studio. The MFA is showing the so-called “Turin Venus” (#10). The pose of Venus in this picture is the same as that in The Birth of Venus. It is based on a Hellenistic marble copy of a Greek bronze (in the manner of Praxiteles) which Botticelli possibly saw during his period in Rome. The statue, known as the Venus de Medici, is now found at the Uffizi in Florence. At its base is a dolphin, implying that she is stepping out of the ocean, just as she is in Botticelli’s larger work. That work contains several other figures, including Zephyr and Chloris, two wind deities whose breath propels Venus to the shore and Horus, one of the seasons, who, standing in an orange grove, is welcoming Venus ashore with a mantel to cover her.  Venus is riding a shell on the top of the water, an image that has no certain known antecedent.

Whatever Neoplatonic iconography The Birth of Venus contains (which I will omit commenting on except to note that Venus, the center of the painting, represents love in classical mythology and undoubtedly Platonic Love in Ficino’s version of Plotinus), the figure of Venus itself took on an iconic status among patrons in Florence. It is not hard to see why (and why we still find this a more compelling image than the multitude of religious and devotional art that was overwhelmingly produced). The image is made up of gracefully flowing lines beginning with her posture with both her torso and legs slightly bent. Her arms accent these lines as does her red hair, although it is shorter in this version than in either The Birth of Venus or the “Berlin Venus.” Her expression conveys an ethereal reverie. The face itself is one that Botticelli had settled on for his version of modest, but fertile, womanhood (which can be seen in his later Madonnas): sloping nose, high cheek bones, sensuous mouth, thin, rounded eyebrows and high forehead. These features (though generalized) are so similar that it struck me that they might all have been painted from the same model (although I have no knowledge of how modeling worked at the time and I have not read about it anywhere). What is engaging about the figure (and this can be said as well about the Three Graces from Primavera) is that while it is fully modeled, there was no effort made to place it in three-dimensional scene. The figures obey principles of design rather than principles of scene placement. Probably in Botticelli’s time design was a function of narrative (whether it was the biblical stories he depicted in the Vatican or the symbolic stories he produced for the Medici). Nowadays we accord greater importance to design, composition and visual narrative as essential elements. So while we appreciate the same aspects, we and and 15th century viewers do so for different reasons. The other “Neoplatonic” painting in the MFA shows where we differ.

Botticelli, Pallas and Centaur

11. Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1482. Tempera on canvas. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Pallas and the Centaur (#11) is a composition that seems designed not to illustrate Platonic Love but rather another Neoplatonic theme dear to the Medici heart: the conquest by reason of unbridled passion. This seemed to be a favorite them of Cosimo (witness his commissions of Donatello’s David as well as Botticelli’s own Judith and Holofernes (discussed above)). That these two themes are not mutually exclusive is shown by the fact that the Pallas painting was hung in the same room as the Judith and Holeofernes panels at the palace on Via Larga of Lorenzo and Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousins of Il Magnifico. According to a 1498 inventory the Pallas painting was hung above a door, and it has been suggested that it was planned for that location, which would explain what looks like the sotto in su foreshortening of Pallas’s face (Arasse & De Vecchi, p. 122). If this is so, it seems to me that a viewer from below looking at a certain angle would see the face of the centaur looking directly at him quite naturally, rather than unnatural bending of the head we see when looking at the painting straight on. The MFA show mounts the picture at eye level so there no way to determine if I am right on this. (My own bourgeois scruples prevented me from lying on the floor to get the right distance, but I invite less inhibited readers who view the exhibition to report the results of such an experiment.) But Florentine artists had a long experience of accommodating the viewers’ experience to the setting of the work. Donatello may have been the first to solve the problem of viewing a work from below, as was shown m the sculptures from the Duomo brought to New York and exhibited at the now shuttered Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan (February to June 2015). Donatello’s sculpture of John the Evangelist was designed to be placed in a niche 10 feet above the ground. Donatello devised a reverse system of spatial perspective that involved distorting features that were further away from the viewer following linear geometrical rules. The features were also heavily incised so they they seemed “normal” when viewed from below. Looking directly at eye level, the piece looked deformed and somewhat primitive. But when placed at its proper level from the human eye, it looked quite lifelike. (For a detailed description of Donatello’s technique, which he pursued again in a sculpture of St. Mark, see the article by Munman generally and Zolli at pp. 53–61, both cited in the Sources below.)

The iconography of the painting is quite obscure and because Neoplatonism is esoteric (not to mention the other classical sources drawn on by the circle around Il Magnifico), it is probably impossible to understand all the symbolism. There is even a dispute as to who the female in the figure is. She was identified as Pallas in the late 19th century (after the British Pre-Raphaelites and those with similar affinities revived the long buried reputation of Botticelli) by a scholar who incorrectly connected this painting to another described by Vasari. The name Pallas stuck, however, even though she is not wearing the helmet or carrying the aegis or kind of shield normally associated with her in ancient portrayals. It has since been suggested that she is Camilla from the Aeneid (XI:532–43, 570ff), the virgin votary-warrior of Diana, but the text more closely associates her with a spear than the halberd carried by the female in the picture. Lightbown (I:82–85) suggests she is Chastity victorious over Pride. It is reasonably clear, however, that she represents Medici ideals because the three diamond-pointed balls that form a pattern on her diaphanous gown are a commercial/professional symbol of the Medici, although of the Cosimo–Lorenzo branch, not the Pierfrancesco one and the latter branch owned the painting (Arasse & De Vecchi, p. 124). There is more, but we have undoubtedly passed the point that those not interested in scholarly disputations avoid. Perhaps all that need be assumed is that the female represents something the Medici considered “good” and has vanquished something they considered “bad”: whether it is the human intellect defeating earthly passions on the way toward salvation, the rational rule of the Medici-interests over the rabble or some other religious, philosophical or political point really no longer helps us appreciate the painting,

Botticelli, St Augustine (Ognissanti)

12. Saint Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1480. Detached fresco. Ognissanti (Church of All Saints), Florence.

One final humanist painting in the exhibition was one not painted for the Medici but rather a church—St. Augustine in his Study (#12). Vasari tells us that this work was originally commissioned by the Vespucci family for the Ognissanti church and that Botticelli set about to use the commission to outdo all his contemporaries in the painting of saints, particularly Dominico Ghirlandaio, whose painting of St. Jerome was on the wall opposite Botticelli’s. (Vasari is notorious for allowing his speculation to get ahead of his documentary sources, and one of his literary tropes is to set painters against one another. It is true, however, that Botticelli’s painting is superior to Ghirlandaio’s in composition and emotional content.)

The painting celebrates Augustine’s life of learning and scholarship (as did Ghirlandaio’s painting of Jerome) and is filled with the paraphernalia of 15th century science, including an astrolabe. The emphasis on this learning probably was the result of the recent acceptance by the church’s monastic order of Bemedict’s rule, which emphasized the importance of learning (Basta, p. 104). There is a curious sentence in the open book behind the saint’s head (the one with geometric figures or proofs in the margins) related to this brotherhood (first noticed in 1984) which in translation says: “Where is Fra Martino? He has run away. And where has he gone? He is outside the Prato gate.” This is another instance of art of the time being used to communicate something known only to the patron-insiders.

Botticelli, Augustine in Study (detail)

13. Detail of Saint Augustine in his Study (#12).

Whatever the mysteries that the surrounding objects intend to convey, there is no doubt that the overall composition is very effective. The predominant orange is well set off by the blue-green background. This color harmony remains even though the colors seem to have greatly faded over time. The field is dominated by the figure of Augustine, and it is designed to draw attention to his rapt contemplation and the dramatic gesture of his right hand. The clock behind the saint sets the time as after sunset, but there is light streaming in from the left. Helen Roberts (see Sources) first explained this, as well as the connection between the paintings of Augustine and Jerome in the church: A letter of Augustine (now known to be spurious) tells of his seeing a flood of light at a specific time (the very time that is on the clock in the painting) and hearing the voice of Jerome. Only later did he learn that that was the moment of Jerome’s death. (This explanation is nearly universally accepted, but Stapleford (1994) argues that the moment captured is the conversion of Augustine. That Augusine’s bishop’s mitre is lying next to his arm suggests to me that the scene depicted must be of a time several years after his conversion.) The explanation that Augustine is hearing from Jerome accounts for the intense expression on Augustine’s face which reveals something of a psychological insight; namely, that in such a circumstance, the saint would have experienced both awe and pain. The portrait is perhaps the most subtly expressive portrayals ever attempted by Botticelli. It also is consistent with the fact that the fresco was originally intended to face the painting of St. Jerome in the choir of the church. (If one is so inclined, he can also see how Botticelli “topped” Ghirlandaio by showing that Augustine not only lived beyond Jerome, but was the person who Jerome called out to in extremis.)

Savonarolla and the End of Medici Humanism

Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492 and the reins of Medici influence were turned over to his son Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1471–1503). His unfitness for the role, and the disaster that came to Medici interests under his leadership, is summarized by the epithet that became affixed to his name: Il Sfortunato, “the Unfortunate.” Two factors conspired that would have made it difficult for even a man with the political and diplomatic acumen of his father to preserve Medici dominance of Florence. The most serious was the ambition of French King Charles VIII who, egged on by the short-sighted (and self-interested) offer by Pope Innocent VIII, began a military invasion of Italy amidst the disintegration of the tenuous Italian peace. The second factor, more obscure but for all that probably more destructive of Medici influence, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

Machiavelli watched Savonarola up close in Florence and later concluded (in The Prince) that he was destined to fail, being an unarmed prophet. But for a while the times were right. The belief was taking hold that the dawn of the year 1500 would usher in some sort of prophesied end of things. Savonarola was a product and became an inciter of this anxiety. In 1475 he took vows at the Dominican convent in Bologna. He was assigned as a lecturer to the Convent of San Marco in Florence in 1482, but soon left and began the life of an itinerant preacher whose sermons gradually became more like jeremiads against the corruption of Italian society. In 1490 he returned to the Florence convent at the instigation of humanist and church-reform philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who lived under the protection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Savonarola soon began delivering sermons denouncing tyranny in government, immorality in culture and corruption in the church. Lorenzo attempted without success to moderate the priest who was becoming a firebrand. When Il Sfortunato took control of Medici interests the external affairs were ominous and he lacked the finesse of his father at dealing with domestic unrest. Savonarola began prophesying that Charles VIII would soon attack Florence and become the scourge for the needed divine chastisement of the city-state. In November 1494 Charles indeed was nearing Florence and asked for leave to pass through on his march to Naples. Piero made the mistake of denying it and instead tried to muster forces to oppose the French. General panic swept through Florence when Piero’s forces were defeated and Piero and the Medici allies fled the city.

Botticelli, Painted Crucifix

14. Painted Crucifix by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1496–97. Tempera on cut wood panel. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Prato.

Savonarola assisted in negotiating a relatively humane peace with Charles and that together with the fulfillment of his prophesies of Florence’s defeat greatly enhanced the priest’s prestige. Florence was declared a democracy, but for the next four years Savonarola led a campaign against luxury, immorality and church corruption in his attempt to make Florence into the New Jerusalem. Anti-Savonarolans emerged in competing pulpits and in city politics. The Arrabbiati party joined forces with the Duke of Milan and Pope Alexander IV, but against such overwhelming opposition Savonarola mustered enough popular support to stave off destruction for a remarkably long time. During that period a large swath of Florence subscribed to a severe form of pietism demonstrated notably by the “Bonfire of the Vanities” on February 7, 1497, when much of Florence at great cost proved their devotion by offering up jewelry, fineries, luxuries, and some books and art. Savonarola’s party passed anti-“vice” laws which punished sodomy, public drunkenness, adultery and the like. Vigilante groups organized to enforce this new morality. But Savonarola’s base among the artisans could not outlast the combined and determined opposition of the oligarchs in and outside of Italy who had the enthusiastic backing of the corrupt pope. When Savonarola’s preaching became increasingly directed at the Church, the pope ordered him to appear in Rome. Rightly suspecting a trap,the friar declined for health reasons, and the Pope issued a ban against his preaching. Savonarola could not long abide such an order and excommunication soon resulted as well as the threat of interdiction of Florence should the citizens support him. The mounting pressure reached its climax in a most bizarre manner. A Franciscan preacher challenged the friar to a trial by fire. Savonarola evidently declined but a surrogate took up the gauntlet. On the much anticipated day, the event was postponed several times until a storm forced the cancelation. A mob took this as a sign of Savonarola’s disfavor and attacked the San Marco convent. In May 1498 Savonrola and two colleagues were arrested and tortured until they confessed. On May 23 the three were executed by hanging and their bodies consumed in a fire beneath them.

Though outlawed the teachings of Savonarola galvanized a group of radical followers, the Piagnoni (the “Weepers” or “Mourners”), who remained a potent underground force in Florence, claiming miracles, fulfilled prophesies and urging that his death was an apocalyptic event. Savonarola in life and death was an enigma: a demagogue who supported a broad-based republican rule, supported by the middle class against oligarchs, but who also insisted on a puritanical and narrow view of morality.  (But of course the middle class always supports a sterner view of morality based on self-discipline on which their economic survival rests than the wealthy, who can afford extravagance and self-indulgence without much fear of their immediate impoverishment.) The Piagnoni remained republican and anti-Medici. (One of Ficino’s last works was a denunciation of the Piagnoni.) When the Medici returned in 1512, the Paagnoni remained organized and eventually drove them out again by a revolt in 1527–30. They were eventually defeated by the Medici pope, Clement VII, and the Emperor, who turned Florence into a hereditary duchy.

It would have been difficult for any artist to remain unaffected by the tumult of the Savonarola period and its aftermath. But Vasari makes a very specific claim about Botticelli and

Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara, of whose sect he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone [Mourner, or Weeper] (as the members of the sect were then called), he abandoned his work; wherefore he ended in his old age by finding himself so poor, that if Lorenzo de’ Medici, for whom, besides many other things, he had done some work at the little hospital in the district of Volterra, had not succoured him the while that he lived, as did afterwards his friends and many excellent men who loved him for his talent, he would have almost died of hunger.

Vasari is demonstrably wrong that Botticelli abandoned painting after the death of Savonarola, because The Mystical Nativity was signed by Botticelli who dated it 1500 (after Savonarola’s death). The rest of it also seems implausible.

Botticelli, Modonna and Child

15. Madonna and Child by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Oil on panel. Museo Stibbert. Florence.

But there is at least something that might indicate that Botticelli’s will was bent in the direction of the demagogue. Botticelli must have represented the very kind of art that Savonarola had in his sites. Not only was Botticelli a client of the Medici, he essentially invented the humanist art of the classical mythological scene, particularly in his use of (indeed creation of) the nymph. The Three Graces of Primavera may be the first of what we call the modern “nude.” Kenneth Clark (p. 150) calls the group “one of the most personal and memorable evocations of beauty in the history of art”; one that had no immediate antecedent. (The female nude was not depicted in classical Greece, although it became common in the Hellenistic period after Alexander.) As for Botticelli’s Venus pictures, all fully nude, and while stationary, yet expressing vibrant motion by the very curves of the lines that define her, they produce a shocking challenge to any Catholic puritan in that her face is the very face that Botticelli uses in his Madonnas. As to this fact, Clark wrote (p. 155): “That the head of our Christian goddess, with all her tender apprehension and scrupulous inner life, can be set on a naked body without a shadow of discord is the supreme triumph of the Celestial Venus.”

We don’t have to speculate on Savonarola’s views because he expressed them directly. As Dempsey (p. 30) puts it:

Savonarola … not only urged Florentines to cast into the bonfire of the vanities paintings of indecent nudes (like the Birth of Venus), together with the worldly poems in Petrachan Conzonieri and the ribald tales of Boccaccian Decameron, but also, in a sermon in 1946, excoriated the women of Florence who “put their daughters on display and dress them so that they appear to be nymphs.” He went further, claiming that these nymphs impiously served as the models for the paintings of the Virgin and female saints placed on the altars of the churches. “These are your idols, which you have placed in my temple. The images of your gods are the images and likenesses of the bodily forms you cause to be painted in the churches, so that young men go about saying of one woman or another, ‘She is the Magdalene,’ and ‘Behold, she is the Virgin.’ For you have had bodily forms painted in the churches in the likeness of this woman or another […] Do you believe the Virgin Mary went out dressed the way you have painted her? I tell you she dressed like a poor girl, simply, and covered so that her face could scarcely be seen. So too did Saint Elizabeth go out simply dressed. […] You have made the Virgin appear dressed like a whore.”

Not remarkably, coming from the mouth of a man who could inspire a Bonfire of the Vanities, these words had effects. For Botticelli there would be no more nudes or anything reeking of the teachings of Ficino. And his paintings of the Virgin changed drastically. Before he painted her, as his patrons wished, dressed in the finest contemporary raiment (e.g., ## 5 & 6). Now she was dressed as Savonarola dictated. In the Stibbert Modonna and Child (#15) her dress is matronly, nearly drab with the trimming only offering variety. The background is no longer an inviting setting (as in #5) or a harmonious setting to enhance the intimacy of the mother and child (as in #6) but rather an undistinguished urban setting which adds to the somberness of the scene. Indeed the virgin is no longer the young mother whose attention is absorbed by her young child. She seems weighed down by care, burdened by the future. It is as if the picture is not celebrating a Christmas story—the arrival of the Prince of Peace, but rather the beginning of a long and painfully eventful story, one in which joy is banished. This conclusion is seen in other religious scenes.

Botticellil, Adoration of the Magi

16. Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The 1500 Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli (#16) was his fourth and last version of this scene. It was a popular subject among 15th century patrons and was painted by many artists, including Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo.  Florence every five years put on a pageant in which the leading citizens, merchants, manufacturers and bankers, dressed up as Magi and paraded through the town. One year even Lorenzo the Magnificent joined them. The story of the eastern kings allowed these gentlemen to display their wealth, possessions and taste for all to see. The paintings that were commissioned of the Biblical scene also involved large numbers of Magi, all dressed elegantly and the paintings were usually quite sumptuous, lavishly using expensive pigment and gilding. Botticelli’s three earlier paintings follow this pattern. The first two are held by the National Gallery. The first one is a fairly conventional narrative version with a long train of Magi approaching the child who is seated on the right side of the piece. The second has the Virgin and child in the center under the ruins of an interesting building with the Magi forming groups on both sides. The third, at the Uffizi, has the holy family on an elevated platform among stone ruins. All three show the Magi as contemporary patricians would like to see themselves. In fact, the third one contains portraits of three Medici, including Cosimo, and perhaps even Botticelli himself, as Magi (Paolucci, pp. 70–71). The final one, shown in the MFA exhibition (#16), is entirely different. With the exception of a courtier in the foreground (the patron?), the Magi are all modestly attired (as are Mary and Joseph). There is no celebration of wealth, and indeed the setting has the superficial appearance of a desert. Perhaps more significant is the attitude of the devotees. Unlike in the three previous paintings the Magi are humble, devout and self-deprecating. They are members of a pietistic faith rather than participants in a pageant.

Is this difference in subject matter, composition and costumes enough to suggest that Botticelli was a devotee of Savonarola? I think we have to return to the fundamental economic fact that a great many of the attributes of paintings of the period were largely dictated by the buyer. And to the extent that Savonarola had impact on the subject matter and compositional manner of painting, he probably did so through his influence over the buyers. Now, of course, there were anti-Savonarolans who existed in Florence during the same period, so why does the change in Botticelli’s work seem to point only in one direction? I think it is probably not difficult to imagine that once the Medici were driven from Florence, there no longer would have been any commissions for ostentatious humanistic works that emphasized non-Christian themes because there would be no protector for such a vision. And even those remaining Florentines who entirely rejected the pietism of Savonarola would have been reluctant to buck an emotional tide that was powerful enough to cause citizens to burn their own expensive possessions as a public display of piety.

Botticelli, St Augustine in his Study (2)

17. Saint Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1490–94. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

There is one additional consideration that might shed light on the stylistic change. It seems to have begun before the advent of Savonarola. For example, in the early 1490s Botticelli painted a second version of Saint Augustine in his Study (#17), this one much smaller. But the size difference does not account for the entirely different conception. Humanism is no longer celebrated in this painting. The saint is in a bare study, surrounded not by the tools of contemporary science but by icons of religion (the Madonna and child appear as relief under the lunette behind him). His diligence is demonstrated by the crumpled papers and discarded quills under his fee—as though he is so intensely dedicated to his writing that he cannot stop to properly discard prior drafts. There is no luxury in the setting. His robe and the curtain are quite simple and the rest is in a lifeless monochrome. And most noticeable is the lack of emotional expressiveness in the smaller work. It is as though Botticelli were attempting to show aestheticism merely by eliminating elements that made his humanist paintings interesting.

Returning to the late Madonnas, there is a tendency during the Savarolan period to emphasize Mary as Queen, as in the Enthroned Madonna with Saints in Montelupo (#1). In that picture the Virgin is the largest figure and dominates the composition, at the same time she seems devoid of emotion altogether. In an even more exaggerated way the Virgin in Madonna with Child and the Young Saint John (#18) dominates the picture. In fact, the three figures squeeze out all background except the rose bush (roses are traditionally associated with the Virgin) and John the Baptist’s reed cross (in Matthew 11:7 Jesus is quoted as calling John a “reed swayed by the wind”). John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence so the painting might symbolize the Republic’s embracing of the Savior. Once again the overall mood of the piece is one of deep melancholy, the knowledge that the crucifixion lay ahead thus eliminates all joy from the beginning.

Botticelli, Madonna with Child and Young John the Baptist

18. Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera on canvas. Galleria Palatina, Florence.

The greatly elongated figure of Mary is a striking stylistic departure for Botticelli. To our eyes it is decidedly “modern,” but it is the same tendency of reducing a symbolic figure into a “flattened” design element that he used (with different emotional content) in The Birth of Venus and the other two Venus pictures by his studio. The same technique can be scene in the body of Mary as well as the head of the donkey in the late 1490s picture The Flight into Egypt. The donkey’s head in this painting is so strikingly original that it remained me of Chagall or Franz Marc. Kroegel argues (pp. 62–64) that the elongation of Mary to the point that she towers over other the other figures in a picture does not necessarily result from the influence of Savonarola because Botticelli’s drawings of Beatrice for his illustrations of Dante’s Paradiso have the same tendency (although to a lesser extent) and those drawings began before Savonarola returned to Florence. Whether or not, however, Savonarola was the cause, there can be little doubt that Botticelli engaged in extreme stylistic experiments late in life and the most notable ones took place in pietistic paintings.

A recent discovery in Prato shows an unusual work for Botticelli, a crucifixion designed for use in a religious procession (#14). The painting is on a board cut to the outline of the figure and cross. In no other work did Botticelli prepare the substrate to accommodate or illustrate the work, much less prepare a silhouette to paint on. It seems to me that it is significant that this departure was for a work to be used as a prop in a religious procession, and one that involves ritual lamentation. A second example of an extreme departure is the famous Mystical Nativity, a work not exhibited by the MFA. The piece at first looks highly decorative with angels dancing above the stable and embracing shepherds (?) in the foreground.  The same elongation of the donkey’s head as in Flight into Egypt occurs with the donkey next to Mary looking into the infant’s face. Those around the stable are in positions of humble devotion. Only a few years before Michelangelo left Florence to found the High Renaissance style by his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli had not only not developed in the same direction (Botticelli even refused for the most part to paint with oils), he was decidedly moving backwards towards a Gothic conception of art. Perhaps the most extreme example of that tendency is seen in his Mystic Crucifixion (#19).

Botticelli, Mystic Crucifixion

19. The Mystic Crucifixion (Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross or Crucifixion with the Penitent Magdalene and Angel) by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera and oil on canvas (transferred from panel). Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The painting is the visual representation of an apocalyptic vision. The crucified Christ is the center, and the cross he is on divides the picture into two fields. The body of Christ is the only “rounded,” modeled figure, as if this Ideal figure is the only reality; everything else (including the cross itself) has been “flattened,” rendered into two-dimensional design elements. The Christ body and the cross appear to be the model for (or modeled after) the processional crucifix we just encountered (Lightbown, II;94). The scenes on the two sides of the cross are starkly different. On the right is a scene of violence and retribution with a menacing sky from which projectiles and demons are falling. On the left side the sky is calm, clear blue and filled by shields with red crosses. In the top left God sits among cherubim, and below him the placid city of Florence can be recognized by Giotto’s Campanile, the Duomo, etc. At the foot of the painting are two figures. One, prostrate, is the common figure of a penitent Magdalene holding the base of the cross. An animal, likely a wolf, runs from her garment. To the right is an angel, holding an animal, probably a lion, which she is about to strike with a sword. It appears she has already lashed the animal once for a ring of blood can be seen on the animal’s neck.

The symbolism of this painting has universally been considered Savonarolan (Steinberg, pp. 69–77, Lightbown, I:130–33; Ettlinger & Ettlinger, pp. 103-05; Hatfield, pp. 91 & 93), but the exact referents of particular symbols are disputed. For instance, the shields with the red cross are identified by some as the small red crosses given out to participants in the children’s penitential procession on March 27, 1496, while others see them as the symbols of the populo which were ordered to replace Medici insignia throughout the city in May 1497 as a sign of the Signoria of Florence, commemorating the establishment of a “people’s government” under the guidance of Savonarola (in place of the Medici rule and the narrow oligarchic rule that briefly followed the expulsion of the Medici). Another example is the search for Savonarolan meaning in the lion and the wolf, when, it seems to me, a source more familiar to Botticelli would have been Dante, where a she-wolf and lion are two of the three ferocious animals that confront him in the first Canto of the Inferno (Ciardi translation). (In the Inferno the she-wolf represents the corrupt church. The corruption of Pope Alexander IV and his Curia had to have been obvious to all in Florence, even the anti-Savorolans, who would later make truck with him temporarily to rid themselves of the pious demagogue).

Regardless of the details the meaning seems quite clear in broad strokes. Magdalene, who represents Florence, seeks forgiveness of sins and as a result the corruption (the animal running from her garments leaves her, and she is saved from the retribution that had begun (the invasion of Charles VIII, takeover of the government by the merchant oligarchs—both of which Savonarola had an important role in), and as a result peace returns to the city. In fact, by its location within sight of the cross on Calvary, Florence must be the New Jerusalem (the Paradise that Savonarola preached would result if the Florentines would repent their sin, corruption and vanities), which escaped the chastisement inflicted on her by the angel (a lion was the adopted symbol of the Florentine Republic). But granting all the Savonarolan imagery, the work is not conclusive in showing that Botticelli, rather than the patron who commissioned the work, was a Piagnoni. In the end it is probably irrelevant. Even if he became an enthusiast or follower, it hardly means that he had thrown over Medicean humanism. Michelangelo, after all, was a follower of the friar, and he went on, into the belly of the beast, to create works that form the cornerstone of Italian humanism.

What goes unremarked about the piece is its astonishing expressionism. In his last decade or so Botticelli had struck out in a direction apart from where the mainstream of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were headed. At the time Botticelli’s late work was attributed to his decline in ability. That together with the change of taste in the 16th century caused Botticelli’s reputation to to be eclipsed for over three centuries until it was revived in the mid 19th century by English dilettantes and the pre-Raphaelites. Even today modern art historians refer to Botticelli’s late works as “rough” or products of his dotage. As to the last point let me show one more work, one not found at the MFA show, but it can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, St. Zenobius Healing the Sick and Raising the Dead, one of four related panels (three of which are held by the Met).

Botticelli, St. Zenobius Raises Dead

Saint Zenobius Heals the Sick and Raises the Dead by Sandro Botticelli 1500–10. Tempera on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

If you view art history like positivists or progressive historians view human history, as a succession in some ordained or preferred way, then this work is decidedly retrograde, for it dispenses with almost every innovation (some pioneered by Botticelli himself) of the 15th century. The figures are simplified to the extent of nearly being cartoons. The perspective is hyper-geometrical. The buildings are stylized beyond anything we would consider realistic. It decidedly partakes more of the spirit of the Gothic than of the High Renaissance that was just dawning. But I cannot fail to see hints of 20th century modernism in these works. Modernism, after all, returned to the “primitive” in order to find its way. “Radical,” in its origins, simply is a search for roots (radix, pl. radices). This feeling will probably be scoffed at by those who see the past as explained by self-contained boxes, but frankly we can only bring out own experiences, points of reference and prejudices to any view of the past. And if we are to see any commonality between out time and the Quattrocento we cannot pretend we know nothing of the future that they knew nothing of. But perhaps Botticelli could see a little bit of things to come, maybe through a glass darkly. After all the same man who turned the Virgin into Venus might also have been able to see the chaos in the outwardly orderly. In any event, Botticelli, unlike almost all his contemporaries, is able to reach us, even if we do not (and cannot) learn the same lessons he was commissioned to teach. We can enjoy the Venuses without steeping ourself in Neoplatonism, and so why can we not enjoy the late works without steeping ourselves with a kind of apocalyptic puritanism that we are unfamiliar with? Perhaps it is enough that we can see our own apocalyptic forebodings (of a different sort) in his.


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  1. D. K. This is not a Post, this is a Book! Spending an hour with this story and its paintings (made wonderfully easy to study here — I enlarged each one of them, I believe) is as nothing, as to understanding all that you relate in such intricate terms.

  2. Somehow I never finish a WP reply here, as above. Some of my friends feel I’m much too long-winded on my own blog. What would they make of you? Can’t believe the work this post would entail for a normal person, but then, you’re not normal to be sure.
    I write on wordpress for the common reader — your reader is a hardcore intellectual aswim in whatever subject you’re taking on. Here, as usual, you know your subject. Painting and the history of painting! How you do it, my friend, I don’t understand. I read here but more than the read, I loved the art, so easy to study in large.

  3. Quite right! Three majors. As for history, languages, philosophy — who needs them? In fact, students learning their country’s history, i. e., is downright dangerous.

  1. July 4th, 2017

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