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Botticelli – Genius of the Quattrocentro

Kenny McEwan continues his series looking at the lives and political significance of the great artists.

In 1432 the Medici family under Cosimo dei Medici were victorious at the battle of San Romano, this triumph against the Sienese though in reality a minor skirmish insured that the Medici’s of Florence became one of the most powerful, wealthy, banking families in Tuscany. Due to this power and the influence that it bestowed, Florence though a republic, came under the direct influence of the Medici’s. This influence was not only political but also cultural, with an enormous flowering of artistic endeavours taking place in that city. Using their huge wealth Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo dei Medici also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent invited the best artists, scholars, and philosophers to Florence to participate in his neoplatoic renaissance of ideas establishing the Platonic Academy. Among these was a young man called Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Botticelli.

Botticelli, born in 1445, in an artisan part of Florence, which still exists today, was the youngest son of a tanner. Aged thirteen he was apprenticed to a goldsmith but later moved to the studio of Filippo Lippi a one time Dominican Friar who gave up the cloth after having an affair with a nun whom he later married. Lippi, still a respected artist in his own right, was a major influence on Botticelli’s own style of painting, linear, delicate, ornamental and graceful, producing an almost other worldliness’ quality in his paintings. This can be seen in his first commission ‘Fortitude’ (1470), painted for the Merchants Guild in Florence. Despite this description of his painting style, he nevertheless produced strong images with an excellent attention to detail and good use of perspective though unlike many of that time he did not really concern himself with working out the exact details of either perspective or anatomy for that matter. This indifference with anatomy is one of the ways in which Bottacelli manages to produce the serene quality in many of figures in his paintings.

Around the 1470’s he came in to the sphere of the Medici’s who became the main patrons for most of his life. In 1475 he was commissioned to paint what is essentially a family portrait of the Medici’s the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Within the framework of a traditional ‘Magi’ setting Botticelli includes portrait of Cosimo, Lorenzo, his brother Giuliano and Piero dei Medici as well as a self-portrait of himself standing to the right of the group wearing a yellow clock.

Whilst working for the Medici certainly conferred many rewards they were nevertheless a dangerous family to be round. In many respects 15th century Florence was like 20th century Chicago, with the powerful families having many rivals and enemies. In Easter 1478 with the blessing of Pope Sixtus IV the Pazzi family conspired to rid Florence of their bitter enemies, however, the time and place chosen for the attempt sent shock waves through the city and ensured a terrible revenge on the conspirators family. As Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano attended mass in Florence cathedral the assailants struck, Giuliano was killed immediately, however Lorenzo managed to reach the sacristy and was saved by members of the congregation. Due to the botching of the murders the Archbishop of Pisa who was to announce the change in regime lost his nerve, by then the streets were full of supporters of the Medici’s and a massacre of the Pazzi’s took place.

The Renaissance, however, is not called that for nothing and along side the wars, killings and double dealings that punctuated that period was a real sense of a rebirth of ideas, science, art and philosophical thought. Key to this in Florence was the rediscovery of the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, which fused together with some elements of eastern mysticism. This new philosophical ideal became known as Neoplatonism, which saw love, beauty, and the search for a deeper metaphysical truth and morality as being central to the creation of a new man.

Bottacelli being part of this circle became its artistic face and in 1478 he produced the first of his great allegorical masterpieces ‘Primavera’ (Spring) sometimes known as ‘Allegory of Spring’. Whilst the exact meaning of the painting is still the subject of much debate it is a true masterwork in every sense. It is as the title suggests a celebration of spring, however, it is a pagan celebration not a Christian one with the central figures being mythological. It reads from right to left, Zephyr the west wind is chasing Cloris a nymph, who is transformed into Flora who spreads flowers across the land, next to her is the central figure of Venus in this case as the symbol of spring, whilst above Venus, Cupid fires his darts of love, beside her are her hand maidens the three Graces, finally there is Mercury who is stirring up the heavens. The main meaning is clear, the land is being made fertile again after the winter, but what other neoplatioc meaning intended, is unclear. What should be remembered about this painting is not only was it painted nearly five hundred years ago but is was produced in the very heartland of the Christian church, another hundred years on and it would be almost impossible to create this kind of painting in the catholic world.

It is, however, one of the most beautiful paintings of the Renaissance if not of all time, though at the time of its creation very few people would have seen it as it was a private commission for one of Lorenzo dei Medici’s cousins Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, most of his allegorical paintings were for individual customers. Some like Mars and Venus (1485) were painted onto pieces of furniture in this case a chest for a bedchamber. Possibly a wedding gift, it shows the power of love over war, Venus lies contented whilst Mars sleeps, unable to be wakened even by the satyrs playing with his armour. A hint as to whom it was made for lies in the top right corner of the painting which shows wasps flying round a nest. Wasps were the family symbol of the Vespucci family. Interestingly, while this was made as a wedding present and illustrates a post lovemaking scene, in mythology Venus was married to someone else, not Mars!

By a combination of both patronage and talent Botticelli also received many public commissions, which were religious in nature including altarpieces, such as ‘The Bardi Altarpiece’ (1485) or ‘The San Barnaba Altarpiece’ (1490) as well as Madonna and child paintings such as ‘Madonna of the Magnificat’ (1480/85) This is surely one of the most striking paintings of its type ever produced, a tondo (circular) composition it shows the truly sublime touch that Botticelli had, full of beauty and grace, there is no contradiction to him that both the Madonna and Venus have the same poise and face. To the neoplatoits Venus is not the goddess of physical love as in ancient time but of one of purity and virtue.

By the 1480’s Botticelli’s fame had spread beyond Florence, and he was summoned to Rome to work for the Pope. Pope Sixtus IV, his part in the Pazzi conspiracy now conveniently forgotten, invited the greatest artists in Italy to help decorate his great monument to himself, the Sistine Chapel. Now most people who visit the Vatican only look at the ceiling, however, the panelling round the side of the chapel is also covered in frescos three of which were painted by Botticelli, the ceiling was painted later by Michelangelo during the time of Julius II. In 1485 Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, commissioned Botticelli to produce the second of his great masterpieces, thought by some to be a companion peace to Primavera, ‘The Birth of Venus’. Again an allegorical work it is now one of the most iconic images in western culture. Although not actually showing the birth of Venus it shows her landing on the island of Cyprus, having been blown there by the west wind on a shell, waiting to meet her and cover her nakedness is one of her handmaidens.

Despite her nakedness and her being the goddess of love the physical sensuality is once again superseded by the ideal; Venus here symbolises virtue, beauty, and chastity the look of serenity on her face dispels any notion of the physical. Here also Botticelli shows how by distorting anatomical features you can create the illusion of tranquillity that he produces so wonderfully here. Venus’ neck is far too long to be anatomically correct, however, by doing this and tilting it as he does he creates the effect he is after.

Up until the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Botticelli would continue to produce both religious and neoplatoic images, however, this event and the rise of the zealot priest Savonarola marked a temporary end to the rule of the Medici’s in Florence. Whilst he still produced exquisite paintings his archaic style and the use of delineation, soon meant that he was left behind by other quattrocento artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. Having no followers of his own he was near forgotten by the time of his death in 1510 and he remained so for almost four hundred years until being ‘rediscovered’ by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

There has been much discussion as to why he was forgotten, unlike that other famous forgotten artist Caravaggio he had no real enemies, nor did he upset many influential people. Nor could it have been that his patrons were no longer around as they returned to Florence and remained there for several hundred years. His painting style was certainly out of date by the time of his death but that happened to many artists without them being forgotten for hundreds of years.

Perhaps the reason lies in the way in which art history was developed as a history rather than as a process, with one artist handing over to another in a linear progression. In this way Botticelli’s style does not fit in and was neglected by a succession of art historians and ultimately forgotten. This also raises questions about the supposedly permanent quality and value of art. Botticelli’s paintings were once masterpieces then they did not register for almost four hundred years and now they are masterpieces again, not only that but his style once considered archaic was a major influence in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites many centuries after his death.

Art like everything else is a dialectical process, developing, changing, being looked at anew by successive generations, each bringing something of their own experience and world to the work on view thus altering the conception of that work, Botticelli’s return from obscurity is an example of this happening.

* Quattrocentro, (four hundred) 15th C.