Compare the similarity between Botticelli’s group of figures and Leonardo’s composition, both taken from a corner section of their respective paintings of the Adoration of the Magi. So which version was started first?
I mentioned in a previous post that Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi is inspired by two unfinished paintings attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, his own version of the recently restored Adoration theme (also in the Uffizi) and Jerome in the Wilderness.
As well as this Botticelli added other devices associated with Leonardo – the hanging Baroncelli figure based on a sketch from one of Leonardo’s notebooks is an example. Another is the head of the white horse resting on the arms of Giuliano de’ Medici and the assassin Francesco de’ Pazzi.
Leonardo was an accomplished musician. He is noted for having made a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head which he brought with him as a gift for Ludovico Sforza when he moved to Milan . The instrument was known as a “lira da braccio”, literally an “arm lyre”, and a forerunner of the violin – hence the horse-head resting on the arms of the two men.
But Botticelli has implied a further interpretation which connects to a participant in the Pazzi consiracy itself, the Arcbishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati. For his part he shared the fate of four other conspirators when ropes were tied around their necks and they was left hanging from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria.
The poet Poliziano afterwards wrote of what had happened, stating that when the Archbishop was hung from the window he sank his teeth into the body alongside him and wouldn’t let go. It happened to be Francesco de’ Pazzi, which is the reason why Botticelli shows the horse with its mouth open ready to bite the arm of Giuliano’s assassin. The horse’s dripping ‘saliva’ is a pun on the name Salviati.
There are claims that Poliziano’s story was an exaggeration on his part, Botticelli may also have been referring to the poet’s ‘silver tongue’ when he depicted the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ swelling on Francesco de’ Pazzi’s face!
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The Pazzi conspiracy, which resulted in the assassination of Guiliano de’ Medici and the attack on his elder brother Lorenzo at the same time, took place during High Mass in Florence’s Duomo on Sunday, April 26, 1478.
The classical scholar and poet Angelo Ambrogini, commonly known by his nickname Poliziano, was standing close to Lorenzo de’ Medici when the attack happened and helped rescue him from his assailants, two priests named Antonio Maffei and Stefano de Bagnone. Just months after the event Poliziano, who was part of the Medici household, published a commentary on the conspiracy, Pactianae Coniurationis Commentarium. It is likely that this account was the source for the assassination narrative portrayed in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Poliziano is the figure on the left side of the painting shown with his head turned to the viewer, Botticelli’s method of acknowledging the poet’s contribution to the work.
Two other members of the assassination team assigned to deal with Giuliano had earlier persuaded him to attend the Mass at the Duomo – he had not be inclined to do so as he was recovering from an illness. Both men, Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, were known to Giuliano and accompanied him on the way to the cathedral. As they did so, Francesco de’ Pazzi placed his arms around Giuliano suggesting that the “golden boy”, as he was known, had grown fat during his illness. In reality Francesco de’ Pazzi was checking if Giuliano was wearing armour under his clothes. He wasn’t.
So in Botticelli’s painting we see Giuliano being embraced by his assassin, seemingly in an act friendship, but in fact an act of betrayal akin to the kiss Judas gave to Jesus in Gethsemane.
Standing next to Francesco is Bernardo Baroncelli, his left hand gripping the concealed hilt of the sword used to cleave Giuliano’s skull. Baroncelli’s right hand appears to point towards the Virgin and Child. It’s an illusion. His hand is directed towards the two people next in line, the priest Antonio Maffei, and in front of him, Giuliano’s brother Lorenzeo. The figure immediately behind Baroncelli and to the left of Maffei is Stefano Bagnone, the other priest designated to assassinate Lorenzo. As it was, the priests failed in their mission and Baroncelli gave chase to Lorenzo to try and finish him off. The ‘Magnifico’ had been wounded in the neck but managed to reach safety and refuge behind the heavy doors of the sacristy which were then locked before Baroncelli could reach him.
A close inspection of Maffei sees his right arm raised and the hand pointing to his neck collar. The collar is shaped as a blade – signifying that in his attempt to end Lorenzo’s life with a cut to the throat, Maffei had put his own neck at risk. The collar now becomes a noose placed around Maffei’s neck. Both priests were captured, castrated and then hanged.
Lorenzo had first thwarted Maffei when his attacker had grabbed his shoulder in an attempt to turn him. In doing so Lorenzo managed to partly protect himself by wrapping his cloak around his arm as a shield. This is shown in the painting.
Giuliano was not so fortunate. He was killed in a ferocius assault carried out by Francesco de’ Pazzi and was stabbed 19 times, just four less than his nameake Julius Caesar when he was assassinated by senators disatisfied with his plans for power and kingship. So fierce was Francesco’s attack on Giulio that he actually stabbed his own leg in the process, which may explain the red colour of his hose.
Baroncelli escaped justice in the short term after he managed to make his way to Constantinople. However, he was recognised and brought back in chains to Florence by Antonio de Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo, and hanged on December 29, 1479. Present at the time of Baronelli’s execution was Leonardo da Vinci who made a drawing of the hanging man, noting his style of clothes and their colours. Part of this drawing is utilised in Botticelli’s painting, and was probably a late addition. Baronelli’s hanging head appears behind the head of Poliziano. Seen as a skull it serves as a reminder that it was Baronelli who cleaved the skull of Giuliano with his sword. The likeness of Poliziano to Giuliano, even the style and colour of their clothes, is also a pointer to the descriptive notes Leonardo made alongside his sketch. Observe also the reference to the rope, a vertical line which has been emphasised as part the column in the background.
The reference to the Leonardo sketch implies that Botticelli completed the painting after the date Baronelli was hanged. It may also suggest a line (the rope) had been drawn under the whole unfortunate episode and the completed painting itself was ready to hang and be put on display!
There are other Leonardo references to be found in Botticelli’s painting, but more on this in my next post.
Two years ago the Uffizi Gallery in Florence unveiled a restored work by Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1481 and 1482. Commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinians of San Donato a Scopeto, the painting remained unfinished when Leonardo left Florence to go and work for the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.
The Adoration of the Magi was not the only unfinished painting Leonardo left behind. An earlier work also remained in the making – St Jerome in the Wilderness, which is now displayed in the Vatican Museum. Both these paintings are referenced by Sandro Botticelli in one of the many paintings he made depicting the Adoration of the Magi – the version housed with the Leonardo interpretation in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
That 600 years later both Magi paintings are kept under the same roof can only be fortuitous, as they are inextricably linked in a way that has remained unrecorded until now.
Perhaps because of its sketchy state, the confusing compilation of figures and background scenes of conflict, the Leonardo version has proved to be enigmatic to modern age viewers. There isn’t a heavenly angel in sight amongst “the great throng” of people to proclaim the message of peace. The world, it seems, remains in turmoil.
But for Florentines, at the time when Leonardo began to paint the Adoration scene, the world was indeed chaotic. One particular event that shook not only Florence but the whole of Italy, even reverberating through Europe, was the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers, Lorenzo (the Magnificent) and his younger sibling Giuliano. The attack took place on April 26, 1478, during High Mass at the Duomo in Florence. Giuliano was mortally wounded but Lorenzo escaped with only a slight neck wound.
Retribution was swift. Anyone perceived to be connected to what became known as the Pazzi conspiracy was slaughtered in the bloodbath that followed, hence the warring backdrop and sea of confused faces surrounding the Adoration scene in which the Infant Jesus is raised and presented to the kneeling Magi.
The presentation of Jesus, surrounded by mayhem and uncertainty, mirrors the timing of the assassination attempt in the Santa Maria del Fiore. The conspirators had agreed to strike when the bell rung at the time of consecration and raising of the Host during Mass, and when the congregation closed their eyes and bowed their heads in adoration of the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Observe the figure at the Virgin’s right shoulder, leaning forward and ringing a small bell. Another figure to note is the man behind the Virgin. He appears to hold a knife in his right hand.
Most historians agree that the standing figure on the extreme right, looking out of the frame, represents Leonardo. The figure standing in the opposite corner, described by historian Joseph Manca as “the unseen scholar” and a philosopher “in the broadest sense” is there to represent Julius Caesar, like his namesake Giuliano, assassinated by multiple stab wounds – 23 in total. Nineteen knife wounds were inflicted on Giuliano and a sword also cleaved his head.
It’s at this stage that we can begin to see the association between Leonardo’s Magi painting and the version featuring the Medici family produced by Botticelli. Which came first? On the basis that Botticelli has picked up on Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St Jerome and also included other elements associated with his contemporary, I would judge that Leonardo’s version came first and Botticelli adapted some of its features in way of a tribute to his departing colleague, echoing the homage and tribute the Magi gave to the Infant King.
Similar to Leonardo, Botticelli has placed his own image in the right corner of his painting, looking away from the Adoration scene. In the facing corner Giuliano de’ Medici strikes a similar pose to Julius Caesar, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere. It is this part of the painting that Botticelli refers to the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers, and also brings to light features which identify with Leonardo.
If it is accepted that both Magi scenes refer to the assassination of Giulio de’ Medici, then the current date attribution of 1475 or 1476 given to the Botticelli version has to be moved back to take into account the date of the murder which took place on April 26, 1478. The painting presents other evidence to point to a date of at least 1480 before it was finished; and if it is also accepted that Botticelli has utilised features from Leonardo’s version, then that would push the date back even further, to at least the latter part of 1481, as Leonardo was not given his commission until March of the same year.
This version of the Adoration of the Magi is by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The work is on display at the Uffizi in Florence and is said to date from 1475 or 1476. It is also claimed that the painting was commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama for his funerary chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Botticelli produced several paintings on this theme, some say as many as eight. This version depicts several members of the Medici family, notably Cosimo de’ Medici, the Italian banker and politician, in the guise of the Magus kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus.
Although there are varied opinions as to the identities of the other Medici figures, most art historians tend to agree that the painter, Sandro Botticelli, is the standing figure on the right of the frame, wearing the ochre gown and looking out to the viewer.
The painting’s date attribution of 1475 or 1476 is not accurate. The earliest the painting could have been completed is 1480, and perhaps even a year later. The scene is linked to an historical event, and also to two early works by a contemporary of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci.
My next post will reveal the iconography that redates the painting and its connection to Leonardo.
To the National Gallery, the man depicted in the masterpiece that hangs in its gallery of 15th-century treasures is a holy man, possibly a saint, reading a legal text. And the portrait is believed – at least by the gallery’s experts – to have been created in the workshop of the Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden.
But to one leading art historian, it is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a 20th-century fake, of an unknown man sporting a Beatles-style haircut and reading a paper containing nothing more than nonsense.
• Read the full article by Dalya Alberge at this link.
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