Birds of a feather…

More on Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi

Behind the kneeling Lorenzo de’ Medici and his his brother Giuliano, are three figures which the artist Botticelli has grouped to relate to each other in five distinct ways.

Firstly, each figure has two identities; secondly, each experienced judgement and condemnation; thirdly, all three reached celestial heights.

Previously mentioned was that Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi is laden with references to Leonardo da Vinci and his works. This is a fourth connection that binds the group. The fifth connection is they represent a secondary group of Magi and their gifts: gold, myrrh and frankincense.

The standing bearded man represents two people mentioned in the Book of Zechariah, Zerubabbel, the governor of the Persian Province of Judah who laid the foundation of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, helped by the high priest Joshua. Zechariah’s account of the Jews returning from Babylonian captivity and a return to peace is described by the prophet in a series of eight visions. These are also referred to in part in Botticelli’s painting.

The stooping figure next in line represents the musician and companion to Leonardo, Atalante Migliorotti, and also the man who commissioned the painting, Guasparre dal Lama.

The faceless third figure – the winged man – is Leonardo da Vinci. In this scenario the second identity probably refers to Jacopo Saltarelli, an apprentice goldsmith charged with prostitution and engaging in sodomy with Leonardo and three other men. The accusation was made annonymously on April 9, 1476, but charges against all the men were later dismissed on the condition that no accusations were made against them in the future.

Leonardo never clarified his sexual orientation in any of his writings, although he did write in one of his notebooks that “the act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions”.

Like Leonardo, Sandro Botticelli was once accused of sodomy, though never prosecuted. Accusations of this kind were common at the time, often as a way of harming reputations. Many of Botticelli’s paintings contain sexual imagery and he was not adverse to injecting his own brand of irreverant humour in some scenes. The Uffizi Adoration is no exception, the target being Leonardo. Whereas Leonardo dissected human corpses, animals and birds in his quest for knowledge, Botticelli dissected reputations with his cutting remarks and piercing parodies for comic effect, even to the extent of self-parody. His placement behind the winged man is akin to the assassin in the opposite corner closing in and pretending to befriend Giuliano de’ Medici before inflicting 19 wounds on his body.

In his later years Leonardo wrote about his first memory as a child in his cradle. He was making notes at the time about the flight pattern of birds and the fork-tailed red kite (milvus vulgaris) in particular. His brief note read: “Writing like this so particularly about the kite seems to be my destiny, since the first memory of my childhood is that it seemed to me, when I was in my cradle, that a kite came to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.”

Although the notebook entry is thought to be have been made around 1505, it is possible that the incident was related orally to others at earlier stages of his life. Certainly, Botticelli appears to have referenced the incident in at least two places. It may even be that Botticelli doubted Leonardo’s account and in his irreverent way put it down to fantasy or a dream sequence his contemporary may have experienced at some time.

As Leonardo held a lifelong interest in birds and their flight, even designing and constructing vehicles for men to take to the skies, it is not surprising that Botticell depicted Leonardo as a bird with wings and a cape covering a self-propelled wind source. Botticelli took the jest a step further, intimating that Leonardo’s weakness, or even strength, could be observed on the underside of his belly, an obvious reference to the sodomy charge against Leonardo and a 15th century slang defintion of ‘kite’ as a person who preys on others.

The peacock and its inverted shadow combine to suggest the fork-tail of the kite. But where is it pointing to?

The second reference to the fork-tailed kite and Leonardo’s earliest memory is the long-tailed peacock perched above the group of men on the right side of the painting. The overhang above the peacock is meant to depict the wingspan of another bird, perhaps the kite and the shadow hanging over Leonardo if ever a charge of sodomy was brought against him in the future. A fork is formed when the shadow is combined with the peacock, a bird that not only symbolised Leonardo’s perceived vanity and desire for attention with his dimorphic style of attire, but may have also pointed to the new life Leonardo was seeking which led to his move to Milan.

More on this in my next post.

You can follow the thread and earlier posts on Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi by clicking on the category link below, or at my website.