In my previous post I pointed out that in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, the figure of Joseph is leaning on a stone shelf which depicts Leonardo da Vinci as the head of the Great Sphinx. It wasn’t the first time Botticelli had portrayed Leonardo as the Sphinx. He had used the motif in an earlier work when he and other Florentine artists were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The commission was seen as a gesture of goodwill in building the peace process between Florence and the Pope in the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and assassination of Giuliano de’ Medci.
I also mentioned that the two tree trunks supporting the roof of the building housing the Holy Family represent the Roman numeral IV – four – and made the connection to the pharaoh Thutmose IV.
Now the numeral can also be understood as a pointer to Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere.
The two supports are from oak trees. Some oak leaves sprout from the vertical support even though it has been stripped of its bark at the base and so starved from nutrients and therefore any future life, a likely reference to the figure below of the hanged assassin Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, who served on the side of Sixtus in the pope’s efforts to remove the Medici family from its power base in Florence.
The Pope’s family name of Della Rovere means “of the oaks” or “the place of the oaks”. So here we see Botticelli expressing the Pope’s desire to take control of the Florentine Republic of which Lorenzo de’ Medici was the de facto ruler.
Art historians generally agree that the figure kneeling in front of the Infant Jesus is Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, but it also depicts Pope Sixtus IV as head of the Church on earth, and so a bridge (pontiff) between heaven and earth, a crossing into the promised land, not only led by Moses as described in the Old Testament, but also through the death and resurrection on the new-born Saviour, Jesus – hence the hands of Cosimo and Sixtus clasping the feet of the Infant. The two families, the Medici and the Della Rovere, are shown united in a symbolic sign of reconciliation and peace.
It was Pope Sixtus IV who built the Sistine Bridge across the Tiber in Rome. Notice the river-bend shape of the white scarf draped around his shoulders. Seen as Cosimo, the drape represents a waxing crescent moon.
There is another reference to ‘the place of oaks’ – the head of Sixtus – shaped as an acorn with its cup and nut. It’s gaunt appearance is reminiscent of some of the skull studies in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and is meant to act as a ‘bridge’ to the sculpted head of Leonardo portrayed in the ‘rockface’ above. Which brings me back to the start of this post and the mention of Botticelli painting a similar motif in an earlier work.
For this we have to return again to the Sistine Chapel and the connection to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from Egyptian captivity. The particular fresco is the Trials of Moses (or the Youth of Moses) painted on the southern wall.
My next post wil explain how and why Botticelli has linked references to Leonardo da Vinci in this fresco and the Uffizi Adoration.
The top section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shows the Virgin Mary presenting the Infant Jesus on her lap to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder. Behind her stands Joseph, while above the group the Star of Bethlehem shines through the rafters of the temporary dwelling portrayed in a state of ruin and collapse.
What remains of the walled structure is divided into three distinct sections, the bricked corner walls to the right of the group; the dark and craggy rock that forms the back wall; and the pale outcrop which Joseph rests on. Then there is the raftered roof supported by two tree trunks.
The left half of the bricked walls section is shaped to represent the sejant erect heraldic lion, the symbol of Florence known as the Marzocco. Placed alongside the infant Jesus representing the sacrificial Lamb of God, it becomes the Lion and Lamb peace symbol.
Sculpted from the rock shelf which Joseph is leaning on is a head representing Leonardo da Vinci. When this is merged with the lion feature it produces a sphinx-like form of half-man and half-lion. Botticelli is specifically drawing attention to the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and Leonardo’s claim in one of his notebooks that he travelled to Egypt and further East. However, historians put this down to fantasy on Leonardo’s part.
The shape of the dark rock that forms the back wall is a bellowing bull, its horns are represented as part of the roof’s rafters. The bellowing represents thunder, the horns, lightning (next to the light from the Star of Bethlehem breaking through the darkness). The bull is Taurus and another pointer to Leonardo’s travelogue and the mysterious draft letter letter to “the Decatdar of Syria, Lieutentant of the Sacred Sultan of Babylon” found in one of his notebooks, detailing his time spent in Armenia and describing the Taurus Mountains.
The dark rock also represents the sculpted Lion of Babylon that depicts a man pinned underneath (Leonardo). Its inclusion is another reference to Egypt but particularly to a part of Cairo at the time known as Babylon. The motif may also refer to the biblical “Babylon Captivity” of the Jews and so a symbol of oppression. Leonardo as the pinned man under the lion points to the polymath’s of oppression by the Florentine authorities and the likely false and malicious charge of sodomy made against him, hence his desire to leave the city when an opportunity arose and move to Milan. The mayhem and random slaughter of citizens following the assassination of Giluiano de’ Medici was another likely factor in Leonardo’s desire to leave Florence.
That Joseph is depicted leaning on the flat cap of Leonardo’s sculpted head, seemingly asleep, reinforces the dream and journey theme. After the departure of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intention to slay the new-born child, and that he should escape into Egypt. (Matthew 2 : 13-15)
Adding support to the premise that Leonardo is portrayed in his familar peaked flat cap as the Great Sphinx are the two tree trunks supporting the timbered roof of the building. They form the Roman numeral IV –four – and refer to a period in the Sphinx’s history and that of the short reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV.
It was Thutmose who, as a prince, was out hunting one day and decided to rest in the shade of the Sphinx which was buried up to its neck in sand. Wikipedia explains: “He soon fell asleep and had a dream in which the sphinx told him that if he cleared away the sand and restored it he would become the next Pharaoh. After completing the restoration he placed a stone tablet, now known as the Dream Stele, between the two paws of the Sphinx. The restoration of the Sphinx, and the text of the Dream Stele would then be a piece of propaganda on Thutmose’s part, meant to bestow legitimacy upon his unexpected kingship.” (Peter Clayton, Chronicles of the Pharaohs)
This propoganda theme likely mirrors the motive and steps taken by Lorenzo de’ Medici to enhance his reputation following the Pazzi consiracy. The de facto ruler of Florence soared in popularity among the people of the Republic after the brutal murder of his brother Giuliano.
Like the Sphinx, Leonardo’s head is buried from the neck down. The shadowed area falls behind the head of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He is also in a dream-like state and focused on the face of the Child Jesus. This particular feature is a defining link to Deiric Bouts’ painting of the Last Supper from which Botticelli has adapted features to include in his Uffizi Adoration. Bouts also included Thutmose IV and the Dream Stele and linked the pharaoh to the apostle Jude Thaddeus and the Image of Edessa, the so-called Mandylion. Botticelli makes the connection to the Last Supper painting and the raising of the Host (the time during the Mass when Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the Duomo) by identifying Lorenzo with Jude Thaddeus who is said to have brought the Mandylion (the cloth miraculously imprinted with the face of Jesus) to king Abdar of Edessa.
In icons of St Jude, one of his attributes is a flame around his head to indicate his presence at Pentecost. This is shown as a ‘tongues of fire’ symbol on the top of Lorenzo’s hat. Lorenzo is also draped in a cloak meant to represent the Shroud of Jesus on which the covered face of Christ is depicted. Notice also the features of the face and beard of the turbaned man to the left of Lorenzo’s hat, intended to match the profile of Jude in the Bouts painting. The fold on Jude’s left arm represents the head of the Sphinx while there is also a suggestion of the shrouded face of Christ on his back, similar to that shown on Lorenzo.
The stone carving of Leonardo is shaped as a double head. It may represent two aspects of Leonardo as well as the double-headed eagle, facing East and West, and perhaps a pointer to Leonardo’s flight frrom Florence to Milan as well as the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It’s just possible to make out the shape of an angel (above Cosimo’s head). This winged angel is also likely a reference to the ‘winged’ shape of a nemes crown, the striped extended head cloth worn by pharaohs. The left side head of the rock is formed from the other wing of the nemes.
Another link to Leonardo being portrayed as a sphinx was his fondness for composing riddles. The mythical Greek sphinx that guarded the city of Thebes would devour any traveller unable to answer its riddle. It was classed as female with the wings of an eagle and considered malevolent, while the Egyptian sphinx was portrayed with a man’s head and seen as benevolent.
The main profile of the sculpture shows Leonardo facing two figures connected with the East, the drooped head of Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli who escaped to Constantinople after assassinating Giuliano de’ Medici, only to be brought back to Florence and hanged while still dressed as a Turk. The other figure is the turbaned man alongside Leonardo, representing both King Agbar of Edessa and Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, who sanctioned the extradition of Baroncelli back to Florence. He also represents Epicurus, the Greek philosopher. More about him and his connection to the painting in a future post.
My next post will deal with how Leonardo and this particular section of Botticelli’s painting links to the Parnassus painting produced about 12 years later by Andrea Mantegna, and how it shows evidence which points to Bianca Giovanna Sforza as La Bella Principessa in the painting said to be by Leonardo da Vinci.
“But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”
So wrote the British art historian in the Daily Telegraph on April 12, 2010.
Well, such a document does exist and derives from an earlier 15th century painting by Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. The actual document was produced by another contemporary of Leonardo, the Mantua court painter Andrea Mantegna. He took his lead from Botticelli, and particularly the Florentine’s painting of the Adoration of the Magi which is now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.
What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. Both paintings parody aspects of Leonardo’s life and his works. Mantegna acknowledges his source of inspiration by including references to other notable works of Botticelli apart from the Uffizi Adoration.
Whereas Botticelli’s painting accounts for the time before Leonardo left Florenece and moved to Milan around 1481-82, Mantegna has added updates to the Leonardo references, including some which point to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza, or La Bella Principessa as titled by the Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp.
It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497 (a year after the deaths of Bianca and her stepmother Beatrice) although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.
That there are references to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza in the Parnassus painting alongside other works of Leonardo would suggest La Bella Principessa
belongs to the same period and was produced by the artist that many
experts claim to be Leonardo da Vinci. While the fact that the portrait
is on vellum may be considered as a negative by some critics, there is a
clear reference to this material in Mantegna’s presentation, utilising
the written source from one of Leonardo’s notebooks.
“…And if you want to prepare a thing, you should not have
plain glass, take some skin of a goat, soft and well prepared, and then
dry it; and when it is ready, use it for drawing, and then you can use a
sponge to cancel what you first drew and make a second attempt.” (source)
Bianca Giovanna Sforza was the illegitmate daughter of Ludovico Sforza and Bernardina de Corradis. Born in 1482 she was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes while suffering with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned.
Some six months later Ludovico’s wife Beatrice d’Este died after giving birth to the couple’s third child, a stillborn boy. Beatrice was 21.
Bianca and Beatrice had been close companions at the Milanese court. Following the death of Bianca in November 1496, Beatrice wrote to her sister Isabella d’Este:
“Although you will have already heard from my husband the duke of the premature death of Madonna Bianca, his daughter and the wife of Messer Galeaz, none the less I must write these few lines with my own hand, to tell you how great is the trouble and distress which her death has caused me. The loss indeed is greater than I can express, because of our close relationship and of the place which she held in my heart. May God have her soul in His keeping.”
Bianca was also known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband Galeazzo Sanseverino was a patron and friend of the polymath.
This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, the illegitmate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508). Some experts attribute the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci. Others oppose the claim. Arguments for and against are presented at this Wikipedia link.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph published 12 April 2010, Richard Dorment wrote: “But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”
But what if there is such a document, one produced around the same time the portrait of Bianca Sforza was made, one that points to Leonardo as the artist, and to this day has remained unnoticed by both camps, even though it is in the public domain?
I propose that there is such a document. It is linked to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and I shall present details in future posts.
Shown above is detail from The Temptation of Christ, one of the frescoes that line the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This particular panel was painted by Sandro Botticelli. The frescoes were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. Botticelli shared the work with three other artists, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The three are depicted in the back line while the front row shows Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio and Guasparre dal Lama.
A similar line-up is featured in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shown in the clip below: (left to right) Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, Guasparre dal Lama, Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Verrocchio’s workshop trained many artists and skilled craftsmen (including Leonardo de Vinci) and was possibly a liaison link between the artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, while Guasparre was the man said to have commissioned Botticelli to paint the the Adoration of the Magi.
But why would Botticelli have placed Guasparre in a frescoe he had no apparent connection with, and in such a prominent position?
A couple of months ago I pointed out here that Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi could not have been completed before 1480 and perhaps even 1481.
Since then, after further study of the iconography, I can say the painting was not finished until at least 1482, after Botticelli had returned from Rome where he had spent several months as part of a team of Florentine artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to frescoe the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
Evidence for this claim is the line of figures Botticelli has ‘frescoed’ against the extended wall on the right side of the painting. Most of the men represent the main artists involved in the Sistine Chapel project, and some of the iconography in the group is linked to parts of the frescoed panels.