In my previous post I pointed out that the four satyrs in the Venus and Mars painting who are tormenting the sleeping figure of Mars represented Botticelli and his three brothers. A similar scene appears on a freize in another and earlier painitng by Sandro Botticelli, the Calumny of Apelles (1494). It depicts three winged cherubs tormenting a lion.
Below the panel is an alcove, one of many in the painting designed to display various statues. In this instance the niche is like a sentry box that houses a soldier in armour with his sword and shield. He keeps watch over the unfurling scene. The panel above the alcove can be understood in two ways – the lion as representing Leonardo, and also the Marzocco, the heraldic lion that is the symbol of Florence. These are characterised as the sentry statue representing the mythological figure of Mars, no longer naked as in Botticelli’s earlier painting.
Botticelli has linked the two paintings in this way to point to the identity of Mars and the sentry being one and the same person – Leonardo da Vinci.
Notice also the proximity of the shell features in the backgrounds serving as another link.
But why would Botticelli want to reference Leonardo in the Calumny of Apelles? The reason is this and points to another artist, the figure on the ground being dragged by his hair by Calumny. She is laying claim to Domenico Ghirlandaio and presenting him for judgement before the king, except that the man on the throne (Midas) is also a representation of Ghirlandaio, as is the other man, Rancour (Envy).
Ghirlandaio was only 45 when he died in January 1494 of ‘pestilential fever’, probably a form of the ‘sweating sickness’ that gripped parts of Europe in the latter part of the 15th century. Ghirlandaio’s passion came sudden and lasted five days before he died.
Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles, painted in 1494, is a pointer to Ghirlandaio’s death earlier that year and hints that Domenico was the person who annonymously notified the Florentine authorities in 1476, accusing Leonardo and three other men of sodomy (hinted at in the freize panel). But Botticelli suggests the reason for the slander was jealousy on the part of Ghirlandaio, hence his depiction as Rancour. Note also that the naked figure at the start of the line of events in the painting represents Truth. And so Ghirlandaio, shown naked in his passion except for his loin cloth, is exposed for his calumny against Leonardo.
• More on this in a future post…