So just who is the young man holding a roundel in the Sandro Botticelli painting set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York on January 28 and expected to sell for around £60 million?
The Sotheby’s auction catalogue suggests his identity is lost to history but likely to be a member of the Medici banking family and Florentine political dynasty. True on the second assumption but his identity is not lost to history. He is Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, nicknamed “Piero the Unfortunate”, and Lord of Florence for a short time, from 1492 until he was exiled in November 1494.
There are extant works of art that feature Piero, notably another portrait – attributed to Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1445-1497) – and a terracotta bust sculpted by Andrea Verocchio (1435-1488).
Although these two works are an aid to recognising Piero as the young man holding the roundel, there is another painting that I would suggest is the “clincher” when it comes to identification as well as providing the underlying narrative to the portrait, and that is the Parnassus by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (c1431-1506), now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The date attribution for the Parnassus is 1497, but this is open to question as there is an historical reference in the painting (echoed from Botticelli’s roundel) to suggest the work was not completed until at least the latter quarter of 1498.
The two figures standing on the bridge represent Mars and Venus. In reality they portray Isabella d’Este, marchioness of Mantua, and Piero di Lorenzo de Medici (not Isabella’s husband Francesco II Gonzaga, as some art historians suggest).
Piero is portrayed as a Roman soldier, similar to the prominent soldier that appears in Mantegna’s Bearers of Trophies and Bullion, one of a series of nine paintings based on the Triumphs of Caesar and part of the Royal Collection at Hampton Court, England.
Mantegna has made the connection for a reason. The helmet worn by Piero is a pointer to the Battle of Fornovo between French forces that had invaded Italy and a coalition of armies gathered in support of the Republic of Venice. The battle took place southwest of Parma on July 6, 1495. The outcome was never really decided. Both sides claimed victory, although the Leaague of Venice forces suffered tremendous losses compared with those of the French.
However, the French king Charles VIII did manage to lose the spoils of war, treasures of all kinds collected during his invasion of Italy, hence Mantegna’s reference to his Trophies and Bullion painting. One special trophy that had been in possession of the French king was said to be his personal, jewelled helmet and a gilded sword. Another was a book illustrating the French ruler’s amourous conquests during the invasion of Italy. Both were eventually returned to Charles by Francesco II Gonzaga.
It’s one of the reasons why Mantegna has portrayed Isabella as a companion to Piero de Medici, who sided with the French and had earlier caved in to the French king’s demands when his soldiers threatened Florence. The outcome was Piero’s expulsion from the city and exile for the rest of his life. The naked Isabella is a reference to Charles’ album of Italian conquests. The golden rod in Isabella’s right hand refers to the gilded sword. It also represents the stemma that appears between the lily leaves featured on the Florentine coat of arms.
Another reference to the love-life of Isabella are the French colours of red and blue worn by Piero and draped over the wooden seat. The wooden seat is portrayed as a horse and a reference to the Trojan Horse used by the Greeks to penetrate the city of Troy. Close inspection reveals the knotted outline of Leonardo da Vinci hitched to the bedpost!
These references are symbolic of betrayal, and one of the narratives disguised in Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel. In fact Botticelli is featured as the humerous winged protector on Piero’s breastplate, echoing his own painting of Mars and Venus where he portrays himself as a mischievous chubby satyr. The depiction of the sleeping figure of Mars for the earlier Botticelli version is matched to the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci, hence the reason why Mantegna has indicated that Piero was not the first in line for Venus’ favours!
The topiary hedge screen is shaped to represent Rubino (Ruby), Isabella’s treasured lapdog, symbolic of protecting the Medici hedge fund seen growing on the bush.
These are just a few of the pointers to Piero the Unfortunate that Mantegna has made in the Parnassus painting. I will explain more in my next post and how they specifically relate to Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel.
Mantegna also pastiched the work of other Renaissance artists in the Parnussus painting, notably by Leonardo da Vinci. Whether Isabella d’Este, who commissioned the work, was ever truly aware of what Mantuan court painter was up to “is lost to history”. If she did, then her good humour is to be applauded.