When stones cry out

The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, Rubenshuis, Antwerp

This magnificent image is by the Flemish artist Willem van Haecht (1593 – 1637). Painted in 1628, it is known as The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest

Van Haecht spent the last decade of his short life as the curator of Van der Geest’s art collection. The gallery shows 43 paintings (among other treasures) of which 24 are known and identified today.

One painting that doesn’t appear to be attributed to any artist is a depiction of St Peter, located in the top row where the two walls meet. The reason for this is that there isn’t an original, lost or undiscovered, other than this image itself, and so most likely by Van Haecht’s own hand.

Detail of St Peter, The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, Rubenshuis, Antwerp

Peter was the disciple on which Jesus said he would build his Church. His portrait is placed as a heavenly cornerstone, a rock of faith, on which the Church stands, and as a witness to the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The painting is of Peter being raised by angels and experiencing his own joyous entry into heaven. .

Before becoming curator to Van der Geest’s art collection in 1628, Van Haecht spent seven years in Italy. It is this connection which reveals a major narrative disguised in the Gallery painting that links to Botticelli’s paintings of the Birth of Venus and Primavera.

I intend to explain more on this in future posts after I have completed my presentations on the Birth of Venus and Primavera, but in the meantime, notice the angel supporting or buttressing the ’Leaning Tower of Peter’ (see previous post).

Leaning towards Pisa

In his book, Botticelli, Life and Work, the late art historian Ronald Lightbown records the short period the artist spent working in Pisa, some 50 miles west of Florence. 

Commissioned by the Opera del Duomo in January 1474, Botticelli first began to fresco a test piece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin in the cathedral’s Incoronata Chapel, starting in July of the same year. According to the Italian painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was dissatisfied with the work and left it unfinished, seemingly some three moths after starting.

However, Botticelli’s experience in Pisa was not wasted and his months spent in the coastal town later proved to be a rich source of inspiration for his painting of the Birth of Venus.

The leaning Venus not only connects to the leaning Ecclesia drawing Botticelli utilised from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, but also to the famous and still standing leaning Tower of Pisa.

Furthermore, a sculpture representing Ecclesia and another figure associated with the naked Venus Pudica, form part of the early 14th century pulpit located in Pisa Cathedral. The complex design and its decoration was sculpted by Giovanni Pisano.

The figure of Eccelasia, or Mother Church, is one one of the support columns for the pulpit. She stands on a pedestal and is depicted wearing a crown and suckling two infants. At her right shoulder are two eagles. Surrounding the pedestal are four figures presented as the Cardinal Virtues, one of which is the naked Venus Pudica representing the Virtue of Prudence. The other Virtues are Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.

While the Venus Pudica corresponds with Botticelli’s Venus, the three remaining Virtues can also be identified in the painting.

It’s important to know that the Four Cardinal Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit are arranged in pairs, side by side and back to back, similar in a way that Villard’s drawing of the mountain bear and swan backs on to the image of Ecclesia. Fortitude and Prudence are paired standing side by side, as are Justice and Temperance. However, Prudence stands back to back with Justice, while Fortitude backs onto Temperance.

Left to right: Fortitude and Prudence; Justice and Temperance.

In his painting, Botticelli portrayed the woman holding up the mantle as Fortitude. The model is Lucrezia Donati, the same woman Botticelli featured in his famous painting of Fortitude in 1470, one of seven panels representing Virtues designated to decorate the Tribunal Hall of Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.

In a previous post – Fallen angels – I explained that the source for the winged figures left of Venus in Botticelli’s painting was Villard’s drawing representing Pride. Botticelli was also inspired by the same sketch in another novel way. He turned the page over, rotated it 90 degrees, and utilised the “see-through” image to form the upper half of the figure of Fortitude, echoing the back-to back formation of the paired Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit.

Botticelli also picked up on the double-eagle motif at Ecclesia’s right shoulder, which explains why Eagle wings are attached to the two “fallen angels” placed at the right shoulder of the leaning Venus (Mater Ecclesia, Mother of the Church). The bird seemingly speaking into the ear of Ecclesia can also be visualised as a dove representing the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church on its missionary journey.

But Botticelli invites the viewer to see through what appears at surface level and to consider the presentation from another viewpoint or perspective, to turn the page, so to speak, for it is said there are two sides to every story.

And so it is with the Four Cardinal Virtues shown on Pisano’s pulpit sculpture – a compact presentation of biblical events and moral standards ‘written’ in stone by a master craftsman.

To encounter face to face the pairing of Fortitude and Temperance sculpted from a single piece of stone requires the observer to change their viewpoint, as it does with the back-to-back formation of Justice and Fortitude. But the pairing of Fortitude and Prudence can be viewed together face-on. Likewise the pairing of Justice and Temperance.

Botticelli refers to this arrangement in his painting. Already mentioned is the figure of Fortitude. Prudence, in the form of Venus Pudica is placed to her left. The arrangement is contrapposto (opposite) to Pisano’s.

The back-up Virtue to the figure of Venus Pudica is Justice, so therefore Temperance is the Virtue hidden behind or within Fortitude. Both Justice and Temperance can be recognised by one or more of their symbolic attributes.

Justice is usually shown with a balance and scales, sometimes with a sword as well. So the reference to the falcon head and its sickle-shaped beak explained in my previous post represents the sword associated with Justice. As for the balance and scales, these are reflected in the oversized scallop shell. It is not on an even keel and dips to one side, the scale or degree of which is measured by the number of the shell’s ribs either side of Venus.

My next post will deal with the Virtue of Temperance and how it connects with Villard de Honnecourt’s drawing of the falling man and horse representing Pride.

The Bear and the Bird

In my previous post – When opposites attract –  I revealed a source of inspiration for Botticelli’s depiction of the leaning Venus, an image representing Ecclesia featured in a 13th century portfolio of drawings by Villard de Honnecourt. I presented some visual evidence towards confirming this, but there is more.

Behind the figure of Ecclesia are two faint “see-through” or “ghost” images of a bear and a swan sketched on the reverse side of the sheet of paper. Botticelli made reference to these in the Birth of Venus painting, albeit changing them into new forms and linking to more than one embedded narrative.

The swan, for instance, with its pronounced curvature of the neck, becomes the head of a falcon, also noted for the curvature of it claws, beak, and even its wings. Its name derives from Latin falx, which describes a curved blade or sickle, similar in shape to the swan’s curved neck. 

In Hesiod’s version of the birth of Venus the Titan Cronus severed the genitals of his father Uranus with a sickle and threw them into the sea, out of which Venus rose from the foam as a fully grown woman.

The shape of the falcon’s head and its sickle-shaped beak is formed from the hair of Venus shown in her left hand and covering her genitalia. The feature also links to another narrative in that the falcon represents a figurehead placed on the prow (in front) of a galley, more of which I shall explain in a future post.

The bear drawing can also be linked to other narratives, at least three. The most prominent is the jagged coastline to the right of Venus. The four points represent the four claws of a bear’s foot. They also draw attention to the sickle shape of the collar of the red mantle about to cover Venus. Having been blown in from the sea, the statuesque Venus is not quite the finished article. For that the stone requires to be dressed.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

The transparency of the sheet of paper used by Villard to execute his sketches is another feature which likely inspired Botticelli to portray the Three Graces in diaphanous dresses for his Primavera painting. The grouping of the Three Graces, or Virtues, was an artistic tradition of portraying a woman from three perspectives, front, back and side. So in the Birth of Venus Botticelli echoed this tradition by incorporating references to the drawings on both sides of the paper. As for any side view, the painting requires to be turned sideways to discover other narratives. Botticelli used a similar method with the Three Graces in Primavera. The edges or sides of the women’s shifts are shaped to provide clues and links to uncover more threads and themes.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

When opposites attract

This is another drawing sourced from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt and the inspiration for Botticelli’s famous leaning figure of Venus in his painting titled the Birth of Venus.

Ecclesia from The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr 19093

The drawing represents Ecclesia, meaning “Church”, that is the Catholic Church of Botticelli’s time. Venus stands in a contrapposto pose, a sculptural scheme in which the standing human figure is poised so that the weight rests on one leg and the other is bent at the knee. Contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “opposite”. 

Villard’s Ecclesia is opposite in many ways to Botticelli’s version. She is fully dressed, and crowned. Her upper body leans to the left and from the waist down she is upright. Venus stands naked. Her stance is opposite; upright above the waist while her legs lean to the right. For sure, both representations appear to be off balance.

Venus’s attempt to cover herself is akin to the shame felt by Eve and her need for protection after succumbing to the serpent’s temptation and losing her innocence in the Garden of Eden – in biblical terms described as The Fall. So to make the connection with Ecclesia, Venus now represents the New Eve, Mary, Mother of the Church. From this it could be said that Botticelli was making a point about the failings within the Catholic Church at the time, echoing the words of spoken to Francis of Assisi in the church of San Damiano by Christ on his cross: “Francis, rebuild my Church which is danger of falling down.” 

Protection and support for the leaning Venus comes in the shape of one of the Horae or Hours, goddesses of the seasons in Greek Mythology. She approaches the shoreline (flying?) with a mantle of protection.Hher stance, with legs and feet apart, forms a buttress ready to prop up the tilting Venus.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

The buttress symbol is mirrored opposite by the two winged and conjoined figures and is also a feature prevalent in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The winged figures can be considered as referring to a flying buttress, a building feature of support once banned by authorities in Florence during Botticelli’s time. The “flying buttress” is another drawing (right) that appears in The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt.

The are some subtle features of Villard’s Ecclesia that offer evidence or even confirmation his drawing was a source of inspiration for Botticelli’s Venus. Compare these ‘opposites’: the blowing, trailing banner with the windswept hair of Venus (flying buttresses!); the badly drawn facial features of Ecclesia with those of Venus modelled on Simonetta Vespucci who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Florence during Botticelli’s time. Simonetta was a young woman the artist was said to be most enamoured with and who he portrayed in several of his paintings.

Venus is also modelled on the Greco-Roman style of sculpture referred to as Venus Pudica (chaste or modest). I shall explain in a future post the reason why Botticelli also makes this connection and the source he borrowed from.

Fallen angels

This drawing is a key element Botticelli incorporated in his composition of the Birth of Venus. It forms the basis for the puffed-up pair of figures generally identified as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. 

Detail from The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr 19093

The horse and its rider falling into an ocean represents Pride, classified by the Christian Church as one of the Cardinal Vices or Seven Deadly Sins. It was pride that caused angels to fall from Heaven.

The drawing is one of many contained in what is known as the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt. Little is known about Villard apart from the notes and drawings collected in his portfolio. Some say he was an architect, perhaps an engineer, but Botticelli gives the impression that Villard was primarily a stonemason engaged in the construction of churches.

Detail from a facsimilie of The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Photo © Facsimilie Finder

Villard himself noted the “virtues of masonry” when he wrote: “Villard de Honnecourt greets you and begs all who use the devices found in this book to pray for his soul and remember him. For in this book you will find sound advice on the virtues of masonry and the uses of carpentry. You will find strong help in drawing figures according to the lessons taught by the art of geometry.

The phrase “virtues of masonry” is a significant pointer to understanding and discovering other sources Botticelli was inspired by for his composition of the Birth of Venus.

I mentioned in my previous post that Leonardo da Vinci is portrayed as a “fallen angel” in the Sistine Chapel fresco depicting the Testament and Death of Moses. He is shown seated and on trial as a result of an anonymous accusation of sodomy made against him.

Detail from The Testament and Death of Moses, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

A portrayal of Leonardo as a “fallen angel” also appears on the breastplate of a terracotta bust of Giuliano de‘ Medici (right) sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio.

The screaming and fearful countenance is mirrored in another Sistine Chapel fresco – The Trials of Moses – where Botticelli depicted Leonardo as the Egyptian murdered by Moses (Exodus 2 : 12).

Detail from Andrea del Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, showing Leonardo da Vinci,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The winged figure clinging to Leonardo in flight – Fioretta Gorini – connects to both Leonardo and Giuliano in other ways. Her father was a curaiss maker “a piece of armour consisting of a breastplate and backplate fastened together”. She was also reputed to have been the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and given birth to his son a month after his assassination. The boy, named Giulio, later became Pope Clement VII.

Fioretta was also the subject of a marble bust (below) sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio which was possibly the source and inspiration for Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta, mistakingly identified and titled Ginevra de Benci.

Lady with Primroses, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
Ginevra de Benci (Fioretta Gorini?), Leonardo da Vinci, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

So why did Botticelli pair Leonardo and Fioretta, not just in the Birth of Venus but in some of his other paintings as well? Could it have been because the polymath acted as some kind of guardian angel, a protector or shield perhaps, when Fioretta found herself pregnant? Or was there a more intimate reason?

Detail from Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Fioretta is featured as one of the Three Theological Virtues in Botticelli’s Primavera, the pregnant figure with her back to Giuliano de’ Medici in the guise of Mars. Notice the upper half of her diaphanous dress is shaped in the form of a curaiss, while her legs suggest those of a horse with its tail formed by the extended outline of her shift.

Fioretta is also portrayed as Chloris gripped by Zephyrus on the right edge of the Primavera painting. But could the wind God, or winged angel, be another guise for Leonardo as featured in the Birth of Venus?

Detail from Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

• My next post will deal with identifying Botticelli’s source of inspiration for the figure of Venus.

• The original 13th century Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt is housed at gallica.bnf.fr while a facsimile version can be viewed at facsimiliefinder.com

Down by the waterside

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.

Detail from the Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.

That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.

The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes. 

Van Eyck’s pattens refer  to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”

So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.

When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)

That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings. 

The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.

Detail from the Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.

So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano  Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.

An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.

Detail from the Baptism of Christ, 1472-75, Uffizi, Florence

So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.

There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.

As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).

Detail from The Trials of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.

Detail from The Testament and Death of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.