This large tondo-format Nativity scene (without its frame) is four feet in diameter! Titled Adoration of the Christ Child, it is one of many Nativity paintings produced by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. This particular version is dated c.1500 and housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.
“At once narrative and symbolic, this elegant painting by Sandro Botticelli expands the conventional theme of the Adoration of the Christ Child. In the central scene, the gracefully arched bodies of Mary and Joseph echo the contours of the round picture format.
“The Virgin Mary kneels in veneration before the Christ Child, while Joseph sleeps. The infant lies stiffly on Mary’s cloak, parallel to the picture plane and presented to the devout viewer for adoration. Two shepherds at right approach to offer Christ a sacrificial lamb, and the Holy Family’s subsequent Flight into Egypt is depicted in the background at left.
“Botticelli oversaw an active workshop, producing hundreds of paintings—especially devotional images of the Virgin and Child—over the course of his career. Very few of Botticelli’s paintings are signed or dated, and it is often difficult to determine his authorship. Some scholars attribute this work entirely to Botticelli, but it may have been executed in part by his assistants.”
What the museum doesn’t point out is the male figures also represent four artists: Sandro Botticelli as the Christ Child, Andrea del Verrocchio as Joseph, Domenico Ghirlandaio as one of the shepherds carrying the lamb, and Leonardo da Vinci as the other shepherd.
The four artists are also depicted in Verrocchio’s painting, the Baptism of Christ, produced a quarter of a century earlier, around 1475, in which Leonardo is said to have painted one of the angels.
Another painting linked to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Christ Child is Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus (Louvre), dated at 1497, although there are elements in the work to suggest it may not have been completed until 1498.
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.
I recently read in the Washington Post that the famed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, kept at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, will not be crossing the Atlantic as part of the Louvre’s upcoming exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.
However, visitors to the Paris exhibition will be able to view an alternative version of the so-named Ginevra de’ Benci. The same woman sat for an earlier painting by Leonardo – the Madonna and Child with Flowers, otherwise known as the Benois Madonna. It has travelled to Paris from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
In previous posts I presented evidence suggesting the woman identified in the portrait by art historians is not Ginevra de’ Benci but Fioretta Gorini, said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. It is Fioretta and her child Giulio who are portrayed in the Benois Madonna.
The painting is thought to have been started in October 1478. A note in Leonardo’s handwriting and kept in the Uffizi in Florence states (“… 1478 I started painting two Virgin Mary’s). One of these is considered to be the Benois Madonna and the date of October 1478 was around five months after Fioretta gave birth to her son. Another source states that Fioretta was likely to have been only 15 years old at the time Giulio was born. This would explain her notably youthful appearance in the painting.
Fioretta’s child Giulio was eventually taken into care by the family of one of his godparents, Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder). Although the boy was said to be the son of Giuliano de’ Medici, it wasn’t until he had reached the age of seven that Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s brother, brought him into the Medici family to raise him as one of his sons.
Seemingly, soon after her son’s birth, Fioretta gave up her child and entered a religious community. Although there are no written records to suggest this, there are paintings by Leonardo’s contemporaries, notably Sandro Botticelli, that point to Fioretta surrendering her son and joining a religious order. Leonardo also points to this outcome in his two paintings of Fioretta – the Ginevra de’ Benci portrait and the Benois Madonna.
One of the features in the Benois Madonna painting that tempts art historians to suggest the work is unfinished, as some of Leonardo’s other early paintings, is the large vacant window above the Infant’s head. It contains nothing but the sky – no trees, no buildings, no mountains, just the sky and not even any clouds.
Such is its size and prominence that in its fnished or even unfinished state, it is there to make a statement. It contrasts greatly with the room’s dark interior, hardly adding any light to the backdrop. Light from another source appears to fall on the two figures – or does it? Could this light simply be a statement to reflect Christ’s claim as being the “light of the world”?
The window is shaped as a diptych, generally understood as a painting for an altarpiece, made of two-hinged panels that can be opened and closed like a book. In this instance what we see is almost like a blank canvas, but then it can be said that God constantly paints a new canvas – a new sky – day and night.
The diptych can also be understood as the two tablets representing the law handed down from Heaven to Moses on Mount Sinai and written in stone, referred to as the Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments. So both Old and New Testaments (the Christ Child) are symbolised in the painting. As for the absence of any written list of heavenly commandments, Leonardo simply translates the list as an expression of the heavenly “light of God”.
When Moses was born the Pharaoh had decreed that all new-born boys of Hebrew mothers were to be drowned in the Nile. Likewise, Herod issued a similar command after the birth of Jesus, that all boys under the age of two were to be slaughtered. Following the assassination of Giuliano de Medici in Florence Cathedral and the attack on his brother Lorenzo, known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, much bloodletting took place in acts of revenge against the consiprators and anyone considered associates. They were dangerous times, and in the aftermath Pope Sixtus lV placed Florence under interdict and further attempts were made to oust the Medici’s from power. In this light it can be understood why Fioretta’s child was intially placed into the care and protection of the Sangallo family and not the Medici’s, and even why Fioretta, reputed to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and mother of his child, sought sanctuary and protection within the walls of a convent.
After Moses was born his mother kept him hidden for three months. When she could no longer hide him she placed the child inside a papyrus basket coated with bitumen and pitch and laid it among the reeds at the edge of the river Nile. When the Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river to bathe, one of her servant girls noticed the basket and brought it to Pharaoh’s daughter who recognised the infant as a child of one of the Hebrews. The servant girl was the sister of the child and offered to find a nurse among the Hebrew women. She found the child’s mother and Pharaoh’s daughter asked the woman to take the child and suckle it for her. When the child grew up the mother brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son, naming him Moses because, she said “I drew him out of the water”. (Exodus 2 : 1-10)
From this we can see parallels with Fioretta and her son Giulio. She kept him for a while before handing him over to the Sangallo family and then later to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence.
The Moses narrative is usually described as “The Finding of Moses in the Bullrushes”. In Fioretta’s case the parallel is “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple” – her conversion to faith, and choosing to enter religious life..
So apart from the diptych as a reference to the tablets given to Moses, what other features in the painting point to finding the Hebrew prophet? First there is Fioretta’s basket-weave hairstyle, not only a reference to the woven basket which Moses was placed in but also to the Vinci name, which means “to entwine”. The ‘entwinement’ continues into a large knot and then flows down along Fioretta’s shoulder. The ‘flow’ start to take shape behind her ear – poorly drawn and painted, according to some critics, and not by the hand of Leonardo. The shape represents an Egyptian sphinx, crouching and protecting the neck of Fioretta.
The Egyptian sphinx is usually depicted as having the body of a lion and a man’s head. In this instance the feature shows two heads, that of a bull (found among the bullrushes), and of a human shown in the bull’s nose. The flow of hair represents the river Nile, on whose west bank Egypt’s Great Sphinx stands and guards the entrance to Giza.
The Greek version of the sphinx generally has the face of a woman and wings of an eagle. Leonardo has combined the two, Greek and Egyptian. The shoulder reference represents the wing; the flow of hair, the wind. The Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent and the Greek version as cruel and malicious. Both were recognised as temple and tomb guardians.
The Greek sphinx is associated with the legend of “Riddle of the Sphinx” where travellers were allowed passage only if they could answer a riddle posed by the sphinx. If they failed to give the correct answer, they were strangled. One of the riddles was: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters? The answer – day and night – lends itself to Leonardo’s presentation of light and darkness in the Benois Madonna painting. Notice also how close the head of Leonardo’s sphinx is to the woman’s ear. Leonardo, perhaps a riddle in himself, wrote riddles in his notebooks.
The large knot behind Fioretta’s ear represents the sphinx’s riddle – and is a reference to the Gordonian Knot associated with Alexander the Great. It impossible to untie or see how it was fastened until Alexander sliced it through with his sword. This is Leonardo’s clever way of pointing to the assassination of Giulio de Medici and the Pazzi family’s plot, with others, to overthrow the Medici family as rulers of Florence. In the attack Giuliano was stabbed several times and killed by having part of his head sliced. Lorenzo escaped death, receiving only a cut to his neck.
Fioretta’s ear, isn’t badly drawn or painted as some critics have assumed. It depicts a hooded mourner screaming in grief and anguish, possibly Fioretta herself on hearing the news of Giuliano’s murder. A similar motif appears on the terracotta bust of Giuliano made by Andrea del Verrocchio. The gorgon feature shown on the breastplate is a wailing angel with its mouth wide open. The model for the ‘guardian angel’ was Leonardo da Vinci. On the day he was assassinated, Giuliano had chosen not to wear his normal body armour under his clothes.
Leonardo has also included a second subtle ‘scream’ feature, that of Giuliano himself, made from the ‘feathered’ strands of hair hanging over Fioretta’s temple, and so pointing to Giuliano’s murder in the Temple.
These features confirm the painting was started sometime after Giuliano was killed on Aril 26, 1478, and also after the birth of Fioretta’s son a month later, supporting the the note made by Leonardo later that year that the Benois Madonna was likely to be one of the “two Marie’s” he had started to paint.
The Moses references in this painting, along with those of Giuliano de Medici, Fioretta and the sphinx are all mirrored in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli also included references from Leonardo’s unfinished version of the Adoration of the Magi and his version of Jerome in the Wilderness. The latter work is part of the current Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre.
This detail is from a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testimony and Death of Moses. It shows Moses seated and preaching to a group of people, women and children on the left, men on the right. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant. It is strategically placed at the side of two of the women with a babe in arms, one standing the other seated on the ground. They represent the Madonna and Child, a repeated subject of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings.
There are two angels standing behind the seated Madonna. The angel in the forefront, wrapped in prayer beads, is modelled on Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in 1478, some three years before the fresco was completed. Giuliano is portrayed as a guardian angel, keeping watch over the seated Madonna and Child who are modelled on Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio. There are three versions of Fioretta. The second is the figure standing immediately behind the seated woman, also with a child in arms, and the third depiction is the head behind the head of the standing woman.
Let’s take a closer look at the last mentioned. She is closely matched to Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci – aka Fioretta Gorini (right). Her hair is tied with a simple scarf, without decoration. Her eyes are looking to the right. Someone has caught her attention. It is Leonardo (not in the frame), the artist who painted her portrait. The fierce-looking woman on Fioretta’s shoulder is her protectress, a Gorgon feature, with a reputation of turning anyone who looked at her into stone.
The stone refererence is a reminder of the marble sculpture Verrocchio made of Fioretta – Lady with a Bouquet – and his terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici that shows a Gorgon feature on the breastplate depicting Leonardo as an angel. Fioretta’s father was a cuirasser who made protective armour. The breastplates would likely feature a Gorgon symbol.
The Giuliano and Leonardo ‘double-head’ also links to the appearance of a ‘double-head’ on the Fioretta figure in the fresco. This in turn provides another connection to Fioretta’s identity and Leonardo – a drawing made by the artist that is now housed in the British Museum. It depicts the Virgin and Infant Christ holding a cat. The Virgin is portrayed with a ‘double-head’ and it is this feature that the fresco artist has adopted and coalesced with the head of Fioretta in Leonardo’s painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci.
This combination and reference to Leonardo’s drawing also reveals that the woman in the sketch is Fioretta Gorini. The sketch and, more notably, a similar drawing in reverse and on the recto side of the sheet were prelimany drawings for the painting attributed to Leonardo and known as the Benoir Madonna. More on this in a future post.
The double-head feature in the fresco is meant to portray Fioretta at two stages in life, or two paths open to her. One that leads to death, the other to new life. She takes the path of transfiguration or religious conversion. Death, in the guise of the gorgon and representing her lover Giuliano de’ Medici, is at her side, after which she gives birth to her son.
Over her gold-decorated dress she puts on a purple cloak of ‘mourning’ and repentance, turning her head to the ‘Joseph’ figure opposite who is gazing adoringly at Fioretta’s child. In this instance the man is portrayed as Giuliano da Sangallo, brother of Antonio, the man who took charge of Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life. Giuliano is depicted instead of Antonio to link to the name of Giuliano de’ Medici and identify Fioretta’s son who was named Giulio.
The third stage in the transformation of Fioretta’s life shows her seated on the ground (an act of humility), simply dressed and holding her child. Her blue and gold garments are matched in colour to those seen in the Benoir Madonna. Her blue cap with its gold wings is similar to the cap and colours seen on the Moses figure and also in the figure of his successor Joshua shown elsewhere in the painting. The blue cap and gold ‘wings’ represent an anointing by the Holy Spirit.
In my previous post I suggested that Fioretta had joined a religious community of Carmelites. I mentioned also her connection to the Sangallo family and that one of the attributes of Saint Gallo was a bear carrying a piece of wood. Another attribute of the saint is a hermit’s tau staff and in the Sistine Chapel fresco we see Giuliano Sangallo leaning on a such a staff. Its end is placed at the bare feet of Fioretta. This is another pointer to Fioretta’s hermitic life, her removal from the world and discalced status, and also a reference back to Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta that art historians have mistakenly identified as Ginervra de’ Benci.
Fioretta’s ‘three-in-one” transformation connects to the transfiguration of Moses who was seen in a new light by the people when he descended from Mount Sinai after conversing with God. The first figure in the line of men on the right of the fresco is Elijah who, along with Moses, featured in the transfiguration of Jesus when he ascended a mountain in the company of three of his disciples. His face shone like the sun and God the Father’s voice was heard to say: This is my beloved son, with who I am well pleased; listen to him,” repeating the same words he spoke when Jesus was baptised by John in the wilderness. (Mark 1:11, 9:7)
Historians record Giuliano de’ Medici as the father of Fioretta’s son. Following the assassination of Giulio, his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici was informed by Antonio da Sangallo of the child’s birth and that Giuliano was its father. But was he?
So whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth to her child Giulio, said to have been the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici? For the first seven years of his life Giulio was raised by Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) and then brought up in the Medici household. His uncle Lorenzo de Medici became Giulio’s guardian.
It wasn’t until 1513 that Fioretta’s name surfaced again when the newly elected Pope Leo X wanted to make his cousin Giulio a cardinal. Problem for the Church was that Giulio’s illegitimacy stood in the way. This was rectified when apparently Fioretta’s brother, supported by some monks, testified that his sister and Giuliano de’ Medici had married secretly. Giulio’s birth was legitimised and he was made Cardinal on September 23, 1513 when he was 35 years old. Ten years later he became Pope Clement Vll. His birth is given as May 26, 1478, exactly a month after Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination on April 26. If Giulio was aware that Giuliano and Fioretta had married, then why did it take a man in his influential position, or the Medici family, so long to pursue his legitimacy? Or was this claim of marriage simply one of convenience to clear the path for Giulio to join the ranks of the cardinalate?
That it was Fioretta’s brother who was said to have confirmed the marriage, and not his sister, would suggest she was no longer alive at the time. Neither has any record come to light as to when Fioretta died, but presumably it was prior to 1513.
If Fioretta had been married to Giuliano then why would she not declare her marriage and her son to the Medici family? Why was it left to Antonio da Sangallo, the child’s godfaather, to inform Lorenezo de’ Medici of the birth and then to take the boy into his own house for the first seven years of his life? And was there a reason why Fioretta’s own family did not not take charge or support her child?
Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli provide clues in their paintings about Fioretta’s circumstances following Giuliano’s murder and the birth of her son. They both suggest that Fioretta entered cloistered life, which may explain why she was not on hand to raise her child. Leonardo points to the Carmelite Order while Botticelli implies she may even have an become an anchorite, walled into her cell. Was her exile from the world self-imposed, perhaps the result of a religious conversion of epiphany experience, or was pressure applied on Fioretta to ‘disappear’ in this way?
There are two other paintings that point to Fioretta’s circumstances before and after Giuliano’s death. Of its time, around 1481, is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. The other painting is titled Parnassus and was produced by Andrea Mantegna twenty years after the assassination of Giulio de Medici. It is now housed in the Louvre, Paris. Mantegna’s painting combines the references to Fioretta in Leonardo’s portrait known as Ginevra de’ Benci (NGA, Washington) and also those in Botticelli’s Madonna with Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (Barber Institute, Birmingham). The reference to Fioretta in the Sistine Chapel fresco points to her ‘new life’ or ‘transfiguration’.
Leonardo’s Carmelite reference is the bearded head of the prophet Elijah placed among the juniper and above Fioretta’s right shoulder. Carmelites follow an ideal of life as witnessed and experienced by Elijah. Already mentioned in a previous post is the juniper was the tree that Elijah sat under in the wilderness, when he wished he was dead and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).
The water feature at Fioretta’s left shoulder represents ‘Elisha’s Spring’. Elisha was the ‘adopted’ son of Elijah. At the time the prophet was taken up into heaven, Elisha requested and received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Soon afterward Elisha performed his first miracle by purifying Jericho’s water supply which was considered the cause of many miscarriages. The ‘adopted son of Elijah’ can be understood as Fioretta’s son Giulio being first ‘adopted’ by his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), a notable Florentine woodworker (and later an architect), and so another identity Leonardo has applied to the ‘head’ in the trees – placed at the shoulder in support of Fioretta, as he would have been when the child was baptised. It was near to Jericho that John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. Notice also the young, golden tree that rises from the waterside and merges with the juniper – symbolic of a tree of life and the safe delivery of Fioretta’s son Giulio.
Further confirmation that the shape above the Fioretta’s right shoulder is a pointer to Antonio da Sangallo is the the name Sangallo, Italian for Saint Gaul. One of the saint’s artistic attributes is a bear bringing him piece of wood, as seen below in the right hand image. The image on the left represents an ‘upright’ bear carrying a forked branch. Leonardo points to this using a triangular ‘pyramid’ – symbolic of Giuliano’s recent death. The branch is shaped as the letter Y or the Greek upsilon. Its symbolism did not go unnoticed by Pythagorus and the Roman writer Persius commented: “…the letter which spreads out into Pythagorean branches has pointed out to you the steep path which rises on the right.” Isidore of Seville later wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.” Leonardo has depicted Fioretta as taking the narrow, arduous path.
The scapular, though black and not brown, is symbolic of the one presented by the Virgin Mary in the 13th century to Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelite Order, with the promise of salvation for those who wear it. The scapular formed part of the brown habit worn by Carmelites and also became a symbol of consecration to Our Lady of Carmel. That Fioretta’s scapular is black and not brown is because she is in mourning for Giuliano de’ Medici.
There is one more reference in Leonardo’s painting that links to Elijah and the ‘new life’ of Fioretta after Giuliano de’ Medici was slaughtered and stabbed 19 times by assassins during Mass in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria Fiore. It relates to the time Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a fire for their animal sacrifice (1 Kings 18:20-40). Despite their prayers, their chants and dancing around the altar, the wood on which the bull was laid did not catch fire. Even when the priests gashed themselves with swords and knives, as was their custom, and the blood flowed down them, their god remained silent and the fire unlit. The bloodletting and slaughter is the reference Leonardo has used to link his painting to the slaughter and stabbings in the Duomo.
Then Elijah prepared another altar and “took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yaweh had come.” The reference to stone and the word of the Lord is Leonardo’s pointer to the stone appearance of Fioretta and Verrocchio’s marble sculpture which he may have used to base his portrait on, while “to whom the word of Yaweh had come” is applied to Fioretta’s religious conversion and decision to join the Carmelite Order.
Elijah doused his sacrifice in water (mixed with the blood of the bull) and then called on God to win back the hearts of the people. “Then the fire of Yaweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When the people saw this they fell on their faces. ‘Yaweh is God’ they cried ‘Yaweh is God’.” (1 Kings 18:38-39). It was at this moment during the Mass in the Duomo, following the Eucharistic prayer offered by the priest, and when the consecrated Host was raised and heads bowed, that was the signal for the attack on the Medici brothers.
• My next post deals with the reference to Fioretta as she appears in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes… More on Fioretta Gorini
The portrait below is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and said to have been painted sometime between 1474 and 1478. Art historians consider the sitter to be Ginevra de’ Benci, the daughter of a Florentine banker and admired for her intellect and beauty. However, there is evidence to suggest the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, mother to the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral on April 26, 1478. As to when Fioretti gave birth to her child, there are two versions: he was born a month after his father’s death, or a year before Giuliano was killed.
The black scapular worn by Fioretta – a symbol of mourning – would suggest the painting was completed after Giuliano’s assassination. Neither is she wearing any jewellery. This is the same woman portrayed by Botticelli in his painting The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist; the same woman Leonardo depicted as the Mother of Jesus in his unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi; the same woman sculpted in marble by Leonardo’s master Andrea del Verrocchio –Lady with a Bouquet. (Could it be that Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta was based on Verrocchio’s sculpture and not from life?)
Some time after completion, for whatever reason, the Leonardo painting of Fioretta / Ginevra was shortened at its base, and if the painting was copied from Verrocchio’s sculpture then the arms, hands and bouquet disappeared with the reduction in size.
The painting is now housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The gallery’s website explains that “The reverse side of Ginevra de’ Benci depicts a wreath of laurel and palm encircling a sprig of juniper with a scroll bearing the Latin motto “Beauty Adorns Virtue.” Infrared reflectography revealed beneath the surface another motto – “Virtue and honor” – that of Bernardo Bembo.”
It is this link to Bembo, together with the painting’s juniper tree backdrop, which art historians present as main evidence for the woman being Ginevra de’ Benci. However, there is another interpretation that can be applied to these two features and one which Botticelli has incorporated within his painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist, the version housed at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.
Let’s start with the motif that appears on the reverse side of the NGA painting Ginevra de’ Benci. It’s incomplete because of the reduction made to the size of the panel, but there is enough of the emblem remaining to be able to make a judgement. The branches are laurel, palm and juniper. The laurel and palm entwine to encircle the smaller juniper branch. The emblem as a whole symbolizes protection. The two Medici brothers Lorenzo (laurel) and the assassinated Giuliano (martyr’s palm) are the covering branches, while the juniper represents the woman in the portrait, Fioretta Gorini, presumed to have been the mistress of Giuliano and mother of his son Giulio.
Very little is known about Fioretta. Possibly a courtesan, she was the daughter of Antonio Gorini, a cuirass maker. A cuirass is a piece of armour consisting of breastplate and backplate fastened together, and it is this protective reference that Leonardo has taken for his motif on the back of the portrait painting, fastening together two sections or two branches to protect the juniper sprig. The sprig is also a metaphor for the child in Fioretta’s womb. As to the original motto Virtus et Honor (Virtue and Honour), the laurel and the palm represent virtue while the juniper represents honour.
The juniper tree as a symbol of protection also has a biblical connection. It was the fearful Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, who sheltered under a juniper (furze) bush in the wilderness, wishing he was dead. After falling asleep he was woken by an angel who then ministered to him. There is also the legend of the Holy Family fleeing with their donkey from the wrath of Herod seeking to slaughter all the new-born boys. The family and the donkey hid under the boughs of a large juniper tree, completely out of sight of the soldiers in pursuit.
So if the woman is not Ginevra de’ Benci then why would Leonardo want to place Fioretta under the protection of a prominent juniper tree? The connection goes back to Elijah and the time an angel of God came to minister and encourage him to continue his journey to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:1-8). The “thin space”, the gap between the juniper trees above Fioretta’s right shoulder represents the head of Elijah, the prophet who was to return to earth before the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Jesus claimed went unrecognised in the guise of John the Baptist (Matt 11:14), the prophet Botticelli sometimes portrays in his paintings as Leonardo da Vinci. Juniper was also used as a deterrent against evil and hung over doorways. However, its berries signified honour or the birth of a boy.
Very little is known about Fioretta as the daughter of a cuirass maker. There is no doubt she gave birth to a child. The boy was taken care of for the first seven years of his life in the house of his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), and then afterwards Lorenzo de’ Medici became his guardian.
The mention of Fioretta being the daughter of a manufacturer of armour also links Leonardo and Giuliano de’ Medici to the terracotta bust made by Andrea del Verrocchio. Whie the bust is of Giuliano, the ‘gorgon’ feature on the breastplate is of a screaming, winged Leonardo da Vinci, and perhaps a reference to his attempt at flight, or even as a protector or guardian angel.
So where was Fioretta, the child’s mother, in all of this? There is no record of her raising the boy. Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta provides some clues, Botticelli’s painting even more. I shall present these in my next post: Whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini?
In my previous post I mentioned that the Infant Baptist figure in the Botticelli painting displayed in the Barber Institute is also a representation of Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli refers to Leonardo in this guise in several of his paintings. He was not the first to do so. The connection stems from the Baptism of Christ painting attributed to Andrea Verocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in as well, painting one on the angels (himself). The other angel gazing in admiration is Sandro Botticelli. The Christ figure is Verocchio who has portrayed Leonardo as John the Baptist.
Notice the the similarity in the Baptist’s stance, the placement of feet and the raised right arm above the head of Christ, compared with the infant Baptist in the Botticelli painting. It’s tempting to say that the Christ child could even be Botticelli – but it’s not. Compare also the similar placing of the Madonna’s feet with those of the baptised Christ, and with Leonardo’s under-drawing of the Virgin’s ‘pointy’ toes in his abandoned painting of the Adoration of the Magi.
Another pointer to Leonardo is the shape of the red cloak draped over the Baptist’s clothes made of camel hair. This relates to Leonardo’s first memory as a child in his cradle. In later years, while making notes about the flight pattern of birds and the fork-tailed red kite (milvus vulgaris), he wrote: “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 in Leonardo’s life.
The fork-tailed red cape also relates to another type of kite – one that Leonardo constructed in his quest to fly. Although there is no written evidence that Leonardo ever did get off the ground in this way, Botticelli included a similar reference in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. In making the attempt Leonardo may have possibly sustained a permanent injury to his right shoulder. This could explain his preference for writing and painting with his left hand, despite recent claims by researchers that he was ambidextrous.
• My next post will deal with some of the features from Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci which Botticelli has cleverly adapted to conceptualise his painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist.
There’s a new book by art historian Simon Hewitt due out in October – Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom. The publisher’s blurb on Amazon describes the work as “an in-depth investigation into the art, politics and muderous cynicism of Renaissance Milan and an academic detective story sketched out with erudition and journalistic panache.”
A more sensational approach was adopted by the publisher when informing various media channels. Hence the similar headlines that appeared with the story this week:
“Italians laughed at Leonardo da Vinci, the ginger genius” “Master’s Misery: Leonardo da Vinci was bullied for being ginger and gay… ” “Artists Leonardo da Vinci was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan” “Fellow artists mocked Leonardo da Vinci for his red hair and sexual leanings”
Here’s part of the report behind the headline published by The Guardian:
Far from being admired as an extraordinary genius, Leonardo da Vinci was repeatedly lampooned and teased about his unusual red hair and his unconventional sexuality by other leading artists of his day. Although the work of the great Italian was popular in his time, an extensive new study of the artist to be published this week has outlined evidence that he was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan.
Author Simon Hewitt has unearthed a little-studied image held in Germany, a “comic strip” design made in 1495 to illustrate a poem, that showed how Leonardo was once ridiculed. In one of its colourful images, An Allegory of Justice, a ginger-haired clerk, or court lawyer, is shown seated at a desk, mesmerised by other young men, and represents Leonardo da Vinci. “The identity of Leonardo as the red-headed scribe is totally new,” Hewitt told the Observer ahead of the publication of Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom.
The key passage in Hewitt’s book identifies the painter through a series of clues in the precious illustration. He is shown as a “left-handed clerk … with a wooden lyre at his feet: evidently a caricature of Leonardo da Vinci”. The lyre was Leonardo’s instrument and his father, Ser Piero, who is depicted resting his right arm on his shoulder, “is brandishing a sheet of paper that surely represents the anonymous document denouncing Leonardo for sodomy, deposited in a Florence tamburo in April 1476”.
Close study of the illuminated manuscript copy of Gaspare Visconti’s epic poem Paolo e Daria, revealed to Hewitt that Leonardo da Vinci is also likely to be the object of ridicule because of the absent-minded way he is shown to be drawing on the tablecloth, rather than on his sketch notebooks, and by his apparent fascination with a half-naked young man who is clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”.
“Further evidence of Leonardo’s identity, and homosexual leanings, is provided by the group of eight strapping figures alongside,” argues Hewitt, who has conducted five years of research into Leonardo and his circle in search of the truth about a controversial portrait, La Bella Principessa…”
This is the illustration Simon Hewitt refers to that appears in Gaspare Visconti’s Romanazo e Diana.
I don’t have a problem with Leonardo being identified as the seated figure with his father Piero standing behind him. It’s a good spot by Hewitt. So also the left hand, but is the claim that Leonardo had ginger hair really valid? Compare the colour of his hair with the colour of the hair on the figures on the right. Haven’t they all got ‘ginger’ hair? If so, why has Hewitt placed the emphasis on Leonardo? There are depictions of Leonardo by other artists of his time which would dispute Hewitt’s claim.
But let’s assent to Hewitt’s opinion on the ginger hair and instead consider if there was a sound reason why the illustrator not only portrayed Leonardo with ginger hair – it may even be classed as ‘red’ or even ‘golden’ – but also the group of figures on the right of the frame.
For sure this is a painting mostly about Leonardo da Vinci. Hewitt states that it points to Leonardo’s sexuality and the time he was charged with sodomy before he left Florence to work for Ludovicp Sforza, duke of Milan, seen sitting in judgement and conversing with Piero, Leonardo’s father, who was a notary by profession. Hewitt also points out the note in Piero’s right hand, suggesting it is the unsigned report posted to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo and others of sodomy. Yes, it is, and it isn’t. Leonardo was brought to court in Florence, not Milan, but the artist Birago is resurrecting this incident to confirm Leonardo’s identity in the picture.
Hewitt also points out another identifier to Leonardo, the broken lyre on the floor in front of the desk. Leonardo was a notable musician. He even presented a silver lyre in the shape of a horse-head as a gift to the duke when he arrived in Milan. So could the broken lyre be a metaphor for Leonardo’s brokenness – not referring to his sexuality – but to a damaged shoulder, the one on which his father’s right hand rests, as an outward sign of confirmation that not only is Leonardo his son in whom he is well pleased with, but also that the injury would be a cross to bear in life. It may also explain Leonardo’s tendency to write with his left hand. Whether this injury occured early in his life, it cannot be certain, but there are specific references to Leonardo’s shoulder in paintings by his contemporaries.
It is said that Leonardo once built a flying machine and launched himself into flight from the side of a hill. Again, paintings that depict Leonardo suggest the injury occured before he moved to Milan. Could it have been the result of his attempt at flying, a dislocated shoulder or a broken collar-bone,perhaps, as a result of a bumpy and uncontrolled landing?
Simon Hewitt also makes a point in his published comments that Leonardo is apparently fascinated with a half-naked young man who is apparently clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”. In reality the ‘contraption’ is the broken neck and strings of the lyre. It also serves to represent the flying machine Leonardo is said to have taken into the air, now broken in two after crash-landing. Notice the bird shape wings and its long neck – a reference to one of Leonardo’s paintings, Leda and the Swan. Notice also the shape of the split between the two pieces –another pointer to the Leda painting and the broken eggs. But can egg shells ever be repaired and put back together in one piece? Seemingly not by human hands. Just look at the fit between the two halves of the instrument. They don’t match. Divine intervention is required.
And so the illustrator takes us a step towards identifying the “half-naked” young man who Leonardo can’t take his eyes off. He does this by placing a ghostly “Manylion” feature or face of Christ as depicted on what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. It appears just under the neck of the lyre on the thigh of the man in the blue “shroud”.
The figure represents Jesus Christ, – a leader not a Leda – and points to the painting by Andrea Verocchio and which Leonardo had a hand in – The Baptism of Christ. In this work Leonardo is depicted in a blue gown, kneeling and looking up at Jesus being baptised by John. And this explains why the illustrator has depicted Leonardo seated at his desk looking up at the ‘half-naked’ man. In the Baptism painting, Jesus is shown ‘half-naked”. The model for Jesus (the head, certainly) is Andrea del Verocchio, Leonardo’s tutor and master during his apprenticeship in Florence – an adopted father, after his family sent him to train as an artist in Verocchio’s studio where he remained until he moved to MIlan. See the similarity in the two portraits representing Jesus; the plumpness in the face and the heavy eyes and there is even a suggestion of a light beard in both. See also the highlighted right collar bone and another pointer to Leonardo’s injury.
So now we have three ‘father figures’ in the miniature that Leonardo could relate to: his natural father, Piero, standing in support behind him; Ludovico Sforza, who took Leonardo under his wing in MIlan; and Andrea del Verocchio during his training period in Florence.
As to repairing the broken instrument, Leonardo would have been famliar with Scripture and the words of Jesus – “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And who is the red-haired woman standing next to Jesus? Could it be the woman caught in adultery by the scribes and the Pharisees. They wanted to stone her as the law of Moses provided for, but Jesus responded by writing on the ground with his finger and saying, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8: 7). Observe also the ‘hook’ feature that represents the swan’s head, yet another scripture reference to include both Leonardo and the adulterous woman. It refers to the period shortly after the baptism of Jesus and when he dealt with temptation in the wilderness. On his return to Galilee Jesus saw the brothers Simon and Andrew casting their net in the lake and called out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4: 19).
So this brings the analysis back to Leonardo sitting at the table – scribing, so to speak. Hewitt points out that Leonardo is so distracted by the “half-naked” man that he is absent-mindely drawing on the tablecloth. But this is the illustrator’s method of pointing to Jesus seemingly not paying attention to the scribes and Pharisees by writing on the ground with his finger. It’s also a reference to the Mosaic Law and Moses writing on tablets or tables. Leonardo was considered a ‘Moses’ figure by some, recording the laws of nature in his notebooks and perhaps even for covering up his “crime” as the prophet did when he killed an Egyptian guard and buried him in the sand.
There is other iconography which points to Leonardo, perhaps even issuing a warning to others and recalling the wooden horse of Troy and its associated adage: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Leonardo had writen and informed Ludovico Sforza that he wanted to produce a horse sculpture as a monument to the duke’s father Francesco Sforza. For reasons I won’t go into here it was started but never completed. The table at which Leonardo sits represents the wooden horse and a likely reference to the scaffolding used to construct the initial clay model. It’s head is formed by the upper part of the wooden lyre. The blue cloth serves as a cover for the work in progress. Beneath the table there is an anomaly. Leonardo is depicted with only one leg, a direct reference by the illustrator to Leonardo’s masculinity hidden under the table or inside the horse.
A less obvious narrative in this miniature again points to Leonardo and one of his paintings. Two notebooks are placed on the table both with pronounced markings, spots, in fact. They refer to the phrase that “a LEOpard never changes its spots”, meaning that Leonardo’s sexuality is as it is, but more importantly they connect to the lyre and represent musical notation by the notary’s son Leonardo and the painting attributed to him: Portrait of a Musician. In the painting the musician is seen holding in his right hand a piece of paper with musical notation written on it; the piece of paper that Piero is passing into Leonardo’s right hand, or perhaps taking from it – not just a piece of paper, but also a piece of music. See how the illustrator has matched the ‘ginger’ and curled-fringe look of Leonardo’s hair with that of the Musician. Could it be that the Musician is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? Why else would the illustrator draw attention to the painting in this way? Perhaps also the golden-haired figures grouped at the side of Jesus represent a heavenly choir of angels conducted by Leonardo with a small baton doubling up as a writing tool in his left hand. Leonardo liked his angels.
At this stage it is worth pointing out that the illustration was likely inspired by another source that depicts Leonardo in similar circumstances, where he is accompanied by his father and judgement is passed. It’s one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, and part of a series that illustrates the lives of Moses and Jesus. The particular fresco is titled the Testimony and Death of Moses, part of which shows the prophet passing on the baton to Joshua. The kneeling Joshua is in fact Leonardo sa Vinci. His father Piero, the notary defined by his scrolled hat, stands behind his son, his right hand pointing to Leonardo’s ‘winged’ shoulder. More about this here.
Seated on the judgement seat is Lady Justice with scales and sword. She wears no blindfold, so her impartiality is questionable. The scales of justice are broken as one of the pans is missing. Justice, it seems, will not be applied evenly. Does she favour Leonardo, or not? In his book, Hewitt identifies the woman as Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza. Ludovico, sceptre in hand is the man in the middle, the fulcrum. In his hands is the balance of power – justice according to the duke’s measure. As to the armoured lady, I can’t be certain. She sits alongside Ludovico and therefore possibly his wife Beatrice d’Este who died in childbirth at the age of 21. On the other hand it could be speculated that she represents Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza, heavily disguised in dark armour. Like Beatrice she also died young – just three months earlier when she was only 14 – but in mysterious circumstances. Her peacock-head helmet could be considered symbolic of her resurrection. If it is Beatrice, then she’s there for a reason that connects to Leonardo, possibly because he knew the cause of her death. He hinted at it in the portrait he made of Beatrice which came to light in recent years and was titled La Bella Princepessa by the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp.
As for who Lady Justice might be, try Lucrezia Tornbuoni, mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence at the time of Leonardo’s arrest along with three other men on a charge of sodomy. One of them was named Leonardo Tornabuoni.
Guasparre dal Lama is said to gave commissioned the Adoration of the Magi painting by Sandro Botticelli, the version now housed in the Uffizi, Florence. The altarpiece was intended for the patron’s funerary chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella.
Art historians generally single out Guasparre dal Lama as the grey-haired figure in blue, placed among the group of men on the right side of the painting, probably because the index figure of his right hand appears to be pointing to himself, and because he is looking at the viewer. The latter feature is often understood as an indication of patronage.
Ronald Lightbrown (Botticelli: Life and Work) goes with the general opinion that the grey-haired man in blue is Dal Lama, but states that he pointing to the man on his left and not to himself. So why would Dal Lama point to this man, partly concealed by other figures? And why would Botticelli keep him “under wraps” in this way and at the same time portray the person in a vivid amber gown that stands out like a beacon in the lineup? Guasparre is a version of the name Caspar, one the three Magi, and is associated with bringing the gift of myrrh to the nativity scene. The amber colour of Guasparre’s garment represents myrrh. Tradition also associates Caspar in the role of a treasurer, a trusted keeper of riches. Of the three gifts laid before the Infant Jesus, gold represents the child’s regal status, frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his humanity.
In a previous post I proposed that the grey-haired man in blue was the artist and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, and the man he is pointing to in the amber gown, Gausparre dal Lama. The two men are also paired in one of the Sistine Chapel frescos (Temptation of Christ) painted by Botticelli before he returned to Florence to complete the altarpiece commissioned by Dal Lama who had died the previous year in April 1481.
Guasparre dal Lama was a licensed exchange broker, successful up to a point in time – January 1476 – when he was charged and found guilty of falsifying an account of one of his business transactions some years earlier. He was fined and expelled from the guild of bankers and money-changers. Overnight he became a man not to be trusted in financial affairs – a ‘leper’ to be avoided and shunned.
It is interesting to note that Botticelli has depicted the man standing on his left as having turned away or turned his back on Dal Lama. Notice also the two stump-like fingers on Dal Lama’s ‘leprous’ hand, pointing towards Verrocchio. This is reminiscent of Verrocchio’s hand sign in the Sisitine Chapel fresco. Does this suggest that Verrocchio may have had a role in the completition of the Adoration of the Magi altarpiece after Dal Lama’s death, perhaps even paying Botticelli for the work?
That Dal Lama features in the Temptation of Christ fresco also points to a similar theme in this section of the Adoration painting, the temptation Dal Lama succumbed to in falsifying his accounts, and the passages about virtue and temptation presented in Matthew’s Gospel (5 : 20-48). Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth and offering the other cheek are all referenced in the three figures to the left of the painting’s patron. Just as Christ in his humanity was not beyond the reach of temptation, so also were Guasparre and those portrayed alongside him.
It is said that Guasparre dal Lama wanted to be portrayed as a man of influence and connections, especially to the Medici family. In reality he wasn’t on that level in Florentine society, but it explains why the Medici members figure prominently in the Botticelli painting. Botticelli was an artist of great insight and even humour, a commentator and observer of the society he lived in, subtle and clever in the way he would imbed subtext into his paintings which could be understood by some of his contemporaries, especially by other artists.
One particular example of how Botticelli has linked Dal Lama to the Medici family is the contrast in focus on the new-born Saviour shown by Dal Lama and Giuliano de’ Medici seen in the corner of the opposite side of the painting. Guasparre’s head is turned towards the Infant. Giuliano’s head is not. His eyes are cast downwards. Both men were dead when the painting was completed. A month after Giuliano’s murder, Fioretta Gironi gave birth to his child Giulio. Shortly after the death of Guasparre his second wife gave birth to his only child, a daughter named Francesca. Guasparre had changed his will with the news of his wife’s pregnancy to provide for the child. Seemingly Giuliano did not provide for his illegitimate son who later went on to become Pope Clement VII. Giulio was placed in the care of his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) for the first seven years of his life until Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s brother brought him into the Medici family.
For the Medici the blood line took importance above any other consideration. This is why Botticelli has shown Cosimo Medici staring down at the feet of the Infant Jesus (aka Giulio de’ Medici). He is checking if the child is truly a blood descendant of the Medici, especially of Cosimo himself who suffered, as did his close descendants, with severe forms of rheumatoid arthritis. From this we can see the connection Botticelli has made to Dal Lama’s leprous hand.
There is another hereditary connection Botticelli makes and that is the figure of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. The man portrayed as Joseph is Giulio’s godfather mentioned earlier, Antonio da Sangallo. He started out as a carpenter and sculptor before developing as an architect and building fortifications. Some of his carving work still survives, most notably the large crucifix he created with his brother Giuliano in 1481. It was recently restored and is housed at the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in Florence. The Sangallo family were prolific carvers of crucifixes.
This detail shows the nailed feet of the crucified Christ and the displaced large toe of the left foot seemingly caused by the nail driven through the feet. This can be likened to the pain and joint displacement of the big toe caused by gout. Extant crucifixes made later by the Sangallo family also show this feature.
The Sangallo crucifix connection also shows up in the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testimony and Death of Moses, confirming the Sangallo reference in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and that the young woman representing the Virgin Mary is Fioretta Gorini, the same woman that art historians refer to as Ginevra de Benci as the sitter for one of the earliest portraits painted by Leonardo.
This terracotta head of a young man is known as “Christo fanciulllo”. It came to light in 1931 after it was discovered in a convent at Ascoi Piceno. As to the sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci is considered a candidate. His name is linked to a claim made in 1584 by the Italian artist Gian Paolo Lomazzo who wrote: “I have also a little terracotta head of Christ when he was a boy, sculpted by Leonardo Vinci’s own hand…”
However, there is an earlier reference which also links to the terracotta Christo fanciullo(Christ as a young man). It appears in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes. Although its current attribution is c1470, the painting has references which date the work to a later period, probably to sometime in 1482, the year that Van der Goes is said to have died.
The main panel of the Monforte Altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Like Bottcelli’s Uffizi version it has underlying narratives and picks up on Botticelli’s references to Leonardo, his pointers to other artists and the assasination of Giuliano de’ Medici. Hugo is depicted in the Botticelli altarpiece and returns the compliment by featuring Botticelli in the Monforte painting.
The head sculpted by Leonardo or even of the artist as a young man, can be matched with the kneeling figure, whose left hand supports a golden chalice.
The Van der Goes painting is another work that assigns multiple identities to most of the figures. Hugo’s influence for this was likely Jan van Eyck who did the same – four for each figure – in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
At surface level the golden-haired figure is presented as a servant to the second magus in the group. At another level he represents Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria, and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A third identity is Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.
A fourth identity is Leonardo da Vinci, and in his role as an artist, he is positioned receiving a golden chalice from the dying Hugo van der Goes, symbolising a rite of passage. This can be interpreted in more than one way. The most obvious is Leonardo leaving Florence to start a new chapter in his life and career at the Milanese court. Next to the kneeling Leonardo is the figure of Ludovic Sforza, Regent of Milan, known as Il Moro – the Moor – because of his dark complexion, and who Leonardo served as court artist from 1482 until 1499.
The figure also represents St Augustine of Hippo, one of the four Doctors of the Church depicted in the painting. A third identity for this figure is Michael Szilágyi, uncle and guardian (regent of Hungary) to the young king Matthias. The regency role is matched to the identity of Ludovic Sforza, uncle and guardian to the young duke of Milan, the boy holding the sceptre and portrayed at suface level as a servant to the third magus. When the figure is identified as St Augustine, then the boy is recognised as his son Adeodatus who died in adolesence.
The rite of passage theme also connects to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adorationof the Magi and to one of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel which shows Moses commissioning Joshua to lead the Isralites. The Testimony and Death of Moses was the last fresco completed in the series depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus. It was probably finished in 1483 and is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomea Gatta.
Joshua, the man shown kneeling in front of the ageing Moses, is represented by Leonardo da Vinci. The man standing immediately behind him is presented as his father Piero da Vinci, while Moses is represented by Leonardo’s grandfather and guardian, Antonio da Vinci.
Van der Goes repeats a similar motif in his painting, the bearded magus handing down the chalice to the young man kneeling alongside. While there is far more depth of meaning and significance in this motif and the composition of figures, the purpose of this presentation is to link Leonardo to the painting and back to the terracotta head.
Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration also shows a similar hand-over composition where Leonardo is depicted stooping with his right hand over the left hand of the man wearing a black coat, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s assassinated brother Giuliano. Notice also the handing over of the chalice to Lorenzo wearing the white gown by his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.
So now we have three paintings with symbolism representing a rite of passage, a passing over, of life to death to new life, that includes Leonardo da Vinci.
Christ as a Young Man came of age around the time he was twelve years old. Luke’s Gospel mentions “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom.” For Maximillian I the rite of passage at a young age was at 18 when he married Mary of Burgundy. Matthias Corvinius was just 14 when elected king of Hungary. Leonardo was also 14 years old when his family moved to Florence and he was placed as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio.
So in age representation the head of “Christ as a Young Man” can be applied to all three identities. Van der Goes, it appears, had sight of the terracotta head, made a drawing or drawings of it, and included it in his painting to link Leonardo to the Botticelli and Signorelli/Gatta fresco. This would also suggest that Hugo van der Goes had sight of the relevant artworks both in Florence and Rome.
Professor Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo wrote:
“Of the exant sculptures assigned to him [Leonardo] on grounds of style, none has decisively entered the accepted canon. Given the unlikelihood of any existing sculpture ever proving to be incontestably by Leonardo on the grounds of documentation and cast-iron provenance, any attribution must necessarily rest on less secure foundation of comparisons with his works in other media and with related sculpture of masters with whom he was closely associated, especially Verrocchio and Rustici.”
(‘Cristo Fanciullo’, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, IV, 1991, PP. 171-6)
Included in professor Kemp’s paper is a profile image (right) of the sculpture. The copy I have doesn’t show much detail but it is the profile itself that is of interest. When flipped, rotated and simply superimposed over the profile in the Van der Goes painting, the fit is an impressive match. Couple this with the deliberate references and connections Van der Goes has made to Leonardo in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and the Sistine Chapel fresco, it would be reasonable to suggest that the “Christos fanciullo” head is the model for Hugo van der Goes adopted for the head of the kneeling servant in the Monforte Altarpiece.
In my previous post I proposed that the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio was the person who sent the anonymous letter to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo da Vinci and three other men of sodomy.
I mentioned five paintings in which this event is alluded to, three by Botticelli, one by Andrea Mantegana and another by Verrocchio with the help of Leonardo himself.
I can now point to another work that makes mention of the incident – a confession of a kind – by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It’s one in a series of frescos he and his workshop produced for the Tournabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella on the lives of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, patron saints of Florence.
The particular fresco is the Baptism of Christ, and it is not without coincidence that several of its features are adopted from a similar work painted by Andrea del Verrocchio, assisted by Leonardo.
Leonardo also shows up in the Tournabuoni version. He is placed at the extreme left of the fresco, wearing a green gown and amber hat. His right hand is pointing to the dominant figure standing in front of him waiting to be baptised and whose nakedness symbolises his sin. He is no longer in hiding, although an angel’s wing – a gold leaf – covers his modesty.
He is Domenico Ghirlandaio.
In Verrochio’s version Ghirlandaio is the model for John the Baptist. It is not without reason why the angel painted by Leonardo and representing himself has his eyes fixed on the Baptist figure, “staring hard at him” and not at Christ, with a questioning look that asks “Are you the one…?” One of his own, a painter, a ‘Hebrew’, echoing the fable of the eagle wounded by an arrow vaned with its own feathers, and a reference to Leonardo’s shoulder injury. The shoulder injury is depicted in Leonardo’s angel and Ghirlandaio’s fresco.
In the Verrocchio painting, Leonardo’s angel’s right arm, his wing, is feathered and dark. He carries the cloth that will cover Christ, shaped as a wing but also meant to represent a shroud that will eventually wrap around the body of Christ. The garment turns to gold and forms a sling around Leonardo’s shoulder to support and partially cover his injury wound – a red, wing-shaped arrow to suggest a damaged shoulder blade or “winged scapular”.
The damaged right shoulder shows up on Ghirlandaio. Note the dark bruising and the emphasis on the shoulder blade. Leonardo confirms the problem by pointing to Ghirlandaio’s other shoulder. More likely he is presenting a prognosis of the injury, or disorder, to the bearded man alongside. His pointed hat is modelled on the hat worn by Lorenzo de’ Medici in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Magi = Medici = medical doctors.
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448–1494) was an Italian Renaissance painter born in Florence. He was four years older than Leonardo da Vinci who in 1476 was arrested and brought to the Florentine court on a charge of sodomy after an anonymous denunciation was lodged at the Palazzo della Signoria, the city’s town hall, on April 9, 1476.
Leonardo was accused with four others but because the report had been made secretly and wasn’t signed, the charges against all the men were dropped. A similar accusation was lodged two months later but again dismissed.
Although the letter condeming Leonardo and the other men was left unsigned, it’s unlikely the author was unknown at the time. Gossip and speculation would surely have followed Leonardo’s arrest and potential suspects and motives considered.
One man who did know whose hand wrote the letter to the authorities was Sandro Botticelli. He identified the person in at least three of his works and may even have been party to the posting. The first was the portrayal of the two fighting Hebrews in the Sistine Chapel fresco depicting the Trials of Moses (1482). Next was the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi completed in 1482 after Botticelli had returned to Florence following his stint at the Vatican. The third reference shows up in The Calumny of Apelles (1494-95) after Ghirlandaio had died of pestitential fever in January 1494 at the early age of 44.
Ghirlandaio is also included in the frame of suspects by Andrea Mantegna in his version of Parnassus (1497-98).
Finally, Leonardo himself points to his ‘outing’ in Andrea del Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ, in which he painted one of the ‘grounded’ angels. This would place the painting’s completion after the charge made against Leonardo was dropped in June 1476.
I watched a BBC documentary yesterday – Da Vinci: The Lost Treasure. It was presented by Fiona Bruce. A brief section of the programme focused on the painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci, an early portrait painted by Leonardo between 1474 and 1478.
Commenting on the painting kept in Washington’s National Gallery of Art, Bruce said: “I must say, I don’t warm to this young lady. She looks decidedly frosty. So why was she so admired?”
Luke Syson, a curator working at the time for London’s National Gallery, responded: “The portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci is curiously unlovable. She really stares at us with a quite chilly, menacing gaze. I think what Leonardo was trying to do was to make her very remotely beautiful, was to raise her beauty above a kind of ordinary human level to something that was poetic and almost other-worldly.”
Then Syson, who has since become a director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, added a very interesting observation: “I think she comes over as if she is carved from marble, rather than like a living, breathing human being…”
It has long been thought that Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci is the same woman portrayed in Andrea del Verrocchio’s marble bust, known as the Lady with a Bouquet, now housed in Florence’s Bargello Museum. What may not have been considered is that Leonardo’s painting is based on Verrocchio’s sculpture “carved from marble, rather than a living, breathing human being.”
There is also another version of of the marble bust, except that it is made of plaster with a stucco surface. Known as The Lady with the Primroses, it is attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop and displayed at the Met Museum in Washington. There is also a marble bust attributed to Leonardo in The Frick Collection museum located in Manhattan. This is also said to resemble the sitter in the Ginevra de’ Benci painting.
But is the portrait really that of Ginevra de’ Benci? Some historians have suggested that the woman is Fioretta Gorini, mistress of Giuliiano de’ Medici and mother of his son Giulio who later became Pope Clement VII.
My preference is for Fioretta (meaning ‘little flower’), and I’ll explain why in a future post.
Andrea del Verroccio is probably better known for his work as a sculptor than a painter. Even the two principal figures in his Baptism of Christ painting appear rigid as if placed on pedestals. Both Christ and John the Baptist are shown standing on the bedrock of the shallow river Jordan with their feet submerged in water. The weight of each man is placed on his right leg and balanced by the left. The feet are the ‘footings’ or ‘founds’ supporting the whole body which in this scenario can be understood as Christ’s body representing the Church he founded.
I mentioned in a previous post how the river is depicted as both water and blood and is connected to the Massacre of the Innocents carried out by King Herod, and also the later beheading of John the Baptist. But there are also two other events which link to the blood and water theme: (1) the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church, seen as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) when Jesus was pierced with a lance at his crucifixion and the wound was seen to pour out blood and water.
His pierced side was later witnessed by Thomas, one of the disciples who had doubted Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus later appeared to him he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet and telling him, “Give me you hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”
Before he painted the Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Merchant’s Guild in Florence to produce a bronze sculpture depicting Christ and St Thomas. This bronze and the niche it was placed in on an exterior wall of the Orsanmichel was the main source of inspiration for Verrocchio when he came to outlining his composition for the Baptism painting completed in 1475. Work on the bronze sculpture very ikely took a back seat at times as it was not unveiled and in situ until 1483.
The niche, or tabernacle, where Christ and St Thomas was displayed (it still is, but a copy), was previously occupied by Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture of St Louis of Toulouse, completed in 1425. However, in 1459 the niche was sold to the Merchant’s Guild and Verrochio was commissioned to fill the gap with his bronze. The niche itself is said to have been sculpted by Donatello. Verrochio paid tribute to his former master by referencing some its features for his Baptism of Christ, as well as linking his painting to a legend attributed to St Louis.
The stance of Christ and St Thomas in the bronze commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild echoes the two standing figures in the Baptism painting. Donatello’s predella supporting the tabenacle area features two winged-angels carrying a wreath crown. These are the two ‘angels’ portrayed by Verrocchio. One carrying Christ’s garments and kneeling on the rock shelf by the waterside.
The two heads looking out at the ends of the predella, facing right and left, are the two heads in the rock outcrop in the painting – one is King Herod, the other Goliath. It’s likely the heads featured on the predalla may refer to Greek or Roman philosophers.
Centred on Donatello’s triangular pediment are three heads encircled within a winged olive crown. They represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is also referenced in Verrochio’s painting and is an integral part of the Baptism of Christ account in John’s Gospel. The Father’s two hands are seen extending from Heaven, while the Spirit is coming down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus.
The frieze below the pediment is a twist bracelet of four winged-cherubs. The four heads represent four identities Verrocchio has linked to the face of the baptised Christ.
The spiralled columns inside the tabernacle and their Ionic capitals are the inspiration for the palm tree and its crown on the left of the painting, matched on the other side by the Baptist’s shaft crowned with a golden cross.
The scalloped ceiling inside the dome of the tabenacle is represented by the dish used by the Baptist to pour water over Christ’s head. The patterned scallop is echoed by the arrowed rays emanating from Heaven.
Either side of the dome are two angels with an arm reaching out along the arch, in a manner similar to the portrayal of John the Baptist reaching out over the head of Jesus. This is also reflected in the actual sculpture with Jesus’ right hand outstretched over Thomas and blessing the doubting disciple.
As far as matching Thomas touching the side wound of Jesus, this is shown in the kneeling figure of the angel said to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Here Leonardo is drawing attention to the shoulder wound he apparently carried throughout his life (represented by him carrying the robe worn by Jesus – or even a shroud – and so referring to the death and resurrection aspect of baptism). The cloth can also be related to as a wing, and therefore pointing again to Leonardo’s damaged shoulder and his fascination for birds and for flying. This is another feature referenced in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi where Lorenzo de Medici is seen carrying the wrap of his light blue gown over his right forearm. It was this that protected him from a more serious injury during the attack in the Duomo on himself and his brother Giuliano who was not so fortunate and died during the assassination attempt.
Then there is the mystery of the halos in the Baptism of Christ painting… but more on this in my next post.
The two young boys featured in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ are usually described as angels – but in this instance are shown without wings. They have halos, so are they angels or saints? The halos over the two other figures in the painting, Christ and John the Baptist, differ in colour, and the Saviour’s halo is marked with a cross.
Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1481) also features angels without wings. Two of his ‘angels’ are arranged to mirror those in the Verrocchio painting. He repeated the motif in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.
Is there a connection between the three groups? Probably, and likely to be Leonardo da Vinci. It is said to he painted the angel on the left in Verrocchio’s panel produced in 1475 for the Vallomvrosan monastery of St Salvi in Florence.
In the Magnificat, some historians have suggested that the two angels are meant to represent the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, while in the Adoration scene the two men placed left and right of the group are Giuliano de’ Medici and Leonardo.
The Baptism painting also connects to Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, where Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered in April 1478. Botticelli makes reference to both the assassination and Verrocchio’s painting in the Uffizi Adoration. The gold-brimmed hat (right) refers to the halo theme and its iconography in the Baptism of Christ.
More on this and the secret of the halos in a future post.
The Baptism of Christ is attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio and partly to a young Leonardo da Vinci who worked in Verrecchio’s studio at the time when the painting was produced around 1475. It depicts Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Two young angels kneel on the bank of the river, one holding Christ’s garments. It was said by Francesco Alberti in a guidebook published in 1510 that this figure was painted by Leonardo. Some art historians suggest that he had a hand in other parts of the painting, notably the background scene and perhaps even the figure of Christ
According to the art historian, painter and architect Georgio Vasari: “Leonardo painted an angel who was holding some garments; and despite his youth, he executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better than the figures painted by Verrocchio. This was the reason why Andrea would never touch colours again, he was so ashamed that a boy understood their use better than he did.”
Perhaps an exaggeration by Vasari who was born in 1511, forty years after the painting was completed and never spoke with Verrochio who died in 1488.
What Vasari failed to record and may not have noticed about the painting is that the Baptist figure is modelled on Leonardo, and whose angel rendition is another image of himself. Verrichio knew this but seemingly not Vasari.
Verrocchio also knew the painting was linked to another artist, the sculptor Donatello and the two statues he made of the biblical David, one in marble and the other bronze. Verrocchio also produced a bronze of David which links to this painting as well as his bronze of Christ and Thomas.
Bottecilli also refers to the Baptism of Christ painting in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. He also recognised the ‘hidden’ hand of Leonardo in Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ – and the shoulder injury he sustained probably in childhood – a ‘fallen angel’, so to speak, nursing a broken wing and uncertain if he would ever resurrect and ‘fly’ to rise above the earth again.
This naked figure traditionally identified as Vulcan, the Greek god of fire, features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. Its attribution date is 1497. In mythology Vulcan was the husband of Venus and this depiction shows him raging against her because of her presumed infidelity with Mars.
Although naked, Mantegna has applied other guises to the figure, notably Francesco II Gonzaga, husband of Isabella d’Este (in the guise of Venus), and the Domincan preacher Girolamo Savonarola. The figure also references three artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Antonio Pollaiuola.
It was Pollaiuolo who produced the engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men in which Leonardo is depicted fighting with himself in the centre. Mantegna has borrowed the naked man to portray Vulcan. The identity transition is a deliberate smoke-and-mirrors technique by Mantegna to reference Leonardo’s sfumato painting style and mirror writing. The Mantua court artist also makes and mirrors other pointers to Leonardo in a counterpoising manner.
For example: the naked man is a pointer to Leonardo’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Wilderness. Mategna has portrayed his figure with the left arm outstretched whereas the right arm is extended in Leonardo’s Jerome. It also grips a stone. Close inspection of Mantegna’s version reveals the left hand has some of its fingers bent to form the shape of a skull, and so another reference to Leonardo’s Jerome and his skull symbolising a ‘memento mori’. The ‘memento mori’ theme links to the identity of the fiery friar Girolamo Savonrola who set Florence alight with his end-time preaching and prophecies during a four-year period that ended in his own execution and burning in May 1498. His moral campaign encouraged the people to burn and destroy their secular art, books and other objects considered as “occasions of sin”. These public events became known as “bonfires of vanities” and Botticelli was an artist said to have taken heed and destroyed some of his work in this way.
The red cloak tied around the neck of the naked man also ties to other meanings. Not only does it represent a flame of fire stemming from a hot-head, it is also shaped to represent a dog. This is matched in three ways, first to the facial features as that of a werewolf and therefore connected to a hellhound. This then links to Botticelli and his Adoration painting that features the Twelve labours of Hercules, one being his descent into the underworld to combat the dog Cerberus that guards Hades. The third match is to the epithet applied to Savonrola’s Domican Order, Domini canes, meaning ‘dogs of the Lord’.
Mantegna also presents the red cloak as a wing, and the probable inspiration for this is a passage from one of Leonardo’s notebooks on the flight of birds: Leonardo writes: “The centrepiece of the shoulder of the bird is the part turned by pectoral and dorsal muscles. These muscles control whether the elbow is raised or lowered, according to the will and needs of the animal that is moving.” This note is accompanied by a wing illustration similar to the shape of the red cloak. A later note observes: “Always in the raising of the hand the elbow is lowered and presses the air down, whereas in the descent of the hand the elbow is raised and remains sideways on in order not to impede the movement in the air compressed within the wing.”
Leonardo’s observations about lowering and raising are adapted by Mantegna to refer back to Savonarola who was tortured before he was hanged and his body set alight. The method of torture used on the preacher was the strappado. The victim’s arms and legs are tied behind his back. He is suspended by a rope tied to his wrists and then dropped at intervals from a great height. The outcome usually results in a dislocated shoulder and permanent damage. Mantegna alludes to the drop process by showing water cascading from three levels of the high ground behind the naked man. Notice how the right arm hangs as if his shoulder is dislocated. Is Mantegna also alluding to the damaged right shoulder Leonardo is said have suffered with? And was this also caused by a fall, perhaps from a great height? How similar is the shape of the crouched, bird-like figure of Jerome in Leonardo’s painting, to the bound figure suspended in the Jacques Callot drawing of the strappado. It is said that Leonardo bought caged birds in the marketplace just to set them free.
The strands of wire gripped in Vulcan’s right hand refer to the fine net he made to throw over Mars and Venus (similar to how birds on the ground are captured). The wires also represent the strands of a spider’s web stemming from the lopped tree root. Alongside are bunches of grapes. The combination represents the fable of the spider and the grapes that Leonardo recorded in one of his notebooks.
Another feature that connects Leonardo to this section of Mantegna’s painting is Vulcan’s furnace. Its flames represent a “bonfire of vanities” and its red and blue flames are possibly the predominant colours favoured by Botticelli in the paintings he assigned to the fire. Vulcan’s left foot points to a recess in the furnace where ashes can be removed. A close inspection reveals a ‘charcoal’ representation of Leonardo. It connects to the head of one of the dancers. She is Isabella d’Este who Leonardo drew a portrait of – in charcoal – when he once visited Mantua.
The charcoal reference to Leonardo disguised in the stone furnace has two other links: First to his representation as the head of the sphinx in Botticelli’s Uffiz Adoration and its associated reference to preparing ink for writing; and the second to an early painting – The Baptism of Christ – attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in painting one of the angels.
Between the figures of Christ and the Baptist is a rock outcrop with a recess at water level. It depicts the helmeted head of herod, the king who later ordered the beading of John the Baptist. Herod also ordered the killing of all Jewish boys under the age of two, hoping that among them would be Jesus the new-born king.
This prompted the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and so provides a link to another painting by Leonardo, the Virgin of the Rocks. According to legend, the Holy Family was met on the road by an angel escorting John to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Herod’s bloodbath became known as the Massacre of the Innocents, indicated in the painting above by the blood-red water at ‘Herod’s Gate’. The slaughter of innocents, or even innocence, is represented in other parts of Mantegna’s Parnaussus painting.
There are two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, both attributed to Leonardo, and in both paintings the infant John is shown with the Virgin’s right hand placed on the child’s right shoulder. Another pointer, perhaps, to Leonardo’s shoulder injury?
Last week, the world’s media reported on the diagnosis made by two Italian doctors which suggested Leonardo da Vinci suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. The claim was first presented in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on May 3, 2019, by Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi.
That Leonardo was inflicted with a paralysis in his right hand is not unknown to historians. Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, wrote in his travel diary about a visit to Leonardo in 1517. “One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand.”
Drs Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi base their diagnosis on two portraits of Leonardo, a red-chalk drawing attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1540-1608), and the other to an engraving made in 1505 by Marcantonio Raimondo (ca 1480-1527)
The engraving purports to show Leonardo playing a lira da braccio, suggesting therefore he may still had use of his right hand to enable to bow the instrument. The red-chalk drawing depicts Leonardo with his right hand cradled in the folds of his gown as if supporting an injured arm.
Historians generally attribute Leonardo’s paralysis to have manifested late in his life, but there is evidence to suggest the polymath bore his affliction even earlier and to the period he was living in Florence before moving to Milan in1482. The evidence is provided by three of his contemporaries, Andrea del Verriccio, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Perugino. Even Leonardo himself produced work that hinted at his disability.
Dr Lazzeri suggests that an acute upper limb trauma, possibly from a fall, could have resulted in ulner palsy. He eplains, “The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to the little finger and manages almost all the hand muscles that allow fine motor movement.” Perhaps in the light of the this new analysis by Drs Lazzeri and Rossi, it can now be better understood just why Leonardo did not always complete his paintings or was at least slow to do so.
In 1479 a group of Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was considered a reconciliation initiative between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’ Medici following the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano by conspirators supported by Sixtus. The four principal artists were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. Surprisingly Leonardo da Vinci was not among the group. Could one of the reasons for his absence have been some kind of incapacity at the time, perhaps the result of an injury to his right arm?
In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It was never completed. Prior to that he started to paint St Jerome in the Wilderness. This work also remained unfinished and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.
Revisitng this work it is clear to see the emphasis placed on the suffering of St Jerome in the process of beating his breast with the rock held in his right hand. What is now particularly obvious in the light of last week’s report is the prominence and detail given to the right shoulder, the collar bone and afflicted expression on Jerome’s face. Outstretching his arm is seemingly a most painful process, enough to make him grimace and turn his head away. Could this be Leonardo recording the pain of his own injury in some way? Notice the claw-shaped grip around the stone held in the right hand.
Another painting that throws light on Leonardo’s claw-hand is Andrea de Verrocchio’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1470-65). For the angel Raphael read Verrocchio and for Tobias, Leonardo – the master instructing his apprentice. Close inspection of the linked arms clearly shows deformity in the young man’s right hand, particularly the little finger. Some art experts suggest Leonardo may have painted the fish that Tobias is carrying in his left hand.
Although Leonardo wasn’t part of the Florentine team sent to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, he does feature in one of its paintings – The Trials of Moses – attributed to Botticelli. Leonardo is presented as the Egyptian being put to the sword by Moses and later buried. Both hands of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, are formed as claws!
Returning to Florence in 1482 Botticelli went onto complete an earlier commission before he was called away to Rome, the Adoration of the Magi, the adaption now housed with Leonardo’s version in the Uffizi, Florence. The earlier mention of Leonardo being buried is alluded to again by Botticelli. The stone head to the left of the Holy Family group is Leonardo shown as the half buried Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. But this is not the only reference to Leonardo in the painting. In fact, there are are several, one of which points to the claw feature in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel but is also given another meaning by Botticelli as part of one of several themes in the painting.
Leonardo is the figure wearing the pink cape crouching in front of Botticelli who is positioned in the right corner of the frame. The fingers of Leonardo’ right hand claw into the back of the hand of Giuliano de’ Medici. As to the reason for this, that’s another story.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, positioned next to Botticelli and wearing a feathered hat, was one of the artists who shared the workload in frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He also returned to Florence afterwards to complete a commisison he was given earlier to fresco the Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita basilica. He produced five frescos on the life of St Francis. One of these, the last in the cycle, depicts the Death of St Francis seen surrounded by fellow friars and Florentine notables. The central figure hovering above the dead saint is meant to represent a knight named Jerome who doubted the authenticity and claims of the stigmata associated with Francis during his saintly life. When Francis died, Jerome examined the manifested wounds of Christ on the body of the holy man and was convinced they were genuine and so convereted his life.
Here Ghirlandaio has borrowed the Leonardo/Egyptian figure from Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco – note the similarity in hair colour and style, and the shade of the red and blue garments. Leonardo is known for dissecting dead bodies in his search for how the human body functions, and his notebooks are filled with drawing and sketches recording his findings. So here we have not only the connection back to Leonardo’s early painting of Jerome in the Wilderness, but also Ghirlandaio linking it to the knight known as Jerome who doubted the stigmata of Francis. Ghirlandaio also confirms Leonardo’s claw hand, not just by the shape of the right hand reaching into the body’s side wound, but also by the claw-shaped ‘praying hands’ of the two figures either side of Leonardo.
Leonardo held a skeptical view about some aspects Christianity, and was even considered a non-believer by some people. Ghirlandaio, it seems, was a believer in ‘miracles’ and in the use and power of relics to obtain physical healing. Perhaps this is why he presented Leonardo before the dead Francis in this final fresco, as an expression of his own personal faith and prayer made visible for others to witness. It is said that Leonardo renconciled with the Catholic Church when he was close to death and paid for Masses to be said for his soul’s salvation after he died.
The claim that Leonardo is represented in the engraving produced by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505, has some merit. When he left Florence for Milan he brought with him a a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head as a gift for the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza. In Raimondo’s engraving Leonardo is depicted playing a ‘lira da braccio’ – an arm lyre – for the animals gathered around him. He is presented as Orpheus, “a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth”, said to be able to charm all creatures with his music.
Leonardo portrayed as Orpheus may have been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting Parnassus, now displayed in the Louvre. This is another work with several references to Leonardo and also Botticelli. In fact, it’s a parody on Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which explains why Mantegna embedded the references to Leonardo. In the left corner of the painting is a young man seated on a tree trunk and playing a lyre for the dancing Maneads. The figure is Orpheus but also represents Giuliano de’ Medici. His left hand is claw-shaped to pluck the strings of the lyre. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration Giuliano is also placed in the left corner, alongside a silver-head horse representing Leonardo’s lyre.
From these examples it can be seen that Leonardo’s claw-hand was not a late development in life, and that his contemporaries portayed his ailment in their paintings. There are probably more to come to light as the works I have cited are only those I have studied in recent months.
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The milestone is being acknowledged by special events around the world.
A little further back in time, 37 years to be precise and 1482, Sandro Botticelli recorded the death of Leonardo in a novel way – by portraying him in two roles, both as an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave in a fresco painting on a wall in the Sistine Chapel. The panel depicts the Trials of Moses and was one of several commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV using Botticelli and other Florentine artists.
The section shows Leonardo as the model for the Egyptian slain by Moses, as recorded in Exodus (2 : 11-14). Leonardo is also depicted as the bloodied Hebrew making an exit from captivity in Egypt but in danger of being enslaved by a woman seemingly set on protecting him. The woman is Florentina, the symbol of Florence.
Here Botticelli is referring to Leonardo’s brush with the law when he was one of a group of four men accused of sodomy. The charges were eventually dropped, some say because one of the other men was connected to the powerful Medici family. Had the law been applied in full then the four men could have faced execution. Guilty or innocent, the risk of execution was probably one of the reasons why Leonardo eventually left Florence and moved to Milan.
So here Botticelli expresses Leonardo’s fear of the severity of Florentine law, applied justly or unjustly, as portrayed by Moses who was chosen to present God’s law written in stone but which he had earlier applied unjustly on his own account by killing the Egyptian and hiding his body.
The passage from Exodus also relates what happened after Moses had killed the Egyptian. The following day he came across two Hebrews fighting each other. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” The man retorted, “And who appointed you to be prince over us and judge? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses became frightened when he realised his crime had been discovered and fled to the land of Midian. Was Botticelli using this analogy to compare the flight of Moses to the flight of Leonardo to Milan, referring to the fact his “crime” was also uncovered?
Another narrative is that Leonardo was perhaps at odds with himself, battling with his sexuality and experiencing his nature to be in conflict with the law that threatened not only his existence but also his way of life, hence the reason why Botticelli depicted Leonardo as both of the Hebrew men.
The self-conflict motif can also be read into the fighting group of Moses and the Egyptian. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration, Leonardo is painted in similar colours, green and yellow, to Moses in the Sistine Chapel frescos. But there are also other explanations for this match in the Adoration painting which I shall post on at another time.
The facial expression of the Hebrew on the ground is meant to relate to the screaming face of Leonardo that can be seen on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio. The cuirass is hollowed as a protective piece of armour, similar to a shell. This is why Botticelli has shaped Leonardo’s cloak as a shell. Leonardo collected and made study draiwngs of shells. However, Botticelli is also suggesting that the vunerable point of any creature carrying a shell on its back and hiding underneath it, is its underside and belly region. This point is also made with a similar motif in the Uffizi Adoration painting.
There is another feature that links the face of Leonardo on the breastplate to his face portrayed on the Egyptian, and which connects with Moses. When the prophet came down from Mount Sinai for the second time “the skin on his face was radiant”. Artists generally show this as “horns of light” or what became known as the “horns of Moses”, usually depicted as two horns projecting from his head. They are meant to represent enlightenment or knowledge, as in knowing God’s law. In the fresco, Moses has yet to receive God’s law written on stone tablets.
However, the face of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, has hair curled in the shape of horns. These are not only meant to represent the snakes associated with the image of the Gorgon Medusa and the pagan worship of the Egyptians of the time, but also suggest the brilliance of Leonardo, as gifted with knowledge and talents. The horns and the enlightened theme is also expressed on the breastpate, referring not only to Leonardo, but also the wearer Giuliano de’ Medici, considered a shining light and chivalrous knight of the Renaissance.
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?