Having already revealed several identities applied by Botticelli to the standing male figure in the Primavera painting, it would not be unreasonable to assume that other figures in the scene represent more than one person. There is a transforming or changing theme running through the painting and its many narratives.
Perhaps the most obvious hint of this are the two women on the right of the frame representing Chloris, the Greek goddess of flowers and her Roman equivalent Flora. Chloris is seen being lowered alongside Flora by Zephyrus the West Wind. In fact, Chloris is depicted as being grafted to the thigh of Flora. Observe the cleft-shaped, right hand of Chloris. Flora’s thigh is shield-shaped (a stemma), suggesting shield-budding.
A further transformation feature is that Flora also represents a lion and the heraldic symbol of Florence, the Marzocco. In turn, Chloris is presented as a lamb or a goat (a sacrifice offered to the gods). When the two elements – lion and lamb, or goat – are combined or grafted they form the basis of a beast known in Greek mythology as a Chimera.
To complete the transformation a third creature is required, that of a serpent. This is represented by the scaled pattern on Flora’s arms, the serpent’s head being her left hand. Chimera is another term associated with horticulture grafting.
In an earlier post I pointed out that Zephyrus, the West Wind, also represented the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, and Chloris as Lucrezia Buti, the Dominican novice he abducted to use as a model to represent the Virgin Mary in his paintings.
The Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna mirrored this section of Primavera in his painting titled Parnassus, except that for the West Wind he depicted the painter Leonardo da Vinci in the guise of Pegasus, the winged horse that Bellerophon rode to Lycia on his mission to slay the monstrous Chimera. Leonardo is another identity Botticelli applied to the Zephyrus figure.
In the Parnassus painting, the two figures nearest to Pegasus are Chloris and Flora. The serpent is the ribbon gripped by Chloris’ left hand, and her right hand gripping the thumb of Flora’s right hand is the graft feature.
The head of the lamb is formed by the shape of the dress at Chloris’ shoulder, turned towards the wind created by Pegasus’ wing, just as Chloris turns her head towards the wind (hot air?) blown from the mouth of Zephyrus in the Primavera painting.
Note also the brown-coloured profile at the side of the arch above the two women. It represents Donatello (pictured right), the sculptor commissioned to create a new version of the Marzocco between 1418-20, to replace the weather-beaten version erected in the late 14th century.
*There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven... (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
One of the more unusual features in Botticelli’s Primavera is the figure of Mars shown facing out of the frame. Art historian Barbara Deimling suggests the figure represents Mercury and “its direction of movement leads not into an empty space but on to the painting of Pallas and the Centaur, which originally hung to the left of Primavera, over a door”.
In his monograph on Botticelli the late Ronald Lightbown also nominates the figure as Mercury and suggests it is his steel cap that gives “the clue to his role in the garden about which there has been so much confusion”, and that “he wears a winged helmet because he is the guard who keeps entrance to the garden”, and “why the harpe [sword] is so prominent and why he wears a military cloak, why he stands with his back to the other figures expelling the intrusive clouds with his caduceus…”
Botticelli also presents the figure as Mars, superstitiously viewed in earlier times by the Florentine people as a protector of the city. According to the chronicler Giovanni Villani, a statue of Mars on horseback stood on a pedestal at the Ponte Vecchio, looking East. In 1300, it was temporarily moved while repairs were carried out on the old bridge. However, when the statue was returned to the bridge it was placed facing North. This did not go down well the people and Villani records their words: “May it please God that there come not great changes therefrom to our city”.
Thirty-three years later Mars was unable to protect Florence from disaster when the Arno river flooded and the rising waters overwhelmed the city defences. Even the statue of Mars was swept away in the flood, never to be seen again. Villani describes the event: “And when Mars had fallen and all the houses between the Ponte Vecchio and the Carraia bridge had come down and all the streets on both banks were covered with ruins, to look at the scene was to stare at chaos.”
No attempt was made to replace the pagan statue. Instead, the Florentines focused on a new symbol of protection and status – that of a lion – the Marzocco.
So Botticelli’s figure of Mars attempting to sweep away the rain clouds can be viewed as a pointer to the time of the Great Flood of 1433 and the earlier time the statue was turned from facing East to North.
However, there was another unfortunate event associated with the statue of Mars at the Vecchio bridge – the murder of a young nobleman named Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti, killed on Easter Sunday in 1215. This links to Botticelli’s figure of Mars when identified as Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated while attending Mass in Florence Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 1478.
Botticelli sourced the Buondelmonte narrative to form the basis of Primavera’s composition and the painting’s principal theme of reconciliation and peace associated with the city of Florence.
Botticelli’s pairing of Giuliano de’ Medici with the statue of Mars, an assassination and a drowning, could be see later as somewhat prophetic, when Giuliano’s nephew, Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Piero the Unfortunate), died by drowning as he crossed the Garigliano River while attempting to flee from the aftermath of the Battle of Garigliano in 1503.
The Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna portrayed Piero as Mars in his painting Parnassus (1497), a parody of Primavera and a tribute to Botticelli. The image on Piero’s breastplate is that of Botticelli, suggesting that Mantegna was fully aware of the disguised narratives Botticelli had embedded in Primavera.
Here’s an interesting match. The detail on the left frame is from Andrea Mantegna’s painting Parnassus, dated 1497, although it could be later. The section on the right is part of the San Barnaba Altarpiece painted by Sandro Botticelli c1488.
The Parnassus was commissioned by Isabella d’Este. It was Mantegna’s first painting for the Marchioness of Mantua’s studiola. He produced another a few years later in 1502, Triumph of the Virtues. Isabella was into mythology themes with an allegorical bent, yet I doubt if she really understood or knew what Mantegna had surreptitiously embedded in the Parnassus painting; and probably neither did her court poet Paride da Ceresara who is said to have suggested the theme. Supposedly also an alchemist and astrologer, Paride may have made some sense of the mythological aspect, but Mantegna made sure he added his own narrative to the painting which seemingly has escaped the notice of art historians along the way.
Mantegna was in his mid-sixties and probably considered by some as past his prime. Isabella, some forty years younger, was keen to exhibit the work of a new generation of famous artists in her studiola. But initially she had to make do with Mantegna who had been employed as the Mantua court artist since 1460. Mantegna put forward the name of Sandro Botticelli as available for commissions but Isabella rejected the idea as the Florentine artist was no longer seen as the ascending star he once was, though he was still in his mid-forties. Isabella’s sights were set on brighter stars, Leonardo da Vinci in particular, but she was never able to commit the polymath to produce any paintings for her, other than to sketch her portrait when he visited the Mantua court on his way from Milan to Venice.
Mantegna was not a man who easily let go of a grievance he may have held for any slight against him. Like Botticelli, he had reached a high plateau of fame, and though Isabella may have viewed him as “old school” he was still more than capable of producing a master stroke, or two.
Apart from any mythological wellspring used to inspire the composition, Mantegna sourced work from two other artists, principally the “out of fashion” Botticelli, but also some pieces by Leonardo. Choosing “Botticelli” can be viewed as a retort to Isabella’s dismissive response of the “little barrel”, and while all her pleading and persuasive charms used to entice Leonardo to produce a painting for her studiola came to nothing, it was Mantegna who came up trumps. He created not only a permanent place for the polymath in the studiola, but also incorporated a painted portrait of the sketch Leonardo had made of Isabella when he visited Mantua.
The composition of the Parnassus painting is based on Botticelli’s Saint Barnabas Altarpiece which was commissioned by the Florentine Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries and installed in the Church of San Barnaba around 1488. The right half of the main section shown above depicts John the Baptist, St Ignatius of Antioch and the archangel Michael. Two other angels are placed behind the three standing figures.
Andrea has taken these figures and other elements and transformed them into a new creation for the Parnassus painting.
St Michael is stripped of his armour to become the half-naked figure in the red-winged hat; St Ignatius is transformed into the bearded horse, his wings and jewelled necklace replacing the winged shape and precious stones of the bishop’s mitre; and the Baptist and the angel immediaely above him become the two figures at the end of the line of Muses.
The two Muses represent a Chimera, a mythological hybrid creature usually depicted as a lion with the head of a goat protruding from its back. The Chimera’s tail is sometimes shown as a snake. So the inclusion of the Chimera in the Parnassus can be understood as being inspired by the portrayal of the two back-to-back angels above the trio of saints. Mantegna formed the head of a young goat within the windswept dress shown on the back of the Muse in white. The snake is represented by the ribbon held by the dancers, while in the altarpiece it can be interpreted as the right arm of the angel drawing back the ermine tailed curtain.
The two golden-haired Muses at the front of the line depict Isabella d’Este and her sister Beatrice with their heads turned admiring the statuesque figure representing multiple identities from Greek mythology, Hermes and Bellerophon, alongside the winged horse Pegasus. The figure with its flowing gold and shell-shaped drape is also a pointer to Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, but in this instance Mantegna is revealing one of its hidden gems, that the west wind figure of Zephyrus actually represents Leonardo da Vinci in flight. As to the maiden clinging to his body, well that’s another story. A similar motif appears in another famous Botticelli painting, Primavera, where Leonardo is depicted as the wind from the East, an ill wind. It is in this painting that we see where Mantegna has borrowed another pairing, the figure of Flora and the woman gripped by Eurus, the East wind, matched with the two Muses next to Pegasus. As for connecting the faces of the two other Muses to the St Barnabas painting, these are adapted from the golden frieze of cherubs representing Botticelli and his brothers.
Other connections between the St Barnabas section and the Parnassus panel are the three nails held by one of the angels. This motif is matched to the grouping of three feet by three different Muses. The tower of caves with their dome-shaped entrances, along with the descending stream of water, is matched to some of the architectural features in Botticelli’s painting: the rondo and door features in the dome, the water feature with the fluted column. The angel’s head covered by a wing and the red drape can be compared to the red winged hat of Hermes, “the messenger of the gods”, whose caduceus can be likened to the staff of the prophet John the Baptist. (Hermes also represents Leonardo’s assistant Salai, while Leonardo is portrayed in the guise of Pegasus). The red jewel seen on the bishop’s episcopal glove is replicated between the eyes of Pegasus, suggesting St Ignatius’s focus is on the jewel. However, the heart in his hand represents his own which was removed to serve as a relic after his martyrdom. When the heart itself was opened it was claimed the name of Jesus Christ was written in gold letters inside.
Another version of the legend is that the heart was cut into several pieces for distribution as relics and that each piece had the name of Jesus inscribed in gold. The latter version relates to the group of rocks in the foreground of the Parnassus painting. The Acts of the Apostles records that Antioch was where the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians. This connects to the passage from Luke (19:34-39) when Jesus, seen as the Messiah, was greeted by the crowd with shouts of acclamation praising God. The Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Master, check your disciples” but he answered, “I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out.”
The pile of rocks represent the Christians at Antioch proclaiming Jesus from the heart. The shape of the heart of Ignatius appears on the uppermost rock. It is also incorporated as part of a paw print which points to the manner of his martyrdom when the Roman emperor Trajan sent him to face two lions in the Colloseum.
The lion’s paw-print is another reference to Leonardo da Vinci and his thumb print recently discovered on one of his drawings illustrating the internal parts of a female body. Leonardo was known for dissecting cadavers for scientific research. Botticelli was aware of this and in the predella attached to the St Barnabas Altarpiece is a panel depicting two men removing the heart of St Ignatius. The younger man on the left is Leonardo da Vinci.
The left half of both paintings can be matched in a similar way I’ve explained for the right halves. But there are other references in the Parnassus painting that connect with two other Botticelli paintings and also to other works associated with Leonardo. I hope to explain these in a future post.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced the acquisition of a remarkable bronze roundel, attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli, who worked alongside Andrea Mantegna for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua; it is thought that the work, for which the Met paid £17m, was made in around 1500 for Isabella d’Este. Details at this link.
• In a week or so I shall post a piece about a painting commissioned by Isabella d’Este.
So who did produce the Mantuan Roundel, the Renaissance artefactwhich the UK has placed a temporary export ban on?
Stuart Lochead, a member of the RCEWA which recommended the ban, has posited the names of two Italian artists: Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Donatello (1386-1466).
My money is on Mantegna as the bronze roundel can be linked specifically to two paintings mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and the death of Donatello is prior to the paintings.
In 1488 Mantegna, the court painter at Mantua at the time, was invited by Pope Innocent VIII to paint frescoes at the Villa Belvedere in Rome which overlooked the old St Peter’s Basilica. He returned to Mantua two years later in 1490.
During his stay in Rome he would have had ample time to take in and study the work of other artists displayed in the Vatican, particularly the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The North and South walls of the ‘Great Chapel’ were decorated with scenes from the lives of Moses and Jesus, painted by a team of Renaissance artists that included Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Completion was in 1482.
One scene in particular, the Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli, provides the link to the Mantuan roundel. The central section shows a naked man seated on a tree trunk. He represents Leonardo da Vinci, and is the basis for the seated figure of Mars in the Mantuan roundel.
Mantegna extended the roundel connection to a later work he produced for Isabella d’Este, the painting known as Parnassus in which the Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan are included along with other mythological figures. Leonardo, an acomplished musician ‘particularly good at playing the lyre’ is also represented in the painting as one of the identities given to the figure of Orpheus sat on a tree stump. This motif is a direct reference to the Leonardo figure in the Sistine Chapel fresco and perhaps Mantegna making a caustic comment by punning on the word lyre.
However, the heads of the three main figures in the roundel are not direct representations of Lenardo, but rather his assistant Salaì, seemingly adapted from drawings that appear in Leonardo’s notebooks. Leonardo also made mention in his notebooks that Salaì was a liar and a thief, and it is probably in this connection why Mantegna utilised the likenesses of Salaì for the roundel and in the Parnassus painting.
Leonardo’s drawing shown here of the Heads of an Old Man and Youth can be likened to the head of Leonardo and the bald-headed man looking down on him as seen in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Even the ‘wing’ collar of the old man is mirrored on the fresco. The wing motif also shows up at the head of the caduceus tucked behind the head of Mars in the roundel. The snake-entwined wing of the caduceus is also echoed in the figure of Orpheus – the lyre resting on the shoulder being the wing, while the musician’s left foot and big toe is shaped to represent the serpent’s head about to bite the ankle of Eurydice and send her to Hades.
This brief presentation is simply to point to a connection between Mantegna and the Mantuan Roundel. There are more references in the work which lend to links with Leonardo and Mantegna’s Parnassus painting.
Leonardo da Vinci, a master of ‘sfumato’, described the painting technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”.
The detail above is from Andrea Mantegna’s Parnassus in which he makes several references to Leonardo, the sfumato technique being one. Here we see the smoke drifting from the side of the mountain in the direction of the Cupid figure.
But Mantegna amplifies the connection to Leonardo by applying the transition effect of the smoke to form a soft and partial image of the polymath’s head, notably an eye and his mouth. To see this the painting has to be rotated 90º.
At this angle we can see Leonardo has his eye on the Cupid figure. It is meant to represent a young boy who forms part of a relief scupture known as the Madonna of the Stairs (c.1491), an early work by Michelangelo when he was about 15 years old.
Mantegna also matches the boy appearing to have a shortened leg, the effect of climbing stairs. The steps in Mantegna’s version are created by the rocky indents, profiled to suggest the facial features of a lion – and another reference to Leonardo.
Step by step, Michelangelo became the new sensation in Florence, while Leonardo, the god of transitions, moved out beyond the focus plain of Florence and headed North to Milan for a new beginning.
Transition is a major theme of Mantegna’s Parnassus painting.
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.
The centre section of the roundel – the area containing the image of the saint, not the frame – is said to be an earlier work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini and which was later recessed into the main panel by Botticelli. But there is no definite proof of this and the saint has never been identified.
Taking into account that the figure of the young man is Piero de Lorenzo di’ Medici and modelled on Donatello’s Marzocco lion, the roundel therefore represents a shield, a symbol of both protection and identity. However, in this instance the roundel seemingly has no connection to the style of shield or the red lily emblem associated with Florence. Instead Botticelli has subsituted references to Siena, a rival neighbour south of Florence, noted for its saints and preachers.
The most obvious reference is the colour of the frame – burnt sienna – derived from an earth pigment known as terra di Siena and sourced from the region during the Renaissance. Yellowish-brown in its raw state, it turns to reddish-brown when heated and is then referred to as burnt sienna. The heating or conversion process is implied by the fiery colours used as the base for the saintly portrait.
This section of the painting represents two of the classic four elements in Greek philosophy – Earth and Fire. The two other elements are Air (the heavenly sky background) and Water (the colour of Piero’s deep blue tunic).
Sotheby’s auction catalogue states “the saint lacks any identifiable attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised as an apparent gesture of blessing”. However the ‘sign of the horns’ is an attribute which can be identified with two particular saints – Moses, and his assistant Hoshea whose name was later changed to Joshua. So is the saint in the roundel, Moses or Joshua? Perhaps the figure is meant to represent both, as well as other biblical prophets and preachers.
There are other themes incorporated in the roundel to suggest it was produced by Botticelli during Piero’s time and is not the work of the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini. This is borne out by several references to the roundel, Siena, and Botticelli in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna.
An earlier Sienese painter most likely to have inspired the style of roundel replicated by Botticelli was Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319). One of his most famous works is the Maestàcommissioned by the city of Siena in 1308. The front of the the altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary and Child enthroned, surrounded by numerous angels and saints. The predella is a series of panels depicting the Childhood of Christ, interspersed with images of six prophets.
It is a section of this predella that was the lkely source for Botticelli and his portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel. The scene illustrates the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. Left of the scene stands the ‘weeping prophet’ Jeremiah (B), and on the right is the prophet Hosea (D) showing the ‘sign of the horns’.
Another work partly attributed to Duccio is an altarpiece referred to as Polyptych No. 47, again featuring the Virgin with Child accompanied by angels and prophets. Above the Virgin is a panel depicting Moses (C), his left hand displaying the “sign of the horns”.
Was this portrait of Moses (C) the basis for the saint (A) shown in the roundel? If so, what connection was Botticelli making to want to link Moses, or any other ‘prophet’ it represented, with Piero?
Sotheby’s online magazine describes the roundel featured in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Roundel as follows:
The [….] painting differs from any other portrait of the time in the fascinating way in which Botticelli has shown his sitter holding a small roundel in his hand depicting a saint. This roundel is an original 14th-century work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini, which was inserted into the panel on which Botticelli painted his portrait. The significance of this striking visual device remains to be decoded, but must relate in some way to the identity of the handsome young nobleman who shows it off so proudly.
Further information is included in Sotheby’s auction catalogue:
The grain of the wood and the truncated punchwork of the background confirm it as a fragment—one not always round in shape, but rather cut out of a larger, vertical panel. While some of the gilding around the curved edges has been repaired, the figure of the saint has survived, like the rest of this painting, in very good condition. He is depicted half-length with a long grey beard, balding head and wearing a grey mantle atop an orange robe. Set against a gilded background, he is surrounded by a network of geometric punchwork that serves to frame his figure in a manner not unlike the painted architectural setting behind the young man. The saint lacks any identiable iconographic attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised in an apparent gesture of blessing.
Botticelli’s portrait of the Young Man Holding a Roundel is referred to by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna in his painting known as Parnassus, and identifies the sitter as Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Mantegna also makes reference to the roundel and links its inclusion to Siena, as Bottcelli intended.
In yesterday’s post I mentioned that the original Marzocco probably depicted a wolf pinned down by the lion, indicating Florence’s historic rivalry with Siena. Evidence of this is shown in at least three paintings: Mantegna’s Parnassus, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi version), and also the portrait being auctioned today at Sotheby’s, New York – Young Man Holding a Roundel.
Mantegna took his lead on representing the original and replacement version of the Marzocco from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli depicts the orginal version as the backdrop to the Mary and Joseph figures, while the new version is shaped from the brick wall to the right of the Virgin.
Beneath the chin of the old lion is a carpet of earth covering a “rock face” (Leonardo da Vinci). This also represents the flat cap associated with Leonardo. The peak of the cap is shaped as a wolf’s head, a wolf being the symbol of Sienna. Siena earth is produces a pigment known as raw sienna which is yellowish-brown in its natural state. It turns to a reddish-brown when heated and then called burnt sienna.
In the Parnassus painting Mantegna’s fox head is indicated by the joined hands of the two dancers at the end of the line of nine muses pointing towards the crumbling Marzocco (another depiction of Leonardo).
A similar motif is formed by Botticelli in the Young Man Holding a Roundel. Three fingers on Piero’s left hand form the wolf’s open mouth and ear underneath the roundel, symbolic of submission under the weight of the “Medici ball” and Piero’s right hand shaped to resemble the paw or claws of the Marzocco lion (Piero himself).
Notice also the dark colour of the roundel frame – burnt sienna! Another border and another colour Botticelli has connected with the Marzocco is the window frame. This is the colour of the stone known as pietra serena used by Donatello to sculpt his version of the Marzocco. It comes out of the ground as a blue-grey colour and was widely used in Renaissance Florence.
• The final part of this analysis – my next post – will focus on the mystery of the roundel and who its saintly figure represents.
• UPDATE… The Young Man Holding a Roundel painting was sold at Sotheby’s this afternoon (15:40) for eight million US dollars.
Continuing the connection between Piero di Lorenzo de Medici, Lord of Florence from 1492 until he was exiled in 1494, and the portrait known as A Young Man Holding a Roundel, attributed to Sandro Botticelli…
From Wikipedia: “The Marzocco is the heraldic lion that is a symbol of Florence, and was apparently the first piece of public secular sculpture commissioned by the Republic of Florence, in the late 14th century. It stood at the heart of the city in the Piazza della Signoria at the end of the platform attached to the Palazzo Vecchio called the ringhiera, from which speakers traditionally harangued the crowd. This is now lost, having weathered with time to an unrecognizable mass of stone.”
The “unreconizable mass of stone” features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. It is the “lion” embedded into the left side of the platform that supports Mars and Venus. The name ‘Marzocco’ is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war.
Before the Lion was adopted as the Florentine symbol, the people looked to a statue of Mars as protector of the people and the State. That was until the sculpture was swept into the Arno river and lost forever during the great flood which devastated Florence in 1333.
The Marzocco Lion later became its replacement. There is evidence to suggest that a wolf was pinned underneath the lion, suggesting that Florence had supremacy over its rival Siena, the wolf being its symbol as well as that of Rome. The reference to Siena points to the Battle of Montaperti in September, 1260, between Florence and Siena as part of the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. An act of betrayal resulted in the Florentines being routed and suffering thousands of casualties.
A replacement for the crumbling heraldic Marzocco was sculpted by Donatello between 1418-20 without any reference to the Siena wolf. Instead, the lion cradles a shield bearing the “stemma”, the Florentine coat of arms.
This new version is also shown in Mantegna’s Parnassus painting, embedded into the right side of the platform support. It’s appearance is in profile, whereas the old Marzocco is face on. There is a reason why Mantegna has done this – to reflect Donatello’s skill at humanizing the creature. Michelangelo is reported to have said that he had never seen anyone who looked more like an honest man than Donatello’s Marzocco.
By contrasting the two lions supporting the platform in the Parnassus, Mantegna is pointing to Leonardo da Vinci as being past his sell-by date and that there is a new kid in town wowing the Florentine people – Michelangelo. The two men became bitter rivals.
But the real point Mantegna was making was in reference to Botticelli being considered ‘old-school’ or past his best by Isabella d’Este in her efforts to commission the most fashionable artists of the time to contribute to her studiola. Her demanding pursuit of Leonardo came to nothing in the end but for a profile sketch he made of Isabella when he visited Mantua. The drawing was later given away by her husband Francesco.
Mantegna’s humanizing of the two lions is also in recognition of two similar achievements intended by Botticelli when he painted the Young Man Holding a Roundel and the earlier portrait of Piero’s uncle Giuliano de Medici who was assassinated in April 1478. Both men are profiled specifically to represent the Marzocco lion.
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.
This panel painting known as Venus and Mars was produced by Sandro Botticelli about 1485. It’s housed at the National Gallery in London. A contemporary of Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, was very familiar with the underlying narrative in the painting and used it as a basis for the satirical composition in the Parnassus picture he produced for Isabella d’Este, now housed in the Louvre, Paris.
The satirical slant is obvious in Botticelli’s version of Venus and Mars, the antics of the four satyrs are are all pointers to the painting being meant to poke fun, for whatever reason, at the two lovers.
Sandro Botticelli portrays himself as the satyr tucked inside the barrel-shaped cuirass in the bottom right corner of the painting. the name Botticelli meaning “little barrel”. The three other satyrs represent Botticelli’s brothers. Sandro was the youngest of the four boys. Mantegna picks up on the cuirass connection by portraying Botticelli on the breastplate of Mars in the Parnassus painting.
Mantegna’s Mars is based on Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Piero led Florence after his father’s death in 1492 until his own exile in just two years later in 1494. Venus is repesented by Isabella d’Este. However, the pairing also references Leonardo da Vinci’s lost painting, Leda and the Swan. More on this in a future post.
Here’s another painting of Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio portrayed in the role of the Madonna and the Infant Christ, one of many similar paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. Not surprisingly it embeds features which point to Leonardo da Vinci, and not just because he painted the same woman in two of his paintings – the Benois Madonna, and later the portrait mistakingly titled Ginevra de’ Benci.
In his monograph, Botticelli Life and Works, Ronald Lightbown describes the adoration scene:
The composition of the small tondo of the Virgin Adoring the Child, painted around 1490, was repeated, as it deserved to be, in many workshop versions. The broken gray masonry of the stable in the foreground, converts the circle into a square within which the Virgin, wearing a pink robe beneath the deep blue of her cloak, kneels in the dark sward, adoring the Child who lies on the cloak’s end propped up by a bale of straw, stretching up his hands to her. The straw is painted with great attention: each outer straw is executed with a straight stroke, highlighted with touches of yellow. From the triangle of sky to the left of the thatched golden-brown roof, a gold star sends down its ray above the Child’s head. Behind, a duck swims on a pool; beyond are low dark-green undulations with a wooden gateway opening onto a path over bright green hills on the left. On the right is a brown fence and a river landscape. Such browns – pale tawny brown, golden brown, chestnut – are characteristic of Botticelli’s later pictures; so too is the conjunction of tawny and light green to give a delightful effect of pastoral gladness.
Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli: Life and Work, pp 217-218
The painting is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the gallery’s date attribution is between 1480 and 1490. However, there are indications in the work that suggest it was produced after 1490, possibly as late as 1495. The painting may appear to be a simple portrayal of the Virgin and Child, but with Botticelli nothing is as straightforward as it appears at surface level. There is an underlying narrative that relates to the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonrola, a revolutionary figure in Florence between his arrival in the city in1490 and the time of his execution in May 1498.
My assessment for the date of the painting is not before the second half of 1498, and after the execution of Girolama Savonarola.
The Virgin Adoring the Child also inspired Mantegna’s Parnassus, said to have been painted in 1497, although some of its iconography does suggest a later date. Mantegna produced a second painting for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo, the Triumph of Virtues. This is dated between 1500 and 1502.
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 Giuliano 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
Returning to the Sistine Chapel and the fresco of the Testament and Death of Moses attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo Gatta…
I mentioned in a previous post that four of the multitude of figures depict Leonardo da Vinci. In this post I will present an explanation for one of them, the naked man seated on a tree stump and positioned centrally in the line of figures in the bottom half of the fresco.
Standing next to Leonardo is a figure wearing a bright blue jacket with most of his face hidden and his back to the viewer. Leonardo and the faceless man are presented in front of a group of men, some perhaps members of the Signoria, the government of Florence while others are members of the Medici family. With the exception of two, the group faces east toward another scene that shows Moses teaching the Law to the men, women and children gathered before him.
The group is taking the Law into account before passing judgement and possibly any sentence on Leonardo who had been anonymously reported for sodomy. His ‘anonymous’ accuser was another artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio, standing immediately behind Leonardo. Notice the snake-head shape of the fold above his right hand in the gold garment he is wearing. The snake reference not only points to Ghirlandaio as the sender of the anonymous letter to the Signoria, but also to the injury and the bruising on Leonardo’s right shoulder sustained from his attempt at human flight, hence the wing feature made of light silk attached around his neck. Was a tree or its stump the painful landing point?
Identifying Ghirlandaio is linked to the fresh-faced youth looking at the artist next to him. He is Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici. The motif is borrowed from the fresco in the Sassetti Chapel in Florence depicting the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis where both Giovanni and Piero are seen looking out directly at the artist who happens to be Ghirlandaio.
In the Moses fresco Piero (the Unfortunate) is the tall figure alongside Giovanni. Their father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is to the right of the man in the blue jacket whose hand is raised as if appealing for help from Lorenzo. Could the man in blue be Leonardo Tornabuoini, one of the three other men charged with sodomy, and connected to the Medici family through Lorenzo’s mother Lucrezia Tornabuoni? This would explain why the face is hidden and possibly confirm the speculation that the charges against the men were dropped because of the Tornabuoni connection to the powerful Medici family.
The other figure not facing East but looking down on Leonardo is Antonio Pucci, Gonfaloniere of Justice and a close ally of the Medici family. His wealth and influence stemmed from the silk industry, hence the reference to the silk scarf or wing worn by Leonardo. The silk reference also connects to Ghirlandaio whose nickname means ‘garland maker’ and whose family produced silk scarves threaded with gold, a fashionable item with Florentine women of the time.
Pucci’s hands are explaining a point to Leonardo and his companion. He is squeezing his right thumb with the thumb and forfinger of his left hand. Could he be demonstrating a form of torture used by the authorities to punish or extract information, perhaps the application of thumbscrews or even amputation?
It’s a certainty that this fresco and, in particular, its central scene, was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and its many reference to Leonardo including the episode relating to the charge of sodomy.
Luca Signorelli and/or Bartolomeo Gatta have replicated the right-hand corner of the Magi painting that shows Botticelli wrapped in a gold cloak standing behind the two figures representing Leonardo and one of his companions. But in the Moses fresco he is substituted by Ghirlandaio who, in the Magi painting is the ‘figure-head’ placed above Botticelli.
Ghirlandaio’s blue-domed hat is not only a reference to his name Domenico but also to the prep work he did by painting the Sistine Chapel’s dome in blue with gold stars to represent the heavenly dome covering the world. Notice also the feather in his cap, a refrence to the quill Ghirlandaio used to write his ‘anonymous’ note to the Florentine authorities. The denunciation was posted in what was known as the ‘tamburo’ a drum-shaped box or barrel provided for reports on law-breaking.
From this we can understand why Botticelli has placed Ghirlandaio’s head above himself. Botticelli means ‘little barrel’ and so a reference to the ‘tamburo’ and further confirmation that it was Domenico who wrote the anonymous letter charging Leonardo and others with sodomy. His reason for denouncing Leonardo in this way? Botticelli provides some of the answers in another of his great works, The Calumny off Apelles.
Another connection to Leonardo presented as the naked man in the Testament and Death of Moses fresco is Andrea Mantegna’s painting, Parnassus, completed about 1497 for Isabella d’Este and her studiolo. Mantegna’s Parnassus is heavly focused on Leonardo and his works. The figure of Orpheus playing his lyre is based on the figure of Leonardo in the Moses fresco and also linked to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi.
Finally, the bearded man, standing next to Lorenzo is the link between this scene and the one on the right featuring Moses teaching the law to the Hebrews.
The other bearded man seen tucked behind Ghirlandaio on the left side of the group has a legal status, and is a lawyer or notary. In a religious sense the scrolled brim on the front of his hat represents a phylactery or tefillin used to contain small scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. In a secular sense and as a notary licensed to witness signatures on documents the scrolled brim represents the box or ‘tamburo’ in which Ghirlandaio placed his written accusation against Leonardo. Here Signorelli confirms that the anonymous note was unsigned as witnessed by the notary standing next to Leonardo’s accuser.
A similar scroll motif is seen on one of the men in the next group to the left. He is Piero da Vinci, Leonardo’s father, and also a legal notary.
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.
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.