When opposites attract

This post presents more details about Vasari’s marriage scene between Henry, Duke of Orleans, and Catherine de’ Medici, and how it was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting. 

The male and female mythology figures, Saturn and his consort sister Ops, placed at the right edge of Vasari’s picture, simulate the pairing of Zephyr and Chloris in Primavera, with one head turned and another looking down, except the male and female roles are reversed. Their disguised identities in both paintings are Leonardo da Vinci and Fioretta Gorini. Yes, Fioretta appears more than once in each work, and there are several references to Leonardo embedded in both, too.

A third level of identities given to the pair is Adam and Eve. This introduces another painter into the scenario, Michelangelo, and is a pointer to one of the ceiling scenes he painted in the Sistine Chapel. I shall post about this connection at another time.

Michelangelo appears in Vasari’s marriage scene and is placed at the extreme left of the painting, depicted as the Archangel Michael – hence the arch shape of the frame next to the figure. Note also the frame’s arch connected to Saturn and Ops, and how it corresponds with the arched trees and figures of Zephyr and Chloris in Primavera.

That representations of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are placed at opposite walls of the frame is also a pointer to the occasion when both artists were commissioned to paint battle scenes on opposite walls in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of Five Hundred which was later extended and decorated by Giorgio Vasari.

Hall of the Five Hundred, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Another image of Fioretta Gorini

This will be my last post until 2023, and so I take the opportunity to wish all visitors to this blog a happy and peaceful Christmas.

And I leave you with this discovery I made today – another image of Fioretta Gorini the mother of Pope Clement VII and mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici.

On the left is Fioretta as painted by Leonardo da Vinci; on the right, Fioretta as painted by Giorgio Vasari and modelled on Leonardo’s version.

More to be revealed in the New Year!

Angels and Demons

So just how did Michelangelo translate features from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars painting to the ‘damned man’ in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement fresco?

The four satyrs (Botticelli and his three brothers) teasing and tempting the sleeping figure of Mars – aka Leonardo da Vinci  – form the group of three demons clinging to the ‘damned man’ alongside the trumpeter in the purple drape.

Michelangelo mixed and matched the features. For instance, his ‘extra’ angel with the trumpet represents the satyr sounding the conch into Leonardo’s ear, except that in this instance the trumpet’s bell end is directed to an alternative orifice.

The recipient is the smirking grey-coloured demon poking out his tongue and with both arms wrapped around the legs of the ‘damned man’. As in the Venus and Mars painting, he represents the middle of the trio of satyrs with their arms wrapped around the lance.

The Botticelli conch is symbolic of female genitalia and so the satyr can be understood as blowing ‘sweet dreams’ into Leonardo’s ear, his head ‘buzzing’ with thoughts from the humming sound of the nearby wasps . The wasps are a symbol of the Vespucci family and the woman of his dreams facing Leonardo, Simonetta Vespucci. Michelangelo echoed the sound of the buzzing with the group of trumpeters. The golden hair of the ‘extra’ angel is shaped and coloured to represent a buzzing swarm of wasps. His trumpet extending into the rear end of the grey demon can be deduced as a sting-in-the-tail feature.

The ‘extra’ angel (notice the lion face impression on his back) represents Leonardo da Vinci, and the colour of his purple drape coordinates with the rose tinted blanket beneath the Leonardo figure in the Venus and Mars painting.

Leonardo wears a pink or rose colour cloak with a winged sleeve in another Botticelli painting, the Uffizi version of The Adoration of the Magi. Notice also Leonardo’s bird-like stance.

The purple drape is also shaped in the form of a bird with an extended wing. Michelangelo has paired this with the bird-shaped white cloth covering the sleeping Leonardo. Note the bolt pressing down on the fluted tail. This is a reference to Leonardo portrayed as a fallen angel, “like a bolt of lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18), or perhaps from his failed attempt at flying that seemed like a bird falling out of the sky. A ‘fallen angel’ motif representing Leonardo can be found in another Botticelli painting, The Birth of Venus, and also as a winged Medusa-type face on the breastplate of the terracotta bust by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting Giuliano de’ Medici.

As explained in the previous post, Simonetta also represents Medusa, the woman whose gaze can turn people into stone. Has this happened to the sleeping Leonardo? Notice the head of the middle satyr supporting the lance is turned to gaze at the Medusa figure. This explains why the demon gripping the ‘damned man’s legs is the colour of stone, except that his right hand isn’t. Could this suggest the process is ongoing or possibly a device to question why? 

The answer can be found by looking at the demon from a different perspective. When rotated 90 degrees to the left, the hazy cloud which the demon is facing takes on a dreamy shape representing the head of Medusa in Botticelli’s painting. It’s also another pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the painting and the ‘sfumato’ technique he perfected in his own work, where tones and colours are blended to produce soft, vague edges and outlines.

Understanding Botticelli’s satyrs as creatures of temptation helps identify the green creature biting into the ‘damned man’s‘ thigh. It represents the Botticelli satyr whose face is hidden under the helmet and the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve to bite and eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

The fruit is the circular shape formed behind the head of the serpent’s coiling body, similar to how the shield or buckle is formed out of the shaft of the lance. Truth is represented by the straight lance. The serpent’s lies and hidden deceit – represented by the helmet covering the satyr – is translated as the serpent’s twisting shaft behind the ‘damned man’. 

From this it can be determined that Michelangelo’s ‘damned man’ group also typifies the ‘Fall of Man’, the exit from Paradise into a world of lasting temptation and sin. So where is Eve, the woman who first conversed with the serpent? She can only be the dreamy cloud shape of Medusa, and the woman sat opposite Leonardo with snakes in her hair.

Michelangelo depicted the fourth satyr, Sandro Botticelli himself, as the horned demon with the walnut-shaped back, gripping the ankles of the ‘damned man’. In the Venus and Mars painting he is shown encased in a cuirass that serves as a cushion for the resting Leonardo.

Left: Leonardo da Vinci as a Fallen Hebrew and a Fallen Angel.
Right: Sandro Botticelli as a demon matched to the teasing satyr.

So what could be the reason for Michelangelo depicting the ‘extra angel’ as Leonardo, yet also doubling up as a tormentor – an angel in disguise perhaps, or even a possible falling angel? Another take on the four figures attached to the ‘damned man’ is they represent what is known as the Four Last Things in Christian eschatology – meditating on Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. This descending sequence is matched by Michelangelo’s placing of the four demons.

The green serpent represents the time in the Garden of Eden when Death came into the world; the stone-colour figure gazing at the faint and hazy Medusa represents Judgement – “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (1 Cor 13:12);  The ‘extra’ angel attached to the trumpeters and set aside from the ‘damned man’ represents Heaven; and the horned demon that is ready to receive the ‘damned man’ represents Hell.

The Venus and Mars painting can also be considered from another religious viewpoint, a reference to the biblical and erotic Song of Songs. From a Christian perspective the poem reads as an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Church. Botticelli depicted the leaning figure of Venus in his painting of the Birth of Venus as Ecclesia (the Church) for which the model was Simonetta Vespucci.

Very likely,  Chapter 5 of the Song of Songs inspired some of the visuals in the Venus and Mars painting  … “I come into my garden, my sister my promised bride, […] I gather my honey and my honeycomb […] friends […] I sleep but my heart is awake […] my love, my dove, my perfect one […] I have taken off my tunic […] I have washed my feet […] Then I rose to open to my Beloved, myrrh ran off my hands, pure myrrh off my fingers, on to the handle of the bolt […] My soul failed at his flight […] I called to him but he did not answer […] My beloved is fresh and ruddy […] His head is golden, purest gold…

Two decades earlier Michelangelo made other references to Leonardo da Vinci when he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. More about this in a future post.

Good vibrations

Detail from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel

Art historians generally relate this group of figures portrayed in Michelangelo’s Last Testament fresco to the angels mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and “the seven trumpets given to the seven angels who stand in the presence of God” (Rev 8 : 2)

However, for a particular reason, Michelangelo instead depicted eight angels with trumpets, the odd one out being the angel wearing the purple drape placed on the extreme right of the group. At first glance it appears that this angel has a violin tucked under his chin, but closer inspection reveals the instrument is a trumpet. The double-take was intentional on Michelangelo’s part and yet another reference to Leonardo da Vinci, said to have been an accomplished player of the “lira da brachia”, literally an “arm lyre”.

The sounds emanating from both instruments, the trumpet and lyre, are caused by vibration – a buzzing of lips on the trumpet and pulsating strings on the lyre. This connects to another distinct feature Michelangelo portrayed on his “extra angel” – his golden head of hair which is shaped and coloured to represent a buzzing swarm of wasps or bees. 

While none of Leonardo’s eight angels are shown to have any conventional wings to flap or vibrate, the purple wrap around this particular angel is meant to suggest the shape of a bird with one of its wings extended. 

The angel is placed facing the “damned man” and his demons with his focus on the horned devil. The angel’s trumpet-cum-horn is also positioned as a device to make a connection with the “damned man” feature.

In my previous post about Michelangelo’s Last Judgement I explained that the configuration of the “damned man” and attached demons was partly inspired by a scene featured in another Sistine Chapel fresco – The Trials of Moses painted by Sandro Botticelli.

However, the attributes mentioned about the trumpeting eighth angel, coupled with others found in the “damned man“ group, were all borrowed and recycled by Michelangelo from another painting by Sandro Botticelli – Venus and Mars, which is now housed in the National Gallery, London.

Venus and Mars, by Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery, London

The models for Venus and Mars are Simonetta Vespucci and Leonardo da Vinci, while the four young satyrs represent Sandro Botticelli and his three brothers, Giovanni, Simone and Antonio. Sandro is the satyr encased in the cuirass generally assumed to belong to the sleeping figure of Mars, the Roman god of war. But compare his chest size and it is very obvious the small, barrel-shaped cuirass was not designed to fit Mars but is a pointer to Sandro’s identity – Botticelli meaning “little barrel”.

Art historian Lightbown explains in his book, Sandro Botticelli Life and Work, that “The poses of  Mars and Venus were inspired directly or indirectly by a relief of Bacchus and Ariadne on an antique sarcophagus – one now in the Vatican has been claimed as their direct source.” (see image below)

Botticelli helped paint some of the Sistine Chapel frescoes in 1481, so was this a time and opportunity for him to observe the sarcophagus that would later inspire him to produce the Venus and Mars panel painting?

Another take on this is that his Mars figure may also represent Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in the Duomo Cathedral of Florence on April 26, 1478 – two years to the day after Simonetta Vespucci died in 1476 at the young age of 22.

The relationship between Giuliano and Simonetta was said to have been platonic – a courtly love. On January 29, 1475, Giuliano entered a jousting tournament and carried a standard bearing the image of Simonetta portrayed as Pallas Athene which had been painted by Botticelli.

Lightbown describes the standard and its symbolism in great detail – his source being the Florentine court poet Angelo Poliziano and his poem La Giostra, written after Simonetta’s death – and which in part states that “beneath her helmet of burnished metal […] her hair, elaborately braided and ornamented, fluttered in the wind. She held a jousting lance in her right hand and the shield of Medusa in her left and gazed fixedly into the sun, which shone above her at the top of the banner.”

Lightbown adds that when Giuliano entered the tournament field he was followed by “a great troop of horsemen, friends, relatives, retainers, with three pipers, a trumpeter, and two drummers”. Seemingly this part of Poliziano’s poem was taken up by Botticelli and applied to the four satyrs who can be recognised as horsemen and relatives, even retainers working for the Medici family, as well as pipers and a trumpeter. The reference to two drummers is applied to the two hollow boughs of the tree that Mars rests against.

Simonetta’s “helmet of burnished metal” is worn by the satyr nearest her and tucked behind the lance’s buckle or shield. Notice the sun’s reflection in the helmet and the the gaze of Venus fixed on the highlight. Yes, Venus, aka, Simonetta, is also presented as Medusa whose gaze can turn men into stone. 

Later in Poliziano’s poem Mars, aka Giuliano, “sees in a dream his lady Simonetta wearing the armour of Pallas over a gown whose whiteness is itself a symbol of chastity, and protecting her breast against the arrows of love with the head of Medusa, With stern and angry face she binds Cupid to the olive tree of Pallas, plucks feathers from his wings and breaks his bows and arrows. Cupid in tears, calls on Giuliano for compassion and aid. But Giuliano answers that he can give no aid, for his lady wears the armour of Pallas, and his spirits are quelled by the terrible Gorgon head and by her countenance and helm and glittering lance. Then Cupid bids him lift up his eyes to the resplendent sun of Glory, which will kindle the courage in his breast and expel all cowardice from it. Glory descends, despoils his lady of the arms of Pallas, and clothes him in in them. Thus armed he wins the joust.”
(Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli Life and Work, pp 64-65)

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera, Primaverai, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

There isn’t a Cupid in sight in the Venus and Mars painting but in actual fact Botticelli, punning on his identity as a satyr, is referring to the portrayal of himself as Cupid in another of his paintings, Primavera. It is said that Botticelli held an unrequited love for Simonetta. The Vespucci family were neighbours of his and may have even commissioned the Venus and Mars painting. Poliziano’s mention of Cupid calling on Giuliano for compassion and aid – for protection from the onslaught of Medusa from the fiery arrows of love despatched by Botticelli in the direction of Simonetta, explains why the artist has enclosed himself in the cuirass supposedly belonging to Giuliano.  

Notice Simonetta’s “stern and angry face” and the light shining on the face of Giuliano, his eyes lifted up to “the resplendent sun of Glory”.

The name Vespucci translates as “little wasps”, symbolised on the family’s “stemma” or coat of arms, hence the wasps featured buzzing around the head of the sleeping figure of Mars/Giuliano/Leonardo. Wasp motifs also feature on the figure of Venus/Pallas/Medusa/Simonetta as a hair braid and the plaited collar of her gown.  The Medusa attributes can be recognised in her hair’s snake tails, and the shield shape of the red cushion under her right arm, similar in shape to a snake head. The protective shield-cum-cushion mirrors the protective cuirass-cum-cushion in the opposite corner of the painting).

So why did Botticelli use the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci to portray the figure of Mars/Giuliano? A terracotta bust of Giuliano de Medici, sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio, is kept at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. It shows Giuliano wearing body armour – a cuirass.

Giuliano de’ Medici by Andrea del Verrocchio, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The front displays a Medusa-type gorgon modelled on the face of a screaming Leonardo da Vinci. Instead of snakes protruding from the head it is encased by feathered wings. The NGA suggests that the bust may have been sculpted to celebrate the occasion of Giuliano’s victory in the joust of January 1475. If this was so, it may also explain one of the reasons why Botticelli modelled the figure of Mars/Giuliano on Leonardo da Vinci. 

The cuirass connection also points to another scenario – the assassination of Giuliano de Medici. On the day he was murdered in the Duomo on Easter Sunday, 1478, two of his assassins accompanied Giuliano to the Cathedral, supporting him on the way as he was suffering from a bout of sciatica. In reality, the two men with their arms around Giuliano, were checking to see if he was wearing a corset of any kind for protection. He wasn’t. Midway through Mass his assassins struck. Bandini Baroncelli plunged a dagger into Giuliano’s chest and Francesco de Pazzi continually stabbed him after he had fallen. Nineteen wounds were inflicted on Giuliano’s body.

My next post will show how Michelangelo embedded features from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars painting in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement fresco. 

Fresco feuds

Detail from the Trials of Moses, by Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

Moses, a man by now, set out at this time to visit his countrymen, and he saw what a hard life they were having; and he saw an Egyptian strike a Hebrew, one of his countrymen. Looking round he saw no one in sight, so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. On the following day he came back, and there were two Hebrews, fighting. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” “And who appointed you” the man retorted “to be prince over us, and judge?” Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened. “Clearly this business has come to light” he thought. When Pharaoh heard of the matter he would have killed Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and made for the land of Midian. And he sat down beside a well. 

This passage from Exodus 2 : 11-15 is referred to in a panel titled “The Trials of Moses” on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel. It was frescoed by Sandro Botticelli and assistants sometime in 1481, about sixty years before Michelangelo completed The Last Judgement Painting on the Chapel’s altar wall.

Botticelli’s portrayal of the Exodus account highlights Moses overpowering the “man who was in the wrong” while the other fighting Hebrew is depicted being comforted and led away by the female figure dressed in blue. Moses is also featured fleeing for the land of Midian.

The Hebrew held down by Moses represents Leonardo da Vinci. His identity is explained at this link: When Leonardo was ‘murdered’ by Moses (and Botticelli) in the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo picked up on the Leonardo association in Botticelli’s fresco and recycled some characteristics to include in his own portrayal of the polymath in The Last Judgment painting – the figure generally referred to as the Damned Man

Although contemporaries, Leonardo and Michelangelo were far from being bosom pals. Michelangelo, apparently a more sensitive soul, reacted to any form of adverse criticism of his work, and Leonardo placed Michelangelo among the group of painters whose muscular figures he described as looking like a sack of walnuts or a bundle of radishes.

Seemingly, Michelangelo never forgot this slight against his work and some two decades later portrayed Leonardo as the Damned Man – inferring that misjudgment of others can lead to condemnation and downfall of oneself. 

In their studies of anatomy both artists dissected corpses to further their knowledge about the workings of the human body. Leonardo is particularly noted for his meticulous anatomical drawings of body parts. Late in his life, Leonardo claimed he had dissected more than thirty corpses.

Michelangelo’s self-portrait in the flayed skin of St Bartholomew.

The flayed skin associated with the martyrdom of St Bartholomew shown in the Last Judgment fresco, features a distorted self-portrait of Michelangelo looking down on the Damned Man. The carcass represents an empty sack, devoid of body parts, a sack empty of walnuts and radishes. Michelangelo has translated these body parts into the figure of Leonardo and the three demons dragging him down to Hell, along with some of the features Botticelli incorporated in his depiction of Moses and the two Hebrew men at odds with each other.

For instance, the green serpent coiled around the upper legs of the Damned Man and biting into his left thigh muscle is akin to some of the snake-like features embedded in the green cloak wrapped around the two figures of Moses.

The horned demon weighing down the Damned Man is meant to mirror Botticelli’s version of the Hebrew on his back, his cloak shaped to represent a shell (see here for explanation of shell connection). The back of Michelangelo’s demon is also shell-shaped and its wrinkled surface represents the shell of a walnut. 

The demon’s two horns mirror the horn-shape features protruding from the hair of the grounded Hebrew. The horns are also refer to the light that shone from the face of Moses (represented as horns) after he had received the Ten Commandments, most notable in the sculpture of Moses made by Michelangelo for the tomb of Pope Julius II and completed in 1545.

The Hebrew’s left foot and claw-shaped hands can be paired with the central demon’s extended leg and claw-shaped foot, coloured red to portray the toes as radishes.

The Damned Man, detail from the Last Judgement by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The demon’s head looks down on the upended demon, as the head of Moses looks down on the upended Hebrew. However, the central demon’s arms are wrapped around the calves of the Damned Man in a similar way the figure of the woman wraps her arms around the upper body of the second Hebrew. Notice also how his left hand is raised to his head in a manner the Damned Man has raised his left hand – the difference being that the second Hebrew can see his opponent with both eyes while the Damned Man is portrayed seeing out of one eye only, perhaps indicating the limit he sets on judging the work of others.

Another incident between the two men also likely stayed with Michelangelo and probably explains the placing of the Damned Man figure in the Last Judgement painting. When Michelangelo had completed his famous giant sculpture of David, a committee was convened to decide on where the work should be placed. Several artists were part of the 30-man group, including Leonardo de Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.

Left: Michelangelo’s marble statue of David. Right: Andrea del Verrocchio’s bronze sculpture of David.

In his book, The Flights of Mind, Charles Nicholl states:

“Leonardo’s opinion about the placing of David is recorded in the minutes of the meeting. ‘I say that it should be placed in the Loggia’ – the Loggia dei Lanzi, opposite the Palazzo Vecchio – ‘as Giuliano has said, behind the low wall where the soldiers line up. It should be put there, with suitable ornaments, in such a way that it does not interfere with the ceremonies of state.’ This opinion, shared by Giuliano da Sangallo but counter to the general view, already expresses an antagonism, a deliberate refusal to be impressed. Let this oversized statue be sidelined in a corner where it won’t get in the way. The true wish expressed is the sidelining of the sculptor himself: this awkward, intrusive genius. Further nuances of umbrage may have arisen in relation to that earlier Florentine David, sculpted by his master Verrocchio, for which the teenage Leonardo is said to have been the model: now, forty years on, this new David outmodes that image of his own youthful promise.”

The Seven Deadly Sins, detail from the Last Judgement by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The Damned Man is part of but set aside from a group of figures that represent the Seven Deadly Sins. In this group we can recognise the form of some of the angels striking down the deadly sinners in similar fashion to Botticelli’s Moses raising his sword and striking down the Hebrew “who was in the wrong”.

To the right of the Damned Man Michelangelo has portrayed a sinner with his back to the viewer akin to the figure of Moses fleeing to Midian after it became known he had murdered an Egyptian and attempted to cover up his crime by burying the corpse in sand.

So which deadly sin does the Damned Man represent? Most likely Envy, and perhaps even Sloth, as Leonardo had a reputation for not completing many of the works commissioned to him.

Both Botticelli and Michelangelo portray the two Hebrew men as two natures of man, or even Leonardo, as good and evil in conflict. Michelangelo’s Dammed Man is not shown beaten down by any heavenly angel as the sinners portrayed alongside, but instead is weighed down by a reflection of his misplaced judgement and envy of others.

More on this in a future post.

Who is ‘The Damned Man’?

This image shows detail from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco painted between 1536 and 1541 on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

I have circled two areas of interest. The upper part depicts a muscular St Bartholomew, said to have been martyred by being skinned alive, hence the skinning knife seen in his right hand and the flayed carcass held in his left hand. However, the face depicted on the carcass has been identified as that Michelangelo. It even shows his broken nose.

The second area of interest shows a man in a sitting position being dragged down to Hell by creatures from the underworld. He is usually referred to as The Damned Man or The Damned Soul. He has never been clearly identified although one commentator, Daniel B. Gallagher, writing for the New York Arts journal, has suggested the figure is a “quasi self-portrait, a tortured Michelangelo [who] assumes the role of someone who has gained the world but forfeited himself.”

For sure, there is a relationship between the distorted portrait of Michelangelo featured on the flayed skin and The Damned Man figure, but my understanding is that the man depicted weighed down by evil spirits is not another portrayal of Michelangelo, but of his rival Leonardo da Vinci.

More on this in a future post.

John the Baptist set for Abu Dhabi

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s most renowned paintings, Saint John the Baptist, is about to make an international trip from its home at the Musée du Louvre in Paris to the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Saint John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre, Paris

The 16th-century painting will be loaned to the Abu Dhabi museum for a period of two years to celebrate the institution’s fifth anniversary. Details at this link.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

Fallen angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail from Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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

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

Detail from Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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

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

Leonardo… a fun guy

Ben Munster at The Art Newspaper reported this week that “a painting of a princess [La Bella Principessa] possibly by the Old Master [Leonardo da Vinci] has been sold digitally – but questions remain over its provenance, the inherent value of non-fungible tokens and who owns what.” Full story at this link.

Leonardo da Vinci’s La Bella Principessa (1495-96)

This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The appellation was given by art historian Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508). Some experts attribute the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci; others oppose the claim. Arguments for and against are presented at this Wikipedia link.

Bianca was born in 1482. She was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes but suffered with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned. Common symptoms of fungi poisoning are gastrointestinal upsets and abdominal pains. 

Observe the discoloured mushroom-shape vent on Bianca’s shoulder. Could this be a reference to the cause of her death? If so, it would indicate the portrait was completed after Bianca had died in 1496. But how soon after the young woman’s death and was the drawing produced by Leonardo?

Bianca was known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband was a patron and friend of the polymath and Leonardo also served at the court of Ludovico Sforza.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph published 12 April 2010, Richard Dorment wrote: “But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”

But what if there is such a document, one produced around the same time the portrait of Bianca Sforza was made, one that points to Leonardo as the artist, and to this day has remained unnoticed by both camps, even though it is in the public domain?

Well, such a document does survive and derives from an earlier 15th century painting by Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. The actual document was produced by another contemporary of Leonardo, the Mantua court painter Andrea Mantegna.

Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna (1497), Louvre Museum

What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of some of Botticelli’s paintings that embed some stinging references to Leonardo who is also the butt of Mantegna’s cutting humour in Parnassus

It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497, a year after the death of Bianca, although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.

Central in the line of the Nine Muses is a faceless figure with her back to the viewer. She represents Bianca Sforza. The colour of her billowing, olive-green dress is matched to the olive shape and colour of the dress worn by La Bella Principessa

The  muse’s dress forms an umbrella shape around her waist, her stomach area, and represents a mushroom cap. Her white leg is the mushroom’s stalk.

When the umbrella shape is rotated 90 degree clockwise, it takes on a silhouette appearance similar to the profile of La Bella Principessa, the vent on the upper thigh representing the vent on the upper arm of the woman in the portrait. There are other details in both women that can be linked. 

As for locating Leonardo in the Parnassus painting, his presence can be found in four locations. I shall reveal these in a future post.

Primavera… past and present sources

So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Firstly, the direction of the flow of figures can be understood as pointing to the painting’s presence and influence of Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath whose mirror-style of writing in his notebooks started from the right side of the page and moved to the left. Other mirror or reflection features are also present.

A sample of Leonardo da Vinci’s mirror writing

But perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration are two illustrations which appear in a 14th century history of Florence by Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica. They record the assassination of a young Florentine nobleman called Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. He was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1216, the morning of his wedding day. Botticelli links this date to the death of Giuliano de’ Medici who was also assassinated on an Easter Sunday – in 1478 – while attending Mass in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 69v, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Figures from both illustrations can be matched to figures in the Primavera. I should point out at this stage that the group of three horses and the lone horse are matched to the group of Three Graces and the figure of Chloris. The groom holding the reins of the horse in the first illustration is matched to Zephyrus. The woman dressed in blue and raised on steps with her right hand extended and her left hand at her side can be compared to the figure of Venus. The woman’s family name is Donati. Her daughter in red, shielded in the doorway, is the inspiration for Flora. The arched windows can be compared to the arched silhouette behind the head of Venus, while the circular windows or roundels are echoed in the oranges. The figure wearing a brown gown is Buondelmonte. The side door to the building also features in the Primavera painting which I shall explain in a later post.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 70r, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The second illustration depicts the slaughter of Buondelmonte. He has just crossed the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio where the old Roman statue of Mars was located before it was swept away in a flood. Notice Mars is facing in the opposite direction of the nearest horse, in the same way he is depicted with his back turned to the nearest figure of the Graces. Notice also the pronounced tail of the horse and the ‘tail’ feature on the Grace figure. The horse saddle is another borrowed feature by Botticelli. He replaced this with Chloris’s cleft-shaped right hand about to be grafted onto Floris’s thigh. 

An unusual feature seen on the three horses is the horn between their ears. The group can also be recognised as three mares. The word mare in Italian translates as ‘sea’. In this context Botticelli has referenced the Three Graces as the three seas that meet at Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (explained in an earlier post). Notice the golden horn hairstyle on the central figure. Her family name is also Donati. She is Lucrezia Donati, said to have been the platonic love of  Lorenzo de’ Medici.

This is the account of Buonedelmonte’s assassination as it appeared in Villani’s Nouva Cronica:

In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Amidei, honourable and notable citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M. Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided. For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghibillines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy. source

That Botticelli sourced two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica, which Villani was inspired to write after attending the first Christian Jubilee in Rome in 1300, suggests the artist may also have been similarly inspired to paint the Primavera after returning in 1482 from his year-long commission in Rome frescoing the Sistine Chapel. The Jubilee year was an opportunity for pilgrims to visit Rome, confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church

The oldest manuscript of the Nuovo Chronica is held in the Vatican Library, formally established in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV. So could Botticelli have set eyes on this manuscript while he was in Rome? 

The Pray Codex is kept at the National Széchényi Library of Budapest.

What may have also inspired Botticelli to utilise the two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica is the knowledge that Jan van Eyck took a similar approach when painting the Arnolfini Portrait. He sourced two illustrations from the Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex to embed references to what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. Like the Primavera, the Arnolfini Portrait has penitential and rebirth themes. The word Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, means “Spring season” or “Springtime”, which translates in Italian as “Primavera”.

There is one other important manuscript that inspired Botticelli’s composition and lineup of figures he painted in Primavera. More on this in a future post.

Lookalikes

Two profile portraits by two different artists, but could the images be of the same woman? The portrait on the left is an early metal point drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and part of the Royal Collection Trust. The painting is by Sandro Botticelli and housed in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. It’s date attribution is 1475 which, if accurate, could probably apply to Leonardo’s drawing as well. 

As to the woman’s identity, several names have been postulated by art historians. The gallery favours Simonetta Vespucci and has titled the painting Bella Simonetta. I favour Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, said to have fathered her child Giulio who later went on to become Pope Clement VII.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, another Florentine painter, portrayed Fioretta in some of the frescoes he produced for the Tornabuoni Chapel, one of which I pointed out in a recent post. Fioretta is also depicted in the Tornabuoni Chapel frescoes titled The Birth of John the Baptist, and Zechariah Writes Down the Name of his Son.

In the Birth fresco Fioretta is shown reaching out to nurse the child. Her profile is very similar to that in Botticelli’s painting. In the Naming fresco Fioretta is seen holding the  swaddled infant and, as pointed out in a previous post Zechariah takes on the identity of Leonardo to link to his painting of Fioretta Gorini but whose identity is mistakingly attributed to Ginevra de Benci.

So what did become of Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth? My understanding is that she became an anchoress in a Carmelite convent attached to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, which still exists today. Leonardo, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio attest to this in their paintings, Botticelli in particular.

But Ghirlandaio’s Visitation fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel is perhaps the most explicit reference in any painting that reveals Fioretta became an anchoress. I showed in an earlier post the connection between the two handmaidens standing behind Elizabeth. The woman nearest is Fioretta as she looks in Leonardo’s so-called Portrait of Ginevra de Benci, housed in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The half-hidden figure represents the Virgin of Carmel, portrayed in another guise as Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera.

The pairing is a reference to Fioretta retreating from secular life to become an anchoress in a Carmelite convent. Notice the right hand of the Carmel Virgin raised in greeting. Observe also Fioretta’s right hand clasped or ‘anchored’ to her left wrist. This motif is adapted from Botticelli’s Primavera and the figure of Chloris’s right hand shaped to be grafted or ‘anchored’ to the Flora’s thigh. Chloris’s other identity is Fioretta Gorini.

Attached to the back of Chloris is the wind god Zephyrus. Attached to the back of the Leonardo’s version of Fioretta in the Visitation fresco is a red building. This is the church of Santa Maria del Carmine.

Returning to the two portraits at the top of the post, notice the darkened branch-shape fold at the base of the woman’s cap in Leonardo’s drawing. A similar shape is seen in the Botticelli painting.

The branch shape in Leonardo’s depiction of Fioretta is likely to have been the inspiration that appears in the trees in the Ginevra de Benci (aka Fioretta Gorini) painting by Leonardo. The branch serves two purposes: to identify the bear silhouette representing St Gallo and so a connection to Antonio da Sangallo whose family cared for Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life, but also as a symbol representing the letter ‘Y’ and its Pythagorus association as a choice of two paths that can be taken in life.

Isidore of Seville, a Spanish cleric, 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 in his painting as taking the narrow, arduous path in becoming an anchoress..

Ghirlandaio echoes the two branches as two sets of supports for the drawbridge feature in The Visitation fresco. In fact, the main theme in the fresco is about support, evidenced in the pairing of Elizabeth and her cousin Mary ‘supporting’ each other.

Finally, the ‘anchored’ hand feature, showing Fioretta’s right hand ‘resting’ on her left wrist does appear to be an unnatural pose, more associated with a subject who is seated and and having their left arm supported on the arm of a chair. But in this image we see Fioretta’s left hand gripping her mantle and revealing a mysterious image beneath her left wrist. It represents a ‘Holy Face’ borrowed from the Primavera painting, more of which I shall explain in a future post.

There is a season for everything*

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.

The Marzocco

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.

Detail from Parnassus, by Andrea Mantegna, Louvre

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)

Of shapes and silhouettes

Detail from The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence

In my last post I pointed out a connection in Botticelli’s Primavera with a fresco panel of The Visitation in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio. In fact, there are several links.

Left: Fioretta Gorini by Leonardo da Vinci. Right: Detail from The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One in particular couples with the Fioretta Gorini portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and confirms the silhouette feature I pointed out connecting the biblical prophet Elijah and the miracle on Mount Carmel in the Primavera painting.

Same shape, different presentations.

The silhouette of Elijah’s profile in the juniper tree to the right of Fioretta is matched by the shape of the summit of the rock formation (representing Mount Carmel) behind the heads of Elizabeth’s two servants. The two women appear to both represent Fioretta Gorini; the woman nearest, with a more rounded face as she looks in Leonardo’s portrait, and the half-hidden figure as in Botticelli’s portrayal of the Virgin in Primavera.

That Ghirlandaio has depicted a shaped stone formation to make reference to Fioretta Gorini, may also be a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta sculpted by Andrea Verrocchio.

A touch of topiary

Disguised within the tree arch behind the figure of the Virgin Mary – who equates with the celestial sign of Virgo – are two more zodiac symbols, Aries and Taurus. In a previous post I revealed another sign, Cancer, as the left arm of the Virgin portrayed as a crab’s leg.

Detail from Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The left side of the arch is Aries, the right, Taurus. To visualise more clearly requires the painting to be rotated. When turned 90 degrees clockwise the shape of a rather bulky Aries the Ram is silhouetted against the sky blue backdrop (A).

(A) – Aries the Ram

Rotating the right side of the arch at 180 degrees, the silhouette (B) produces the bull symbol representing Taurus, its muzzle and two horns pointing in the direction of the Virgin’s left arm.

The reason for the Ram’s bulkiness is that it also represents another bull (C) outlined on its underside, the muzzle and horns pointing downwards to the Virgin’s head.

Left: (B) The bull symbol Taurus… Right: (C) A second bull symbol
The shape of a lion’s head

A third animal is also depicted in the shape at the muzzle end of the ram, the profile of a lion’s head representing the Zodiac symbol Leo, or in terms of constellations, Leo Minor. Leo Major is the profile of the lion’s head formed by the shape of the Virgin’s hair at the right side of her face. 

Apart from its zodiac meaning, the bull iconography refers to certain papal bulls issued during the reign of Sixtus IV. Two issued on the same day, 12 May 1479, concerned the Rule of Order dedicated to the Mother of God of Mount Carmel, and the Recitation of the Marian prayer known as the Rosary. In 1983 Sixtus also issued a bull allowing local bishops to permit bodies of executed criminals and unknown corpses to be dissected by physicians and artists. Botticelli has referenced all three edicts in his Primavera painting.

The two bulls issued on the same day in May 1479 connect to another painter referenced in the Primavera painting – Leonardo da Vinci – known for dissecting corpses in his scientific and artistic pursuit of knowledge about the human body.

Detail of a drawing by Leonardo titled: The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The two bull silhouettes that form the arch behind the Virgin represent a pair of lungs, while her right hand points shape of the lion’s head mentioned earlier, and representing the zodiac sign Leo – or Leonardo.

The background silhouette feature is also a pointer to a similar detail in a painting by Leonardo supposedly depicting Ginevra de’ Benci. However, the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, the same woman portrayed as the Virgin Mary in Botticelli’s Primavera.

Detail from Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini, showing the silhouette of Elijah – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The silhouette seen in the Juniper tree featured in Leonardo’s painting has two representations, the biblical prophet Elijah, and Saint Gall (as in gallbladder). The reference to Elijah connects to the biblical account (1 Kings 18:16-45) when the prophet challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah said: “Let two bulls be given us; let them choose one for themselves, dismember it and lay it on wood, but not set fire to it. I in my turn will prepare the other bull and not set fire to it. You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of mine; the god who answers with fire is God indeed.” The outcome was that fire fell on Elijah’s sacrifice but not on the bull offered by the prophets of Baal.

I shall post at another time details about the Rosary prayer depicted in Primavera, but to suffice to say it connects to another Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the artists who worked alongside Botticelli on the Sistine Chapel frescoes.

When Ghirlandaio completed his time in Rome he was commissioned to produce a series of frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in the Florentine basilica of Santa Trinita. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi. One scene, portraying the death of Francis, shows a man dressed in red and blue and with his right hand feeling into the vent or incision on the side of the corpse. He is depicted as Leonardo da Vinci who, unlike the praying friars around him, prefers instead to study the cadaver. 

A section of the fresco, Death of Francis, 1483-86, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel.

The frescoes were produced between 1483-86. Shortly before completion Ghirlandaio and his workshop started on another cycle of frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from the life of St John the Baptist. Both cycles contain references to Botticelli’s Primavera painting. 

Detail from The Visitation fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The Visitation scene from the Baptist cycle is centred on the meeting of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. Standing behind Elizabeth are two women shown as ladies in waiting. The one half-hidden behind the other is matched to Fioretta Gorini as depicted in Primavera.

Fioretta is also shown ‘half-hidden’ and facing the viewer in the group of three women placed at the left edge of the frame. This group is Ghirlandaio’s hat-tip to the Three Graces seen in Primavera who are Fioretta Gorini, Lucrezia Donati, and Simonetta Vespucci. As to why the three women in The Visitation scene are shown with halos, it could be that they have all been portrayed as the Virgin Mary in some of Botticelli’s paintings.

Another scene from the life of John the Baptist that features Leonardo and Fioretta is the panel titled: Zechariah Write’s John’s Name. More details in an earlier post at this link.

Primavera and Leonardo da Vinci

Detail of the drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo – Leonardo da Vinci International Committee

I recently came across a report published at artnet news that an Italian researcher, Annalisa Di Maria, had discovered a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci portraying Jesus Christ. Experts have still to support Annalisa’s claim, but they may be interested to know the drawing is referred to in Botticelli’s Primavera.

I shall reveal more about this in a future post.

In my first post of a series intended to reveal the alternative narratives in Primavera, I pointed out that the painting was inspired by two other artists, Leonardo da Vinci and, in particular, Jan van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci

Congression narratives

So here’s how Sandro Botticelli gave clues as to the identity of one of the Three Graces in his Primavera painting being Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. Fioretta is the muse depicted back to back with the figure generally described as Mars, but who Botticelli has applied several other identities, one being Giuliano.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Giuliano de’ Medici, terracotta bust by Andrea del Verrocchio, National Gallery of Art.

There is a terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici displayed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. It was created by the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio between 1475 and 1478. Giuliano is depicted wearing a cuirass, armour made in two pieces to protect the chest and back. It is emblazoned with an unusual gorgon-type feature, a winged head of a man screaming in fear. There is a separate narrative to this feature but suffice to say at this stage the screaming head is modelled on Leonardo da Vinci, an apprentice in Verrocchio’s studio at the time.

A depiction of Leonardo da Vinci on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici
Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Lady with a Bouquet of Flowers, Andrea del Verrocchio, Bargello Museum, Florence

The cuirass links to Fioretta Gorini in that not only was she the daughter of a cuirass maker but also the subject of a painting by Leonardo that is mistakingly identified by some art historians as Ginerva de Benci, painted sometime between 1474 and 1478. Fiorretta also links back to another work by Verrochio, a marble bust known as the Lady with a Bouquet of Flowers, dated between 1475 and 1480, and housed at the Bargello Museum, Florence.

The woman in both works is almost identical and it has been speculated that Verrocchio’s sculpture was the inspiration for Leonardo’s painting, hence its stony appearance, softened only by the rolling curls of her golden hair. But there may be another reason for Fioretta’s blank expression, one which connects to the death of Giuliano who was assassinated on April 26, 1478, Easter Sunday. This would also date the painting sometime afterwards.

Verrocchio’s two sculptures and Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta are all referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera. His linking of the three works in this way confirms the Fioretta portraits by Verrocchio and Leonardo are one and the same woman.

However, unlike the Leonardo portrait and Verrocchio’s marble bust that show Fioretta with a curled hairstyle, Botticelli has portrayed her with hair that flows loose. The strands represent snakes and refer to the Gorgon known as Medusa whose stare could turn people into stone, therefore linking to the gorgon feature on Giuliano’s breastplate. Notice also the form representing a breastplate, or the front section of a cuirass, underneath Fioretta’s diaphorous dress.

Detail of Fioretta Gorini from Botticelli’s Primavera painting, Uffizi, Florence

The mention of stone is also a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta made by Verrocchio, but to confirm what type of stone –marble – Botticelli introduced another clue which relates to a disclosure made in a previous post, that the painting refers to the Council of Florence in 1437, an ecumenical “congress” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church governed from Constantinople (Istanbul).

In this scenario the group of Three Graces are portrayed as flowing water used for baptism into the Christian faith. They also represent the three water features that meet at Istanbul, namely the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea. The central figure of Lucrezia Donati represents the Golden Horn; Simonetta Vespucci, the Bosphorus; and Fioretta Gorini, the Marmara Sea whose name is taken from Marmara Island “a rich source of marble” and the Greek word mármaron, meaning marble”.

The Marmarar Sea, the Golden Horn, and the Bosphorus

The marble bust of Fioretta shows her holding a small bouquet of flowers. This is echoed by Botticelli with the gold-leaf, petalled brooch worn by Fioretta. It refers to her name meaning “little flower”. It also links back to another painting by Botticelli, the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which shows Leonardo da Vinci wearing a gold leaf on his chest, pictured right.

There are two other references in Primavera on the relationship between Leonardo and Fioretta which I shall post on at another time.

The Annunciation and the Primavera

The Annunciation by by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

This is one of my favourite paintings, The Annunciation by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci. Today, March 25, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to the Virgin Mary to convey the message that she would conceive and bear a son who was to be named Jesus.

Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary of Leonardo, also records the event in his Primavera painting. The woman with the central role in the scene is generally assumed to be the figure of Venus, goddess of love. Although there are other mythological identities applied to her by Botticelli, he also makes clear the woman’s foremost identity is that of the Virgin Mary, 

Botticelli does this by referencing a biblical description applied to Luke the Evangelist and a patron saint of artists, that of a winged Ox, and also to a verse from his account of the Annunciation – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).

The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.

The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.

There are other pointers to Leonardo connected to this figure which I shall explain in a future post as they relate to a separate narrative Botticelli has included in the Primavera.

When the time came for Mary and her new-born child to be purified, as laid down by the Law, she presented him in the Temple at Jerusalem. There, an old man named Simeon announced to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, “so that the secrets of many may be laid bare”. This is represented by the pointed blade symbols forming a cross over the Virgin’s heart, and the suspended circular medallion depicting the deposition of Jesus in his tomb.

Simeon’s words is another verse 35, but from chapter two of Luke’s Gospel. 

More on the Primavera figure of Mary and her Florentine connection in a future post.

Roses among thorns

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli is the artist whose name will be forever associated with the world famous Renaissance painting known as Primavera that is displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. But I doubt if there are many observers out there who realise the Springtime scene was inspired by two other celebrated artists, Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci.

Jan Van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci

A link to Leonardo is understandable; he was a contemporary of Botticelli working in Florence. But Van Eyck, how so?

My next series of posts will deal with revealing the Primavera connections to Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci as well as uncovering a contemporary narrative at a level beyond any first impressions that the painting simply depicts a scene from classical mythology.

His name is…

Here’s an interesting figure painted by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. It represents two people and appears in one of a series of frescoes depicting the life of John the Baptist displayed in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

At surface level the figure represents Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, in the process of naming his new-born son. But Ghirlandaio also embedded another narrative in the scene centred on Leonardo da Vinci and presents the artist in the process of drawing and making a study of Fioretta Gorini representing the Virgin Mary and her Child.

Detail from the fresco, Zechariah Writes John’s Name, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel

The composition is inspired by a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, the Testimony and Death of Moses painted in 1481-82, while the commission for the Tornabuoni Chapel paintings was carried out between 1486-90.

Testimony and Death of Moses, Sistine Chapel

More on this in a future post.

Leonardo’s Head of a Bear up for auction

A small drawing of a bear’s head by Leonardo da Vinci is expected to sell for up to £12m ($16.7m) at a London auction today.

Measuring 7x7cm, Head of a Bear is more than 500 years old.

The sale could surpass the previous record for a da Vinci drawing, set by the Horse and Rider in 2001.

According to Christie’s auction house, holding the sale, it is among just a few drawings by the Italian Renaissance master which are still privately owned.

More details at this link.

UPDATE: The drawing sold for a record £8.8m ($12.1m).