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 Fioretti 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 Virgin and Child study.

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).

More on the Mantuan Roundel

So who did produce the Mantuan Roundel, the Renaissance artefact which 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.

Smoke and Leonardo’s eye

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.

Botticelli’s Adoration of the Christ Child

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.

The museum’s website provides this description:

“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.

This would place the completion of the Botticelli painting at an earlier date than c1500 for Mantegna to have had sight of it and reference it in the Parnassus. Other Botticelli works are also alluded to in the Mantegna painting, as are several references to Leonardo da Vinci.

So why would Botticelli choose to depict himself as the Christ Child? What narrative was he presenting when he did this, and how did it relate to the other artists featured in the painting?

This seemingly simple Nativity is embedded with much more than what appears at surface level.

Some answers and more details about this painting in a future post.

More heads… and shoulders

This is the second part of a sequence demonstratrating how Hugo van der Goes ‘translated’ iconography from Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Desert (see previous two posts) to the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section of the St Vincent Panels.

The Vatican Museums which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Jerome dates the unfinished work to c1482, the year that is also put forward for the death of Hugo van der Goes.

Below are details from two versions of the St Jerome painting, before and after its latest restoration. At some time the oil on wood panel was cut into five parts, generally considered to have happened after Leonardo had died in 1519. You can see some of the cut marks on the earlier version that frame Jerome’s head. The latest restoration has also brought back to life the sky backdrop which tapers to a sharp point and which had been overpainted on a previous restoration, probably at the time the cut-down pieces were reassembled.

Apart from representing tassels hanging from a cardinal’s hat, the larger mount and the smaller one next to it equate to the ears of both donkey and hare, attributes associated with the story of St Jerome in the desert.

Both the tapering gap between the rock formation and the vertical cut mark which runs through Jerome’s shoulder are two key components adpated by Hugo van der Goes for linking Leonaardo’s Jerome painting to his own version of Jerome in the Panel of the Relic.

There is another scenario to this coupling which refers to an injury sustained by Leonardo which I shall put aisde for posting at another time.

Hugo has converted the tapering sky section to represent the ears of the donkey and the hare. As for the cut mark, was the panel already in pieces when Hugo had sight of the painting? Possibly, because he has shown a saw blade cutting into the shoulder of his version of Jerome, parallel with the representation of the hare. But in this instance the hare now becomes a blade. Here we see Hugo punning on saw (sore) shoulder and shoulder blade!

Another pun made by Hugo is hare to hair. Leonardo was noted for writing fables and humerous anecdotes in his notebooks. One such fable in Notebook XX is about a razor blade:

The razor having one day come forth from the handle which serves as its sheath and having placed himself in the sun, saw the sun reflected in his body, which filled him with great pride. And turning it over in his thoughts he began to say to himself: “And shall I return again to that shop from which I have just come? Certainly not; such splendid beauty shall not, please God, be turned to such base uses. What folly it would be that could lead me to shave the lathered beards of rustic peasants and perform such menial service! Is this body destined for such work? Certainly not. I will hide myself in some retired spot and there pass my life in tranquil repose.” And having thus remained hidden for some months, one day he came out into the air, and issuing from his sheath, saw himself turned to the similitude of a rusty saw while his surface no longer reflected the resplendent sun. With useless repentance he vainly deplored the irreparable mischief saying to himself: “Oh! how far better was it to employ at the barbers my lost edge of such exquisite keenness! Where is that lustrous surface? It has been consumed by this vexatious and unsightly rust.”
The same thing happens to those minds which instead of exercise give themselves up to sloth. They are like the razor here spoken of, and lose the keenness of their edge, while the rust of ignorance spoils their form.

Fables of Leonardo da Vinci (Book, 1973) [WorldCat.org]

I previously identified the “rustic peasant” as Jan van Eyck representing John the Baptist, but there are two more identities asociated with the figure which I shall reveal in one of my next posts in this series.

Hugo’s Jerome figure also represents cardinal Henry Beaufort, one of the richest men in England during his lifetime. The portrait is adapted from Jan van Eyck’s version of Beaufort, and not just because of his razored haircut. Notice in Van Eyck’s Beaufort (not dressed as a cardinal) the gament’s sleeves lined with sheep-wool – and shaped to represent the ears of a donkey – a reference to Beaufort’s Midas touch at turning everything into riches!

Bringing matters to a head

This post is the first of a sequence demonstratrating how Hugo van der Goes ‘translated’ iconography from Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Desert (see previous post) to the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section of the St Vincent Panels.

Hugo utilised Leonardo’s crucifixion sketch to depict the profled head of Christ crucified which is placed facing the pilgrim’s left hand, whose knuckles also echo the head shape Leonardo formed on Jerome’s right shoulder. This similitude links to a passage from Mark’s gospel (15:34) when Jesus was dying on his cross and cried out: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” (Mark 15 :34). Some in attendance mistakenly thought he was calling out to Elijah. The head shape on the knuckle represents Elijah forsaking Jesus and turning away frorm him.

The Father figure is found in the hair section covering the pilgrim’s temple. This is similar to the crucifixion motif formed by Pilate’s ear and hairline in the Panel of he Friars. The connection is one of several made between the two panels and also links to a major theme that runs through all six sections of the painting – the words of the Nicene Creed.

The galero or cardinal’s hat and tassels are not difficult to pick out. The cardinal’s hat is shaped hanging down at the side of Hugo’s figure of Jerome, while the tassels, depicted as thorn tassels in this instance, are attached to the corners of the green cloth.

More on this in my next post.

In search of Piero… part 3

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.

In search of Piero… part 2

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.

More on this in my next post.

In search of Piero… part 1

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.

Pareidolia in practise

Pareidolia: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. (Merriam-Webster dictionary)

Detail from The Virgin Adoring the Child by Sandro Botticelli

Here’s an example of Sandro Botticelli putting into practice some advice Leonardo da Vinci gave in one of his notebooks on the subject of Pareidolia. It’s a sample of several references Botticelli makes to Leonardo in his painting. More details at this link.

This is what Leonardo wrote in his notebook on the subject:

A Way of Development and Arousing the Mind to Various Inventions:
“I cannot forbear to mention among these precepts a new device for study which, although it may seem but trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless extremely useful in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells in whose jangle you may find any name or word you choose to imagine.”

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Chapter IX, The Practice of Painting

Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna

The Benoir Madonna, on display at the Louvre exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Reuters

I recently read in the Washington Post that the famed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, kept at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, will not be crossing the Atlantic as part of the Louvre’s upcoming exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.

However, visitors to the Paris exhibition will be able to view an alternative version of the so-named Ginevra de’ Benci. The same woman sat for an earlier painting by Leonardo – the Madonna and Child with Flowers, otherwise known as the Benois Madonna. It has travelled to Paris from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, 1478, by Leonardo da Vinci,
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

In previous posts I presented evidence suggesting the woman identified in the portrait by art historians is not Ginevra de’ Benci but Fioretta Gorini, said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. It is Fioretta and her child Giulio who are portrayed in the Benois Madonna.

The painting is thought to have been started in October 1478. A note in Leonardo’s handwriting and kept in the Uffizi in Florence states (“… 1478 I started painting two Virgin Mary’s). One of these is considered to be the Benois Madonna and the date of October 1478 was around five months after Fioretta gave birth to her son. Another source states that Fioretta was likely to have been only 15 years old at the time Giulio was born. This would explain her notably youthful appearance in the painting.

Fioretta’s child Giulio was eventually taken into care by the family of one of his godparents, Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder). Although the boy was said to be the son of Giuliano de’ Medici, it wasn’t until he had reached the age of seven that Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s brother, brought him into the Medici family to raise him as one of his sons.

Seemingly, soon after her son’s birth, Fioretta gave up her child and entered a religious community. Although there are no written records to suggest this, there are paintings by Leonardo’s contemporaries, notably Sandro Botticelli, that point to Fioretta surrendering her son and joining a religious order. Leonardo also points to this outcome in his two paintings of Fioretta – the Ginevra de’ Benci portrait and the Benois Madonna.

One of the features in the Benois Madonna painting that tempts art historians to suggest the work is unfinished, as some of Leonardo’s other early paintings, is the large vacant window above the Infant’s head. It contains nothing but the sky – no trees, no buildings, no mountains, just the sky and not even any clouds.

Such is its size and prominence that in its fnished or even unfinished state, it is there to make a statement. It contrasts greatly with the room’s dark interior, hardly adding any light to the backdrop. Light from another source appears to fall on the two figures – or does it? Could this light simply be a statement to reflect Christ’s claim as being the “light of the world”?

The window is shaped as a diptych, generally understood as a painting for an altarpiece, made of two-hinged panels that can be opened and closed like a book. In this instance what we see is almost like a blank canvas, but then it can be said that God constantly paints a new canvas – a new sky – day and night.

The diptych can also be understood as the two tablets representing the law handed down from Heaven to Moses on Mount Sinai and written in stone, referred to as the Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments. So both Old and New Testaments (the Christ Child) are symbolised in the painting. As for the absence of any written list of heavenly commandments, Leonardo simply translates the list as an expression of the heavenly “light of God”.

When Moses was born the Pharaoh had decreed that all new-born boys of Hebrew mothers were to be drowned in the Nile. Likewise, Herod issued a similar command after the birth of Jesus, that all boys under the age of two were to be slaughtered. Following the assassination of Giuliano de Medici in Florence Cathedral and the attack on his brother Lorenzo, known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, much bloodletting took place in acts of revenge against the consiprators and anyone considered associates. They were dangerous times, and in the aftermath Pope Sixtus lV placed Florence under interdict and further attempts were made to oust the Medici’s from power. In this light it can be understood why Fioretta’s child was intially placed into the care and protection of the Sangallo family and not the Medici’s, and even why Fioretta, reputed to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and mother of his child, sought sanctuary and protection within the walls of a convent.

After Moses was born his mother kept him hidden for three months. When she could no longer hide him she placed the child inside a papyrus basket coated with bitumen and pitch and laid it among the reeds at the edge of the river Nile. When the Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river to bathe, one of her servant girls noticed the basket and brought it to Pharaoh’s daughter who recognised the infant as a child of one of the Hebrews. The servant girl was the sister of the child and offered to find a nurse among the Hebrew women. She found the child’s mother and Pharaoh’s daughter asked the woman to take the child and suckle it for her. When the child grew up the mother brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son, naming him Moses because, she said “I drew him out of the water”. (Exodus 2 : 1-10)

From this we can see parallels with Fioretta and her son Giulio. She kept him for a while before handing him over to the Sangallo family and then later to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence.

The Moses narrative is usually described as “The Finding of Moses in the Bullrushes”. In Fioretta’s case the parallel is “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple” – her conversion to faith, and choosing to enter religious life..

So apart from the diptych as a reference to the tablets given to Moses, what other features in the painting point to finding the Hebrew prophet? First there is Fioretta’s basket-weave hairstyle, not only a reference to the woven basket which Moses was placed in but also to the Vinci name, which means “to entwine”. The ‘entwinement’ continues into a large knot and then flows down along Fioretta’s shoulder. The ‘flow’ start to take shape behind her ear – poorly drawn and painted, according to some critics, and not by the hand of Leonardo. The shape represents an Egyptian sphinx, crouching and protecting the neck of Fioretta.

Detail from Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini depicted as the Benois Madonna.

The Egyptian sphinx is usually depicted as having the body of a lion and a man’s head. In this instance the feature shows two heads, that of a bull (found among the bullrushes), and of a human shown in the bull’s nose. The flow of hair represents the river Nile, on whose west bank Egypt’s Great Sphinx stands and guards the entrance to Giza.

The Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. Notice the similarity and roundness of the face of the sphinx in comparison to Fioretta. Notice also the lion profile extended at the side of the head above the shoulder. The pyramid also has a role in Leonardo’s portrait of “Ginevra de’ Benci” which depicts the shape of a pyramid on her rght shoulder.

The Greek version of the sphinx generally has the face of a woman and wings of an eagle. Leonardo has combined the two, Greek and Egyptian. The shoulder reference represents the wing; the flow of hair, the wind. The Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent and the Greek version as cruel and malicious. Both were recognised as temple and tomb guardians.

The Greek sphinx is associated with the legend of “Riddle of the Sphinx” where travellers were allowed passage only if they could answer a riddle posed by the sphinx. If they failed to give the correct answer, they were strangled. One of the riddles was: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters? The answer – day and night – lends itself to Leonardo’s presentation of light and darkness in the Benois Madonna painting. Notice also how close the head of Leonardo’s sphinx is to the woman’s ear. Leonardo, perhaps a riddle in himself, wrote riddles in his notebooks.

The large knot behind Fioretta’s ear represents the sphinx’s riddle – and is a reference to the Gordonian Knot associated with Alexander the Great. It impossible to untie or see how it was fastened until Alexander sliced it through with his sword. This is Leonardo’s clever way of pointing to the assassination of Giulio de Medici and the Pazzi family’s plot, with others, to overthrow the Medici family as rulers of Florence. In the attack Giuliano was stabbed several times and killed by having part of his head sliced. Lorenzo escaped death, receiving only a cut to his neck.

Symbols of mourning and distress at the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici. However, the feathered strands of hair next to the ear’s orifice, and the angel’s feathers framing the open-mouthed depiction of Leonardo, also serve to point to a childhood memory recorded by Da Vinci in one of his notebooks.

Fioretta’s ear, isn’t badly drawn or painted as some critics have assumed. It depicts a hooded mourner screaming in grief and anguish, possibly Fioretta herself on hearing the news of Giuliano’s murder. A similar motif appears on the terracotta bust of Giuliano made by Andrea del Verrocchio. The gorgon feature shown on the breastplate is a wailing angel with its mouth wide open. The model for the ‘guardian angel’ was Leonardo da Vinci. On the day he was assassinated, Giuliano had chosen not to wear his normal body armour under his clothes.

Leonardo has also included a second subtle ‘scream’ feature, that of Giuliano himself, made from the ‘feathered’ strands of hair hanging over Fioretta’s temple, and so pointing to Giuliano’s murder in the Temple.

These features confirm the painting was started sometime after Giuliano was killed on Aril 26, 1478, and also after the birth of Fioretta’s son a month later, supporting the the note made by Leonardo later that year that the Benois Madonna was likely to be one of the “two Marie’s” he had started to paint.

The Moses references in this painting, along with those of Giuliano de Medici, Fioretta and the sphinx are all mirrored in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli also included references from Leonardo’s unfinished version of the Adoration of the Magi and his version of Jerome in the Wilderness. The latter work is part of the current Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre.

More on Fioretta Gorini

Continued from previous posts: • Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the WordShe gave birth to a sonWhatever happend to Fioretta Gorini?

Detail from the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testimony and Death of Moses.

This detail is from a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testimony and Death of Moses. It shows Moses seated and preaching to a group of people, women and children on the left, men on the right. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant. It is strategically placed at the side of two of the women with a babe in arms, one standing the other seated on the ground. They represent the Madonna and Child, a repeated subject of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings.

Guardan angels… Giuliano de’ Medici in the forefront can be matched to his depiction in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. The second angel is likely to represent Botticelli.

There are two angels standing behind the seated Madonna. The angel in the forefront, wrapped in prayer beads, is modelled on Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in 1478, some three years before the fresco was completed. Giuliano is portrayed as a guardian angel, keeping watch over the seated Madonna and Child who are modelled on Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio. There are three versions of Fioretta. The second is the figure standing immediately behind the seated woman, also with a child in arms, and the third depiction is the head behind the head of the standing woman.

Let’s take a closer look at the last mentioned. She is closely matched to Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci – aka Fioretta Gorini (right). Her hair is tied with a simple scarf, without decoration. Her eyes are looking to the right. Someone has caught her attention. It is Leonardo (not in the frame), the artist who painted her portrait. The fierce-looking woman on Fioretta’s shoulder is her protectress, a Gorgon feature, with a reputation of turning anyone who looked at her into stone.

The stone refererence is a reminder of the marble sculpture Verrocchio made of Fioretta – Lady with a Bouquet – and his terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici that shows a Gorgon feature on the breastplate depicting Leonardo as an angel. Fioretta’s father was a cuirasser who made protective armour. The breastplates would likely feature a Gorgon symbol.

The Giuliano and Leonardo ‘double-head’ also links to the appearance of a ‘double-head’ on the Fioretta figure in the fresco. This in turn provides another connection to Fioretta’s identity and Leonardo – a drawing made by the artist that is now housed in the British Museum. It depicts the Virgin and Infant Christ holding a cat. The Virgin is portrayed with a ‘double-head’ and it is this feature that the fresco artist has adopted and coalesced with the head of Fioretta in Leonardo’s painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci.

This composition detail in Leonardo’s drawing is echoed in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Particularly interesting in the Leonardo sketch is the cat turning its head seeking to escape from the grip of the Infant Christ. The same ‘escape’ motif is replicated in the fresco. So who does the child represent wanting to escape from the woman? Leonardo’s drawing is © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This combination and reference to Leonardo’s drawing also reveals that the woman in the sketch is Fioretta Gorini. The sketch and, more notably, a similar drawing in reverse and on the recto side of the sheet were prelimany drawings for the painting attributed to Leonardo and known as the Benoir Madonna. More on this in a future post.

Leonardo’s two drawings of the Madonna and the Infant Christ holding a cat (British Museum) which were preliminary sketches for his painting, the Benoir Madonna, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The double-head feature in the fresco is meant to portray Fioretta at two stages in life, or two paths open to her. One that leads to death, the other to new life. She takes the path of transfiguration or religious conversion. Death, in the guise of the gorgon and representing her lover Giuliano de’ Medici, is at her side, after which she gives birth to her son.

Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo by Piero di Cosimo, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Over her gold-decorated dress she puts on a purple cloak of ‘mourning’ and repentance, turning her head to the ‘Joseph’ figure opposite who is gazing adoringly at Fioretta’s child. In this instance the man is portrayed as Giuliano da Sangallo, brother of Antonio, the man who took charge of Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life. Giuliano is depicted instead of Antonio to link to the name of Giuliano de’ Medici and identify Fioretta’s son who was named Giulio.

The third stage in the transformation of Fioretta’s life shows her seated on the ground (an act of humility), simply dressed and holding her child. Her blue and gold garments are matched in colour to those seen in the Benoir Madonna. Her blue cap with its gold wings is similar to the cap and colours seen on the Moses figure and also in the figure of his successor Joshua shown elsewhere in the painting. The blue cap and gold ‘wings’ represent an anointing by the Holy Spirit.

In my previous post I suggested that Fioretta had joined a religious community of Carmelites. I mentioned also her connection to the Sangallo family and that one of the attributes of Saint Gallo was a bear carrying a piece of wood. Another attribute of the saint is a hermit’s tau staff and in the Sistine Chapel fresco we see Giuliano Sangallo leaning on a such a staff. Its end is placed at the bare feet of Fioretta. This is another pointer to Fioretta’s hermitic life, her removal from the world and discalced status, and also a reference back to Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta that art historians have mistakenly identified as Ginervra de’ Benci.

Fioretta Gorini with her child Giulio, watched over by Giuliano de’ Medici portrayed as an angel, and (right) Giuliano da Sangallo.

Fioretta’s ‘three-in-one” transformation connects to the transfiguration of Moses who was seen in a new light by the people when he descended from Mount Sinai after conversing with God. The first figure in the line of men on the right of the fresco is Elijah who, along with Moses, featured in the transfiguration of Jesus when he ascended a mountain in the company of three of his disciples. His face shone like the sun and God the Father’s voice was heard to say: This is my beloved son, with who I am well pleased; listen to him,” repeating the same words he spoke when Jesus was baptised by John in the wilderness. (Mark 1:11, 9:7)

Historians record Giuliano de’ Medici as the father of Fioretta’s son. Following the assassination of Giulio, his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici was informed by Antonio da Sangallo of the child’s birth and that Giuliano was its father. But was he?

More on this in a future post.