Botticelli’s Siena roundel… part 2

The centre section of the roundel – the area containing the image of the saint, not the frame – is said to be an earlier work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini and which was later recessed into the main panel by Botticelli. But there is no definite proof of this and the saint has never been identified.

Taking into account that the figure of the young man is Piero de Lorenzo di’ Medici and modelled on Donatello’s Marzocco lion, the roundel therefore represents a shield, a symbol of both protection and identity. However, in this instance the roundel seemingly has no connection to the style of shield or the red lily emblem associated with Florence. Instead Botticelli has subsituted references to Siena, a rival neighbour south of Florence, noted for its saints and preachers.

The most obvious reference is the colour of the frame – burnt sienna – derived from an earth pigment known as terra di Siena and sourced from the region during the Renaissance. Yellowish-brown in its raw state, it turns to reddish-brown when heated and is then referred to as burnt sienna. The heating or conversion process is implied by the fiery colours used as the base for the saintly portrait.

This section of the painting represents two of the classic four elements in Greek philosophy – Earth and Fire. The two other elements are Air (the heavenly sky background) and Water (the colour of Piero’s deep blue tunic).

Sotheby’s auction catalogue states “the saint lacks any identifiable attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised as an apparent gesture of blessing”. However the ‘sign of the horns’ is an attribute which can be identified with two particular saints – Moses, and his assistant Hoshea whose name was later changed to Joshua. So is the saint in the roundel, Moses or Joshua? Perhaps the figure is meant to represent both, as well as other biblical prophets and preachers.

There are other themes incorporated in the roundel to suggest it was produced by Botticelli during Piero’s time and is not the work of the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini. This is borne out by several references to the roundel, Siena, and Botticelli in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna.

An earlier Sienese painter most likely to have inspired the style of roundel replicated by Botticelli was Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319). One of his most famous works is the Maestà commissioned by the city of Siena in 1308. The front of the the altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary and Child enthroned, surrounded by numerous angels and saints. The predella is a series of panels depicting the Childhood of Christ, interspersed with images of six prophets.

It is a section of this predella that was the lkely source for Botticelli and his portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel. The scene illustrates the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. Left of the scene stands the ‘weeping prophet’ Jeremiah (B), and on the right is the prophet Hosea (D) showing the ‘sign of the horns’.

Another work partly attributed to Duccio is an altarpiece referred to as Polyptych No. 47, again featuring the Virgin with Child accompanied by angels and prophets. Above the Virgin is a panel depicting Moses (C), his left hand displaying the “sign of the horns”.

Was this portrait of Moses (C) the basis for the saint (A) shown in the roundel? If so, what connection was Botticelli making to want to link Moses, or any other ‘prophet’ it represented, with Piero?

More on this in a future post

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.

Niche work

Artist, goldsmith and sculptor Andrea del Verroccio, self portrait, c 1468-70, Uffizi, Florence

Andrea del Verroccio is probably better known for his work as a sculptor than a painter. Even the two principal figures in his Baptism of Christ painting appear rigid as if placed on pedestals. Both Christ and John the Baptist are shown standing on the bedrock of the shallow river Jordan with their feet submerged in water. The weight of each man is placed on his right leg and balanced by the left. The feet are the ‘footings’ or ‘founds’ supporting the whole body which in this scenario can be understood as Christ’s body representing the Church he founded.

I mentioned in a previous post how the river is depicted as both water and blood and is connected to the Massacre of the Innocents carried out by King Herod, and also the later beheading of John the Baptist. But there are also two other events which link to the blood and water theme: (1) the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church, seen as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) when Jesus was pierced with a lance at his crucifixion and the wound was seen to pour out blood and water.

His pierced side was later witnessed by Thomas, one of the disciples who had doubted Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus later appeared to him he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet and telling him, “Give me you hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”

Before he painted the Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Merchant’s Guild in Florence to produce a bronze sculpture depicting Christ and St Thomas. This bronze and the niche it was placed in on an exterior wall of the Orsanmichel was the main source of inspiration for Verrocchio when he came to outlining his composition for the Baptism painting completed in 1475. Work on the bronze sculpture very ikely took a back seat at times as it was not unveiled and in situ until 1483.

Christ and St Thomas, 1467-83, Andrea del Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence
© photo courtesy of Ron Reznick, digital-images.net
Donatello’s gilded bronze of St Louis of Toulouse

The niche, or tabernacle, where Christ and St Thomas was displayed (it still is, but a copy), was previously occupied by Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture of St Louis of Toulouse, completed in 1425. However, in 1459 the niche was sold to the Merchant’s Guild and Verrochio was commissioned to fill the gap with his bronze. The niche itself is said to have been sculpted by Donatello. Verrochio paid tribute to his former master by referencing some its features for his Baptism of Christ, as well as linking his painting to a legend attributed to St Louis.

The stance of Christ and St Thomas in the bronze commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild echoes the two standing figures in the Baptism painting. Donatello’s predella supporting the tabenacle area features two winged-angels carrying a wreath crown. These are the two ‘angels’ portrayed by Verrocchio. One carrying Christ’s garments and kneeling on the rock shelf by the waterside.

Donatello’s tabernacle showing the pediment and the frieze, montaged with the predella.
© photo courtesy of Ron Reznick, digital-images.net

The two heads looking out at the ends of the predella, facing right and left, are the two heads in the rock outcrop in the painting – one is King Herod, the other Goliath. It’s likely the heads featured on the predalla may refer to Greek or Roman philosophers.

The Trinity represented in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ.

Centred on Donatello’s triangular pediment are three heads encircled within a winged olive crown. They represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is also referenced in Verrochio’s painting and is an integral part of the Baptism of Christ account in John’s Gospel. The Father’s two hands are seen extending from Heaven, while the Spirit is coming down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus.

The frieze below the pediment is a twist bracelet of four winged-cherubs. The four heads represent four identities Verrocchio has linked to the face of the baptised Christ.

The spiralled columns inside the tabernacle and their Ionic capitals are the inspiration for the palm tree and its crown on the left of the painting, matched on the other side by the Baptist’s shaft crowned with a golden cross.

The scalloped ceiling inside the dome of the tabenacle is represented by the dish used by the Baptist to pour water over Christ’s head. The patterned scallop is echoed by the arrowed rays emanating from Heaven.

Either side of the dome are two angels with an arm reaching out along the arch, in a manner similar to the portrayal of John the Baptist reaching out over the head of Jesus. This is also reflected in the actual sculpture with Jesus’ right hand outstretched over Thomas and blessing the doubting disciple.

Doubting Thomas reaches into the side of Christ and the wound made by a soldier’s lance
Leonardo’s angel bearing Christ’s baptismal gown

As far as matching Thomas touching the side wound of Jesus, this is shown in the kneeling figure of the angel said to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Here Leonardo is drawing attention to the shoulder wound he apparently carried throughout his life (represented by him carrying the robe worn by Jesus – or even a shroud – and so referring to the death and resurrection aspect of baptism). The cloth can also be related to as a wing, and therefore pointing again to Leonardo’s damaged shoulder and his fascination for birds and for flying. This is another feature referenced in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi where Lorenzo de Medici is seen carrying the wrap of his light blue gown over his right forearm. It was this that protected him from a more serious injury during the attack in the Duomo on himself and his brother Giuliano who was not so fortunate and died during the assassination attempt.

Then there is the mystery of the halos in the Baptism of Christ painting… but more on this in my next post.

There stands a man among you, uknown to you…

Baptism of Christ, 1472-75, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

The Baptism of Christ is attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio and partly to a young Leonardo da Vinci who worked in Verrecchio’s studio at the time when the painting was produced around 1475. It depicts Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Two young angels kneel on the bank of the river, one holding Christ’s garments. It was said by Francesco Alberti in a guidebook published in 1510 that this figure was painted by Leonardo. Some art historians suggest that he had a hand in other parts of the painting, notably the background scene and perhaps even the figure of Christ

According to the art historian, painter and architect Georgio Vasari: “Leonardo painted an angel who was holding some garments; and despite his youth, he executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better than the figures painted by Verrocchio. This was the reason why Andrea would never touch colours again, he was so ashamed that a boy understood their use better than he did.”

Perhaps an exaggeration by Vasari who was born in 1511, forty years after the painting was completed and never spoke with Verrochio who died in 1488.

What Vasari failed to record and may not have noticed about the painting is that the Baptist figure is modelled on Leonardo, and whose angel rendition is another image of himself. Verrichio knew this but seemingly not Vasari.

Verrocchio also knew the painting was linked to another artist, the sculptor Donatello and the two statues he made of the biblical David, one in marble and the other bronze. Verrocchio also produced a bronze of David which links to this painting as well as his bronze of Christ and Thomas.

Bottecilli also refers to the Baptism of Christ painting in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. He also recognised the ‘hidden’ hand of Leonardo in Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ – and the shoulder injury he sustained probably in childhood – a ‘fallen angel’, so to speak, nursing a broken wing and uncertain if he would ever resurrect and ‘fly’ to rise above the earth again.

More on this in my next post.