Parrot fashion

This striking portrait is of Marguerite de Navarre, also known as Marguerite of Angoulème. She was the sister of the French king Francis I.

Note the green parrot perched on her right hand.

The painting is attributed to Jean Clouet, thought to be originally from the Lowlands, probably Flanders, but relocated to France and worked for the French court.

The drawing alongside is also of Marguerite de Navarre, produced later in her life by François Clouet, son of Jean. Francois was known for his portraits of the French ruling family and court members. Note the lap dog.

Giorgio Vasari combined elements of both artworks to create the identity of Marguerite of Angoulème for his fresco depicting the marriage of Henry, the second son of Francis I, to Catherine de’s Medici.

Marguerite is the woman in the centre of the group shown below.

Another level of identities: Gaston de Foix, Marguerite de Navarre, and Bona, Duchess of Milan.

In this scenario, the head on the left represents Gaston de Foix, said to be Marguerite’s one real love in life. He died in the Battle of Ravenna fighting for the French against combined Spanish and Papal forces. His unfinished tomb is located in Sforza Castle, Milan, and so makes the connection to the head’s principal identity, Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Note the similarity to the head of the effigy on Gaston’s tomb, to the head given to Galeazzo by Vasari.

The tomb of Gaston de Foix, Duke of Nemours, located at Sforza Castle, Milan.
Bona of Savoy

A third identity attributed to the woman opposite Galeazzo is his wife Bona of Savoy. Two other identities are Maria Salviati and Fioretta Gorini.

Bona connects with another identity to the central woman, Teresa of Avila, as explained in a previous post. Vasari made two connections to these two women – the locations Avila and Angoulème. Bona, Duchess of Milan was born in Avigliana, Turin. The name Angoulème puns with the angle formed by Galeazzo’s nose.

Marguerite makes a connection with Teresa of Avila. The writings and actions of the Spanish Carmelite were seen as part of the Catholic Revival against the growing Protestant Reformation movement in Europe that  influenced Marguerite and her writings, particularly her poem Mirror of the Sinful Soul. Note the head of a dog – a bloodhound – over Marguerite’s chest. Perhaps a reference to Cerebus, the dog associated with Hades, but countered by the Dominican Order’s symbol of the “hound of the Lord”, and so another pointer to Botticelli’s Primavera and its similar symbolism.

The Antelope Nose and the Carmelites

Here’s another set of figures from Vasari’s painting of the marriage of Henry, the second son of the French king Francis I, with Catherine de’ Medici, daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino.

The way they relate to each other is by their association with the Carmelites, a religious order for men and women.

In a previous post I pointed out that the moustached man represents both Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan and his assassin Giovanni Lampugnani who attempted to escape the scene of his crime by concealing himself amongst a group of women inside Milan Cathedral. Hence the man being shown ‘veiled’.

In the mid-fifteenth century a Carmelite convent and church (Santa Maria del Carmine) was built near to Castello Sforzesco, home of the Sforza ruling family of Milan. The church and convent were patronised by the Sforza’s, including Galeazzo Maria Sforza.

Vasari has linked Galeazzo’s prominent nose to a similar profile associated with Mt Carmel, a mountain landmark referred to by ancient Egyptian seafarers as the Antelope Nose. Turn the image on its side and see how Vasari incorporated the profile of the mountain as a shadow area inside the veil.

Another connection to the House of Sforza is the veil worn by the woman opposite to Galeazzo. In this instance she represents Fioretta Gorini. Notice the shape of a snake head on the edge of the veil pointing in the direction of Galeazzo, its body represented by the veil’s wavy edge, snaking both down and across. The snake reference is to the Milanese and a Sforza emblem known as the Biacione

Fioretta was said to be the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, who’s was assassinated a month before she gave birth to his son and who later went on to become Clement VII, the Pope she stands behind in Vasari’s painting. After giving up her child to the Medici family she later joined a Carmelite convent in Florence, and was enclosed or ‘walled-up’ as an anchoress.

That she was walled-up links back to Galeazzo who was not adverse to walling up alive anyone who may have upset him. Enclosure or walling up is also a clue to the other veiled woman, another Carmelite, the mystic Teresa of Avila who was later declared a saint by the Catholic Church. The wall reference is associated with where she came from, Ávila, the Spanish city known for it magnificent encircling wall that still stands today.

The Spanish city of Ávila with its centuries old walled enclosure.

Teresa seems to rise above the others and that’s a pointer to the occasions she is said to have levitated. It’s also another reference to Botticelli’s Primavera and it central figure depicting the Virgin Mary seen to be raised off the ground, but a feature that indicates her assumption into Heaven. Teresa of Ávila claimed she experienced moments of ecstasy as if she had been raised into Heaven.

• Vasari also applied second identities to the two women which I shall explain in a future post

The marriage between Henry, Duke of Orleans and Catherine Medici, Giorgio Vasari, Palazzo Vecchio
Primavera, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

A touch of the Tetrarchs

I had intended for this post to explain how Pontormo’s portrait of Lorenzino de’ Medici connected with the image of King Francis I in the Vasari painting of the marriage between Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, but instead I shall focus on the group of four figures to the right of the French king (shown below).

Tucked in immediately behind Francis is Lorenzino de’ Medici. Next is Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici. Behind him is the Spanish priest and former soldier Ignatius Loyola, placed next to another cardinal, Girolamo Verallo.

What binds these four men together is that they all have a connection with Venice. The group can also be split into two pairs: Lorenzino connects with Ippolito; Ignatius links with Verallo.

Giorgio Vasari or his assistant Giovanni Stradano (and I’m beginning to sense it was Stradano who was responsible for the composition) connected the four-man group to a famous porphyry sculptured group of figures known as the Portrait of Four Tetrarchs and attached to the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The two sets of sculpted tetrarchs are located on the south corner of the Basilica and were brought to Venice as loot following the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.

This also makes a connection to the figure of Pope Clement VII and the Sack of Rome in 1527 by rogue troops of Emperor Charles V. Clement was kept captive for six months in Castel Sant’Angelo. While imprisoned, Clement grew a beard which he kept for the rest of his life as a sign of mourning for the sack of Rome, an example followed by his successor Paul III, placed at Clement’s right shoulder and looking upwards.

An earlier Sack of Rome by Visigoths happened in 410, about a century after the figures of the Four Tetrarchs were said to have been sculpted. As to their identity one theory is “they represent a dynastic group of the Constantinian dynasty”. If so, this in turn would connect with the figure of Lorenzino de’ Medici who, in a drunken state as a youth, set about decapitating and mutilating some of the statues on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. His actions would have served as a painful reminder to Pope Clement VII of the sack of Rome and his own captivity. For his crime, Lorenzino was exiled from Rome.

Left to right: Lorenzino de’ Medici, Ippolito de’ Medici, Ignatius Loyola and Girolamo Verallo.

Now to the Venice connections. Lorenzino was assassinated in Venice on February 26, 1548; Ippolito was once a papal legate assigned to the Republic of Venice by his cousin Pope Clement VII. They are paired because of their same interest in deposing Alessandro de Medici as Duke of Florence.

Ignatius Loyola was ordained priest in Vienna on June 24,1537. He renewed his vows of poverty and chastity to the then papal legate to Vienna, Cardinal Girolamo Verallo who became the priest’s protector. Verallo was already acquainted with Pope Paul III as his father served as the pope’s personal physician. Hence Girolamo’s placing behind the figure of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, standing in line for the papacy behind Pope Clement VII. Girolamo’s head is also placed immediately behind the head of Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become Henry II of France. After Julius III was elected to the papacy in 1550 the new pope made Girolamo legate a latere to Henry II the following year.

It’s important to note that some of the figures in the marriage scene have been assigned more than one identity by the painter.

More disclosures on this work in my next post.

Heads, helmets, hats and caps

The Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap was painted by Jacopo Carucci (also known as Pontormo). It’s dated at 1529 and said to depict a young Florentine aristocrat named Carlo Neroni.

But I believe it to be someone else: Lorenzino de’ Medici, the man who claimed he assassinated his ‘friend’ and distant cousin Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, on the eve of the Epiphany, January 6, 1537.

A few days later Lorenzino, who was a gifted writer and dramatist, declared openly the reason he murdered the duke was political, to free Florence from a tyrant and Medici rule and preserve the Republic of Florence. He compared his actions to those of the ancient Roman politician Brutus, famous as one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.

In my previous post about Giorgio Vasari’s painting of the marriage between Henry, Duke of Orleans, and Catherine de’ Medici, I explained how the head placed on the shoulder of Pope Clement VII represented three people: Alessandro de’ Medici (Duke of Florence), Galeazzo Maria Sforza (Duke of Milan), and one of the latter’s assassins, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani. I made no mention of the name of Galeazzo’s assassin. But he is placed elsewhere in the picture, his head also on a shoulder, that of the French king Francis I (see image below).

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to source a higher resolution of this painting, so the important detail embedded in this section of the picture is difficult to pick out. Nevertheless, this group of three men provides some clues to be able to identify Lorenzino as the head in the middle.

An episode in Lorenzino’s early life confirms his connection to the cardinal featured on the right. He is Ippolito de’ Medici, an illegitimate son of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici and therefore a distant cousin of Lorenzino. As can be seen by his attire he was a cardinal, though never an ordained priest. He was made Cardinal by another illegitimate cousin, Pope Clement VII, on January 10 1523. On the same day he was also appointed as Archbishop of the Avignon diocese in France, which explains one of the reasons Vasari has placed him on the French side of the marriage scene.

Another reason is that while he was serving in Rome he pleaded for Lorenzino who in 1538 upset Pope Clement VII by mutilating the heads of some of the statues on the Arch of Constantine. The outcome was that Lorenzino was expelled from Rome, a lighter punishment than the one the Pope had first threatened – execution. And so from this we have another ‘head’ connection.

Ippolito and Lorenzino also shared an interest in deposing Alessandro de’ Medici from his position as Governor and Duke of Florence. However, Ippolito wanted the title for himself and lobbied Clement VII for the position, but the Pope’s choice was his own son. Ippolito never tired of conspiring against Alessandro and seemingly paid the the price for his efforts when he became ill on a journey and died a few days later after claiming he had been poisoned on the orders of the Florentine duke. He was just 24 years old.

Vasari’s image of Cardinal Ippolito is probably based on his portrait painted by Titian in 1546.

It’s hardly apparent, but as in the Pontormo portrait, Lorenzino is wearing a red cap. Neither is his head completely visible. It is eclipsed by the head of Francis I.

Here, Vasari, has referenced the mythological “cap of invisibility” also known as the “cap of Hades” that turns the wearer invisible, a cunning devise to conceal their true nature – as in the perceived ‘friendship’ offered by the assassin Lorenzino to Ippolito.

Hades helmet of invisibility was also shared with the messenger god Hermes who wore the cap in his battle with Hippolytus the giant. And so this makes the connection with the name of Cardinal Ippolito, who wears a red biretta in the painting.

The cap or helmet of invisibility also features in Botticelli’s Primavera painting and in a section referencing Hades (god of the dead and the underworld) and the watchdog Cerebus. The symbolism also points to the Dominican Order of Preachers sometimes known as the “Hounds of the Lord” or “God’s Dogs”.

In the clip below (left) is the ‘shade’ of an ‘invisible’ monk’s cowl and hood; and (right) the outline of a hound’s head.

  • More on this in a future post.

The nose have it!

In a post made earlier this month – Every picture tells story – I explained how one of the figures in Vasari’s painting of the marriage of Henry II and Catherine Medici represented both Galeazzo Maria Sforza and his assassin, Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani.

Detail from the Room of Pope Clement VII, Palazzo Vecchio. Photo by Jonathan at Flicker

But Vasari also attached a third identity to the head resting on Clement VII’s shoulder, that of Alessandro de Medici. The paternity of Alessandro, Duke of Florence, is disputed. Although generally believed to be an illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici and raised in his household, some consider Cardinal Giulio de Medici (later Pope Clement VII) was his father.

Seemingly Vasari, or his assistant Giovanni Stradano held the belief that the Pope was indeed the “Father”, hence Alessandro’s attachment to his father’s shoulder in the painting.

Like the Duke of Milan, the Duke of Florence was also regarded by many as a cruel despot with a reputation and lust for rape and murder. And, like Galeazzo, he was eventually assassinated.

Below is a splendid portrait of Alesandro de’ Medici, completed by Giorgio Vasari in 1534 and three years before the duke’s assassination. It is this painting which provides clues to revealing a third identity for the head on the Pope’s shoulder.

Alessandro de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari, Uffizi, Florence

Note the similar shape of the armour plate – the pauldron – on Alesandro’s shoulder to the helmet-shape cap on the head seen on Clement’s shoulder. Note also the beak feature on the pauldron, a pointer to Alessandro’s ‘beaky’ nose as opposed Galeazzo’s the rather large ‘rhino’. Noses are a prominent and intended theme in the marriage scene.

It’s not without coincidence that Alesandro de Medici’s emblem was the image of a rhinoceros he adapted from a woodcut (shown below) by the German artist Albrecht Dürer. See how Dürer’s rhino is shown heavily plated, just as the duke is in Vasari’s painting. And the rhino’s horn is echoed by the pauldron’s horn-shaped beak.

What else in the Allesandro portrait can be paired with the head-on-shoulder feature in the marriage painting? The most obvious is the red cloth covering the stool to match with the Pope’s red mozzetta.

The stool is a pointer to Alessandro’s rhinoceros emblem. Its short legs, be there only three, echo the short legs of a rhino, except that in this case the animal is portrayed headless and with the feet of a lion. Its decapitated head is the helmet on the ground and facing in the opposite direction. Perhaps an indication of Alessandro de’ Medici conquering his enemy, the beast within.

The short legs theme and beast is echoed in the marriage scene by those of the dwarves and the prowling lion.

Marriage of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, Giorgio Vasari, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

More on this in a future post.

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

Matching pairs

Galeazzo Maria Forza, Duke of Milan, by Piero Pollaiuolo c1471, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This portrait is of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the fifth Duke of Milan. It was painted c1471 by Piero Pollaiuolo (also known as Piero Benci) and one which Giorgio Vasari sourced as a reference for the duke’s profile featured in his marriage picture of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici (see previous post).

Vasari also utilised the portrait to connect with the figure of Giuliano de’ Medici depicted in Botticelli’s Primavera painting, and incorporated some of the Florentine’s features to create the dwarf figure standing beside the groom in the marriage scene.

Vasari colour-matched the Galeazzo portrait to the dwarf’s clothes, red and green, and both men hold leather gloves in their right hand. 

Vasari’s dwarf wears boots and stands with a hand on hip, as does Botticelli’s figure of Giuliano. Both men look up, Giuliano at the cloud formation, the dwarf at the wool collar worn by the bridegroom intended to imitate the passing cloud, but also shaped to represent a sheep’s head and its horn. 

This was intended to echo a reference Botticelli made to John the Baptist in the Primavera painting. Vasari instead selected a biblical verse in which the Baptist points out Jesus as he ‘passed’ by at the river Jordan and says, “Look, there is the Lamb of God” (John 1 : 36).

The raising of the Eucharist (the Lamb of God) during Mass was the signal for the assassins to attack Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici in Florence’s Duomo where Giuliano died from his wounds.

The passing cloud in Primavera is a reference to the Passover but in Vasari’s painting he translates this as a passing from one side to another, a crossover – for example, the figure of Galeazzo transitioning from the men’s section to the women’s.

There are other examples of change-over in Vasari’s painting and more narratives connected to the dwarf which I shall explain at another time.

Note also Galeazzo’s pointed forefinger (and his gloves), and its match to Giuliano’s pointed forefinger. Vasari links this feature by shaping the dwarf’s gloves to represent a serpent’s head to connect with the serpent features on the caduceus raised by Giuliano in the Primavera painting.

Every picture tells a story

It is said that “Every picture tells a story”. Some may want to qualify the idiom and add, “but it’s not always clear what story is being told.”

The marriage scene above presents several narratives and characters. It was painted by Giorgio Vasari sometime between 1559 and 1562 for the room in the Palazzo Vecchio dedicated to Pope Clement VII.

Notice that the picture is generally divided into two areas – men on the left, women on the right – except for the kneeling male figure at the right edge of the frame and for the man with the heavy moustache and hook nose behind the Pope’s shoulder and looking towards the group of women. 

The latter is Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan until his assassination on December 26 1476. From this it can be clearly understood that he was not present at the marriage of Henri and Catherine fifty-five years later. So why has he been given such an important place at the Pope’s shoulder in Vasari’s painting?

It is the first of many clues and links to the work that was the source of inspiration for Vasari, the painting by Botticelli known as Primavera.

Botticelli gave more than one identity to the figures he painted in Primavera. The figure referred to as Mars, has several identities, one of which is Giuliano de’ Medici who, like Galeazzo Sforza, was assassinated in a cathedral some sixteen months later.

Notice the Mars-Giuliano figure in Primavera stands in a contrapposto pose with his back to the women in the painting and facing the edge of the frame. Vasari places Galeazzo Sforza in an opposite direction facing the group of women. Unlike the Giuliano figure, only the head of Galeazzo is shown and is covered by a cloth cap similar to the one worn by the woman next to him, Fioretta Gorini, the mother of Pope Clement VII.

Galeazzo was the son of Francesco I Sforza, a condottiere who founded the Sforza dynasty in the duchy of Milan, hence the name given to Galeazzo (meaning ‘helmet’) and the helmet shape of the cloth. But there are other reasons why the head of Galeazzo is depicted in this way.

When he was assassinated at the entrance to Milan Cathedral, three men took part in the attack, led by Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani who attempted to escape by crossing over to the seating in the cathedral reserved for women where he was caught and killed (see the red-handed figure fleeing towards the group of women in the illustration above). His head was cut off and with those of the other assassins displayed on the cathedral bell tower.

So now it can be understood why the Duke of Milan is partly disguised wearing a woman’s headdress, and why Vasari gave him a moustache to also identify him as a male with his head turned to the women’s side of the painting. The head placed on the Pope’s shoulder is also a pointer to the severed head of Lampugnani – a double-head feature borrowed from Primavera and located on the shoulder of the Flora figure.

The bell-shaped headdress refers to the bell-tower. Galeazzo is depicted in shade which indicates the dark side of his sadistic personality and the biblical reference to not hiding one’s light – or Lamp(pugnani) – under a bushel. That Galeazzo is portrayed as both a man and a woman refers to the claims of him being bisexual and who raped both women and men.

Galeazzo’s features are modelled on his portrait painted by Piero Benci which is now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Vasari has also referenced and connected the portrait in another part of his painting which I will explain in future post.

Close encounter

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

My last post of 2022 compared two images of Fioretta Gorini, although one of the portraits is mistakingly identified as Ginevra de Benci by the National Gallery in London where the painting is housed. No matter. 

Two versions of Fioretta Gorini… (left) as painted by Leonardo da Vinci; (right) as painted by Giorgio Vasari and modelled on Leonardo’s version.

The source of this latest discovery is a painting displayed in the room dedicated to Pope Clement VII in the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence. Clement was the name taken by Guilio de’ Medici when he was elected Pope in November 1523. He is said to be the son of Giuliano de’ Medici and his mistress Fioretta Gorini who gave birth a month after Giuliano was assassinated on April 26, 1474.

The painting is attributed to Giorgio Vasari but likely assisted by Giovanni Stradano. It depicts the marriage of Henry, the second son of the French king Francis I, and Catherine, the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. The wedding took place at Marseille on October 28, 1533, when the couple were just 14 years old. Pope Clement VII, the central figure in the painting, conducted the marriage ceremony.

The Palazzo Vecchio is known for the many paintings in the building produced by Vasari and his assistants and for his expansion of the room known as the Hall of the Five Hundred.

Just a minute walk from the Palazzo Vecchio is the famous Uffizi Gallery, originally designed by Giorgio Vasari as offices and constructed over two decades between 1560 and 1580. The two buildings are connected by a walkway known as the Vasari Corridor.

The Vasari Corridor between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery

Although the Uffizi houses several paintings by Giorgio Vasari, there is one famous painting in the Gallery that connects him in a way that has never come to light in modern times. For all that has been researched and known over the centuries about Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting, I don’t know of any study that has revealed its connection to Vasari’s painting of Pope Clement VII marrying Henry II and Catherine de Medici. Botticelli’s Primavera is a primary source of inspiration for the Vasari composition.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Vasari mentioned the Primavera painting in his two-volume work of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects:

“For various houses throughout the city he [Botticelli] painted round pictures, and many female nudes, of which there are still two at Castello, a villa of Duke Cosimo’s; one representing the birth of Venus, with those Winds and Zephyrs that bring her to the earth, with the Cupids; and likewise another Venus, whom the Graces are covering with flowers as a symbol of spring; and all this he is seen to have expressed very gracefully.”

Vasari’s brief description gives no indication of any disguised narratives in the Primavera painting, so who was the source that later provided him or Stradano with an explanation to enable them to recycle various elements of the painting and present a new version of Springtime? Could it have been Michelangelo who was 35 years old when Botticelli died in 1510. Vasari was born a year later and Stradano first saw the light of day in Flanders in 1523.

I’m trying to source a high resolution of the Vasari painting to access more detail. The online versions are small, low resolution images and most of the detail is unclear. 

More on this in a future post.

Botticelli the weaver

Updates and additions to this post at THIS LINK

The Virgin Adoring the Child is one of many in a line of Mary-and-the-Infant-Jesus paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. So what’s different in this Nativity portrayal? For starters, the artist has woven a representation of himself in his painting.

The Virgin Adoring the Child (1480-90), Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

In Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects he devotes a chapter on the life and work of Sandro Botticelli. There is a notable anecdote in the biography that records a dispute Botticelli had with a neighbour who was a weaver. Botticelli confirms the incident in this painting, as well as another reference made by Vasari to Sandro’s health late in life. However, Botticelli uses the same iconography to apply other levels of meaning to interlock and weave with additional themes in the painting.

But first here is Vasari’s anedote about Botticelli and the weaver:

“Another time a cloth-weaver came to live in a house next to Sandro’s, and erected no less than eight looms, which, when at work, not only deafened poor Sandro with the noise of the treadles and the movement of the frames, but shook his whole house, the walls of which were no stronger than they should be, so that what with the one thing and the other he could not work or even stay at home. Time after time he besought his neighbour to put an end to this annoyance, but the other said that he both would and could do what he pleased in his own house; whereupon Sandro, in disdain, balanced on the top of his own wall, which was higher than his neighbour’s and not very strong, an enormous stone, more than enough to fill a wagon, which threatened to fall at the slightest shaking of the wall and to shatter the roof, ceilings, webs, and looms of his neighbour, who, terrified by this danger, ran to Sandro, but was answered in his very own words—namely, that he both could and would do whatever he pleased in his own house. Nor could he get any other answer out of him, so that he was forced to come to a reasonable agreement and to be a good neighbour to Sandro.”

Text is from the ten-volume edition published by Macmillan and Co. & The Medici Society, 1912-14, sourced from The University of Adelaide

The stone building blocks rising above the Infant represent Botticelli – a kind of ‘Lego’ figure, with arms outstretched, bearing a stone, and supported precariously on two wooden poles. The ox’s horns represent the dilemma faced by the weaver. If the ox dislodges the nearest pole, then Botticelli’s stone may fall on the stubborn donkey below (the weaver) that seems to be oblivious to the danger and interested only in peering out from the woven fence, tempted by the straw in the manger. However, Botticelli implies that the weaver doesn’t have a choice with the stone structure appearing to rest on one horn only.

The ox is also symbolic of Luke’s gospel and the two vertical poles alongside are a reference to chapter eleven, in particular the verse about the Return of the Unclean Spirit.

The specific number of looms mentioned by Vasari amount to eight, which tallies with the unclean spirit returning to the man’s house (his soul) that had been swept clean, bringing with it seven other spirits, even more wicked. Eight in total.

Without realising it, Vasari also alludes to the two poles supporting Botticelli’s arms: He writes: “Having grown old and useless, and being forced to walk with crutches, without which he could not stand upright, he died, infirm and decrepit, at the age of seventy-eight…”

So here Botticelli depicts himself as still standing, stiff as stone, but upright with a straight back, even if with the aid of crutches, on a cornerstone representing Christ, and still very much capable of producing meaningful paintings. Notice also his head is turned, not looking into darkness but at the light radiating from the Virgin Mary. Notice also the light from the Bethlehem Star falling onto Botticelli’s ‘capstone’ head, in line with the light’s descent onto the Saviour.

More Boticelli gems found in this painting on my website at this link.