Pairing Lorenzo and Sixtus

Girolamo Savonarola

I recently read a “bite size” biography of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who preached in Florence during the Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli gets a mention. The co-authors write that Savonarola’s preaching “profoundly influenced” Botticelli “and turned him from painting pornography to producing works that honoured the God of the Bible”.

Perhaps the authors never really understood that Botticelli had profound knowledge of the Bible before Savonarola arrived in Florence when the friar was assigned to the Convent of San Marco in 1482. Botticelli’s Primavera painting exemplifies this and makes several references to biblical passages embedded in what may appear on the surface to some observers as simply a “painting of pornography” based on figures associated with Greco-Roman mythology.

In a previous post I explained that the dual figure of Hermes (Greek) and Mercury (Roman) also represents the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano, and how some of the iconography pointed to the assassination of Giuliano and the attack on his brother who managed to escape to the safety of the Duomo’s sacristy after sustaining only a slight wound to his neck.

The attack on the Medici brothers was orchestrated by members and supporters of a rival banking family, the Pazzi, with some support of Pope Sixtus IV for their removal from Florence but not their assassination. The whole affair became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. Eventually, a settlement was reached between Lorenzo and Sixtus IV. 

As part of the diplomacy process Lorenzo arranged for a number of Florentine artists to visit Rome and fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Sandro Botticelli was one of them. References to this commission are found in the Primavera painting, some of which are detailed in previous posts. Not only does Botticelli’s time in Rome provide another link to Lorenzo and Sixtus, it also introduces a painter from an earlier period, Fra Angelico Lippi, to connect to the roles of the father and son painters, Fra Filippo Lippi and Filippino Lippi, depicted in Primavera.

Fra Angelico

Like Savonarola, Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and after leaving the nearby convent of Fiesole in 1436 he moved to Florence and San Marco where he began decorating the newly built convent. In 1447 Fra Angelico was called to Rome by Pope Nicholas V to produce frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel. It is this work that Botticelli has sourced during his own period in Rome in 1480-82 to refer to the relationship between Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV, compared to St Lawrence – who Lorenzo was named after – and the martyr’s relationship with a predecessor of Sixtus IV – Pope Sixtus II.

The Medici banking arrangement with the Papal court was complex. There was a hesitancy on the part of Lorenzo de’ Medici to keep financially supporting Pope Sixtus IV and his aggrandizement of the Papal States abd his own family. The Pope turned instead to another Florentine banking family, the Pazzi, and this eventually climaxed in what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy and the assassination of Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano de’ Medici.

Lorenzo’s namesake, St Lawrence is one of two martyrs whose lives are portrayed in the Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican. The other is St Stephen. The frescoes were commisioned by Pope Nicholas V and painted by Fra Angelico Lippi. 

According to Wikipedia, “St Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome under Pope Sixtus II who were martyred in the persecution of Christians that the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered in 258”. As Archdeacon of Rome Lawrence was in care of the treasury and riches of the Church and distribution of alms to the poor.

Detail of St Lawrence distributing alms to the poor, painted by Fra Angelico for the Niccoline Chapel

The Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all Christians should be put to death. Pope Sixtus II was the first of the martyrs. Valerian then ordered Lawwrence to hand over all the riches of the Church. Lawrence requested that he be given three days to gather the wealth. In the meantime he began instead to distribute the treasures to the poor and suffering people of Rome declaring that they were the true treasures of the Church. For his defiance he was arrested and while waiting in prison for his execution he baptised fellow prisoners before he died a martyr, roasted to death on a gridiron. 

St Lawrence is usually depicted wearing a dalmatic and holding a gridiron. Fra Angelico portrayed Lawrence in his dalmatic decorated with a pattern of flames to represent the martyr’s death.

The pattern is repeated on Lorenzo’s tunic in the Primavera, except that the flames are inverted to appear as roots, suggesting that “The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Pope Sixtus II, by Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

One of the legends asociated with the martyrdom of St Lawrence was the declaration he made while being roasted on the gridiron: “I’m well done of this side, turn me over!” And so another reference why Botticelli’s figure of Lorenzo is shown turned facing away from the Three Graces representing the water of faith through baptism. The biblical reference to wandering souls given any number of fatal wounds can also be be understood in context with the wounds inflicted on Giuliano – twenty – when he was assasinated in Florence Cathedral. Lorenzo escaped with a minor wound to his neck.

A final connection in all of this is the fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting Pope Sixtus ll, the bishop of Rome who made St Lawrence an Archdeacon of Rome and also martyred by the Emperor Valerian. The fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli during the time he and other Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV.

A stretch at the Vatican

Last month, I pointed out that one of the identities Botticelli applied to the Primavera figure reaching up to touch the clouds is the painter Filippino Lippi who, at the time, was part of Botticelli’s workshop and a team of painters engaged to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

The photograph below showing scaffolding and people in the Chapel erecting a temporary display of Raphael’s tapestries on the lower section of the walls gives an idea of the height the artists from Florence had to work at when painting frescoes at the level above the curtained section.

The walls of the Sistine Chapel… photo © Vatican Museums
A cloud formation similar to the one in Botticelli’s Primavera painting.
This appears is the Sistine Chapel fresco titled Vocation of the Apostles.
Was Botticelli suggesting that Filippino Lippi was one of his ‘followers’.

So Botticelli’s portrayal of the figure with his arm raised can also be understood as a depiction of Filippino Lippi perhaps painting a cloud formation in one of the frescoes. His comfortable stance with hand on hip and right arm flexed is balanced, almost statuesque, and reminiscent of the contrapposto style of figure developed by Ancient Greco-Roman sculptors and revived during the Renaissance. It also points to the identity of another Florentine artist, the sculptor Donatello and his famous bronze of the biblical figure of David.

The self-portrait sketch of Michelangelo… Botticelli’s man of many identities… and Donatello’s bronze David

By coincidence this scenario later connects to yet another artist and sculptor from Florence – Michelangelo who, almost 50 years later, was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and just a few years after he had sculpted his own and probably more famous version of David. 

Sometime during the four year period painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo complained of his physical discomfort and burden in a poetic letter to a friend. He illustrated the poem with a sketch very similar to the  stance of the figure portrayed by Botticelli in his Primavera painting. It would not be surprising that Michelangelo at some time may have had access to view and study the painting and had knowledge of its many narratives, even that the reaching figure represented Filippino Lippi.

The mention of Donatello also points to the Primavera figure being portrayed as Giuliano de’ Medici. Both men were entombed at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, and Lorenzo connects to the name of Giuliano’s brother who is portrayed as yet another of the figure’s identities which I shall explain in my next post. Chapels and churches is another theme to be found in the Primavera painting.

Below is a translation of Michelangelo’s poem.

I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den–
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be–
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame;
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.

The Passover and the Primavera

Tomorrow, Holy Thursday, Christians celebrate the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his Apostles before his crucifixion. The Passover is a day and festival of remembrance for ever in God’s honour before he instigated the tenth plague against Egypt to convince its pharaoh to free the Israelites.

The Passover is referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The male figure with his back turned to the Three Graces is said to represent Hermes/Mercury, messenger to the Greco-Roman gods. The figure also has other identities. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is another.

In his monograph on the life and work of Botticelli, Ronald Lightbown describes the figure of Mercury as inspired by a passage from The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil: “Mercury, despatched by his father Jove to Aeneas, first ties his winged shoes to his feet, then takes his caduceus, and by its power drives off the winds and the turbid clouds as he descends to earth.

So how does the Passover and Giuliano de’ Medici fit in with this section of the painting? The passing cloud and the raised caduceus are clues.

Giuliano was assassinated while attending Mass in the Duomo cathedral in Florence. His head was sliced by a sword and he was stabbed several times. The signal for the time his killers planned to strike was during the time of Consecration when a bell was rung as the consecrated host was raised and held high before the congregation, hence the raised arm of Giuliano.

The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is the True Presence of Jesus, echoing the time at the Last Supper when he took some bread, broke it and shared it with his Apostles, saying: “Take it and eat, this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

The raising of the Host, symbolic of Jesus being raised on the Cross, can also be compared to the raising of the caduceus, the cloud being the darkness that came over the whole land at the time of his death. The caduceus with its two entwined dragons or serpents also represents the time when the Israelites complained to Moses and so God sent fiery serpents among the people. Their bite brought death to many. The people repented and God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. He added: “If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8), which is why some Christian crosses and the crucifix are depicted with the image of a serpent. 

As a mythological representation the dragons are seen as a sign of peace after Hermes/Mercury saw two serpents engaged in mortal combat. Hermes/Mercury separated them with his wand and brought peace between them.

The stance of the man, also relates to part of the Passover description in Exodus. “You shall eat it like this [the Passover meal]: with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily; it is a Passover in honour of Yahweh” (12:11).

And then there are the strands of dark clouds which the figure is reaching up to with his wand. The elongated shapes can be likened to lentil seed pods and therefore recognised as a cloud formation known as Stratocumulus lenticularis. Here Botticelli is punning on the word Lent (meaning Spring) and Lint, the fluffy substance derived from bits of fabric, and then extending the pun to refer to Lintel, the load-bearing beam placed above windows and doors. This then connects to another biblical passage relating to the Passover when Moses instructs the people to “Take a spray of hyssop, dip it in the blood [from the slaughtered animal] that is in the basin, and with the blood from the basin, touch the lintel and the two door posts. Let none of you venture out of the house till morning. Then, when Yahweh goes through Egypt to strike it, and see blood on the lintel and on the two door posts, he will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your homes and strike” (Exodus 12:22-23).

In this scenario we can understand the figure as reaching up to touch the lintel with blood, and probably his own because the man also represents Lorenzo de’ Medici who suffered a slight wound to the neck during the assassination attempt. He managed to escape death by reaching the sacristy and fastening the bronze door to keep out “the destroyer” from entering and striking again. As to the clues for also identifying the figure as Lorenzo de’ Medici, I shall explain in a future post as it connects to the time Botticelli spent in Rome engaged in frescoing some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.