Leaning towards Pisa

In his book, Botticelli, Life and Work, the late art historian Ronald Lightbown records the short period the artist spent working in Pisa, some 50 miles west of Florence. 

Commissioned by the Opera del Duomo in January 1474, Botticelli first began to fresco a test piece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin in the cathedral’s Incoronata Chapel, starting in July of the same year. According to the Italian painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was dissatisfied with the work and left it unfinished, seemingly some three moths after starting.

However, Botticelli’s experience in Pisa was not wasted and his months spent in the coastal town later proved to be a rich source of inspiration for his painting of the Birth of Venus.

The leaning Venus not only connects to the leaning Ecclesia drawing Botticelli utilised from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, but also to the famous and still standing leaning Tower of Pisa.

Furthermore, a sculpture representing Ecclesia and another figure associated with the naked Venus Pudica, form part of the early 14th century pulpit located in Pisa Cathedral. The complex design and its decoration was sculpted by Giovanni Pisano.

The figure of Eccelasia, or Mother Church, is one one of the support columns for the pulpit. She stands on a pedestal and is depicted wearing a crown and suckling two infants. At her right shoulder are two eagles. Surrounding the pedestal are four figures presented as the Cardinal Virtues, one of which is the naked Venus Pudica representing the Virtue of Prudence. The other Virtues are Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.

While the Venus Pudica corresponds with Botticelli’s Venus, the three remaining Virtues can also be identified in the painting.

It’s important to know that the Four Cardinal Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit are arranged in pairs, side by side and back to back, similar in a way that Villard’s drawing of the mountain bear and swan backs on to the image of Ecclesia. Fortitude and Prudence are paired standing side by side, as are Justice and Temperance. However, Prudence stands back to back with Justice, while Fortitude backs onto Temperance.

Left to right: Fortitude and Prudence; Justice and Temperance.

In his painting, Botticelli portrayed the woman holding up the mantle as Fortitude. The model is Lucrezia Donati, the same woman Botticelli featured in his famous painting of Fortitude in 1470, one of seven panels representing Virtues designated to decorate the Tribunal Hall of Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.

In a previous post – Fallen angels – I explained that the source for the winged figures left of Venus in Botticelli’s painting was Villard’s drawing representing Pride. Botticelli was also inspired by the same sketch in another novel way. He turned the page over, rotated it 90 degrees, and utilised the “see-through” image to form the upper half of the figure of Fortitude, echoing the back-to back formation of the paired Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit.

Botticelli also picked up on the double-eagle motif at Ecclesia’s right shoulder, which explains why Eagle wings are attached to the two “fallen angels” placed at the right shoulder of the leaning Venus (Mater Ecclesia, Mother of the Church). The bird seemingly speaking into the ear of Ecclesia can also be visualised as a dove representing the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church on its missionary journey.

But Botticelli invites the viewer to see through what appears at surface level and to consider the presentation from another viewpoint or perspective, to turn the page, so to speak, for it is said there are two sides to every story.

And so it is with the Four Cardinal Virtues shown on Pisano’s pulpit sculpture – a compact presentation of biblical events and moral standards ‘written’ in stone by a master craftsman.

To encounter face to face the pairing of Fortitude and Temperance sculpted from a single piece of stone requires the observer to change their viewpoint, as it does with the back-to-back formation of Justice and Fortitude. But the pairing of Fortitude and Prudence can be viewed together face-on. Likewise the pairing of Justice and Temperance.

Botticelli refers to this arrangement in his painting. Already mentioned is the figure of Fortitude. Prudence, in the form of Venus Pudica is placed to her left. The arrangement is contrapposto (opposite) to Pisano’s.

The back-up Virtue to the figure of Venus Pudica is Justice, so therefore Temperance is the Virtue hidden behind or within Fortitude. Both Justice and Temperance can be recognised by one or more of their symbolic attributes.

Justice is usually shown with a balance and scales, sometimes with a sword as well. So the reference to the falcon head and its sickle-shaped beak explained in my previous post represents the sword associated with Justice. As for the balance and scales, these are reflected in the oversized scallop shell. It is not on an even keel and dips to one side, the scale or degree of which is measured by the number of the shell’s ribs either side of Venus.

My next post will deal with the Virtue of Temperance and how it connects with Villard de Honnecourt’s drawing of the falling man and horse representing Pride.

Faith, Hope and Love

Before the turn of the 15th century, a marble sculpture of the Three Graces representing the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Love – stood above one of the three doors of the Florence Baptistery dedicated to the biblical prophet John the Baptist. Two sets of triads placed above the other doors depicted the Baptism of Christ and the Preaching of the Baptist. All were sculpted by Tino di Camaino (c.1280 – c.1337) but eventually replaced at the beginning of the 16th century with works by other artists.

Fragments of Tino di Camaino’s Theological Virtues are preserved at the Museo del Duomo in Florence. Two of the fragments, and perhaps even a third, can be linked to Botticelli’s Primavera and the group referred to as the Three Graces.

The inclined head identified by the Museo del Duomo as La Speranza (Hope) can be paired with the head of the figure on the left of the group, Fioretta Gorini. The bust of La Carità (Charity or Love) holding the cornucopia, the “horn of plenty” and a symbol of abundance, is identified with the central figure, Lucrezia Donati. Her head is turned sideways as  in the fragment, and the “horn of plenty” is represented by her golden horn hairstyle as explained at this link.

The theme of horns is also featured in the interlocking hands of Fioretta Gorini and Simonetta Vespucci, the third figure in the group, raised high above the head of Lucrezia Donati, possibly suggesting they were rivals for the attention of Giuliano de’ Medici, represented in the figure to the left of the group.

As to the remaining fragment known as La Fede (Faith), there are no obvious features that could be said to match Botticelli’s third figure of Virtue represented by Simonetta Vespucci who is also mirrored in the painting as the figure of Flora distributing flowers.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

I suspect Botticelli sourced another sculpture to make a connection to Simonetta and I’ll present my view on this in a future post.

In the meantime, compare the raised arm of Simonetta and the inclined and turned heads of Fioretta and Lucrezia with the heads of the two angels and John’s raised arm in Andrea del Vercocchio’s painting of the Baptism of Christ.

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

Garden of Delights

Another source, both text and visual, Sandro Botticelli utilised to structure the Primavera painting was a medieval manuscript known as the Hortus deliciarum (Garden of Delights). It was compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, abbess of the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace, as a teaching aid for novices in the convent.

Hohenburg Abbey built on the summit of Mount St Odile

In the manuscript’s prologue, Herrad describes herself as being “like a little bee inspired by God” to collect ”from the various flowers of sacred Scripture and philosophical writings” which she brought together in her book and offered “to the praise and honour of God and the Church […] as if into a single sweet honeycomb”.

From this statement it can be seen that Botticelli adopted a similar approach in his composition for the Primavera, sourcing from “various flowers” to create his “garden of delights”.

Herrad’s manuscript was destroyed in 1870 when the library where it was kept was bombed in the German Siege of Strasbourg. Portions of the work had been copied and so it has been possible to reconstruct parts for continued study and publication, including copies of many of the hundreds of illustrations that formed part of the original manuscript.

The Children of Israel Dance before the calf – from the Hortus deliciarum manuscript

Botticelli also referenced some of the HD illustrations in the Primavera, the most obvious being the line of mythological figures and bovine allusions which he matched to the drawing captioned: “The Children of Israel Dance before the calf”. It refers to the biblical passage from Exodus (32) when the Israelites melted the gold rings from their ears so as to form an effigy of a golden calf to worship.

A “pagan wall” of mythological figures in Botticelli’s Primavera painting

In this scenario the gold discs hanging from the trees represent the gold earrings. They also represent the gold or orange bezant coins associated with the Medici bankers, money growing on trees, so to speak. They can be recognised too as the golden apples in the Garden of Hera, which were guarded by the Hesperides and depicted in the Primavera as the Three Graces.

The theme of boundaries and enclosures is one of many threads Botticelli has woven into his “tapestry”. In this instance the line of mythological figures refer to the “pagan wall”, a term used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century when he issued a bull concerning the independence of Hohenburg Abbey built on the summit of Mount St Odile. At the base of the mount is a mysterious ancient wall standing almost three metres high in places and over ten kilometres long. The pope declared that the area contained within the “pagan wall” belonged to the Abbey, now known as Mt St Odile Abbey.

The “Pagan Wall” at Mount St Odile

In the Primavera the “little bee inspired by God” is the painter himself, portrayed as Cupid whose bow is formed as a letter ‘B’. His arrow is directed at the group of Three Graces, the closest target being the woman portrayed as Simonetta Vespucci. The Vespucci name relates to wasps (vespa) and wasps are depicted on the family stemma or coat of arms. Botticelli is blindfolded, symbolic of love being blind, but also representing St Odile, Hohenburg Abbey’s first abbess. She was born blind but after her baptism at the age of twelve she miraculously recovered her sight.

Saint Odile was born blind

It is said that Botticelli carried a torch in his heart for Simonetta Vespucci, hence Cupid’s flamed arrow and the flame-shaped quiver. But it could only be love from a distance. Bees do not mate with wasps. 

Botticelli never married and once when it was suggested he should, he explained that a few days earlier he dreamt he had married and awoke suddenly, struck with grief. He walked the streets for the rest of the night to avoid having to sleep and the dream possibly repeating.

Simonetta was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence and admired by all the people. Even Giuliano de’ Medici expressed a courtly love for the woman when in 1475 he dedicated a jousting victory to Simonetta, nominating her as the ‘Queen of Beauty’. Giuliano entered the arena carrying a banner which pictured Simonetta as a helmeted Pallas Athene. The image had been painted by Botticelli. On the banner was written ‘La Sans Pareille’ (The Unparalleled One). This inscription would be referred to again in other works by Botticelli.

Simonetta Vespucci

Simonetta (nee Cattaneo) married Marco Vespucci in 1469 when she was 16. She died from a suspected brain tumour in 1476, age 22, just a year after the jousting tournament. Twelve months later Giuliano de’ Medici also died, assassinated in Florence Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1478. Giuliano is one of the identities given to the figure ‘tilting’ at the dark, ominous cloud above him.

Simonetta and the Grace (or Virtue) to her left, Lucrezia Donati, are also shown ’tilting’ in another sense, that of leaning to one side, suggesting perhaps that the Three Graces are dancing in a clockwise direction. While Simonetta may have been awarded the epithet, ‘The Unparalleled One’, she is in fact portrayed leaning parallel with Lucrezia. The reason for this is because Lucrezia, said to have served as a mistress in a platonic sense to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s elder brother, was also awarded a title at La Giostra, that of ‘Queen of the Tournament’. So the ’tilting’ figure at the end of the line represents both brothers, Giuliano and Leonardo, as identified in an earlier post

Lucrezia Donati is also the model for the Venus figure who in turn is matched to the Donati woman in the Nuova Crónica illustration, pointed out in a previous post, while Simonetta Vespucci is also reflected in the figure of Flora presented as the Florentine symbol of protection, the Marzocco.

There are two other leaning figures on the right side of the painting that relate to the Hortus deliciarum and one of its illustrations in particular, the Ladder of Virtue shown below. The ladder leans right’, grounded in the left corner at the foot of the page and rising diagonally to its opposite corner of the folio. 

On the right side of the ladder several characters, mostly men, are shown falling from its steps, unable to resist the attractions and temptations of the world below. On the left side of the ladder one woman makes it to Heaven to receive her crown of glory, while lower down another is encouraged on her ascent by a friendly presbyter. 

Botticelli has matched the cleric wearing a blue gown and somersaulting backwards to the the figure of the wind god Zephyrus, aka the painter-cum-cleric Fra Filippo Lippi whose abduction of the Dominican novice Lucrezia Butti and its connection with the Primavera painting was outlined in an earlier post.

Compare the distinctive circular, swirling fold in Zephyrus’ tunic with that of the cleric falling from the Ladder of Virtue. Observe also the similar blue colour of their clothing. See how the colour of the habit worn by the monk above the cleric, particularly the shape of his cowl is matched to Zephyrus’ green wings.

In her exceptional book, Painting the Hortus deliciarum, Medieval Women, Wisdom and Time, Danielle B Joyner describes the cleric as arching over backward toward both his “friend” and the golden dishes of fish and delectables atop the church. Botticelli connects this scene to Fra Filippo Lippi’s relationship with his novice “friend” and his clerical status.

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.

Congression narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marmarar Sea, the Golden Horn, and the Bosphorus

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

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

Who are the Three Graces?

This group of three dancing females in Botticelli’s Primavera painting are usually referred to as the Three Graces or Charites and are given various names and roles in Greco-Roman mythology. But in this scene they can be clearly identified and in at least two roles they represent.

Left to right, they are Fioretta Gorini, said to be the mother of Pope Clement VII, son of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated a month before his child’s birth; Lucrezia Donati, a platonic love of Giuliano’s brother Lorenzo de’ Medici; and Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s Venus and a beauty all of Florence admired.

The same three women are portrayed in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c.1484–1486). Uffizi, Florence.

In my next post I shall explain the iconography that identifies Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a cuirass maker, frequently portrayed as the Virgin Mary in many of Botticelli’s paintings – as she is in Primavera – and also as the figure of Chloris.