A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.
Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.
That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.
The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes.
Van Eyck’s pattens refer to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”
So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.
When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)
That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings.
The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.
What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.
So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.
An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.
So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.
There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.
As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).
Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.
Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.
So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.
Firstly, the direction of the flow of figures can be understood as pointing to the painting’s presence and influence of Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath whose mirror-style of writing in his notebooks started from the right side of the page and moved to the left. Other mirror or reflection features are also present.
But perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration are two illustrations which appear in a 14th century history of Florence by Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica. They record the assassination of a young Florentine nobleman called Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. He was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1216, the morning of his wedding day. Botticelli links this date to the death of Giuliano de’ Medici who was also assassinated on an Easter Sunday – in 1478 – while attending Mass in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Figures from both illustrations can be matched to figures in the Primavera. I should point out at this stage that the group of three horses and the lone horse are matched to the group of Three Graces and the figure of Chloris. The groom holding the reins of the horse in the first illustration is matched to Zephyrus. The woman dressed in blue and raised on steps with her right hand extended and her left hand at her side can be compared to the figure of Venus. The woman’s family name is Donati. Her daughter in red, shielded in the doorway, is the inspiration for Flora. The arched windows can be compared to the arched silhouette behind the head of Venus, while the circular windows or roundels are echoed in the oranges. The figure wearing a brown gown is Buondelmonte. The side door to the building also features in the Primavera painting which I shall explain in a later post.
The second illustration depicts the slaughter of Buondelmonte. He has just crossed the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio where the old Roman statue of Mars was located before it was swept away in a flood. Notice Mars is facing in the opposite direction of the nearest horse, in the same way he is depicted with his back turned to the nearest figure of the Graces. Notice also the pronounced tail of the horse and the ‘tail’ feature on the Grace figure. The horse saddle is another borrowed feature by Botticelli. He replaced this with Chloris’s cleft-shaped right hand about to be grafted onto Floris’s thigh.
An unusual feature seen on the three horses is the horn between their ears. The group can also be recognised as three mares. The word mare in Italian translates as ‘sea’. In this context Botticelli has referenced the Three Graces as the three seas that meet at Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (explained in an earlier post). Notice the golden horn hairstyle on the central figure. Her family name is also Donati. She is Lucrezia Donati, said to have been the platonic love of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
This is the account of Buonedelmonte’s assassination as it appeared in Villani’s Nouva Cronica:
In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Amidei, honourable and notable citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M. Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided. For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghibillines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy.source
That Botticelli sourced two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica, which Villani was inspired to write after attending the first Christian Jubilee in Rome in 1300, suggests the artist may also have been similarly inspired to paint the Primavera after returning in 1482 from his year-long commission in Rome frescoing the Sistine Chapel. The Jubilee year was an opportunity for pilgrims to visit Rome, confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church
The oldest manuscript of the Nuovo Chronica is held in the Vatican Library, formally established in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV. So could Botticelli have set eyes on this manuscript while he was in Rome?
What may have also inspired Botticelli to utilise the two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica is the knowledge that Jan van Eyck took a similar approach when painting the Arnolfini Portrait. He sourced two illustrations from the Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex to embed references to what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. Like the Primavera, the Arnolfini Portrait has penitential and rebirth themes. The word Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, means “Spring season” or “Springtime”, which translates in Italian as “Primavera”.
There is one other important manuscript that inspired Botticelli’s composition and lineup of figures he painted in Primavera.More on this in a future post.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and 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.
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).
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 assassinated 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.
I stated in my last post that there was more to Botticelli’s Primavera other than being a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences. However, the translation of mythological identities from Greek to Roman is a key to understanding the major narrative in the painting.
The mergence of the figure of Chloris with Flora, her Roman counterpart, is an example of this, brought together by Zephyrus the Greek god of the east wind, or his Roman equivalent, a favourable wind called Favonius.
The scene is an allegory of Greco-Roman coalescence, Greek language and Latin language, Orthodox Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church, a marriage or unification of the Catholic Church following its several schisms during previous centuries, including the Great East-West Schism that happened during the eleventh century.
It points to the Council of Florence, the seventeenth ecumenical council between the “two lungs” of the Church that began in Basel (Switzerland) in 1431, reconvened at Ferrara (Italy) in 1438 and then moved to Florence in 1439, concluding in 1445.
Among many of the issues under discussion by the Council was papal primacy and the jurisdiction of bishop of Rome over the whole Church. This was resolved and agreed when a final decree, a papal Bull of Union with the Greeks, was issued in July, 1439. It officially reunited the Roman Catholic Church with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, so ending the East-West Schism (until the next time).
Papal primacy and authority is also expressed in another sense in the Primavera. The painting makes reference to the reconciliation of Lorenzo de’Medici and the city of Florence with Pope Sixtus IV following what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, as mentioned in the previous post.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity is characterised by the term Byzantium. Although centred on Constantinople which was considered the “cradle of Orthodox Christianity”, “it orientated towards Greek rather than Latin culture”, hence the papal bull reference to “Union with the Greeks”.
The most familiar Byzantine reference to be seen in the Primavera are the orange balls that appear as fruit of the orange trees. In heraldic terms they are known as roundels, depicting gold bezants, the currency associated with the Byzantine Empire. They can also be understood as the orange balls that appear on the coat of arms or “stemma” associated with the Medici banking family. A mythological representation is that they are the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides given as a wedding gift to Hera, wife of Zeus, and Queen of the gods, and of marriage, family and childbirth, Juno being her Roman equivalent.
So what appears on the surface to be oranges can also be a lead into other themes embedded in the painting. For instance, understood in terms of being associated with the Medici coat of arms, the word “stemma” can be linked to the positioning of the stem-like arms of the figures in the painting. Generally they act as pointers to other narratives and an aid to identification.
In an earlier post I mentioned that the twelve signs of the Zodiac can be identified in the painting. For example the left arm of the VirginMary, fragmented in places and its hand showing three fingers, is meant to represent a crab’s leg and so the sign of Cancer. Her right hand is also a telling pointer which I shall explain at a later stage.
The lonic image of Flora is symbolic of Florence’s heraldic lion, the Marzocco. Her left thigh is shaped as the shield that Donatello’s famous lion rests one of its paws on, except in Flora’s portrayal the flower on the shield is a rose and not the “Fleur de Lys”. There is a reason why Botticelli has used a rose which connects to another narrative in the painting and I shall explain in a future post.
The Primavera is saturated with symbols.
“The term symbolism is derived from the word ‘symbol’ which derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition, in turn from classical Greek σύμβολον symbolon, an object cut in half constituting a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two-halves…” (wikipedia)
Reassembling two halves reconnects to earlier mention of the Council of Florence and the “two lungs” of the Church coming together. And if we take a fresh look at the arch formation of trees behind Mary, the Mother of the Church, we can see they are shaped and presented as two lungs, left and right. This leads on to other Church connections in the painting, particularly Pope Sixtus IV, which I shall explain in a future post.
In my previous post about the Primavera I pointed out a connection between the painting and one of the frescos produced by Botticelli for the Sistine Chapel. In fact, the Primavera is linked to the series of wall frescos in more ways than one as they feature several notable Florentine dignitaries and artists in some of the scenes. So what could be the reason for this?
In 1478 Giuliano de’Medici, the brother of Lorenzo the Magnifico, was assassinated while attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence. His brother was also attacked but survived. A bloodbath of retribution followed when the conspirators, members of the Pazzi family and associates, were slaughtered and executed. It is said that Pope Sixtus IV approved of the plot to overthrow the Medici family from power, but not their killing. A month after the event Sixtus IV excommunicated Lorenzo and others and placed Florence under interdict, forbidding Mass and Communion.
It wasn’t until December 1480 that some semblance of peace ensued between Lorenzo, Florence and Sixtus IV, when a dozen distinguished Florentines travelled to Rome for a pre-arranged public ceremony that saw them plead for forgiveness from the pope for any perceived errors by the Republic. Lorenzo was not among the group. However, in an act of diplomacy and personal reconciliation, he later arranged to send artists from Florence to assist with producing frescos for the walls of the Sistine Chapel: Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli, along with assistants from their workshops including Filippino Lippi.
Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugini, Rosselli, Signorelli and Lippi are all referenced in the Primavera painting, as is Sixtus IV. One notable Florentine artist at the time, Leonardo da Vinci, was not among the group of painters engaged to fresco the Sistine Chapel, although he is depicted in two of the panels. Reference is also made to Leonardo in the Primavera. From these connections it becomes clear that there is more to understand of the mystery associated with Botticelli’s Primavera other than a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences.
I mentioned in an earlier post that an underlying narrative in Primavera is the religious period of Lent, meaning “spring season,” and that Lent is a time of reparation and renewal. I also pointed out here that the foremost identity of the figure normally recognised as Venus is that of the Virgin Mary. She has many titles attributed to her, one being Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower – the name given to Florence Cathedral known as the Duomo, hence one of the reasons for the dome-shaped backdrop to the figure.
Before the building and naming of the Santa Maria del Fiore, there were two other cathedrals built on the site. The first was dedicated to St Lorenzo (Lawrence), the second to St Reparata. Both saints connect to the Primavera, Lorenzo as a name linked to Lorenzo de’Medici who probably commissioned the painting, and Reparata linked to the narrative of Lent and reparation. The theme of restitution echoes the time when the 12 representatives of Florence repaired to Rome seeking forgiveness for the Republic’s past errors, and also to further reparation made with the work carried out later by the Florentine artists in the Sistine Chapel.
The question if often asked why the central figure is positioned further back than than those placed either side. But is she? The woman measures the same height as the other figures. A clue to the answer can be found in the pairing of Chloris and Zephyrus. Is the god of the east wind lowering or lifting Cloris? In the Virgin Mary’s case she is being lifted or raised above all others, and assumed into Heaven. She represents the Assumption, and this feature has a connection with the Sistine Chapel.
Covering the whole wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel is a fresco illustrating the Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo between 1535 and 1541. However, the wall was originally frescoed by Pietro Perugino in the early 1480s showing the Assumption of the Virgin. It also portrayed Pope Sixtus IV kneeling among the group of Apostles. The Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, on her feast day of that name, August 15, 1483.
• One of the most intriguing pieces of iconography in the Primavera painting is the arch formation of branches behind the Virgin. It represents multiple connecting narratives which I shall explain in my next post.
Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting is generally viewed and presented as a garden scene portraying figures from classical mythology, its prominent theme reflecting the season of Spring.
The figures are usually identified as Mercury, one of the major Roman gods (or Hermes in Greek mythology); the Three Graces (also known as the Charites); Venus (Aphrodite) the Roman goddess of love and her son Cupid (Eros); Flora the Roman goddess of flowers; Chloris, her Greek counterpart; and the wind god Zephyrus.
That the painting can be viewed as representing two levels of identities associated with mythology presents the possibility they masquerade other layers of actors embedded in the scene.
Indeed, there is an underlying narrative which Botticelli has disguised and mirrors the Springtime theme – the religious period of Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, meaning “spring season”.
In religious terms the forty days of Lent is a time of purification, reconciliation, reparation, renewal; a time to be born again; a time of rebirth and renaissance; a penitential period of fasting and prayer in preparation for the Christian celebration of the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday (his Passover) and Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Spring, or Lent, isn’t the only time frame depicted in the painting. In fact, every month of the year is represented in the form of the 12 signs of the zodiac. Some are easy to pick up on, others less so. This astrological pointer to the perpetual motion of life, death and rebirth – and expressed through the four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – parallels with parts of the continuing cycle of Christian liturgical seasons.
Apart from those already mentioned, other mythological characters and creatures are disguised in the painting in a similar way to the zodiac references.
And then there are the horticultural references. It is said that more than one hundred flowers and plants have been identified. Scent and art historian Caro Verbeek describes the scene as “one big open window exuding the most wonderful and characteristic scents of Tuscany”, and asks the question: “Is there an olfactory iconography to this work of art?” She continues, “It can be argued Botticelli has intentionally added olfactory – yet visually represented – symbols”.
Indeed he has, but not just the sweet scented perfume exuding from the numerous flowers. Sources emitting less pleasant odours are also embedded in the “big window”, wafted with the aid of the figure of Zephyrus, the Greek personification of the West Wind.
As for dating the Primavera, the Uffizi gallery in Florence, where the painting is housed, assigns c.1480. Other estimates range from the late 1470s to the early 1480s. There are details in the painting to suggest it was not started until after Botticelli had returned from Rome during the first quarter of 1482, where he had been engaged by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.
• More analysis of the iconography in the Primavera painting in my next post.
More on the Monforte Altarpiece… When Hugo van der Goes suddenly became agitated on his journey back from Cologne, he kept insisting he was a lost soul and bound for eternal damnation. He made an attempt to self harm – some say to commit suicide. Whatever, his actions revealed a sense of deep despair and hopelessness.
Hugo expressed this fatalistic notion in his painting, alongside the belief that life is determined by celestial signs, just as the rising star followed by the Magi signalled the birth of the infant king of the Jews. But astrology was not just for men from the East. The underlying identities of the Magi – Pope Sixtus IV, Frederick III, Maximilium I and Ludovico Sforza – all used the services of astrologers in decision-making and to determine their future plans.
Moriah, the place where God determined a sacrifice be made of Isaac – represented by the rock, or altar – also links to Hugo’s idea of fatalism. ‘Moriah’ is a pun on ‘Moirai’ or ‘Moerae’, the three goddesses of Fate in Greek mythology who “controlled the mother thread of life in every mortal from birth to death.” The three Moirai are Clotho who spins the thread of life from her distaff onto the spindle; Lachesis who measures with her rod the thread of life given to each person; and Atropos who cuts the thread of life with her shears.
The Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted in paintings spinning wool with a distaff and spindle. This iconography is based on a passage from the Protovangelium of James which describes how Mary was chosen to spin the ‘true purple’ for the temple veil and the scarlet cloth for the serving priest. In Hugo’s painting, the thread of life is spun from the Infant Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ seated on Mary’s lap. Her purple garment defines her as the ‘Temple of the Lord’.
The serving priest is the kneeling figure in scarlet who represents both Pope Sixtus IV and Pope St Gregory the Great. Prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth whose husband Zechariah was the principal serving priest at the Temple. However, he was unable to fulfil his duty after being struck dumb because he doubted the angel who told him his barren wife would conceive a child. His place was taken by Samuel. For Zechariah read Sixtus IV and for Samuel, St Gregory the Great. For Clotho, the “mother thread of life”, read Mary, Mother of God.
The scarlet figure of Pope Sixtus IV dominates the central section of Hugo’s painting. This is not without reason and is explained later. The remnant or what is left of the pontif’s life is the trailing length of cloth. It is measured out by the pointed foot of Emperor Frederick III, as if to suggest he has the measure of the Pope. The boot is shaped as a snake’s head and this is part of another theme in the painting associated with the Three Fates that links to the men from the East and pagan belief and worship. The Holy Roman Emperor is presented in the role of Lachesis.
The third Fate, Atropos, is illustrated by combining the figures of Maximilian I and Ludovico Sforza. At first glance it appears that the sword close to the hem of the red robe belongs to the standing figure of Ludovico. In fact it hangs from the waist of Maximilian. The sword is there to cut the thread of life, hence its placement next to the hem of the Pope’s garment, and also alongside the fringe of the green overcoat worn by Ludovico. Notice the shortened length of the front compared with back of the garment trailing on the floor. And this links back back to St Vincent the Deacon, his short dalmatic vestment, and shortened life by martyrdom.
The pommel on the sword’s grip is a pointer to an unexpected death in the life of Maximilian, while his left knee is positioned next to the deadly nightshade plant, whose latin name is shared with the Third Fate, Atropos! Together with the white edge of the scarlet robe (hem-lock) Hugo presents a lethal poison for cutting the thread of life.
Observe also the ‘keystone’ symbol that ‘cuts’ through the fringe of the garment, a reference to the hypocrisy and vanity displayed by the scribes and Pharisees recorded in Mathew’s Gospel (23 : 1-12), and to Jesus being the keystone rejected by the builders (1 Peter 2 : 6).
It also refers to Moriah as the place where Solomon built his temple on the plan of a trapezoid shaped as a keystone.
• More about the Monforte Altarpiece… This detail from the left edge of the painting is another indicator that it was produced later than its current attribution date of c1470.
The man wearing the burgundy-coloured jacket and standng next to the black horse has just crossed over the bridge with a small entourage following him. He is Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy who died at the Battle of Nancy fighting against an army of Swiss mercenaries employed by Rene ll, Duke of Lorraine.
The date of his death is significant, January 5, 1477, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the visit of the Magi to pay homage to the new-born Christ, depicted as the main scene in the painting.
The bridge represents Charles’ crossing over from life on earth to face whatever justice awaited him. For certain he was a debtor, as were the other three men represented by the Magi: Pope Sixtus IV; Frederick lll, the Holy Roman Emperor; and Ludovico Sforza, Regent of Milan; their common creditor being the powerful Medici Bank. It was Charles death and massive debt that instigated the closure and eventual liquidation of the bank’s Bruge branch in 1478.
A possible consequence could also have been that artists like Hugo van der Goes may not have been paid for pictures they were comissioned to paint, especially by Tommaso Portinari who managed the Bruge branch and made extravagant loans to Charles the Bold in an effort to ingratiate himself at the Duke’s court.
He commissioned several paintings, including the famous Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Hugo van der Goes and which was finally delivered to its Florentine destination after the painter’s death – possibly because Hugo may not have been paid and had held on to the work.
Another connection in the painting to Charles the Bold is the kneeling figure of Maximilian I, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick lll. After Charles was killed, Maximilian married the Duke’s daughter and only heir, Mary of Burgundy.
There is an illustration in her Book of Hours that depicts Mary being chased by Death while out hunting. She is riding a white horse. Is this the riderless white horse being escorted past Charles in the detail at the head of this post? And is this ‘pale horse’ representative of the horse from the Book of Revelation that signifies death, and the black horse that which is said to represent the scales of justice?
It is documented that Hugo van der Goes suffered from mental health issues towards the end of his life and that he unduly worried about completing his paintings. He had spent most of his life working in the Flemish city of Ghent, in the shadow of the great Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert’s most famous work, the Ghent Altarpiece.
On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482, the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the famous Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”.
Art historians assume that Münzer was referring to Hugo van der Goes.
In the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly on the Just Judges panel, Van Eyck applied mutiple identities to some of the figures, as many as four in some instances. Van der Goes did the same when he painted the Monforte Altarpiece, obviously influenced by Van Eyck, as were other artists of the time.
In the Monforte Altarpiece Hugo also acknowledges his mental health issues and his period of “insanity”. He makes it very clear that time is running out for him and he is close to death. To be able to portray this in his painting suggests Hugo was of “right mind” and completely prepared for his death in 1482 when, I believe, this work of art was probably completed.
In my previous post, I mentioned that the painting was likely commissioned by the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario, possibly for display in the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and in memory of his first wife Beatriz Enriquez de Castella who had died in 1455.
The count’s coat of arms and those of his first wife Beatriz can still be seen on the castle tower known as the Homage Tower as seen in the image below.
Hugo has referenced the sets of arms in an unique way using the four figures placed behind the wooden fence (not those seen on the hill in the background – that’s another story.)
The four men, two shown as youths, refer to an event that took place in Florence in 1478 known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, when members of the Pazzi family set out to displace the Medici family as rulers of Florence. The plan was to assassinate the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempt was made on April 26, 1478. Lorenzo was wounded but Giuliano was killed. Vengeance was taken by the Medici and several of the plotters were executed and the Pazzi family banished from Florence.
The two men with their backs to the wall are two of the plotters. One of them grips a dagger in his left hand. The two youths represent Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo is depicted with his cloak covering his left shoulder, a reference to how he used it to defend himself during the attack. At Lorenzo’s risght shoulder can be seen part of a castle wall with an entrance and rampart. Lorenzo’s flowing golden locks are also significant and symbolic of a lion’s mane representing the Marzocco, the famous heraldic lion of the Florentine Republic.
In his right hand Lorenzo holds a cap in front of his brother’s chest. The round, gold-coloured shape represents a bezant, a gold coin, symbolic of those found on the Medici family’s coat of arms, of which there are five. Now we can begin to see how Hugo is constructing his reference to the Medici family and the Pazzi conspiracy; Lorenzo’s coat covers his arm (coat of arms). His brother Giuliano wore no armour or any protection on the day he was murdered. Even his wealth and status was unable to protect him from assassination. He was stabbed 19 times and his wounds are represented by the indented hat band. The hat or bezant shape is also cleaved by the black hat rim, an indication that the fatal blow to Giuliano was by a sword wound to his head.
So now we have the elements associated with the Pazzi Conspiracy and the Medici family that can be referenced and combined with elements found in the combined coats of arms assocated with the Count of Lemos and his wife.
The count’s arms depict two running wolves. These are the two assassins standing with their backs to the wall. The arms of Beatriz Enriquez de Castella show a castle, a lion rampant and six roundels or bezants. Hugo has shown the castle positioned at Lorenzo’s right shoulder; the lion is represented by Lorenzo, symbolic of the Marzocco; and the round hat represents the roundel or bezants depicted not only on the Medici arms but on those of Beatriz as well.
Can this unique creativity seriously be the product of an insane mind? There are other connections made by Hugo to the Pazzi conspiracy, but one in paticular is signficant and involves word-play, similar to the word associations Jan van Eyck would embed in his paintings. The word is Pazzi but by replacing the last letter with another vowel to make ‘pazzo’, then this translates as “insane”!
Perhaps the artist was trying to say that if some judged him as “insane” then what did that say about the insanity of the Pazzi Conspiracy and its consequences for all involved – even for a Pope who had a hand in the conspiracy and the outcome, portrayed here as Sixtus IV on his knees before the Infant Jesus.
There’s a new book by art historian Simon Hewitt due out in October – Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom. The publisher’s blurb on Amazon describes the work as “an in-depth investigation into the art, politics and muderous cynicism of Renaissance Milan and an academic detective story sketched out with erudition and journalistic panache.”
A more sensational approach was adopted by the publisher when informing various media channels. Hence the similar headlines that appeared with the story this week:
“Italians laughed at Leonardo da Vinci, the ginger genius” “Master’s Misery: Leonardo da Vinci was bullied for being ginger and gay… ” “Artist Leonardo da Vinci was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan” “Fellow artists mocked Leonardo da Vinci for his red hair and sexual leanings”
Here’s part of the report behind the headline published by The Guardian:
Far from being admired as an extraordinary genius, Leonardo da Vinci was repeatedly lampooned and teased about his unusual red hair and his unconventional sexuality by other leading artists of his day. Although the work of the great Italian was popular in his time, an extensive new study of the artist to be published this week has outlined evidence that he was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan.
Author Simon Hewitt has unearthed a little-studied image held in Germany, a “comic strip” design made in 1495 to illustrate a poem, that showed how Leonardo was once ridiculed. In one of its colourful images, An Allegory of Justice, a ginger-haired clerk, or court lawyer, is shown seated at a desk, mesmerised by other young men, and represents Leonardo da Vinci. “The identity of Leonardo as the red-headed scribe is totally new,” Hewitt told the Observer ahead of the publication of Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom.
The key passage in Hewitt’s book identifies the painter through a series of clues in the precious illustration. He is shown as a “left-handed clerk … with a wooden lyre at his feet: evidently a caricature of Leonardo da Vinci”. The lyre was Leonardo’s instrument and his father, Ser Piero, who is depicted resting his right arm on his shoulder, “is brandishing a sheet of paper that surely represents the anonymous document denouncing Leonardo for sodomy, deposited in a Florence tamburo in April 1476”.
Close study of the illuminated manuscript copy of Gaspare Visconti’s epic poem Paolo e Daria, revealed to Hewitt that Leonardo da Vinci is also likely to be the object of ridicule because of the absent-minded way he is shown to be drawing on the tablecloth, rather than on his sketch notebooks, and by his apparent fascination with a half-naked young man who is clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”.
“Further evidence of Leonardo’s identity, and homosexual leanings, is provided by the group of eight strapping figures alongside,” argues Hewitt, who has conducted five years of research into Leonardo and his circle in search of the truth about a controversial portrait, La Bella Principessa…”
This is the illustration Simon Hewitt refers to that appears in Gaspare Visconti’s Romanazo e Diana.
I don’t have a problem with Leonardo being identified as the seated figure with his father Piero standing behind him. It’s a good spot by Hewitt. So also the left hand, but is the claim that Leonardo had ginger hair really valid? Compare the colour of his hair with the colour of the hair on the figures on the right. Haven’t they all got ‘ginger’ hair? If so, why has Hewitt placed the emphasis on Leonardo? There are depictions of Leonardo by other artists of his time which would dispute Hewitt’s claim.
But let’s assent to Hewitt’s opinion on the ginger hair and instead consider if there was a sound reason why the illustrator not only portrayed Leonardo with ginger hair – it may even be classed as ‘red’ or ‘golden’ – but also the group of figures on the right of the frame.
For sure this is a painting mostly about Leonardo da Vinci. Hewitt states that it points to Leonardo’s sexuality and the time he was charged with sodomy before he left Florence to work for Ludovicp Sforza, duke of Milan, seen sitting in judgement and conversing with Piero, Leonardo’s father, who was a notary by profession. Hewitt also points out the note in Piero’s right hand, suggesting it is the unsigned report posted to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo and others of sodomy. Yes, it is, and it isn’t. Leonardo was brought to court in Florence, not Milan, but the artist Birago is resurrecting this incident to confirm Leonardo’s identity in the picture.
Hewitt also points out another identifier to Leonardo, the broken lyre on the floor in front of the desk. Leonardo was a notable musician. He even presented a silver lyre in the shape of a horse-head as a gift to the duke when he arrived in Milan. So could the broken lyre be a metaphor for Leonardo’s brokenness – not referring to his sexuality – but to a damaged shoulder, the one on which his father’s right hand rests, as an outward sign of confirmation that not only is Leonardo his son in whom he is well pleased with, but also that the injury would be a cross to bear in life. It may also explain Leonardo’s tendency to write with his left hand. Whether this injury occured early in his life, it cannot be certain, but there are specific references to Leonardo’s shoulder in paintings by his contemporaries.
It is said that Leonardo once built a flying machine and launched himself into flight from the side of a hill. Again, paintings that depict Leonardo suggest the injury occured before he moved to Milan. Could it have been the result of his attempt at flying, a dislocated shoulder or a broken collar-bone,perhaps, as a result of a bumpy and uncontrolled landing?
Simon Hewitt also makes a point in his published comments that Leonardo is apparently fascinated with a half-naked young man who is apparently clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”. In reality the ‘contraption’ is the broken neck and strings of the lyre. It also serves to represent the flying machine Leonardo is said to have taken into the air, now broken in two after crash-landing. Notice the bird shape wings and its long neck – a reference to one of Leonardo’s paintings, Leda and the Swan. Notice also the shape of the split between the two pieces –another pointer to the Leda painting and the broken eggs. But can egg shells ever be repaired and put back together in one piece? Seemingly not by human hands. Just look at the fit between the two halves of the instrument. They don’t match. Divine intervention is required.
And so the illustrator takes us a step towards identifying the “half-naked” young man who Leonardo can’t take his eyes off. He does this by placing a ghostly “Manylion” feature or face of Christ as depicted on what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. It appears just under the neck of the lyre on the thigh of the man in the blue “shroud”.
The figure represents Jesus Christ, – a leader not a Leda – and points to the painting by Andrea Verocchio and which Leonardo had a hand in – The Baptism of Christ. In this work Leonardo is depicted as he kneelng angel in a blue gown, seemngly looking up at Jesus being baptised by John. This could explain why the illustrator has depicted Leonardo seated at his desk looking up at the ‘half-naked’ man. In the Baptism painting, Jesus is shown ‘half-naked”.
The model for the head pf Jesus is possbly Andrea del Verocchio, Leonardo’s tutor and master during his apprenticeship in Florence – an adopted father, after his family sent him to train as an artist in Verocchio’s studio where he remained until he moved to MIlan. See the similarity in the two portraits representing Jesus; the plumpness in the face and the heavy eyes and there is even a suggestion of a light beard in both. See also the highlighted right collar bone and another pointer to Leonardo’s injury.
So now we have three ‘father figures’ in the miniature that Leonardo could relate to: his natural father, Piero, standing in support behind him; Ludovico Sforza, who took Leonardo under his wing in MIlan; and Andrea del Verocchio during his training period in Florence.
As to repairing the broken instrument, Leonardo would have been famliar with Scripture and the words of Jesus – “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And who is the red-haired woman standing next to Jesus? Could it be the woman caught in adultery by the scribes and the Pharisees. They wanted to stone her as the law of Moses provided for, but Jesus responded by writing on the ground with his finger and saying, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8: 7). Observe also the ‘hook’ feature that represents the swan’s head, yet another scripture reference to include both Leonardo and the adulterous woman. It refers to the period shortly after the baptism of Jesus and when he dealt with temptation in the wilderness. On his return to Galilee Jesus saw the brothers Simon and Andrew casting their net in the lake and called out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4: 19).
So this brings the analysis back to Leonardo sitting at the table – scribing, so to speak. Hewitt points out that Leonardo is so distracted by the “half-naked” man that he is absent-mindely drawing on the tablecloth. But this is the illustrator’s method of pointing to Jesus seemingly not paying attention to the scribes and Pharisees by writing on the ground with his finger. It’s also a reference to the Mosaic Law and Moses writing on tablets or tables. Leonardo was considered a ‘Moses’ figure by some, recording the laws of nature in his notebooks and perhaps even for covering up his “crime” as the prophet did when he killed an Egyptian guard and buried him in the sand.
There is other iconography which points to Leonardo, perhaps even issuing a warning to others and recalling the wooden horse of Troy and its associated adage: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Leonardo had writen and informed Ludovico Sforza that he wanted to produce a horse sculpture as a monument to the duke’s father Francesco Sforza. For reasons I won’t go into here it was started but never completed. The table at which Leonardo sits represents the wooden horse and a likely reference to the scaffolding used to construct the initial clay model. It’s head is formed by the upper part of the wooden lyre. The blue cloth serves as a cover for the work in progress. Beneath the table there is an anomaly. Leonardo is depicted with only one leg, a direct reference by the illustrator to Leonardo’s masculinity hidden under the table or inside the horse.
A less obvious narrative in this miniature again points to Leonardo and one of his paintings. Two notebooks are placed on the table both with pronounced markings, spots, in fact. They refer to the phrase that “a LEOpard never changes its spots”, meaning that Leonardo’s sexuality is as it is, but more importantly they connect to the lyre and represent musical notation by the notary’s son Leonardo and the painting attributed to him: Portrait of a Musician. In the painting the musician is seen holding in his right hand a piece of paper with musical notation written on it; the piece of paper that Piero is passing into Leonardo’s right hand, or perhaps taking from it – not just a piece of paper, but also a piece of music. See how the illustrator has matched the ‘ginger’ and curled-fringe look of Leonardo’s hair with that of the Musician. Could it be that the Musician is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? Why else would the illustrator draw attention to the painting in this way? Perhaps also the golden-haired figures grouped at the side of Jesus represent a heavenly choir of angels conducted by Leonardo with a small baton doubling up as a writing tool in his left hand. Leonardo liked his angels.
At this stage it is worth pointing out that the illustration was likely inspired by another source that depicts Leonardo in similar circumstances, where he is accompanied by his father and judgement is passed. It’s one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, and part of a series that illustrates the lives of Moses and Jesus. The particular fresco is titled the Testimony and Death of Moses, part of which shows the prophet passing on the baton to Joshua. The kneeling Joshua is in fact Leonardo sa Vinci. His father Piero, the notary defined by his scrolled hat, stands behind his son, his right hand pointing to Leonardo’s ‘winged’ shoulder. More about this here.
Seated on the judgement seat is Lady Justice with scales and sword. She wears no blindfold, so her impartiality is questionable. The scales of justice are broken as one of the pans is missing. Justice, it seems, will not be applied evenly. Does she favour Leonardo, or not? In his book, Hewitt identifies the woman as Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza. Ludovico, sceptre in hand is the man in the middle, the fulcrum. In his hands is the balance of power – justice according to the duke’s measure. As to the armoured lady, I can’t be certain. She sits alongside Ludovico and therefore possibly his wife Beatrice d’Este who died in childbirth at the age of 21. On the other hand it could be speculated that she represents Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza, heavily disguised in dark armour. Like Beatrice she also died young – just three months earlier when she was only 14 – but in mysterious circumstances. Her peacock-head helmet could be considered symbolic of her resurrection. If it is Beatrice, then she’s there for a reason that connects to Leonardo, possibly because he knew the cause of her death. He hinted at it in the portrait he made of Beatrice which came to light in recent years and was titled La Bella Princepessa by the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp.
As for who Lady Justice might be, try Lucrezia Tornbuoni, mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence at the time of Leonardo’s arrest along with three other men on a charge of sodomy. One of them was named Leonardo Tornabuoni.
UPDATE: February 18, 2022
• Another view on the identities of the four figures in Verrocchio’s painting, The Baptism of Christ, is that the Baptist figure and the kneeling angel both represent Leonardo da Vinci, and the figure of Christ and the second kneeling angel represent Sandro Botticelli who may also have studied at Verrocchio’s workshop as did Leonardo.While the angel Botticelli has his head turned in admiration for the angel Leonardo, who is Leonardo actually looking at, Christ or himself portrayed as John the Baptist?
Returning to the Sistine Chapel and the fresco of the Testament and Death of Moses attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo Gatta…
I mentioned in a previous post that four of the multitude of figures depict Leonardo da Vinci. In this post I will present an explanation for one of them, the naked man seated on a tree stump and positioned centrally in the line of figures in the bottom half of the fresco.
Standing next to Leonardo is a figure wearing a bright blue jacket with most of his face hidden and his back to the viewer. Leonardo and the faceless man are presented in front of a group of men, some perhaps members of the Signoria, the government of Florence while others are members of the Medici family. With the exception of two, the group faces east toward another scene that shows Moses teaching the Law to the men, women and children gathered before him.
The group is taking the Law into account before passing judgement and possibly any sentence on Leonardo who had been anonymously reported for sodomy. His ‘anonymous’ accuser was another artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio, standing immediately behind Leonardo. Notice the snake-head shape of the fold above his right hand in the gold garment he is wearing. The snake reference not only points to Ghirlandaio as the sender of the anonymous letter to the Signoria, but also to the injury and the bruising on Leonardo’s right shoulder sustained from his attempt at human flight, hence the wing feature made of light silk attached around his neck. Was a tree or its stump the painful landing point?
Identifying Ghirlandaio is linked to the fresh-faced youth looking at the artist next to him. He is Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici. The motif is borrowed from the fresco in the Sassetti Chapel in Florence depicting the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis where both Giovanni and Piero are seen looking out directly at the artist who happens to be Ghirlandaio.
In the Moses fresco Piero (the Unfortunate) is the tall figure alongside Giovanni. Their father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is to the right of the man in the blue jacket whose hand is raised as if appealing for help from Lorenzo. Could the man in blue be Leonardo Tornabuoini, one of the three other men charged with sodomy, and connected to the Medici family through Lorenzo’s mother Lucrezia Tornabuoni? This would explain why the face is hidden and possibly confirm the speculation that the charges against the men were dropped because of the Tornabuoni connection to the powerful Medici family.
The other figure not facing East but looking down on Leonardo is Antonio Pucci, Gonfaloniere of Justice and a close ally of the Medici family. His wealth and influence stemmed from the silk industry, hence the reference to the silk scarf or wing worn by Leonardo. The silk reference also connects to Ghirlandaio whose nickname means ‘garland maker’ and whose family produced silk scarves threaded with gold, a fashionable item with Florentine women of the time.
Pucci’s hands are explaining a point to Leonardo and his companion. He is squeezing his right thumb with the thumb and forfinger of his left hand. Could he be demonstrating a form of torture used by the authorities to punish or extract information, perhaps the application of thumbscrews or even amputation?
It’s a certainty that this fresco and, in particular, its central scene, was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and its many reference to Leonardo including the episode relating to the charge of sodomy.
Luca Signorelli and/or Bartolomeo Gatta have replicated the right-hand corner of the Magi painting that shows Botticelli wrapped in a gold cloak standing behind the two figures representing Leonardo and one of his companions. But in the Moses fresco he is substituted by Ghirlandaio who, in the Magi painting is the ‘figure-head’ placed above Botticelli.
Ghirlandaio’s blue-domed hat is not only a reference to his name Domenico but also to the prep work he did by painting the Sistine Chapel’s dome in blue with gold stars to represent the heavenly dome covering the world. Notice also the feather in his cap, a refrence to the quill Ghirlandaio used to write his ‘anonymous’ note to the Florentine authorities. The denunciation was posted in what was known as the ‘tamburo’ a drum-shaped box or barrel provided for reports on law-breaking.
From this we can understand why Botticelli has placed Ghirlandaio’s head above himself. Botticelli means ‘little barrel’ and so a reference to the ‘tamburo’ and further confirmation that it was Domenico who wrote the anonymous letter charging Leonardo and others with sodomy. His reason for denouncing Leonardo in this way? Botticelli provides some of the answers in another of his great works, The Calumny off Apelles.
Another connection to Leonardo presented as the naked man in the Testament and Death of Moses fresco is Andrea Mantegna’s painting, Parnassus, completed about 1497 for Isabella d’Este and her studiolo. Mantegna’s Parnassus is heavly focused on Leonardo and his works. The figure of Orpheus playing his lyre is based on the figure of Leonardo in the Moses fresco and also linked to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi.
Finally, the bearded man, standing next to Lorenzo is the link between this scene and the one on the right featuring Moses teaching the law to the Hebrews.
The other bearded man seen tucked behind Ghirlandaio on the left side of the group has a legal status, and is a lawyer or notary. In a religious sense the scrolled brim on the front of his hat represents a phylactery or tefillin used to contain small scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. In a secular sense and as a notary licensed to witness signatures on documents the scrolled brim represents the box or ‘tamburo’ in which Ghirlandaio placed his written accusation against Leonardo. Here Signorelli confirms that the anonymous note was unsigned as witnessed by the notary standing next to Leonardo’s accuser.
A similar scroll motif is seen on one of the men in the next group to the left. He is Piero da Vinci, Leonardo’s father, and also a legal notary.
Last week, the world’s media reported on the diagnosis made by two Italian doctors which suggested Leonardo da Vinci suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. The claim was first presented in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on May 3, 2019, by Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi.
That Leonardo was inflicted with a paralysis in his right hand is not unknown to historians. Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, wrote in his travel diary about a visit to Leonardo in 1517. “One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand.”
Drs Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi base their diagnosis on two portraits of Leonardo, a red-chalk drawing attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1540-1608), and the other to an engraving made in 1505 by Marcantonio Raimondo (ca 1480-1527)
The engraving purports to show Leonardo playing a lira da braccio, suggesting therefore he may still had use of his right hand to enable to bow the instrument. The red-chalk drawing depicts Leonardo with his right hand cradled in the folds of his gown as if supporting an injured arm.
Historians generally attribute Leonardo’s paralysis to have manifested late in his life, but there is evidence to suggest the polymath bore his affliction even earlier and to the period he was living in Florence before moving to Milan in1482. The evidence is provided by three of his contemporaries, Andrea del Verriccio, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Perugino. Even Leonardo himself produced work that hinted at his disability.
Dr Lazzeri suggests that an acute upper limb trauma, possibly from a fall, could have resulted in ulner palsy. He eplains, “The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to the little finger and manages almost all the hand muscles that allow fine motor movement.” Perhaps in the light of the this new analysis by Drs Lazzeri and Rossi, it can now be better understood just why Leonardo did not always complete his paintings or was at least slow to do so.
In 1479 a group of Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was considered a reconciliation initiative between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’ Medici following the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano by conspirators supported by Sixtus. The four principal artists were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. Surprisingly Leonardo da Vinci was not among the group. Could one of the reasons for his absence have been some kind of incapacity at the time, perhaps the result of an injury to his right arm?
In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It was never completed. Prior to that he started to paint St Jerome in the Wilderness. This work also remained unfinished and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.
Revisitng this work it is clear to see the emphasis placed on the suffering of St Jerome in the process of beating his breast with the rock held in his right hand. What is now particularly obvious in the light of last week’s report is the prominence and detail given to the right shoulder, the collar bone and afflicted expression on Jerome’s face. Outstretching his arm is seemingly a most painful process, enough to make him grimace and turn his head away. Could this be Leonardo recording the pain of his own injury in some way? Notice the claw-shaped grip around the stone held in the right hand.
Another painting that throws light on Leonardo’s claw-hand is Andrea de Verrocchio’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1470-65). For the angel Raphael read Verrocchio and for Tobias, Leonardo – the master instructing his apprentice. Close inspection of the linked arms clearly shows deformity in the young man’s right hand, particularly the little finger. Some art experts suggest Leonardo may have painted the fish that Tobias is carrying in his left hand.
Although Leonardo wasn’t part of the Florentine team sent to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, he does feature in one of its paintings – The Trials of Moses – attributed to Botticelli. Leonardo is presented as the Egyptian being put to the sword by Moses and later buried. Both hands of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, are formed as claws!
Returning to Florence in 1482 Botticelli went onto complete an earlier commission before he was called away to Rome, the Adoration of the Magi, the adaption now housed with Leonardo’s version in the Uffizi, Florence. The earlier mention of Leonardo being buried is alluded to again by Botticelli. The stone head to the left of the Holy Family group is Leonardo shown as the half buried Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. But this is not the only reference to Leonardo in the painting. In fact, there are are several, one of which points to the claw feature in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel but is also given another meaning by Botticelli as part of one of several themes in the painting.
Leonardo is the figure wearing the pink cape crouching in front of Botticelli who is positioned in the right corner of the frame. The fingers of Leonardo’ right hand claw into the back of the hand of Giuliano de’ Medici. As to the reason for this, that’s another story.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, positioned next to Botticelli and wearing a feathered hat, was one of the artists who shared the workload in frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He also returned to Florence afterwards to complete a commisison he was given earlier to fresco the Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita basilica. He produced five frescos on the life of St Francis. One of these, the last in the cycle, depicts the Death of St Francis seen surrounded by fellow friars and Florentine notables. The central figure hovering above the dead saint is meant to represent a knight named Jerome who doubted the authenticity and claims of the stigmata associated with Francis during his saintly life. When Francis died, Jerome examined the manifested wounds of Christ on the body of the holy man and was convinced they were genuine and so convereted his life.
Here Ghirlandaio has borrowed the Leonardo/Egyptian figure from Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco – note the similarity in hair colour and style, and the shade of the red and blue garments. Leonardo is known for dissecting dead bodies in his search for how the human body functions, and his notebooks are filled with drawing and sketches recording his findings. So here we have not only the connection back to Leonardo’s early painting of Jerome in the Wilderness, but also Ghirlandaio linking it to the knight known as Jerome who doubted the stigmata of Francis. Ghirlandaio also confirms Leonardo’s claw hand, not just by the shape of the right hand reaching into the body’s side wound, but also by the claw-shaped ‘praying hands’ of the two figures either side of Leonardo.
Leonardo held a skeptical view about some aspects Christianity, and was even considered a non-believer by some people. Ghirlandaio, it seems, was a believer in ‘miracles’ and in the use and power of relics to obtain physical healing. Perhaps this is why he presented Leonardo before the dead Francis in this final fresco, as an expression of his own personal faith and prayer made visible for others to witness. It is said that Leonardo renconciled with the Catholic Church when he was close to death and paid for Masses to be said for his soul’s salvation after he died.
The claim that Leonardo is represented in the engraving produced by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505, has some merit. When he left Florence for Milan he brought with him a a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head as a gift for the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza. In Raimondo’s engraving Leonardo is depicted playing a ‘lira da braccio’ – an arm lyre – for the animals gathered around him. He is presented as Orpheus, “a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth”, said to be able to charm all creatures with his music.
Leonardo portrayed as Orpheus may have been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting Parnassus, now displayed in the Louvre. This is another work with several references to Leonardo and also Botticelli. In fact, it’s a parody on Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which explains why Mantegna embedded the references to Leonardo. In the left corner of the painting is a young man seated on a tree trunk and playing a lyre for the dancing Maneads. The figure is Orpheus but also represents Giuliano de’ Medici. His left hand is claw-shaped to pluck the strings of the lyre. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration Giuliano is also placed in the left corner, alongside a silver-head horse representing Leonardo’s lyre.
From these examples it can be seen that Leonardo’s claw-hand was not a late development in life, and that his contemporaries portayed his ailment in their paintings. There are probably more to come to light as the works I have cited are only those I have studied in recent months.
St Jerome in the Wilderness is another unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Believed to have been started sometime in 1480 before Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan, it’s now housed in the Vatican Museums.
At sometime in its history the panel was reduced in size. However, before it was cut down it served as inspiration for the upper half of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi. It’s not hard to recognise that the kneeling Magi before the Infant Jesus is not only meant to resemble both Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV as mentioned in previous posts, but also the figure of St Jerome depicted in Leonardo’s early work.
Other elements in Leonardo’s painting are also echoed and in a future post I will refer to these and the reason why Botticelli has made the connection to Jerome and placed the Saint – one of the early “Doctors of the Church” – in such a central position in his painting.
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The milestone is being acknowledged by special events around the world.
A little further back in time, 37 years to be precise and 1482, Sandro Botticelli recorded the death of Leonardo in a novel way – by portraying him in two roles, both as an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave in a fresco painting on a wall in the Sistine Chapel. The panel depicts the Trials of Moses and was one of several commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV using Botticelli and other Florentine artists.
The section shows Leonardo as the model for the Egyptian slain by Moses, as recorded in Exodus (2 : 11-14). Leonardo is also depicted as the bloodied Hebrew making an exit from captivity in Egypt but in danger of being enslaved by a woman seemingly set on protecting him. The woman is Florentina, the symbol of Florence.
Here Botticelli is referring to Leonardo’s brush with the law when he was one of a group of four men accused of sodomy. The charges were eventually dropped, some say because one of the other men was connected to the powerful Medici family. Had the law been applied in full then the four men could have faced execution. Guilty or innocent, the risk of execution was probably one of the reasons why Leonardo eventually left Florence and moved to Milan.
So here Botticelli expresses Leonardo’s fear of the severity of Florentine law, applied justly or unjustly, as portrayed by Moses who was chosen to present God’s law written in stone but which he had earlier applied unjustly on his own account by killing the Egyptian and hiding his body.
The passage from Exodus also relates what happened after Moses had killed the Egyptian. The following day he came across two Hebrews fighting each other. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” The man retorted, “And who appointed you to be prince over us and judge? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses became frightened when he realised his crime had been discovered and fled to the land of Midian. Was Botticelli using this analogy to compare the flight of Moses to the flight of Leonardo to Milan, referring to the fact his “crime” was also uncovered?
Another narrative is that Leonardo was perhaps at odds with himself, battling with his sexuality and experiencing his nature to be in conflict with the law that threatened not only his existence but also his way of life, hence the reason why Botticelli depicted Leonardo as both of the Hebrew men.
The self-conflict motif can also be read into the fighting group of Moses and the Egyptian. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration, Leonardo is painted in similar colours, green and yellow, to Moses in the Sistine Chapel frescos. But there are also other explanations for this match in the Adoration painting which I shall post on at another time.
The facial expression of the Hebrew on the ground is meant to relate to the screaming face of Leonardo that can be seen on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio. The cuirass is hollowed as a protective piece of armour, similar to a shell. This is why Botticelli has shaped Leonardo’s cloak as a shell. Leonardo collected and made study draiwngs of shells. However, Botticelli is also suggesting that the vunerable point of any creature carrying a shell on its back and hiding underneath it, is its underside and belly region. This point is also made with a similar motif in the Uffizi Adoration painting.
There is another feature that links the face of Leonardo on the breastplate to his face portrayed on the Egyptian, and which connects with Moses. When the prophet came down from Mount Sinai for the second time “the skin on his face was radiant”. Artists generally show this as “horns of light” or what became known as the “horns of Moses”, usually depicted as two horns projecting from his head. They are meant to represent enlightenment or knowledge, as in knowing God’s law. In the fresco, Moses has yet to receive God’s law written on stone tablets.
However, the face of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, has hair curled in the shape of horns. These are not only meant to represent the snakes associated with the image of the Gorgon Medusa and the pagan worship of the Egyptians of the time, but also suggest the brilliance of Leonardo, as gifted with knowledge and talents. The horns and the enlightened theme is also expressed on the breastpate, referring not only to Leonardo, but also the wearer Giuliano de’ Medici, considered a shining light and chivalrous knight of the Renaissance.
In my previous post I pointed out that in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, the figure of Joseph is leaning on a stone shelf which depicts Leonardo da Vinci as the head of the Great Sphinx. It wasn’t the first time Botticelli had portrayed Leonardo as the Sphinx. He had used the motif in an earlier work when he and other Florentine artists were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The commission was seen as a gesture of goodwill in building the peace process between Florence and the Pope in the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and assassination of Giuliano de’ Medci.
I also mentioned that the two tree trunks supporting the roof of the building housing the Holy Family represent the Roman numeral IV – four – and made the connection to the pharaoh Thutmose IV.
Now the numeral can also be understood as a pointer to Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere.
The two supports are from oak trees. Some oak leaves sprout from the vertical support even though it has been stripped of its bark at the base and so starved from nutrients and therefore any future life, a likely reference to the figure below of the hanged assassin Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, who served on the side of Sixtus in the pope’s efforts to remove the Medici family from its power base in Florence.
The Pope’s family name of Della Rovere means “of the oaks” or “the place of the oaks”. So here we see Botticelli expressing the Pope’s desire to take control of the Florentine Republic of which Lorenzo de’ Medici was the de facto ruler.
Art historians generally agree that the figure kneeling in front of the Infant Jesus is Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, but it also depicts Pope Sixtus IV as head of the Church on earth, and so a bridge (pontiff) between heaven and earth, a crossing into the promised land, not only led by Moses as described in the Old Testament, but also through the death and resurrection on the new-born Saviour, Jesus – hence the hands of Cosimo and Sixtus clasping the feet of the Infant. The two families, the Medici and the Della Rovere, are shown united in a symbolic sign of reconciliation and peace.
It was Pope Sixtus IV who built the Sistine Bridge across the Tiber in Rome. Notice the river-bend shape of the white scarf draped around his shoulders. Seen as Cosimo, the drape represents a waxing crescent moon.
There is another reference to ‘the place of oaks’ – the head of Sixtus – shaped as an acorn with its cup and nut. It’s gaunt appearance is reminiscent of some of the skull studies in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and is meant to act as a ‘bridge’ to the sculpted head of Leonardo portrayed in the ‘rockface’ above. Which brings me back to the start of this post and the mention of Botticelli painting a similar motif in an earlier work.
For this we have to return again to the Sistine Chapel and the connection to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from Egyptian captivity. The particular fresco is the Trials of Moses (or the Youth of Moses) painted on the southern wall.
My next post wil explain how and why Botticelli has linked references to Leonardo da Vinci in this fresco and the Uffizi Adoration.