When opposites attract

This is another drawing sourced from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt and the inspiration for Botticelli’s famous leaning figure of Venus in his painting titled the Birth of Venus.

Ecclesia from The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr 19093

The drawing represents Ecclesia, meaning “Church”, that is the Catholic Church of Botticelli’s time. Venus stands in a contrapposto pose, a sculptural scheme in which the standing human figure is poised so that the weight rests on one leg and the other is bent at the knee. Contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “opposite”. 

Villard’s Ecclesia is opposite in many ways to Botticelli’s version. She is fully dressed, and crowned. Her upper body leans to the left and from the waist down she is upright. Venus stands naked. Her stance is opposite; upright above the waist while her legs lean to the right. For sure, both representations appear to be off balance.

Venus’s attempt to cover herself is akin to the shame felt by Eve and her need for protection after succumbing to the serpent’s temptation and losing her innocence in the Garden of Eden – in biblical terms described as The Fall. So to make the connection with Ecclesia, Venus now represents the New Eve, Mary, Mother of the Church. From this it could be said that Botticelli was making a point about the failings within the Catholic Church at the time, echoing the words of spoken to Francis of Assisi in the church of San Damiano by Christ on his cross: “Francis, rebuild my Church which is danger of falling down.” 

Protection and support for the leaning Venus comes in the shape of one of the Horae or Hours, goddesses of the seasons in Greek Mythology. She approaches the shoreline (flying?) with a mantle of protection.Hher stance, with legs and feet apart, forms a buttress ready to prop up the tilting Venus.

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

The buttress symbol is mirrored opposite by the two winged and conjoined figures and is also a feature prevalent in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The winged figures can be considered as referring to a flying buttress, a building feature of support once banned by authorities in Florence during Botticelli’s time. The “flying buttress” is another drawing (right) that appears in The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt.

The are some subtle features of Villard’s Ecclesia that offer evidence or even confirmation his drawing was a source of inspiration for Botticelli’s Venus. Compare these ‘opposites’: the blowing, trailing banner with the windswept hair of Venus (flying buttresses!); the badly drawn facial features of Ecclesia with those of Venus modelled on Simonetta Vespucci who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Florence during Botticelli’s time. Simonetta was a young woman the artist was said to be most enamoured with and who he portrayed in several of his paintings.

Venus is also modelled on the Greco-Roman style of sculpture referred to as Venus Pudica (chaste or modest). I shall explain in a future post the reason why Botticelli also makes this connection and the source he borrowed from.

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

More hidden gems in Botticelli’s Primavera

Back with more analysis of the iconography in Botticelli’s Primavera and another connection to Lucca and its Cathedral dedicated to St Martin of Tours.

Equestrian statue of St Martin and the Beggar at the entrance of Lucca Cathedral

Many stories and legends are associated with St Martin. One famous account records the time when, as a young man serving in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, Martin met a half-naked beggar outside the gates of the walled city of Amiens. Martin took out his sword and slashed his tunic in half and gave one of the pieces to the beggar to cover himself. As Martin slept that night he experienced a dream of Jesus wearing the cloth he had given to the beggar earlier and saying to the Angels, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, gave me this cloak.” The dream prompted Martin to seek baptism.

Sometime later, Martin became a conscientious objector and informed his cavalry superiors he would no longer fight in an upcoming battle. He was accused of cowardice, but he responded by saying he would go into battle unarmed if necessary. However, the opposing army agreed to a truce and the battle never happened.

From that time Martin dedicated his life to the Church. In 371, the city of Tours required a new bishop. Martin was called to serve but was reluctant to take up the appointment and attempted to hide from the people in a goose pen. He was soon discovered when the geese began squawking.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

References to these three legends are embedded in the Primavera painting, and which Botticelli has linked to the figure of Mars, consort of Venus and a military deity of the Roman army.

The harpe* becomes Martin’s sword used to cut his cloak, shown as the figure’s tunic covering only half of his upper body. This lack of cover or protection refers to Martin offering to go into battle unarmed. It also represents the time when Giuliano de Medici, another of the figure’s multiple identities, was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478. He attended the Easter Mass without carrying a weapon or wearing any padded jacket armour to protect himself from attack by his assassins. The padded jackets were worn under metal armour when jousting and packed with goose down, similar to the modern puffer-style coats worn today.

The squawking geese, a warning cry of threat and danger, is symbolised in these ways: the dark cloud above Giuliano’s head; his raised arm referring to the time of the Offertory during Mass when the Body and Blood of Christ is raised by the celebrant before the congregation and a bell is rung. This was the signal for the assassins to attack and slice the head of Giuliano and inflict several stab wounds to his body during the pandemonium that ensued. The shape of the goose is formed by the figure’s raised arm and hand representing the neck and head. The left arm forms the wing, while the exposed chest area is the goose’s body.

The feast known as St Martinmass, celebrated on November 11, is a day when fattened livestock is butchered for the start of the winter season. In memory of St Martin, the traditional meal served and eaten on the day is goose.

  • A harpe was a sword with a sickle along one edge. In the painting the sickle is alluded to by the blade shape formed on the upper thigh under the figure’s left hand.

The shape also resembles the frame or outline of a musical harp. Here Botticelli has punned the word harpe with harp to link to the form of the man’s fingers, shaped not only to pluck the harp’s strings but also the goose.

The sword’s hilt is tied with strings and crowned, possibly referring to the idiom of one’s goose being cooked after Giuliano failed to put on his body armour to protect himself from attack. This suggests that Giuliano carried some of the blame for his death by not taking sufficient care to guard himself from his enemies in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. The hilt can also be recognised as a goose whistle. Another idiom that connects to this scene is “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs”, symbolised by the Medici golden bezants or oranges. Take your pick.

The body armour reference links to a biblical passage, one of many disguised in the panting. In this instance it echoes the advice given by St Paul to the Ephesians (6:11,14-17): “Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. […] Stand your ground with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carry he shield of faith so that you can put out the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword.”

The Cupid figure is depicted firing a burning arrow in the direction of the Three Graces. Observe the shield (a wasp’s cocoon) on the back of the nearest muse – Simonetta Vespucci (Vespa, Italian for wasp). She pops up again with a shield on her back in another of Botticelli’s paintings, Pallas and the Centaur. So who does the unfortunate Centaur represent, and seemingly in danger of being decapitated after straying into someone else’s garden?

Detail from Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli, c1482, Uffizi, Florence

More on this in a future post.

Painting parallels in Botticelli’s Primavera

A month ago I posted an item about a crucifix known as the Holy Face of Lucca, explaining its connection to Botticelli’s Primavera. I also mentioned there were more links to Lucca in the painting.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

When the Holy Face arrived in Lucca, it was first placed in the church of San Frediano before its translation to the church of San Martino, now referred to as Lucca Cathedral, where it has remained ever since.

On one of the walls in San Frediano is a fresco showing the transportation of the Holy face to Lucca after it had drifted on a boat to the Tuscan port of Luni from Palestine.

The transportation of the Holy Face from Luni to the church of San Frediano in Lucca.

Also in the the church of San Frediano lies the body of St Zita. She was a domestic who served a Lucchese family of silk merchants for 48 years. Zita was noted for her piety and aiding poor women of Lucca. After Zita died in 1272 many miracles became associated with her, and 300 years after her death, at the age of 60, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Zita was canonised in 1696.

The body of St Zita in the church of San Frediano, Lucca. Photo:  Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

A story associated with Zita is when she set off one day carrying bread in her cloak to feed the poor. Some jealous servants complained to her master, suggesting she was stealing the bread. When the master of the Fatinelli household confronted Zita and ordered to open her cloak, it was found to be full of flowers.

It is this account that Botticelli has linked to the figure of Flora in the Primavera, seen distributing flowers from her apron. The figure of Flora also represents Simonetta Vespucci, referred to as La Sans Pareille – The Unparalleled One – on an banner image of her painted by Botticelli which Giuliano de’ Medici carried in a jousting tournament he took part in 1475. 

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera

By integrating Simonetta and St Zita with the figure of Flora, Botticelli has created a link to the Greek philosopher Plutarch and his book Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans “arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings”.

So now the upright Simonetta-cum-Flora can be compared to the leaning or falling figure of Chloris in the guise of Fioretta Gorini. Likewise, the virtues of Flora as Zita can be compared to the failings and later conversion or change in the circumstances of Fioretta when she became an anchoress, symbolised as being grafted to Flora.

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera….

Chloris is the Greek goddess of flowers; Flora is her Roman equivalent.  The Roman poet Ovid wrote in Fasti 5“The goddess replied to my questions; as she talks her lips breathe Spring roses: ‘I was Chloris, who am now called Flora’”. Hence the roses depicted rambling from the mouth of Chloris and her attachment to the figure of Flora.

This transformation from Greek to Roman is also reflected in the life of Plutarch, a Greek who became a Roman citizen.

But Simonetta wasn’t always as upright as portrayed in this scene in Primavera. In an earlier painting by Botticelli – The Birth of Venus – Simonetta is depicted standing off-kilter on a giant scallop, having being blown by the wind to arrive in Florence from the region of Liguria in northwest Italy, which is close to the Port of Luni where the Holy a Face of Lucca sailed into from Palestine.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

So why is Simonetta portrayed as both leaning and upright in Botticelli’s two different paintings? Clues to the answer are to be found in the Primavera, one of which is a further link to Lucca Cathedral and introduces another artist Botticelli referenced for composing his painting.

More on this in a future post.

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.