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 abd his own family. The Pope turned instead to another Florentine banking family, the Pazzi, and this eventually climaxed in what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy and the assassination of Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano de’ Medici.
Lorenzo’s namesake, St Lawrence is one of two martyrs whose lives are portrayed in the Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican. The other is St Stephen. The frescoes were commisioned by Pope Nicholas V and painted by Fra Angelico Lippi.
According to Wikipedia, “St Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome under Pope Sixtus II who were martyred in the persecution of Christians that the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered in 258”. As Archdeacon of Rome Lawrence was in care of the treasury and riches of the Church and distribution of alms to the poor.
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 assasinated in Florence Cathedral. Lorenzo escaped with a minor wound to his neck.
A final connection in all of this is the fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting Pope Sixtus ll, the bishop of Rome who made St Lawrence an Archdeacon of Rome and also martyred by the Emperor Valerian. The fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli during the time he and other Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV.
Last month, I pointed out that one of the identities Botticelli applied to the Primavera figure reaching up to touch the clouds is the painter Filippino Lippi who, at the time, was part of Botticelli’s workshop and a team of painters engaged to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
The photograph below showing scaffolding and people in the Chapel erecting a temporary display of Raphael’s tapestries on the lower section of the walls gives an idea of the height the artists from Florence had to work at when painting frescoes at the level above the curtained section.
So Botticelli’s portrayal of the figure with his arm raised can also be understood as a depiction of Filippino Lippi perhaps painting a cloud formation in one of the frescoes. His comfortable stance with hand on hip and right arm flexed is balanced, almost statuesque, and reminiscent of the contrapposto style of figure developed by Ancient Greco-Roman sculptors and revived during the Renaissance. It also points to the identity of another Florentine artist, the sculptor Donatello and his famous bronze of the biblical figure of David.
By coincidence this scenario later connects to yet another artist and sculptor from Florence – Michelangelo who, almost 50 years later, was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and just a few years after he had sculpted his own and probably more famous version of David.
Sometime during the four year period painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo complained of his physical discomfort and burden in a poetic letter to a friend. He illustrated the poem with a sketch very similar to the stance of the figure portrayed by Botticelli in his Primavera painting. It would not be surprising that Michelangelo at some time may have had access to view and study the painting and had knowledge of its many narratives, even that the reaching figure represented Filippino Lippi.
The mention of Donatello also points to the Primavera figure being portrayed as Giuliano de’ Medici. Both men were entombed at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, and Lorenzo connects to the name of Giuliano’s brother who is portrayed as yet another of the figure’s identities which I shall explain in my next post. Chapels and churches is another theme to be found in the Primavera painting.
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den– As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be– Which drives the belly close beneath the chin: My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. My loins into my paunch like levers grind: My buttock like a crupper bears my weight; My feet unguided wander to and fro; In front my skin grows loose and long; behind, By bending it becomes more taut and strait; Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow: Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye; For ill can aim the gun that bends awry. Come then, Giovanni, try To succour my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
Tomorrow, Holy Thursday, Christians celebrate the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his Apostles before his crucifixion. The Passover is a day and festival of remembrance for ever in God’s honour before he instigated the tenth plague against Egypt to convince its pharaoh to free the Israelites.
The Passover is referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The male figure with his back turned to the Three Graces is said to represent Hermes/Mercury, messenger to the Greco-Roman gods. The figure also has other identities. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is another.
In his monograph on the life and work of Botticelli, Ronald Lightbown describes the figure of Mercury as inspired by a passage from The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil: “Mercury, despatched by his father Jove to Aeneas, first ties his winged shoes to his feet, then takes his caduceus, and by its power drives off the winds and the turbid clouds as he descends to earth.’
So how does the Passover and Giuliano de’ Medici fit in with this section of the painting? The passing cloud and the raised caduceus are clues.
Giuliano was assassinated while attending Mass in the Duomo cathedral in Florence. His head was sliced by a sword and he was stabbed several times. The signal for the time his killers planned to strike was during the time of Consecration when a bell was rung as the consecrated host was raised and held high before the congregation, hence the raised arm of Giuliano.
The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is the True Presence of Jesus, echoing the time at the Last Supper when he took some bread, broke it and shared it with his Apostles, saying: “Take it and eat, this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).
The raising of the Host, symbolic of Jesus being raised on the Cross, can also be compared to the raising of the caduceus, the cloud being the darkness that came over the whole land at the time of his death. The caduceus with its two entwined dragons or serpents also represents the time when the Israelites complained to Moses and so God sent fiery serpents among the people. Their bite brought death to many. The people repented and God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. He added: “If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8), which is why some Christian crosses and the crucifix are depicted with the image of a serpent.
As a mythological representation the dragons are seen as a sign of peace after Hermes/Mercury saw two serpents engaged in mortal combat. Hermes/Mercury separated them with his wand and brought peace between them.
The stance of the man, also relates to part of the Passover description in Exodus. “You shall eat it like this [the Passover meal]: with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily; it is a Passover in honour of Yahweh” (12:11).
And then there are the strands of dark clouds which the figure is reaching up to with his wand. The elongated shapes can be likened to lentil seed pods and therefore recognised as a cloud formation known as Stratocumulus lenticularis. Here Botticelli is punning on the word Lent (meaning Spring) and Lint, the fluffy substance derived from bits of fabric, and then extending the pun to refer to Lintel, the load-bearing beam placed above windows and doors. This then connects to another biblical passage relating to the Passover when Moses instructs the people to “Take a spray of hyssop, dip it in the blood [from the slaughtered animal] that is in the basin, and with the blood from the basin, touch the lintel and the two door posts. Let none of you venture out of the house till morning. Then, when Yahweh goes through Egypt to strike it, and see blood on the lintel and on the two door posts, he will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your homes and strike” (Exodus 12:22-23).
In this scenario we can understand the figure as reaching up to touch the lintel with blood, and probably his own because the man also represents Lorenzo de’ Medici who suffered a slight wound to the neck during the assassination attempt. He managed to escape death by reaching the sacristy and fastening the bronze door to keep out “the destroyer” from entering and striking again. As to the clues for also identifying the figure as Lorenzo de’ Medici, I shall explain in a future post as it connects to the time Botticelli spent in Rome engaged in frescoing some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.
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.
This picture is by the Gabriele Castagnola (1828-1883). Titled Love or Duty, it was painted in 1874, ten years before the Italian artist’s death in Florence. The painting on the easel is a clue to the artist featured in the main picture and his model dressed as a nun.
Although Castagnola was well aware of the account that inspired his painting and its two subjects, it’s unlikely he would have known that another painter, Sandro Botticelli, embedded the same narrative in his famous Primavera painting almost four hundred years earlier.
The picture propped on the easel is known as Madonna with the Child and Two Angels. It was painted in 1465 by the Carmelite priest and artist Fra Filippo Lippi. The original is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
The artist seated in Castagnola’s painting is Fra Filippo Lippi. His model is Lucrezia Buti, a Dominican novice and the mother of Lippi’s two children, a son named Filippino and a daughter Allesandra. The boy inherited his father’s talent for painting and went on to become one of the most noted Florentine painters.
Fra Filippo met Lucrezia when he was commissioned to produce a painting for the monastery chapel of San Margherita in Prato near Florence. The story goes that Filippo wanted Lucrezia as a model to portray the Virgin Mary. However, during the sittings he fell in love with the young novice and went on to take the extreme measure of kidnapping her while she was taking part in a procession. The friar brought Lucrezia to his house and refused to return her to the Dominican sisters at the monastery. Some years later the couple received a dispensation to marry from Pope Pius II, but seemingly Lippi declined to do so.
The comparison Botticelli makes to this story are the figures of Zephyrus and Chloris. The god of the West Wind came upon the flower nymph Chloris in the Elysian Fields, a place of the blessed. Zephyrus abducted Chloris and raped her. He later repented his crime and married Chloris who had no regrets and became Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. 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.
But Botticelli reinforces the connection between the two abduction accounts by “abducting” detail from two paintings attributed to Fra Lippi and morphing them as models for the figures of Zephyrus and Chloris.
The face of Zephyrus is based on Fra Lippi’s self portrait found in a fresco he painted in Duomo di Spoleto, Umbria. The large ears and shape of mouth are giveaways.
The turned head of Chloris is modelled on the pose of the foremost angel in Lippi’s Madonna and the Child with Two Angels. The nymph’s open mouth links to the mouth of the second angel, while the lifting or support action of the pair of angels is echoed by the lifting action of Zephyrus.
Fra Lippi’s son Filippino Lippi is also part of the Primavera painting. He is the model for the Hermes/Mercury figure. The Cupid or sprite figure is the link between Fra Lippi and his son. It’s barrel shape is a clue to its identity – Botticelli, meaning ‘little barrel’. The link can also be joined to the two Lippi’s in that Botticelli served as an apprentice to Fra Lippi whose son later worked in a similar role in Botticelli’s workshop.
Filippino was one of the painters who worked alongside Botticelli in producing some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. He is portrayed standing behind Botticelli in the Northern wall panel, Temptations of Christ.
Like Mercury in the Primavera, Filippino is portrayed looking up to the sky, except that in the Sistine Chapel fresco Filippino is focused on the final temptation when the ‘Son of Man’ is led to a height and promised the world if he would worship his tempter. The devil is disguised as a holy man for he quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus during his forty days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness (another Lenten reference). Jesus, the Word made flesh, responds by also quoting from Scripture, and the devil departs, after which, angels appear to minister to Jesus with bread and water.
The figure of Christ in his final temptation, his right arm raised as if to dismiss the darkness, his left hand placed in his hip, his blue coat wrapped across his left shoulder, are all features which can be recognised in the figure of Mercury. That Christ has his back to the three angels can be matched to Mercury turning his back on the Three Graces.
There are subtle references in the Primavera to the three temptations of Christ but the second temptation is one in particular that reconnects Filippino to his father in Fra Lippo’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels, and explains why Botticelli’s fresco depicted Filipino looking up in the scene at the second temptation of Christ, just as Filippino is looking up in the Primavera painting. Botticelli has portrayed Filippino as having made the connection to the symbolism in his father’s painting of the Madonna and Child with Two Angels, as an allegory for the temptations of Christ in the desert.
The relevant passage from Matthew’s gospel (4:3-7) reads: Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet if the Temple. “If you are the Son of God” he said “throw yourself down; for scripture says: He will put you in his angels’ charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). Jesus said to him, “You must not put the Lord your God to the test” (Dt 6:16).
In Fra Lippi’s painting we see the Child Jesus supported with the hands of two angels, the Temple being Mary, Mother of the Church. The prominent rock formation in the background refers to the stones the devil asked Jesus to turn into bread, while the bent knees, symbolic of the act of genuflection, coupled with the Virgin’s praying hands, reflect the response Jesus made to the devil wanting the Son of God to worship him: “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone” (Dt 6:13). Or, in other words, “Every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall praise God” (Romans 14:11)
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.
So who did produce the Mantuan Roundel, the Renaissance artefactwhich the UK has placed a temporary export ban on?
Stuart Lochead, a member of the RCEWA which recommended the ban, has posited the names of two Italian artists: Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Donatello (1386-1466).
My money is on Mantegna as the bronze roundel can be linked specifically to two paintings mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and the death of Donatello is prior to the paintings.
In 1488 Mantegna, the court painter at Mantua at the time, was invited by Pope Innocent VIII to paint frescoes at the Villa Belvedere in Rome which overlooked the old St Peter’s Basilica. He returned to Mantua two years later in 1490.
During his stay in Rome he would have had ample time to take in and study the work of other artists displayed in the Vatican, particularly the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The North and South walls of the ‘Great Chapel’ were decorated with scenes from the lives of Moses and Jesus, painted by a team of Renaissance artists that included Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Completion was in 1482.
One scene in particular, the Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli, provides the link to the Mantuan roundel. The central section shows a naked man seated on a tree trunk. He represents Leonardo da Vinci, and is the basis for the seated figure of Mars in the Mantuan roundel.
Mantegna extended the roundel connection to a later work he produced for Isabella d’Este, the painting known as Parnassus in which the Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan are included along with other mythological figures. Leonardo, an acomplished musician ‘particularly good at playing the lyre’ is also represented in the painting as one of the identities given to the figure of Orpheus sat on a tree stump. This motif is a direct reference to the Leonardo figure in the Sistine Chapel fresco and perhaps Mantegna making a caustic comment by punning on the word lyre.
However, the heads of the three main figures in the roundel are not direct representations of Lenardo, but rather his assistant Salaì, seemingly adapted from drawings that appear in Leonardo’s notebooks. Leonardo also made mention in his notebooks that Salaì was a liar and a thief, and it is probably in this connection why Mantegna utilised the likenesses of Salaì for the roundel and in the Parnassus painting.
Leonardo’s drawing shown here of the Heads of an Old Man and Youth can be likened to the head of Leonardo and the bald-headed man looking down on him as seen in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Even the ‘wing’ collar of the old man is mirrored on the fresco. The wing motif also shows up at the head of the caduceus tucked behind the head of Mars in the roundel. The snake-entwined wing of the caduceus is also echoed in the figure of Orpheus – the lyre resting on the shoulder being the wing, while the musician’s left foot and big toe is shaped to represent the serpent’s head about to bite the ankle of Eurydice and send her to Hades.
This brief presentation is simply to point to a connection between Mantegna and the Mantuan Roundel. There are more references in the work which lend to links with Leonardo and Mantegna’s Parnassus painting.
In my previous post I revealed that St Jerome is one of the identities given to the figure in the forefront of the Panel of the Relic. Hugo van der Goes links this version to an unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci known as St Jerome in the Wilderness, which is housed in the Vatican Museums.
It’s generally accepted that Leonardo’s rendering was produced in 1480, shortly before he was commissioned in March 1481 to paint the Adoration of the Magi. This work also remained unfinished, probably because Leonardo left Florence in 1482 and moved to Milan.
That Hugo van der Goes has referenced Leonardo’s Jerome in specific ways in the Panel of the Relic not only helps date the St Vincent Panels but also calls into question the date that Hugo supposedly died, put at 1482.
There is also a questionable claim that Leonardo’s Jerome was cut down into five pieces after his death in 1519 (and reassembled centuries later). Hugo van der Goes provides evidence that the painting was sectioned during his lifetime. One of the pieces – the head – is also a clue to the identity of the Relic.
For details about St Jerome’s attributes and legends, go to this page.
Several of Jerome’s attributes can be identified in Leonardo’s painting. The brimmed Cardinal’s hat or galero is shaped from the rock at the top of the frame, the pointed mount represents the tassels that hang from the hat. Combined with the smaller mount alongside, the two pointed rock shapes also represent the donkey’s ears and those of the rabbit or hare. The rabbit usually symbolises the sexual temptations of the saint. Like the lion in the forefront, both donkey and hare are lying down. The curved shape in front of the sketch of the church is the back end of the monastery donkey, while the shape of the back of the hare is silhouetted above Jerome’s right arm wih the stone in his hand used to beat his chest with. To the right of the monastery is a profile sketch of a crucifix.
Jerome also claims that he saw himself in a dream being scourged in heaven, and when he awoke he could see the scourge marks on his shoulder. Leonardo portrays this in a rather unusual way. The well-formed deltoid muscle area on Jerome’s right shoulder is shaped to form a human face looking upwards at the galero’s knotted tassels and the sharp-shaped stones doubling up to represent a scourge.
But before I post on some of these details in the Panel of the Relic, it’s worth noting that another artist utilised the St Jerome in the Desert painting to reference an event in the life of Leonardo da Vinci.
The painting by Luca Signorelli is titled Testament and Death of Moses and is one of six frescos completed by various artists depicting the Life of Moses on the South Wall in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
Seated on a tree stump in the centre section is an almost naked Leonardo da Vinci, surrounded by a group of Florentine society’s hierarchy that includes Lorenzo de’ Medici and two of his sons, Piero and Giovanni. Placed in front of Piero and the man looking down on Leonardo is the Medici banker Francesco Sassetti. Next to Sassetti with his back to the viewer is the painter Luca Signorelli. There is a reason for his prominent placing. Firstly, his name Signorelli is a play on the word Signoria, Florence’s Town Council. Secondly, he depicts himself as a rather flamboyant figure representing Sodomy, a charge which Leonardo was annoymously accused of and brought before the Signoria to answer. The accusation against Lenardo and three other men was later dropped because of lack of evidence and possibly because one of the men, Lorenzo Tornabuoni, had a family connection to the Medici.
The figure can also be identified as Lorenzo Tornabuoni via the family’s coat of arms, a rampant lion, its colours predominately pale blue (or green) and gold. The knotted armband represents the shield and its cross attached to the lion’s shoulder. The golden eagle featured in two corners of the stemma is echoed in the coat of the man standing behind the seated Leonardo, probably Angelo Poliziano, the classical scholar and poet who tutored Lorenzo’s Medici’s children. Luca Signoreli has constructed a separate narrative which relates to the combined figures of Leonardo, Poliziano, Sassetti and Tornabuoini but is not connected to the Jerome painting and therefore best left to present at another time.
The iconography which does connect to Leonardo’s Jerome in the Wilderness is fairly straightforward: The rear view of Tornabuoni represents the rear view of the lion, the red rbbons a humorous take on Jerome’s scourging. The encircling lion’s tail is the sweeping arched veil behind the crouching Leonardo (another ‘lion’). The gaunt appearance of Jerome is mirrored in the face of Francesco Sassetti, and probably a clue as to who commissioned the painting. However, the suffering Leonardo is also reflected in the upward gaze of Jerome, his head resting on a dark background, both in the painting and the shoulder of Sassetti, echoing the face feature depicted in the right shoulder of Jerome. Standing behind Sassetti is Piero, son of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Observe the triangular shape of his right shoulder, mirroring both the pointed mountain in the Jerome painting and the shape of the hanging tassels of the cardinal’s hat mentioned earlier. Sassetti’s gold collar mirrors Jerome’s pronounced collarbone.
Sassetti is also holding the thumb of his right hand – a possible reference to Leonardo’s finger marks evident on the Jerome panel as well as the thumbscrew torture used by investigators to extract information. Another form of torture was the strappado where “the victim’s hands are tied behind their back and suspended by a rope attached to the wrists, typically resulting in dislocated shoulders”, perhaps indicated by the action of the sweeping veil behind Leonardo’s back.
The Moses Testament and Death fresco is said to have been completed in 1482, a couple of years on from the 1480 date attributed to Leonardo’s Jerome in the Desert.
• My next post will deal with how Hugo van der Goes transferred some of the iconography from the St Jerome panel to the Relic sction of the St Vincent Panels.
This detail is from a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testimony and Death of Moses. It shows Moses seated and preaching to a group of people, women and children on the left, men on the right. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant. It is strategically placed at the side of two of the women with a babe in arms, one standing the other seated on the ground. They represent the Madonna and Child, a repeated subject of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings.
There are two angels standing behind the seated Madonna. The angel in the forefront, wrapped in prayer beads, is modelled on Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in 1478, some three years before the fresco was completed. Giuliano is portrayed as a guardian angel, keeping watch over the seated Madonna and Child who are modelled on Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio. There are three versions of Fioretta. The second is the figure standing immediately behind the seated woman, also with a child in arms, and the third depiction is the head behind the head of the standing woman.
Let’s take a closer look at the last mentioned. She is closely matched to Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci – aka Fioretta Gorini (right). Her hair is tied with a simple scarf, without decoration. Her eyes are looking to the right. Someone has caught her attention. It is Leonardo (not in the frame), the artist who painted her portrait. The fierce-looking woman on Fioretta’s shoulder is her protectress, a Gorgon feature, with a reputation of turning anyone who looked at her into stone.
The stone refererence is a reminder of the marble sculpture Verrocchio made of Fioretta – Lady with a Bouquet – and his terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici that shows a Gorgon feature on the breastplate depicting Leonardo as an angel. Fioretta’s father was a cuirasser who made protective armour. The breastplates would likely feature a Gorgon symbol.
The Giuliano and Leonardo ‘double-head’ also links to the appearance of a ‘double-head’ on the Fioretta figure in the fresco. This in turn provides another connection to Fioretta’s identity and Leonardo – a drawing made by the artist that is now housed in the British Museum. It depicts the Virgin and Infant Christ holding a cat. The Virgin is portrayed with a ‘double-head’ and it is this feature that the fresco artist has adopted and coalesced with the head of Fioretta in Leonardo’s painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci.
This combination and reference to Leonardo’s drawing also reveals that the woman in the sketch is Fioretta Gorini. The sketch and, more notably, a similar drawing in reverse and on the recto side of the sheet were prelimany drawings for the painting attributed to Leonardo and known as the Benoir Madonna. More on this in a future post.
The double-head feature in the fresco is meant to portray Fioretta at two stages in life, or two paths open to her. One that leads to death, the other to new life. She takes the path of transfiguration or religious conversion. Death, in the guise of the gorgon and representing her lover Giuliano de’ Medici, is at her side, after which she gives birth to her son.
Over her gold-decorated dress she puts on a purple cloak of ‘mourning’ and repentance, turning her head to the ‘Joseph’ figure opposite who is gazing adoringly at Fioretta’s child. In this instance the man is portrayed as Giuliano da Sangallo, brother of Antonio, the man who took charge of Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life. Giuliano is depicted instead of Antonio to link to the name of Giuliano de’ Medici and identify Fioretta’s son who was named Giulio.
The third stage in the transformation of Fioretta’s life shows her seated on the ground (an act of humility), simply dressed and holding her child. Her blue and gold garments are matched in colour to those seen in the Benoir Madonna. Her blue cap with its gold wings is similar to the cap and colours seen on the Moses figure and also in the figure of his successor Joshua shown elsewhere in the painting. The blue cap and gold ‘wings’ represent an anointing by the Holy Spirit.
In my previous post I suggested that Fioretta had joined a religious community of Carmelites. I mentioned also her connection to the Sangallo family and that one of the attributes of Saint Gallo was a bear carrying a piece of wood. Another attribute of the saint is a hermit’s tau staff and in the Sistine Chapel fresco we see Giuliano Sangallo leaning on a such a staff. Its end is placed at the bare feet of Fioretta. This is another pointer to Fioretta’s hermitic life, her removal from the world and discalced status, and also a reference back to Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta that art historians have mistakenly identified as Ginervra de’ Benci.
Fioretta’s ‘three-in-one” transformation connects to the transfiguration of Moses who was seen in a new light by the people when he descended from Mount Sinai after conversing with God. The first figure in the line of men on the right of the fresco is Elijah who, along with Moses, featured in the transfiguration of Jesus when he ascended a mountain in the company of three of his disciples. His face shone like the sun and God the Father’s voice was heard to say: This is my beloved son, with who I am well pleased; listen to him,” repeating the same words he spoke when Jesus was baptised by John in the wilderness. (Mark 1:11, 9:7)
Historians record Giuliano de’ Medici as the father of Fioretta’s son. Following the assassination of Giulio, his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici was informed by Antonio da Sangallo of the child’s birth and that Giuliano was its father. But was he?
So whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth to her child Giulio, said to have been the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici? For the first seven years of his life Giulio was raised by Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) and then brought up in the Medici household. His uncle Lorenzo de Medici became Giulio’s guardian.
It wasn’t until 1513 that Fioretta’s name surfaced again when the newly elected Pope Leo X wanted to make his cousin Giulio a cardinal. Problem for the Church was that Giulio’s illegitimacy stood in the way. This was rectified when apparently Fioretta’s brother, supported by some monks, testified that his sister and Giuliano de’ Medici had married secretly. Giulio’s birth was legitimised and he was made Cardinal on September 23, 1513 when he was 35 years old. Ten years later he became Pope Clement Vll. His birth is given as May 26, 1478, exactly a month after Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination on April 26. If Giulio was aware that Giuliano and Fioretta had married, then why did it take a man in his influential position, or the Medici family, so long to pursue his legitimacy? Or was this claim of marriage simply one of convenience to clear the path for Giulio to join the ranks of the cardinalate?
That it was Fioretta’s brother who was said to have confirmed the marriage, and not his sister, would suggest she was no longer alive at the time. Neither has any record come to light as to when Fioretta died, but presumably it was prior to 1513.
If Fioretta had been married to Giuliano then why would she not declare her marriage and her son to the Medici family? Why was it left to Antonio da Sangallo, the child’s godfaather, to inform Lorenezo de’ Medici of the birth and then to take the boy into his own house for the first seven years of his life? And was there a reason why Fioretta’s own family did not not take charge or support her child?
Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli provide clues in their paintings about Fioretta’s circumstances following Giuliano’s murder and the birth of her son. They both suggest that Fioretta entered cloistered life, which may explain why she was not on hand to raise her child. Leonardo points to the Carmelite Order while Botticelli implies she may even have an become an anchorite, walled into her cell. Was her exile from the world self-imposed, perhaps the result of a religious conversion of epiphany experience, or was pressure applied on Fioretta to ‘disappear’ in this way?
There are two other paintings that point to Fioretta’s circumstances before and after Giuliano’s death. Of its time, around 1481, is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. The other painting is titled Parnassus and was produced by Andrea Mantegna twenty years after the assassination of Giuliano de Medici. It is now housed in the Louvre, Paris. Mantegna’s painting combines the references to Fioretta in Leonardo’s portrait known as Ginevra de’ Benci (NGA, Washington) and also those in Botticelli’s Madonna with Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (Barber Institute, Birmingham). The reference to Fioretta in the Sistine Chapel fresco points to her ‘new life’ or ‘transfiguration’.
Leonardo’s Carmelite reference is the bearded head of the prophet Elijah placed among the juniper and above Fioretta’s right shoulder. Carmelites follow an ideal of life as witnessed and experienced by Elijah. Already mentioned in a previous post is the juniper was the tree that Elijah sat under in the wilderness, when he wished he was dead and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).
The water feature at Fioretta’s left shoulder represents ‘Elisha’s Spring’. Elisha was the ‘adopted’ son of Elijah. At the time the prophet was taken up into heaven, Elisha requested and received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Soon afterward Elisha performed his first miracle by purifying Jericho’s water supply which was considered the cause of many miscarriages. The ‘adopted son of Elijah’ can be understood as Fioretta’s son Giulio being first ‘adopted’ by his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), a notable Florentine woodworker (and later an architect), and so another identity Leonardo has applied to the ‘head’ in the trees – placed at the shoulder in support of Fioretta, as he would have been when the child was baptised. It was near to Jericho that John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. Notice also the young, golden tree that rises from the waterside and merges with the juniper – symbolic of a tree of life and the safe delivery of Fioretta’s son Giulio.
Further confirmation that the shape above the Fioretta’s right shoulder is a pointer to Antonio da Sangallo is the the name Sangallo, Italian for Saint Gaul. One of the saint’s artistic attributes is a bear bringing him piece of wood, as seen below in the right hand image. The image on the left represents an ‘upright’ bear carrying a forked branch. Leonardo points to this using a triangular ‘pyramid’ – symbolic of Giuliano’s recent death. The branch is shaped as the letter Y or the Greek upsilon. Its symbolism did not go unnoticed by Pythagorus and the Roman writer Persius commented: “…the letter which spreads out into Pythagorean branches has pointed out to you the steep path which rises on the right.” Isidore of Seville later wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.” Leonardo has depicted Fioretta as taking the narrow, arduous path.
The scapular, though black and not brown, is symbolic of the one presented by the Virgin Mary in the 13th century to Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelite Order, with the promise of salvation for those who wear it. The scapular formed part of the brown habit worn by Carmelites and also became a symbol of consecration to Our Lady of Carmel. That Fioretta’s scapular is black and not brown is because she is in mourning for Giuliano de’ Medici.
There is one more reference in Leonardo’s painting that links to Elijah and the ‘new life’ of Fioretta after Giuliano de’ Medici was slaughtered and stabbed 19 times by assassins during Mass in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria Fiore. It relates to the time Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a fire for their animal sacrifice (1 Kings 18:20-40). Despite their prayers, their chants and dancing around the altar, the wood on which the bull was laid did not catch fire. Even when the priests gashed themselves with swords and knives, as was their custom, and the blood flowed down them, their god remained silent and the fire unlit. The bloodletting and slaughter is the reference Leonardo has used to link his painting to the slaughter and stabbings in the Duomo.
Then Elijah prepared another altar and “took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yaweh had come.” The reference to stone and the word of the Lord is Leonardo’s pointer to the stone appearance of Fioretta and Verrocchio’s marble sculpture which he may have used to base his portrait on, while “to whom the word of Yaweh had come” is applied to Fioretta’s religious conversion and decision to join the Carmelite Order.
Elijah doused his sacrifice in water (mixed with the blood of the bull) and then called on God to win back the hearts of the people. “Then the fire of Yaweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When the people saw this they fell on their faces. ‘Yaweh is God’ they cried ‘Yaweh is God’.” (1 Kings 18:38-39). It was at this moment during the Mass in the Duomo, following the Eucharistic prayer offered by the priest, and when the consecrated Host was raised and heads bowed, that was the signal for the attack on the Medici brothers.
• My next post deals with the reference to Fioretta as she appears in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes… More on Fioretta Gorini
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?
Guasparre dal Lama is said to gave commissioned the Adoration of the Magi painting by Sandro Botticelli, the version now housed in the Uffizi, Florence. The altarpiece was intended for the patron’s funerary chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella.
Art historians generally single out Guasparre dal Lama as the grey-haired figure in blue, placed among the group of men on the right side of the painting, probably because the index figure of his right hand appears to be pointing to himself, and because he is looking at the viewer. The latter feature is often understood as an indication of patronage.
Ronald Lightbrown (Botticelli: Life and Work) goes with the general opinion that the grey-haired man in blue is Dal Lama, but states that he pointing to the man on his left and not to himself. So why would Dal Lama point to this man, partly concealed by other figures? And why would Botticelli keep him “under wraps” in this way and at the same time portray the person in a vivid amber gown that stands out like a beacon in the lineup? Guasparre is a version of the name Caspar, one the three Magi, and is associated with bringing the gift of myrrh to the nativity scene. The amber colour of Guasparre’s garment represents myrrh. Tradition also associates Caspar in the role of a treasurer, a trusted keeper of riches. Of the three gifts laid before the Infant Jesus, gold represents the child’s regal status, frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his humanity.
In a previous post I proposed that the grey-haired man in blue was the artist and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, and the man he is pointing to in the amber gown, Gausparre dal Lama. The two men are also paired in one of the Sistine Chapel frescos (Temptation of Christ) painted by Botticelli before he returned to Florence to complete the altarpiece commissioned by Dal Lama who had died the previous year in April 1481.
Guasparre dal Lama was a licensed exchange broker, successful up to a point in time – January 1476 – when he was charged and found guilty of falsifying an account of one of his business transactions some years earlier. He was fined and expelled from the guild of bankers and money-changers. Overnight he became a man not to be trusted in financial affairs – a ‘leper’ to be avoided and shunned.
It is interesting to note that Botticelli has depicted the man standing on his left as having turned away or turned his back on Dal Lama. Notice also the two stump-like fingers on Dal Lama’s ‘leprous’ hand, pointing towards Verrocchio. This is reminiscent of Verrocchio’s hand sign in the Sisitine Chapel fresco. Does this suggest that Verrocchio may have had a role in the completition of the Adoration of the Magi altarpiece after Dal Lama’s death, perhaps even paying Botticelli for the work?
That Dal Lama features in the Temptation of Christ fresco also points to a similar theme in this section of the Adoration painting, the temptation Dal Lama succumbed to in falsifying his accounts, and the passages about virtue and temptation presented in Matthew’s Gospel (5 : 20-48). Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth and offering the other cheek are all referenced in the three figures to the left of the painting’s patron. Just as Christ in his humanity was not beyond the reach of temptation, so also were Guasparre and those portrayed alongside him.
It is said that Guasparre dal Lama wanted to be portrayed as a man of influence and connections, especially to the Medici family. In reality he wasn’t on that level in Florentine society, but it explains why the Medici members figure prominently in the Botticelli painting. Botticelli was an artist of great insight and even humour, a commentator and observer of the society he lived in, subtle and clever in the way he would imbed subtext into his paintings which could be understood by some of his contemporaries, especially by other artists.
One particular example of how Botticelli has linked Dal Lama to the Medici family is the contrast in focus on the new-born Saviour shown by Dal Lama and Giuliano de’ Medici seen in the corner of the opposite side of the painting. Guasparre’s head is turned towards the Infant. Giuliano’s head is not. His eyes are cast downwards. Both men were dead when the painting was completed. A month after Giuliano’s murder, Fioretta Gironi gave birth to his child Giulio. Shortly after the death of Guasparre his second wife gave birth to his only child, a daughter named Francesca. Guasparre had changed his will with the news of his wife’s pregnancy to provide for the child. Seemingly Giuliano did not provide for his illegitimate son who later went on to become Pope Clement VII. Giulio was placed in the care of his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) for the first seven years of his life until Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s brother brought him into the Medici family.
For the Medici the blood line took importance above any other consideration. This is why Botticelli has shown Cosimo Medici staring down at the feet of the Infant Jesus (aka Giulio de’ Medici). He is checking if the child is truly a blood descendant of the Medici, especially of Cosimo himself who suffered, as did his close descendants, with severe forms of rheumatoid arthritis. From this we can see the connection Botticelli has made to Dal Lama’s leprous hand.
There is another hereditary connection Botticelli makes and that is the figure of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. The man portrayed as Joseph is Giulio’s godfather mentioned earlier, Antonio da Sangallo. He started out as a carpenter and sculptor before developing as an architect and building fortifications. Some of his carving work still survives, most notably the large crucifix he created with his brother Giuliano in 1481. It was recently restored and is housed at the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata in Florence. The Sangallo family were prolific carvers of crucifixes.
This detail shows the nailed feet of the crucified Christ and the displaced large toe of the left foot seemingly caused by the nail driven through the feet. This can be likened to the pain and joint displacement of the big toe caused by gout. Extant crucifixes made later by the Sangallo family also show this feature.
The Sangallo crucifix connection also shows up in the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testimony and Death of Moses, confirming the Sangallo reference in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and that the young woman representing the Virgin Mary is Fioretta Gorini, the same woman that art historians refer to as Ginevra de Benci as the sitter for one of the earliest portraits painted by Leonardo.
In a post I wrote last month titled Leonardo’s Judge and Jury, I pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci is featured in four places in the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testament and Death of Moses, the most prominent as a naked man sitting on a tree stump. The scene is a reference to Leonardo’s interrogation before the SIgnoria, Florence’s governing authority, and some members of the Medici family, after an anonymous charge of sodomy was made against him and four other males in April 1476. The fresco, painted in 1482-83, is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta.
The naked figure is reminiscent of a rediscovered drawing of St Sebastian said to be by Leonardo and which was scheduled to be sold at auction last month, June 19. However, for some reason the auction didn’t take place and it has been suggested the auction house Tajan was instead negotiating a private sale.
Carmen C. Bambach, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art considers the drawing was made between 1482 and 1485. This dating aligns to the period when the Sistine Chapel fresco was completed.
It’s likely that Signorelli was responsible for painting the naked man in the fresco, so did he have sight of Leonardo’s drawing sometime earlier? And is the drawing also a reference to his own public exposure and interrogation? That Leonardo felt severely wounded by the scandal and possible betrayal by one of his own kind – another artist – is referenced in other paintings, his own and by contemporaries.
The charge against Leonardo was dismissed, supposedly for the reason that the denunciation had been made anonymously. However, one of the other accused men, Leonardo Tornabuoini, was connected to the Medici family and this may also have influened the outcome. Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano were sons of Lucrezia Tornabuoni.
Lucrezia’s possible intervention runs parallel to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian usually depicted in paintings as being tied to a tree and his body punctured by arrows. He was left for dead by the archers, but when the widow Irene of Rome set out to bury Sebastian she discovered he was still alive and nursed him back to health.
Lucrezia features in the fresco in two ways – as the wife of Lot who turned her head to look back on Sodom, and as Lucrezia turning her gaze towards the appealing look of Leonardo. Was it on her word that Leonardo was set free and his reputation restored?
This terracotta head of a young man is known as “Christo fanciulllo”. It came to light in 1931 after it was discovered in a convent at Ascoi Piceno. As to the sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci is considered a candidate. His name is linked to a claim made in 1584 by the Italian artist Gian Paolo Lomazzo who wrote: “I have also a little terracotta head of Christ when he was a boy, sculpted by Leonardo Vinci’s own hand…”
However, there is an earlier reference which also links to the terracotta Christo fanciullo(Christ as a young man). It appears in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes. Although its current attribution is c1470, the painting has references which date the work to a later period, probably to sometime in 1482, the year that Van der Goes is said to have died.
The main panel of the Monforte Altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Like Bottcelli’s Uffizi version it has underlying narratives and picks up on Botticelli’s references to Leonardo, his pointers to other artists and the assasination of Giuliano de’ Medici. Hugo is depicted in the Botticelli altarpiece and returns the compliment by featuring Botticelli in the Monforte painting.
The head sculpted by Leonardo or even of the artist as a young man, can be matched with the kneeling figure, whose left hand supports a golden chalice.
The Van der Goes painting is another work that assigns multiple identities to most of the figures. Hugo’s influence for this was likely Jan van Eyck who did the same – four for each figure – in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
At surface level the golden-haired figure is presented as a servant to the second magus in the group. At another level he represents Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria, and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A third identity is Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.
A fourth identity is Leonardo da Vinci, and in his role as an artist, he is positioned receiving a golden chalice from the dying Hugo van der Goes, symbolising a rite of passage. This can be interpreted in more than one way. The most obvious is Leonardo leaving Florence to start a new chapter in his life and career at the Milanese court. Next to the kneeling Leonardo is the figure of Ludovic Sforza, Regent of Milan, known as Il Moro – the Moor – because of his dark complexion, and who Leonardo served as court artist from 1482 until 1499.
The figure also represents St Augustine of Hippo, one of the four Doctors of the Church depicted in the painting. A third identity for this figure is Michael Szilágyi, uncle and guardian (regent of Hungary) to the young king Matthias. The regency role is matched to the identity of Ludovic Sforza, uncle and guardian to the young duke of Milan, the boy holding the sceptre and portrayed at suface level as a servant to the third magus. When the figure is identified as St Augustine, then the boy is recognised as his son Adeodatus who died in adolesence.
The rite of passage theme also connects to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adorationof the Magi and to one of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel which shows Moses commissioning Joshua to lead the Isralites. The Testimony and Death of Moses was the last fresco completed in the series depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus. It was probably finished in 1483 and is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomea Gatta.
Joshua, the man shown kneeling in front of the ageing Moses, is represented by Leonardo da Vinci. The man standing immediately behind him is presented as his father Piero da Vinci, while Moses is represented by Leonardo’s grandfather and guardian, Antonio da Vinci.
Van der Goes repeats a similar motif in his painting, the bearded magus handing down the chalice to the young man kneeling alongside. While there is far more depth of meaning and significance in this motif and the composition of figures, the purpose of this presentation is to link Leonardo to the painting and back to the terracotta head.
Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration also shows a similar hand-over composition where Leonardo is depicted stooping with his right hand over the left hand of the man wearing a black coat, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s assassinated brother Giuliano. Notice also the handing over of the chalice to Lorenzo wearing the white gown by his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.
So now we have three paintings with symbolism representing a rite of passage, a passing over, of life to death to new life, that includes Leonardo da Vinci.
Christ as a Young Man came of age around the time he was twelve years old. Luke’s Gospel mentions “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom.” For Maximillian I the rite of passage at a young age was at 18 when he married Mary of Burgundy. Matthias Corvinius was just 14 when elected king of Hungary. Leonardo was also 14 years old when his family moved to Florence and he was placed as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio.
So in age representation the head of “Christ as a Young Man” can be applied to all three identities. Van der Goes, it appears, had sight of the terracotta head, made a drawing or drawings of it, and included it in his painting to link Leonardo to the Botticelli and Signorelli/Gatta fresco. This would also suggest that Hugo van der Goes had sight of the relevant artworks both in Florence and Rome.
Professor Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo wrote:
“Of the exant sculptures assigned to him [Leonardo] on grounds of style, none has decisively entered the accepted canon. Given the unlikelihood of any existing sculpture ever proving to be incontestably by Leonardo on the grounds of documentation and cast-iron provenance, any attribution must necessarily rest on less secure foundation of comparisons with his works in other media and with related sculpture of masters with whom he was closely associated, especially Verrocchio and Rustici.”
(‘Cristo Fanciullo’, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, IV, 1991, PP. 171-6)
Included in professor Kemp’s paper is a profile image (right) of the sculpture. The copy I have doesn’t show much detail but it is the profile itself that is of interest. When flipped, rotated and simply superimposed over the profile in the Van der Goes painting, the fit is an impressive match. Couple this with the deliberate references and connections Van der Goes has made to Leonardo in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and the Sistine Chapel fresco, it would be reasonable to suggest that the “Christos fanciullo” head is the model for Hugo van der Goes adopted for the head of the kneeling servant in the Monforte Altarpiece.
I recently pointed out that Leonardo da Vinci is depicted in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescos – The Trial of Moses by Sando Botticelli. He’s one of the two fighting Hebrews, Domenico Ghirlandaio is the other.
Well, on the same Southern wall of the Chapel is another fresco that features Leonardo. In fact, he shows up in four of the scenes that record the Testament and Death of Moses. The fresco is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. It was the last section of the six-fresco cycle illustrating the life of Moses and probably started sometime in 1483.
This is how Wikipedia descibes the scenes, but there is no mention of Leonardo.
The fresco portrays the last episode in Moses’ life, in two sectors: a foreground one including two scenes, and a background one, with three further scenes and, on the right, a landscape. Moses is always recognizable through his yellow garments and the green cloak, as in the rest of the cycle. The artist made an extensive use of gold painting.
On the background Moses, on the Mount Nebo, receives by an angel the command baton, which gives him the authority to lead the Israelites towards the Promised Land. Below, Moses descends from the mountain with the baton in his hand, similarly to Cosimo Rosselli’s Descent from Mount Sinai nearby. In the foreground, on the right, is a 120-year-old Moses speaking at the crowd while holding the baton and a Holy Book: rays of light stem from his head. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant, opened to show the Twelve Tables and the vase of the Manna. In the center, the procession includes a woman holding a child on her shoulders, wearing silk, an elegant youth portrayed from behind and a naked man sitting. The latter two characters are attributed to Luca Signorelli, as well as the man with a stick next the throne of Moses.
On the left is the appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor; the former kneels to receive the command baton, while the prophet has his cloak opened, showing a red-lined interior. Finally, on the left background, is the corpse of Moses on a shroud, surrounded by the dismayed Israelites.
Leonardo is represented as Joshua kneeling at the left side of the fresco. He is also the naked man seated on the tree stump in the centre of the group of figures at ground level; and naked again as one of the two cherubs standing beside the woman sitting on the ground holding her baby. Leonardo is also portrayed as the angel alongside Moses on Mount Nebo.
The scenes at ground level are all connected to the interrogation and testimony of Leonardo after an anonymous report was made to the Florentine authorities in April 1476 accusing the artist and others of sodomy.
“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.”
After further research I can now add more to this conflict narrative between the two Hebrew men. They also represent two artists, one being Leonardo da Vinci falling under the sword of Moses and the Law (still to be received); the other, portrayed under the protection of Florentina, is Domenico Ghirlandaio, a contemporary of Leonardo and one of the Florentine group of artists responsible for frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
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.
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.
Shown above is detail from The Temptation of Christ, one of the frescoes that line the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This particular panel was painted by Sandro Botticelli. The frescoes were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. Botticelli shared the work with three other artists, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The three are depicted in the back line while the front row shows Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio and Guasparre dal Lama.
A similar line-up is featured in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shown in the clip below: (left to right) Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, Guasparre dal Lama, Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Verrocchio’s workshop trained many artists and skilled craftsmen (including Leonardo de Vinci) and was possibly a liaison link between the artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, while Guasparre was the man said to have commissioned Botticelli to paint the the Adoration of the Magi.
But why would Botticelli have placed Guasparre in a frescoe he had no apparent connection with, and in such a prominent position?