In a post I made some four months ago – More Hidden Gems – I explained how the figure of Mars in Botticelli’s Primavera painting also represented St Martin of Tours who, as a Roman soldier, once sliced his cloak in half to cover a naked beggar he met at the gates of Amiens.
A similar motif is presented in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. A female figure steps toward the shoreline offering a cloak to cover and support the naked Venus as she disembarks from her sea journey. The figure of Venus also represents Ecclesia, the Church, and in this instance the Church in need.
The motifs connect in more than one way, but in a biblical sense they refer to the Last Judgment passage in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus said “I was naked and you clothed me.”
Amistice Day, also known as Veterans Day, is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War 1 and German at Compiègne, France, at 5:45am for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War 1, which took effect at eleven in the morning – the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. (Wikipedia)
The feast of St Martin of Tours is celebrated on this day also, and sometimes referred to as Martinmas or St Martin’s Day. The fourth century Roman soldier, who later became a bishop in Gaul, features in Botticelli’s famous Primavera painting. Details at this link.
A recent discovery that a painting by the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) has been exhibited upside down for 75 years has caused quite a stir in the art world. The Art, Law and More blog has details about the finding and artwork titled New York City 1.
I wonder if the detection will change any understanding or perception of the painting (or even the artist) now that it can be viewed from a different perspective?
Sometimes paintings require a degree of rotation, or to be mirrored, in order to convey further information.
Jan Van Eyck was not adverse to using this technique. Neither were Sandro Botticelli and Hugo Van der Goes. Even Rembrandt.
Examples of this approach can be seen at these links.
I see that Sandro Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi is currently on show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It forms part of an exhibition titled: Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi. The exhibition runs from October 16, 2022 to January 8, 2023.
Details about the exhibition can be found at this link, but it won’t give you the inside story about the painting and the disguised narrative embedded by Botticelli. For this information go here.
In 1475 Pope Sixtus IV nominated Francesco Salviati Riario as Archbishop of Pisa, the position left vacant following the death of Filippo de’ Medici in October 1474. The appointment did not meet with the approval of the Medici family in Florence who had earlier blocked Salviati’s attempt to become Archbishop of Florence in 1474.
The outcome was that Salviati, a known antagonist of the Medici, never occupied his diocesan chair in Pisa but remained in Rome even though he was the Church’s official choice as archbishop.
Some years later Salviati saw his opportunity for taking revenge against the Medici when he conspired with others to assassinate both Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano, in a plot that became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy.
With the support of Pope Sixtus IV, who was sympathetic to replacing the control the Medici held over Florence, Salviati, was joined by Girolamo Riario and Francesco de’ Pazzi in planning the assassination of the two brothers.
Despite the best laid plans, the coup failed, even though Giuliano was murdered in the process. The attackers failed to see off Lorenzo and the alarm was raised, resulting in the plotters and their accomplices being captured and executed with haste and without trial or any mercy shown.
According to historian Harold Acton,“Francesco de’ Pazzi was pulled bleeding and naked from his hiding place and hanged from a window of the city palace. The Archbishop of Pisa was hanged beside him and as he fell, he bit at the dead body of Francesco; the halter tightening round his throat, he held onto the corpse with his teeth.”
Girolamo Riario, as a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, was not at the scene on the day of slaughter, even though he was one of the main instigators of the plot. In January 1473 he had married Caterina Sforza the illegitimate daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, duke of Milan. She was ten years old at the time. Ten years after the Pazzi Conspiracy, Girolamo himself was assassinated on April 14, 1488, by members of the Orsini family.
Girolamo Riario, Francesco de’ Pazzi, and Archbishop Francesco Salviati are all referenced in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, as is Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli who struck the first blow against Giuliano de’ Medici.
The leaning figure of Ecclesia (Venus) is not only a pointer to the leaning Tower of Pisa and so to Archbishop Salviati, but also to the nepotism practiced by Pope Sixtus IV whose nominations and appointments leaned to those of his own friends and family.
My next post will deal with uncovering the iconography that refers to the identities of the Pazzi conspirators Botticelli disguised in the Birth of Venus.
A Sandro Botticelli painting of the Virgin Mary that was once owned by the late Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen will be auctioned Christie’s this November. The house expects that it will fetch more than $40 million, making it one of the most expensive works from Allen’s estate to head to sale. More details at this link.
“The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has taken legal action against fashion label Jean Paul Gaultier for selling several clothing items decorated with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, one of the most prized works in its collection.”
In a previous post I pointed out that Botticelli adapted the Four Cardinal Virtues sculpted on the early 14th century pulpit in Pisa Cathedral and featured them in his Birth of Venus painting.
I explained how the central figure of Venus in Botticelli’s painting represented Ecclesia (the Church) and also both the virtues of Justice and Prudence. The figure about to cover up the naked Venus, sometimes referred to as a goddess of the seasons, represents the two other Cardinal Virtues, Fortitude and Temperance.
My previous post also demonstrated how Botticelli adapted a drawing by Villard de Honnecourt for the woman’s composition. She is shaped to represent a buttress to support the tilting Venus, or Ecclesia in a state of nakedness representing the perceived failings and faults of the Church of the time.
One of Fortitude’s symbols is a lion, as seen in Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture. In Botticelli’s painting a lion’s head is formed by the shape of the red cloak, it’s mane being the long hair of the woman. The shape is also meant to mirror the head of the horse as in Villard’s drawing, except there is a small difference. The right fetlock of Villard’s horse appears to be growing out of the animal’s forehead or forelock.
This is matched by Botticelli with a similar feature grasped by the woman’s right hand. In this instance it represents a horn attached to the head of the horse and so becomes a unicorn. Both lion and unicorn are often featured as support symbols in heraldic coats of arms.
Another symbol associated with Fortitude is a yoke. This can be recognised as the red cloak’s collar or the mouth of the lion-cum-unicorn whose head is harnessed by the woman’s arms. The harness or bridle, a form of restraint, is also a symbol associated with Temperance.
Fish is another symbol attributed to Temperance; so are water and wine jugs. The lower half of the red cloak represents a fish, it’s tail held in the grip of the woman’s left hand. Protruding from the side of the head is the shape of another fish head formed by the headland.
The jug feature is shaped as a wine sack formed by the section of the red cloak below the woman’s right arm, it’s open spout held in her right hand. A jug handle shaped from the cloak’s collar.
The Pisa connection to the Birth of Venus painting extends beyond the Four Cardinal Virtues that form part of the Cathedral’s pulpit, and the short time Botticelli spent working in the city. More on this in a future post.
In his book, Botticelli, Life and Work, the late art historian Ronald Lightbown records the short period the artist spent working in Pisa, some 50 miles west of Florence.
Commissioned by the Opera del Duomo in January 1474, Botticelli first began to fresco a test piece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin in the cathedral’s Incoronata Chapel, starting in July of the same year. According to the Italian painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was dissatisfied with the work and left it unfinished, seemingly some three moths after starting.
However, Botticelli’s experience in Pisa was not wasted and his months spent in the coastal town later proved to be a rich source of inspiration for his painting of the Birth of Venus.
The leaning Venus not only connects to the leaning Ecclesia drawing Botticelli utilised from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, but also to the famous and still standing leaning Tower of Pisa.
Furthermore, a sculpture representing Ecclesia and another figure associated with the naked Venus Pudica, form part of the early 14th century pulpit located in Pisa Cathedral. The complex design and its decoration was sculpted by Giovanni Pisano.
The figure of Eccelasia, or Mother Church, is one one of the support columns for the pulpit. She stands on a pedestal and is depicted wearing a crown and suckling two infants. At her right shoulder are two eagles. Surrounding the pedestal are four figures presented as the Cardinal Virtues, one of which is the naked Venus Pudica representing the Virtue of Prudence. The other Virtues are Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
While the Venus Pudica corresponds with Botticelli’s Venus, the three remaining Virtues can also be identified in the painting.
It’s important to know that the Four Cardinal Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit are arranged in pairs, side by side and back to back, similar in a way that Villard’s drawing of the mountain bear and swan backs on to the image of Ecclesia. Fortitude and Prudence are paired standing side by side, as are Justice and Temperance. However, Prudence stands back to back with Justice, while Fortitude backs onto Temperance.
In his painting, Botticelli portrayed the woman holding up the mantle as Fortitude. The model is Lucrezia Donati, the same woman Botticelli featured in his famous painting of Fortitude in 1470, one of seven panels representing Virtues designated to decorate the Tribunal Hall of Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.
In a previous post – Fallen angels – I explained that the source for the winged figures left of Venus in Botticelli’s painting was Villard’s drawing representing Pride. Botticelli was also inspired by the same sketch in another novel way. He turned the page over, rotated it 90 degrees, and utilised the “see-through” image to form the upper half of the figure of Fortitude, echoing the back-to back formation of the paired Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit.
Botticelli also picked up on the double-eagle motif at Ecclesia’s right shoulder, which explains why Eagle wings are attached to the two “fallen angels” placed at the right shoulder of the leaning Venus (Mater Ecclesia, Mother of the Church). The bird seemingly speaking into the ear of Ecclesia can also be visualised as a dove representing the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church on its missionary journey.
But Botticelli invites the viewer to see through what appears at surface level and to consider the presentation from another viewpoint or perspective, to turn the page, so to speak, for it is said there are two sides to every story.
And so it is with the Four Cardinal Virtues shown on Pisano’s pulpit sculpture – a compact presentation of biblical events and moral standards ‘written’ in stone by a master craftsman.
To encounter face to face the pairing of Fortitude and Temperance sculpted from a single piece of stone requires the observer to change their viewpoint, as it does with the back-to-back formation of Justice and Fortitude. But the pairing of Fortitude and Prudence can be viewed together face-on. Likewise the pairing of Justice and Temperance.
Botticelli refers to this arrangement in his painting. Already mentioned is the figure of Fortitude. Prudence, in the form of Venus Pudica is placed to her left. The arrangement is contrapposto (opposite) to Pisano’s.
The back-up Virtue to the figure of Venus Pudica is Justice, so therefore Temperance is the Virtue hidden behind or within Fortitude. Both Justice and Temperance can be recognised by one or more of their symbolic attributes.
Justice is usually shown with a balance and scales, sometimes with a sword as well. So the reference to the falcon head and its sickle-shaped beak explained in my previous post represents the sword associated with Justice. As for the balance and scales, these are reflected in the oversized scallop shell. It is not on an even keel and dips to one side, the scale or degree of which is measured by the number of the shell’s ribs either side of Venus.
• My next post will deal with the Virtue of Temperance and how it connects with Villard de Honnecourt’s drawing of the falling man and horse representing Pride.
In my previous post – When opposites attract – I revealed a source of inspiration for Botticelli’s depiction of the leaning Venus, an image representing Ecclesia featured in a 13th century portfolio of drawings by Villard de Honnecourt. I presented some visual evidence towards confirming this, but there is more.
Behind the figure of Ecclesia are two faint “see-through” or “ghost” images of a bear and a swan sketched on the reverse side of the sheet of paper. Botticelli made reference to these in the Birth of Venus painting, albeit changing them into new forms and linking to more than one embedded narrative.
The swan, for instance, with its pronounced curvature of the neck, becomes the head of a falcon, also noted for the curvature of it claws, beak, and even its wings. Its name derives from Latin falx, which describes a curved blade or sickle, similar in shape to the swan’s curved neck.
In Hesiod’s version of the birth of Venus the Titan Cronus severed the genitals of his father Uranus with a sickle and threw them into the sea, out of which Venus rose from the foam as a fully grown woman.
The shape of the falcon’s head and its sickle-shaped beak is formed from the hair of Venus shown in her left hand and covering her genitalia. The feature also links to another narrative in that the falcon represents a figurehead placed on the prow (in front) of a galley, more of which I shall explain in a future post.
The bear drawing can also be linked to other narratives, at least three. The most prominent is the jagged coastline to the right of Venus. The four points represent the four claws of a bear’s foot. They also draw attention to the sickle shape of the collar of the red mantle about to cover Venus. Having been blown in from the sea, the statuesque Venus is not quite the finished article. For that the stone requires to be dressed.
The transparency of the sheet of paper used by Villard to execute his sketches is another feature which likely inspired Botticelli to portray the Three Graces in diaphanous dresses for his Primavera painting. The grouping of the Three Graces, or Virtues, was an artistic tradition of portraying a woman from three perspectives, front, back and side. So in the Birth of Venus Botticelli echoed this tradition by incorporating references to the drawings on both sides of the paper. As for any side view, the painting requires to be turned sideways to discover other narratives. Botticelli used a similar method with the Three Graces in Primavera. The edges or sides of the women’s shifts are shaped to provide clues and links to uncover more threads and themes.
This is another drawing sourced from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt and the inspiration for Botticelli’s famous leaning figure of Venus in his painting titled the Birth of Venus.
The drawing represents Ecclesia, meaning “Church”, that is the Catholic Church of Botticelli’s time. Venus stands in a contrapposto pose, a sculptural scheme in which the standing human figure is poised so that the weight rests on one leg and the other is bent at the knee. Contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “opposite”.
Villard’s Ecclesia is opposite in many ways to Botticelli’s version. She is fully dressed, and crowned. Her upper body leans to the left and from the waist down she is upright. Venus stands naked. Her stance is opposite; upright above the waist while her legs lean to the right. For sure, both representations appear to be off balance.
Venus’s attempt to cover herself is akin to the shame felt by Eve and her need for protection after succumbing to the serpent’s temptation and losing her innocence in the Garden of Eden – in biblical terms described as The Fall. So to make the connection with Ecclesia, Venus now represents the New Eve, Mary, Mother of the Church. From this it could be said that Botticelli was making a point about the failings within the Catholic Church at the time, echoing the words of spoken to Francis of Assisi in the church of San Damiano by Christ on his cross: “Francis, rebuild my Church which is danger of falling down.”
Protection and support for the leaning Venus comes in the shape of one of the Horae or Hours, goddesses of the seasons in Greek Mythology. She approaches the shoreline (flying?) with a mantle of protection.Hher stance, with legs and feet apart, forms a buttress ready to prop up the tilting Venus.
The buttress symbol is mirrored opposite by the two winged and conjoined figures and is also a feature prevalent in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The winged figures can be considered as referring to a flying buttress, a building feature of support once banned by authorities in Florence during Botticelli’s time. The “flying buttress” is another drawing (right) that appears in The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt.
The are some subtle features of Villard’s Ecclesia that offer evidence or even confirmation his drawing was a source of inspiration for Botticelli’s Venus. Compare these ‘opposites’: the blowing, trailing banner with the windswept hair of Venus (flying buttresses!); the badly drawn facial features of Ecclesia with those of Venus modelled on Simonetta Vespucci who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Florence during Botticelli’s time. Simonetta was a young woman the artist was said to be most enamoured with and who he portrayed in several of his paintings.
Venus is also modelled on the Greco-Roman style of sculpture referred to as Venus Pudica (chaste or modest). I shall explain in a future post the reason why Botticelli also makes this connection and the source he borrowed from.
This drawing is a key element Botticelli incorporated in his composition of the Birth of Venus. It forms the basis for the puffed-up pair of figures generally identified as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris.
The horse and its rider falling into an ocean represents Pride, classified by the Christian Church as one of the Cardinal Vices or Seven Deadly Sins. It was pride that caused angels to fall from Heaven.
The drawing is one of many contained in what is known as the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt. Little is known about Villard apart from the notes and drawings collected in his portfolio. Some say he was an architect, perhaps an engineer, but Botticelli gives the impression that Villard was primarily a stonemason engaged in the construction of churches.
Villard himself noted the “virtues of masonry” when he wrote: “Villard de Honnecourt greets you and begs all who use the devices found in this book to pray for his soul and remember him. For in this book you will find sound advice on the virtues of masonry and the uses of carpentry. You will find strong help in drawing figures according to the lessons taught by the art of geometry.”
The phrase “virtues of masonry” is a significant pointer to understanding and discovering other sources Botticelli was inspired by for his composition of the Birth of Venus.
I mentioned in my previous post that Leonardo da Vinci is portrayed as a “fallen angel” in the Sistine Chapel fresco depicting the Testament and Death of Moses. He is shown seated and on trial as a result of an anonymous accusation of sodomy made against him.
A portrayal of Leonardo as a “fallen angel” also appears on the breastplate of a terracotta bust of Giuliano de‘ Medici (right) sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio.
The screaming and fearful countenance is mirrored in another Sistine Chapel fresco – The Trials of Moses – where Botticelli depicted Leonardo as the Egyptian murdered by Moses (Exodus 2 : 12).
The winged figure clinging to Leonardo in flight – Fioretta Gorini – connects to both Leonardo and Giuliano in other ways. Her father was a curaiss maker “a piece of armour consisting of a breastplate and backplate fastened together”. She was also reputed to have been the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and given birth to his son a month after his assassination. The boy, named Giulio, later became Pope Clement VII.
Fioretta was also the subject of a marble bust (below) sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio which was possibly the source and inspiration for Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta, mistakingly identified and titled Ginevra de Benci.
So why did Botticelli pair Leonardo and Fioretta, not just in the Birth of Venus but in some of his other paintings as well? Could it have been because the polymath acted as some kind of guardian angel, a protector or shield perhaps, when Fioretta found herself pregnant? Or was there a more intimate reason?
Fioretta is featured as one of the Three Theological Virtues in Botticelli’s Primavera, the pregnant figure with her back to Giuliano de’ Medici in the guise of Mars. Notice the upper half of her diaphanous dress is shaped in the form of a curaiss, while her legs suggest those of a horse with its tail formed by the extended outline of her shift.
Fioretta is also portrayed as Chloris gripped by Zephyrus on the right edge of the Primavera painting. But could the wind God, or winged angel, be another guise for Leonardo as featured in the Birth of Venus?
• My next post will deal with identifying Botticelli’s source of inspiration for the figure of Venus.
A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.
Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.
That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.
The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes.
Van Eyck’s pattens refer to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”
So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.
When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)
That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings.
The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.
What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.
So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.
An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.
So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.
There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.
As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).
Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.
Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.
Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is reputed to be one of the most famous paintings in the world. Its centre piece features the naked goddess Venus drifting to shore on a giant scallop shell. She is akin to a “blow-in”, aided by the wind God Zephyr and Aura, a lighter breeze. On the shoreline waiting to cover the new arrival’s nakedness is said to be a representation of the Hora of Spring, one of the goddesses of the four seasons.
Although there are many interpretations applied to the painting, none that I am aware of reveal narratives of its time that Botticelli embedded in the scene, or the primary source of inspiration for his off-balance Venus.
The disguised narratives and the source for the tilting Venus connect to Botticelli’s other painting Primavera.
Before the turn of the 15th century, a marble sculpture of the Three Graces representing the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Love – stood above one of the three doors of the Florence Baptistery dedicated to the biblical prophet John the Baptist. Two sets of triads placed above the other doors depicted the Baptism of Christ and the Preaching of the Baptist. All were sculpted by Tino di Camaino (c.1280 – c.1337) but eventually replaced at the beginning of the 16th century with works by other artists.
Fragments of Tino di Camaino’s Theological Virtues are preserved at the Museo del Duomo in Florence. Two of the fragments, and perhaps even a third, can be linked to Botticelli’s Primavera and the group referred to as the Three Graces.
The inclined head identified by the Museo del Duomo as La Speranza (Hope) can be paired with the head of the figure on the left of the group, Fioretta Gorini. The bust of La Carità (Charity or Love) holding the cornucopia, the “horn of plenty” and a symbol of abundance, is identified with the central figure, Lucrezia Donati. Her head is turned sideways as in the fragment, and the “horn of plenty” is represented by her golden horn hairstyle as explained at this link.
The theme of horns is also featured in the interlocking hands of Fioretta Gorini and Simonetta Vespucci, the third figure in the group, raised high above the head of Lucrezia Donati, possibly suggesting they were rivals for the attention of Giuliano de’ Medici, represented in the figure to the left of the group.
As to the remaining fragment known as La Fede (Faith), there are no obvious features that could be said to match Botticelli’s third figure of Virtue represented by Simonetta Vespucci who is also mirrored in the painting as the figure of Flora distributing flowers.
I suspect Botticelli sourced another sculpture to make a connection to Simonetta and I’ll present my view on this in a future post.
In the meantime, compare the raised arm of Simonetta and the inclined and turned heads of Fioretta and Lucrezia with the heads of the two angels and John’s raised arm in Andrea del Vercocchio’s painting of the Baptism of Christ.
In my previous post I pointed out connections to the figure of Mars and his “harpe” with St Martin of Tours and the sword he used to cut his cloak in half to cover a half-naked beggar.
However, a sculpture of this scene displayed above eye level on the facade of Lucca Cathedral, and which inspired Botticelli to reference it in the Primavera painting, gives the impression that Martin is about to decapitate the beggar.
Botticelli adopts this illusion to link the figure and his sword to the Three Graces group. Remember, too, that the figure of Mars also represents Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478.
Adjacent to the Duomo is the famous Baptistery of St John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets who was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas.
At one time, before the turn of the 15th century, a sculpture of the Three Graces, or Virtues, representing, Faith, Hope and Love, stood above one of the three doors that opened into the Florence Baptistery. So in this scenario, Botticelli’s Three Graces can be understood as symbolic of the Sacrament of Baptism and their diaphanous gowns as the flow of cleansing water associated with the sacrament.
The decapitation theme – suggested by Botticelli’s observation of St Martin’s sword at the beggar’s neck, linked to the beheading of John the Baptist, and the fact that Giuliano de Medici’s head was also cleaved – is portrayed in very small detail below the edge of the sword’s sheath as a head on a plate.
This feature – a head on a plate – is also a link to the East door of the Baptistery, bordered in parts with a series of encircled busts, one of which is Lorenzo Ghiberti the sculptor who designed the door. Ghiberti had earlier designed and sculpted another of the Baptistery doors which became known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’. The commission was awarded as a result of a competition in which Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were considered finalists. The judges were unable to decide on an outright winner and both men were invited to work together. However, Brunelleschi refused and took himself off to Rome before returning some years later when both men competed again for a commission to design and engineer the famous Duomo for Florence Cathedral. This time it was Brunelleschi who was favoured with the contract.
Botticelli references the Duomo – the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower – with the figure representing the Virgin Mary beneath the dome shape formed by the branches of the trees and representing the two lungs of the Church, East and West, Byzantine and Latin.
Botticelli also extended the themes of water and severed heads to another Florentine sculptor to add to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden: Andrea del Verrocchio, who was a painter and goldsmith as well.
There are four works attributed to Verrocchio that can be linked to this section of Primavera – (1) The Baptism of Christ, (2) the bronze figure of David with the Head of Goliath, (3) The terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, and (4) the equestrian bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Mentioned earlier was Herod Antipas who ordered the beheading of St John the Baptist. Sculpted in the rock formation in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ painting is a depiction of Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas. Observe that the water flowing alongside the sculpted head has turned red with the blood from the children Herod the Great ordered to be slain in his attempt to find and kill Jesus, the ‘new-born’ King.
Verrocchio’s bronze of David with the head of Goliath at his feet can be compared with the figure of Giuliano whose sword is adjacent to the severed head of the Baptist. However, David is depicted as wearing armour on his upper body while Giuliano isn’t, as was the case when he was attacked and assassinated in Florence Cathedral. But in Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici he is shown wearing a breastplate that depicts the head of a screaming angel which, in fact, is a representation of Leonardo da Vinci, who is also shown as one of the kneeling angels in the Baptism of Christ painting, and was the model for Verrocchio’s David. The stone which David used to slay Goliath was one of five he picked out of a stream. The weapon he used to decapitate Goliath was the Philistine’s own sword.
Verrocchio’s equestrian bronze of the Italian condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni was commissioned by the Republic of Venice in 1483. Although he completed the wax model, Verrocchio died in 1488 before he could he could cast the work in bronze. This was undertaken by Alessandro Leopardi in 1496.
Botticelli has linked the military theme of Verrocchio’s equestrian sculpture with that of St Martin, who served in the Roman cavalry, and also to the equestrian statue of Mars (the Roman military god) that once stood on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence before it was swept away in the Arno River flood of 1333. Botticelli employs word-play in the Primavera, for instance, bridging Vecchio with Verrocchio.
The equestrian and water themes link back to the Three Graces which I touched on in a previous post.
• More on this and the Three Graces in my next post.
Back with more analysis of the iconography in Botticelli’s Primavera and another connection to Lucca and its Cathedral dedicated to St Martin of Tours.
Many stories and legends are associated with St Martin. One famous account records the time when, as a young man serving in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, Martin met a half-naked beggar outside the gates of the walled city of Amiens. Martin took out his sword and slashed his tunic in half and gave one of the pieces to the beggar to cover himself. As Martin slept that night he experienced a dream of Jesus wearing the cloth he had given to the beggar earlier and saying to the Angels, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, gave me this cloak.” The dream prompted Martin to seek baptism.
Sometime later, Martin became a conscientious objector and informed his cavalry superiors he would no longer fight in an upcoming battle. He was accused of cowardice, but he responded by saying he would go into battle unarmed if necessary. However, the opposing army agreed to a truce and the battle never happened.
From that time Martin dedicated his life to the Church. In 371, the city of Tours required a new bishop. Martin was called to serve but was reluctant to take up the appointment and attempted to hide from the people in a goose pen. He was soon discovered when the geese began squawking.
References to these three legends are embedded in the Primavera painting, and which Botticelli has linked to the figure of Mars, consort of Venus and a military deity of the Roman army.
The harpe* becomes Martin’s sword used to cut his cloak, shown as the figure’s tunic covering only half of his upper body. This lack of cover or protection refers to Martin offering to go into battle unarmed. It also represents the time when Giuliano de Medici, another of the figure’s multiple identities, was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478. He attended the Easter Mass without carrying a weapon or wearing any padded jacket armour to protect himself from attack by his assassins. The padded jackets were worn under metal armour when jousting and packed with goose down, similar to the modern puffer-style coats worn today.
The squawking geese, a warning cry of threat and danger, is symbolised in these ways: the dark cloud above Giuliano’s head; his raised arm referring to the time of the Offertory during Mass when the Body and Blood of Christ is raised by the celebrant before the congregation and a bell is rung. This was the signal for the assassins to attack and slice the head of Giuliano and inflict several stab wounds to his body during the pandemonium that ensued. The shape of the goose is formed by the figure’s raised arm and hand representing the neck and head. The left arm forms the wing, while the exposed chest area is the goose’s body.
The feast known as St Martinmass, celebrated on November 11, is a day when fattened livestock is butchered for the start of the winter season. In memory of St Martin, the traditional meal served and eaten on the day is goose.
A harpe was a sword with a sickle along one edge. In the painting the sickle is alluded to by the blade shape formed on the upper thigh under the figure’s left hand.
The shape also resembles the frame or outline of a musical harp. Here Botticelli has punned the word harpe with harp to link to the form of the man’s fingers, shaped not only to pluck the harp’s strings but also the goose.
The sword’s hilt is tied with strings and crowned, possibly referring to the idiom of one’s goose being cooked after Giuliano failed to put on his body armour to protect himself from attack. This suggests that Giuliano carried some of the blame for his death by not taking sufficient care to guard himself from his enemies in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. The hilt can also be recognised as a goose whistle. Another idiom that connects to this scene is “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs”, symbolised by the Medici golden bezants or oranges. Take your pick.
The body armour reference links to a biblical passage, one of many disguised in the panting. In this instance it echoes the advice given by St Paul to the Ephesians (6:11,14-17): “Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. […] Stand your ground with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carry he shield of faith so that you can put out the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword.”
The Cupid figure is depicted firing a burning arrow in the direction of the Three Graces. Observe the shield (a wasp’s cocoon) on the back of the nearest muse – Simonetta Vespucci (Vespa, Italian for wasp). She pops up again with a shield on her back in another of Botticelli’s paintings, Pallas and the Centaur. So who does the unfortunate Centaur represent, and seemingly in danger of being decapitated after straying into someone else’s garden?
Ben Munster at The Art Newspaper reported this week that “a painting of a princess [La Bella Principessa] possibly by the Old Master [Leonardo da Vinci] has been sold digitally – but questions remain over its provenance, the inherent value of non-fungible tokens and who owns what.” Full story at this link.
This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The appellation was given by art historian Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508). Some experts attribute the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci; others oppose the claim. Arguments for and against are presented at this Wikipedia link.
Bianca was born in 1482. She was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes but suffered with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned. Common symptoms of fungi poisoning are gastrointestinal upsets and abdominal pains.
Observe the discoloured mushroom-shape vent on Bianca’s shoulder. Could this be a reference to the cause of her death? If so, it would indicate the portrait was completed after Bianca had died in 1496. But how soon after the young woman’s death and was the drawing produced by Leonardo?
Bianca was known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband was a patron and friend of the polymath and Leonardo also served at the court of Ludovico Sforza.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph published 12 April 2010, Richard Dorment wrote: “But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”
But what if there is such a document, one produced around the same time the portrait of Bianca Sforza was made, one that points to Leonardo as the artist, and to this day has remained unnoticed by both camps, even though it is in the public domain?
Well, such a document does survive and derives from an earlier 15th century painting by Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. The actual document was produced by another contemporary of Leonardo, the Mantua court painter Andrea Mantegna.
What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of some of Botticelli’s paintings that embed some stinging references to Leonardo who is also the butt of Mantegna’s cutting humour in Parnassus.
It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497, a year after the death of Bianca, although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.
Central in the line of the Nine Muses is a faceless figure with her back to the viewer. She represents Bianca Sforza. The colour of her billowing, olive-green dress is matched to the olive shape and colour of the dress worn by La Bella Principessa.
The muse’s dress forms an umbrella shape around her waist, her stomach area, and represents a mushroom cap. Her white leg is the mushroom’s stalk.
When the umbrella shape is rotated 90 degree clockwise, it takes on a silhouette appearance similar to the profile of La Bella Principessa, the vent on the upper thigh representing the vent on the upper arm of the woman in the portrait. There are other details in both women that can be linked.
As for locating Leonardo in the Parnassus painting, his presence can be found in four locations. I shall reveal these in a future post.
A month ago I posted an item about a crucifix known as the Holy Face of Lucca, explaining its connection to Botticelli’s Primavera. I also mentioned there were more links to Lucca in the painting.
When the Holy Face arrived in Lucca, it was first placed in the church of San Frediano before its translation to the church of San Martino, now referred to as Lucca Cathedral, where it has remained ever since.
On one of the walls in San Frediano is a fresco showing the transportation of the Holy face to Lucca after it had drifted on a boat to the Tuscan port of Luni from Palestine.
Also in the the church of San Frediano lies the body of St Zita. She was a domestic who served a Lucchese family of silk merchants for 48 years. Zita was noted for her piety and aiding poor women of Lucca. After Zita died in 1272 many miracles became associated with her, and 300 years after her death, at the age of 60, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Zita was canonised in 1696.
A story associated with Zita is when she set off one day carrying bread in her cloak to feed the poor. Some jealous servants complained to her master, suggesting she was stealing the bread. When the master of the Fatinelli household confronted Zita and ordered to open her cloak, it was found to be full of flowers.
It is this account that Botticelli has linked to the figure of Flora in the Primavera, seen distributing flowers from her apron. The figure of Flora also represents Simonetta Vespucci, referred to as La Sans Pareille – The Unparalleled One – on an banner image of her painted by Botticelli which Giuliano de’ Medici carried in a jousting tournament he took part in 1475.
By integrating Simonetta and St Zita with the figure of Flora, Botticelli has created a link to the Greek philosopher Plutarch and his book Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans “arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings”.
So now the upright Simonetta-cum-Flora can be compared to the leaning or falling figure of Chloris in the guise of Fioretta Gorini. Likewise, the virtues of Flora as Zita can be compared to the failings and later conversion or change in the circumstances of Fioretta when she became an anchoress, symbolised as being grafted to Flora.
Chloris is the Greek goddess of flowers; Flora is her Roman equivalent. The Roman poet Ovid wrote in Fasti 5: “The goddess replied to my questions; as she talks her lips breathe Spring roses: ‘I was Chloris, who am now called Flora’”. Hence the roses depicted rambling from the mouth of Chloris and her attachment to the figure of Flora.
This transformation from Greek to Roman is also reflected in the life of Plutarch, a Greek who became a Roman citizen.
But Simonetta wasn’t always as upright as portrayed in this scene in Primavera. In an earlier painting by Botticelli – The Birth of Venus – Simonetta is depicted standing off-kilter on a giant scallop, having being blown by the wind to arrive in Florence from the region of Liguria in northwest Italy, which is close to the Port of Luni where the Holy a Face of Lucca sailed into from Palestine.
So why is Simonetta portrayed as both leaning and upright in Botticelli’s two different paintings? Clues to the answer are to be found in the Primavera, one of which is a further link to Lucca Cathedral and introduces another artist Botticelli referenced for composing his painting.
So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.
Firstly, the direction of the flow of figures can be understood as pointing to the painting’s presence and influence of Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath whose mirror-style of writing in his notebooks started from the right side of the page and moved to the left. Other mirror or reflection features are also present.
But perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration are two illustrations which appear in a 14th century history of Florence by Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica. They record the assassination of a young Florentine nobleman called Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. He was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1216, the morning of his wedding day. Botticelli links this date to the death of Giuliano de’ Medici who was also assassinated on an Easter Sunday – in 1478 – while attending Mass in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Figures from both illustrations can be matched to figures in the Primavera. I should point out at this stage that the group of three horses and the lone horse are matched to the group of Three Graces and the figure of Chloris. The groom holding the reins of the horse in the first illustration is matched to Zephyrus. The woman dressed in blue and raised on steps with her right hand extended and her left hand at her side can be compared to the figure of Venus. The woman’s family name is Donati. Her daughter in red, shielded in the doorway, is the inspiration for Flora. The arched windows can be compared to the arched silhouette behind the head of Venus, while the circular windows or roundels are echoed in the oranges. The figure wearing a brown gown is Buondelmonte. The side door to the building also features in the Primavera painting which I shall explain in a later post.
The second illustration depicts the slaughter of Buondelmonte. He has just crossed the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio where the old Roman statue of Mars was located before it was swept away in a flood. Notice Mars is facing in the opposite direction of the nearest horse, in the same way he is depicted with his back turned to the nearest figure of the Graces. Notice also the pronounced tail of the horse and the ‘tail’ feature on the Grace figure. The horse saddle is another borrowed feature by Botticelli. He replaced this with Chloris’s cleft-shaped right hand about to be grafted onto Floris’s thigh.
An unusual feature seen on the three horses is the horn between their ears. The group can also be recognised as three mares. The word mare in Italian translates as ‘sea’. In this context Botticelli has referenced the Three Graces as the three seas that meet at Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (explained in an earlier post). Notice the golden horn hairstyle on the central figure. Her family name is also Donati. She is Lucrezia Donati, said to have been the platonic love of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
This is the account of Buonedelmonte’s assassination as it appeared in Villani’s Nouva Cronica:
In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Amidei, honourable and notable citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M. Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided. For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghibillines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy.source
That Botticelli sourced two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica, which Villani was inspired to write after attending the first Christian Jubilee in Rome in 1300, suggests the artist may also have been similarly inspired to paint the Primavera after returning in 1482 from his year-long commission in Rome frescoing the Sistine Chapel. The Jubilee year was an opportunity for pilgrims to visit Rome, confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church
The oldest manuscript of the Nuovo Chronica is held in the Vatican Library, formally established in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV. So could Botticelli have set eyes on this manuscript while he was in Rome?
What may have also inspired Botticelli to utilise the two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica is the knowledge that Jan van Eyck took a similar approach when painting the Arnolfini Portrait. He sourced two illustrations from the Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex to embed references to what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. Like the Primavera, the Arnolfini Portrait has penitential and rebirth themes. The word Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, means “Spring season” or “Springtime”, which translates in Italian as “Primavera”.
There is one other important manuscript that inspired Botticelli’s composition and lineup of figures he painted in Primavera.More on this in a future post.