The Bear and the Bird

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 Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Fallen angels

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. 

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

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.

Detail from a facsimilie of The Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, Photo © Facsimilie Finder

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.

Detail from The Testament and Death of Moses, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

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).

Detail from Andrea del Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, showing Leonardo da Vinci,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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.

Lady with Primroses, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
Ginevra de Benci (Fioretta Gorini?), Leonardo da Vinci, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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?

Detail from Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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?

Detail from Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

• My next post will deal with identifying Botticelli’s source of inspiration for the figure of Venus.

• The original 13th century Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt is housed at gallica.bnf.fr while a facsimile version can be viewed at facsimiliefinder.com

Down by the waterside

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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.

Detail from the Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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.

Detail from the Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

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.

Detail from the Baptism of Christ, 1472-75, Uffizi, Florence

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).

Detail from The Trials of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

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.

Detail from The Testament and Death of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

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.

Botticelli’s “blow-in”

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.

More on this in a future post.

Faith, Hope and Love

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

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

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

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

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

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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

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

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

More from the Garden of Sculptures

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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.

Painting parallels in Botticelli’s Primavera

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

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera

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

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

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera….

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

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

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

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

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

More on this in a future post.

Primavera… past and present sources

So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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.

A sample of Leonardo da Vinci’s mirror writing

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.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 69v, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

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.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 70r, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

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? 

The Pray Codex is kept at the National Széchényi Library of Budapest.

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.

Renaissance… rebirth… resurrection

“How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” These were questions the Pharisee called Nicodemus asked after Jesus had said to him, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-4)

Jesus answered Nicodemus, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

Botticelli referenced this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in Primavera as a way of highlighting one of the painting’s main themes – rebirth, but not solely in the sense of the Renaissance period of his time. Rather, Botticelli’s aim was directed at highlighting the need for reformation of hearts and souls towards higher values than offered by the rebirth of Greek and Roman antiquity and its pagan overtones.

The wall of mythological figures in the Primavera serve as a facade that masks deeper truths. Art historians are generally in agreement when identifying the nine figures at an individual level, but struggle to recognise the purpose or role of the group as a whole – probably because the artist has deliberately composed an arrangement meant to suggest an overtone of discord which can never be reconciled – that is pagan mythology. 

In referencing the Pharisee known as Nicodemus, Botticelli introduces another narrative that could be considered a myth in itself – the account of the Holy Face of Lucca, an ancient crucifix said to have been sculpted by Nicodemus and which miraculously found its way from Palestine to Lucca, a town about 60 miles east of Florence, in 782.

The legend records that Nicodemus fell asleep while sculpting the crucifix. He had completed most of the work except for Christ’s face. As he slept an angel appeared on the scene to finish the feature. Centuries later a bishop by the name of Gualfredo was directed in a dream to a cave in the Holy Land where he rediscovered the crucifix. He loaded the relic on a ship without sails or crew. The ship miraculously drifted out to sea and eventually berthed at Luni in Tuscany. However, every time the people of Luni attempted to board the ship it retreated out to sea again. Another bishop, Johannes of Lucca, dreamt that a ship transporting a holy relic had arrived in Luni and so he made his way to the port accompanied by clerics and many people from Lucca. When the Lucchese arrived at Luni they prayed to God and the ship returned to shore and opened its gangplank for the bishop to board.

The eight-foot-tall crucifix was brought ashore and loaded into a cart drawn by oxen. Once again it made what the people considered another miraculous journey – the cart had no driver – and arrived at the San Frediano church in Lucca. But it’s transfer didn’t end there. Another miracle occurred when the crucifix appeared unexpectedly in Lucca’s church of San Martino. It is still there today.

San Martino, or St Martin of Tours, also makes an appearance in the Primavera painting as one of many identities represented by the military figure standing at the end of the lineup, for which I shall present details in a future post.

In an earlier post I pointed out the iconography connecting St Luke, symbolised as an ox, with the central figure in the painting representing the Virgin Mary. This feature also links with the legend of the Holy Face relic and its journey or translation led by oxen to Lucca. Botticelli puns Luke with Lucca; he also make a comparison with the Holy Face coming to light again after its entombment and rediscovery in a cave with the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion and burial in a tomb carved out of rock.

The medallion worn by the Virgin Mary depicts the deposition of Jesus in his tomb. It is suspended above the Virgin’s swollen belly, indicating her expectancy of new life. In this scenario “new life” represents a resurrection to an everlasting life and how a “grown man” can be born again and so “see” and “enter the kingdom of God”. 

The span of life on Earth is sometimes expressed as a journey “from the womb to the tomb”. As for being “born through water and the Spirit”, man is born again through “Mother Church” – Ecclesia – by being baptised with both Holy Water and the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection scene is disguised in the Virgin’s red mantle. So is Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion. To be able to recognise the Resurrection feature the painting requires to be viewed turned upside down.

The Virgin’s left hand is shaped to draw attention to the highlighted area over her thigh, a “dim reflection” of the head and beard of Jesus as he exits his oval-shaped tomb. He is slightly turned so that his left shoulder and the folds of his gown are prominent and nearest the viewer. The oval entrance represents the open mouth of the large fish that swallowed Jonah for three days before vomiting the prophet onto dry land. The Old Testament account of Jonah and the fish is symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection. 

The “dim reflection” of the Holy Face points to a passage in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that refers to resurrection: “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (13:12).

Botticelli has used this reference to paint a portrait and “a dim reflection” created with the aid of a mirror – a self portrait – not of Botticelli but of Leonardo da Vinci, and very likely the red chalk drawing owned by a private collector but brought to public attention in 2020 by the Leonardo scholar, Annalisa Di Maria

A feature of most Leonardo portraits, and even his figures, is that the model is shown  in three-quarter view with a shoulder nearest the viewer, hence Botticelli’s emphasis and detail in the folds of the gown or shroud of the “dim reflection”.

When viewed in its normal position the detail serves to represent the blood-soaked sudarium that covered the face of Jesus when he was wrapped in his tomb. The “agonised” depiction is presented looking downwards and meant to represent Christ’s descent into Hell, sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. Notice the wing-shaped folds indicating God’s Spirit descending.

That Leonardo’s self-portrait was drawn with the aid of a mirror is for a particular reason why Botticelli has referenced it as representing the Holy Face of Lucca, and not solely to fit with the verse from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

The mirror connection introduces another artist and specifically one of his paintings: Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes referred to as the Arnolfini Wedding, or the Arnolfini Marriage

Art historians are undecided as to which member of the Arnolfini family the “bridegroom” represents – Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, or his cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. Both men were Italian merchants from Lucca but resident in Bruges.

There are other connections in the Primavera painting to the Arnolfini Portrait, the most obvious being the way the two artists identified themselves. Van Eyck wrote his name above the large mirror central in the painting; Botticelli has depicted himself as the Cupid figure above the image of the “Mirror of Justice”, one of many titles associated with the Virgin Mary. 

There are more Lucca references in the Primavera which I will explain in a future post.

An unlikely pairing, but well matched

Forever together… The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, and Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera

I wonder if any art curator would ever consider aligning these two paintings on a gallery wall? If so, for what purpose? That Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was completed in 1434, and Botticelli’s Primavera some fifty years later, reflecting both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles of painting, could be a reason; that the two paintings relate to marriage could be another.

While art historians have generally focused on literary sources of ancient poets to identify and understand the Primavera figures and the painting’s composition, the wellspring and source of inspiration dates to just a decade before the birth of Botticelli – to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait.

This would indicate that Botticelli had seen the Van Eyck painting at some time, and also had knowledge of Jan’s own inventiveness and rationale behind the painting’s composition and narratives. 

More on this in a future post.

There is a season for everything*

Having already revealed several identities applied by Botticelli to the standing male figure in the Primavera painting, it would not be unreasonable to assume that other figures in the scene represent more than one person. There is a transforming or changing theme running through the painting and its many narratives.

The Marzocco

Perhaps the most obvious hint of this are the two women on the right of the frame representing Chloris, the Greek goddess of flowers and her Roman equivalent Flora. Chloris is seen being lowered alongside Flora by Zephyrus the West Wind. In fact, Chloris is depicted as being grafted to the thigh of Flora. Observe the cleft-shaped, right hand of Chloris. Flora’s thigh is shield-shaped (a stemma), suggesting shield-budding.

A further transformation feature is that Flora also represents a lion and the heraldic symbol of Florence, the Marzocco. In turn, Chloris is presented as a lamb or a goat (a sacrifice offered to the gods). When the two elements – lion and lamb, or goat – are combined or grafted they form the basis of a beast known in Greek mythology as a Chimera.

To complete the transformation a third creature is required, that of a serpent. This is represented by the scaled pattern on Flora’s arms, the serpent’s head being her left hand. Chimera is another term associated with horticulture grafting.

In an earlier post I pointed out that Zephyrus, the West Wind, also represented the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, and Chloris as Lucrezia Buti, the Dominican novice he abducted to use as a model to represent the Virgin Mary in his paintings.

The Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna mirrored this section of Primavera in his painting titled Parnassus, except that for the West Wind he depicted the painter Leonardo da Vinci in the guise of Pegasus, the winged horse that Bellerophon rode to Lycia on his mission to slay the monstrous Chimera. Leonardo is another identity Botticelli applied to the Zephyrus figure.

Detail from Parnassus, by Andrea Mantegna, Louvre

In the Parnassus painting, the two figures nearest to Pegasus are Chloris and Flora. The serpent is the ribbon gripped by Chloris’ left hand, and her right hand gripping the thumb of Flora’s right hand is the graft feature.

The head of the lamb is formed by the shape of the dress at Chloris’ shoulder, turned towards the wind created by Pegasus’ wing, just as Chloris turns her head towards the wind (hot air?) blown from the mouth of Zephyrus in the Primavera painting.

Note also the brown-coloured profile at the side of the arch above the two women. It represents Donatello (pictured right), the sculptor commissioned to create a new version of the Marzocco between 1418-20, to replace the weather-beaten version erected in the late 14th century.

* There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven...
(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Of shapes and silhouettes

Detail from The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence

In my last post I pointed out a connection in Botticelli’s Primavera with a fresco panel of The Visitation in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio. In fact, there are several links.

Left: Fioretta Gorini by Leonardo da Vinci. Right: Detail from The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One in particular couples with the Fioretta Gorini portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and confirms the silhouette feature I pointed out connecting the biblical prophet Elijah and the miracle on Mount Carmel in the Primavera painting.

Same shape, different presentations.

The silhouette of Elijah’s profile in the juniper tree to the right of Fioretta is matched by the shape of the summit of the rock formation (representing Mount Carmel) behind the heads of Elizabeth’s two servants. The two women appear to both represent Fioretta Gorini; the woman nearest, with a more rounded face as she looks in Leonardo’s portrait, and the half-hidden figure as in Botticelli’s portrayal of the Virgin in Primavera.

That Ghirlandaio has depicted a shaped stone formation to make reference to Fioretta Gorini, may also be a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta sculpted by Andrea Verrocchio.

A touch of topiary

Disguised within the tree arch behind the figure of the Virgin Mary – who equates with the celestial sign of Virgo – are two more zodiac symbols, Aries and Taurus. In a previous post I revealed another sign, Cancer, as the left arm of the Virgin portrayed as a crab’s leg.

Detail from Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The left side of the arch is Aries, the right, Taurus. To visualise more clearly requires the painting to be rotated. When turned 90 degrees clockwise the shape of a rather bulky Aries the Ram is silhouetted against the sky blue backdrop (A).

(A) – Aries the Ram

Rotating the right side of the arch at 180 degrees, the silhouette (B) produces the bull symbol representing Taurus, its muzzle and two horns pointing in the direction of the Virgin’s left arm.

The reason for the Ram’s bulkiness is that it also represents another bull (C) outlined on its underside, the muzzle and horns pointing downwards to the Virgin’s head.

Left: (B) The bull symbol Taurus… Right: (C) A second bull symbol
The shape of a lion’s head

A third animal is also depicted in the shape at the muzzle end of the ram, the profile of a lion’s head representing the Zodiac symbol Leo, or in terms of constellations, Leo Minor. Leo Major is the profile of the lion’s head formed by the shape of the Virgin’s hair at the right side of her face. 

Apart from its zodiac meaning, the bull iconography refers to certain papal bulls issued during the reign of Sixtus IV. Two issued on the same day, 12 May 1479, concerned the Rule of Order dedicated to the Mother of God of Mount Carmel, and the Recitation of the Marian prayer known as the Rosary. In 1983 Sixtus also issued a bull allowing local bishops to permit bodies of executed criminals and unknown corpses to be dissected by physicians and artists. Botticelli has referenced all three edicts in his Primavera painting.

The two bulls issued on the same day in May 1479 connect to another painter referenced in the Primavera painting – Leonardo da Vinci – known for dissecting corpses in his scientific and artistic pursuit of knowledge about the human body.

Detail of a drawing by Leonardo titled: The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The two bull silhouettes that form the arch behind the Virgin represent a pair of lungs, while her right hand points shape of the lion’s head mentioned earlier, and representing the zodiac sign Leo – or Leonardo.

The background silhouette feature is also a pointer to a similar detail in a painting by Leonardo supposedly depicting Ginevra de’ Benci. However, the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, the same woman portrayed as the Virgin Mary in Botticelli’s Primavera.

Detail from Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini, showing the silhouette of Elijah – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The silhouette seen in the Juniper tree featured in Leonardo’s painting has two representations, the biblical prophet Elijah, and Saint Gall (as in gallbladder). The reference to Elijah connects to the biblical account (1 Kings 18:16-45) when the prophet challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah said: “Let two bulls be given us; let them choose one for themselves, dismember it and lay it on wood, but not set fire to it. I in my turn will prepare the other bull and not set fire to it. You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of mine; the god who answers with fire is God indeed.” The outcome was that fire fell on Elijah’s sacrifice but not on the bull offered by the prophets of Baal.

I shall post at another time details about the Rosary prayer depicted in Primavera, but to suffice to say it connects to another Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the artists who worked alongside Botticelli on the Sistine Chapel frescoes.

When Ghirlandaio completed his time in Rome he was commissioned to produce a series of frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in the Florentine basilica of Santa Trinita. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi. One scene, portraying the death of Francis, shows a man dressed in red and blue and with his right hand feeling into the vent or incision on the side of the corpse. He is depicted as Leonardo da Vinci who, unlike the praying friars around him, prefers instead to study the cadaver. 

A section of the fresco, Death of Francis, 1483-86, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel.

The frescoes were produced between 1483-86. Shortly before completion Ghirlandaio and his workshop started on another cycle of frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from the life of St John the Baptist. Both cycles contain references to Botticelli’s Primavera painting. 

Detail from The Visitation fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The Visitation scene from the Baptist cycle is centred on the meeting of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. Standing behind Elizabeth are two women shown as ladies in waiting. The one half-hidden behind the other is matched to Fioretta Gorini as depicted in Primavera.

Fioretta is also shown ‘half-hidden’ and facing the viewer in the group of three women placed at the left edge of the frame. This group is Ghirlandaio’s hat-tip to the Three Graces seen in Primavera who are Fioretta Gorini, Lucrezia Donati, and Simonetta Vespucci. As to why the three women in The Visitation scene are shown with halos, it could be that they have all been portrayed as the Virgin Mary in some of Botticelli’s paintings.

Another scene from the life of John the Baptist that features Leonardo and Fioretta is the panel titled: Zechariah Write’s John’s Name. More details in an earlier post at this link.

Primavera and Leonardo da Vinci

Detail of the drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo – Leonardo da Vinci International Committee

I recently came across a report published at artnet news that an Italian researcher, Annalisa Di Maria, had discovered a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci portraying Jesus Christ. Experts have still to support Annalisa’s claim, but they may be interested to know the drawing is referred to in Botticelli’s Primavera.

I shall reveal more about this in a future post.

In my first post of a series intended to reveal the alternative narratives in Primavera, I pointed out that the painting was inspired by two other artists, Leonardo da Vinci and, in particular, Jan van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci

Pairing Lorenzo and Sixtus

Girolamo Savonarola

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.

Fra Angelico

Like Savonarola, Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and after leaving the nearby convent of Fiesole in 1436 he moved to Florence and San Marco where he began decorating the newly built convent. In 1447 Fra Angelico was called to Rome by Pope Nicholas V to produce frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel. It is this work that Botticelli has sourced during his own period in Rome in 1480-82 to refer to the relationship between Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV, compared to St Lawrence – who Lorenzo was named after – and the martyr’s relationship with a predecessor of Sixtus IV – Pope Sixtus II.

The Medici banking arrangement with the Papal court was complex. There was a hesitancy on the part of Lorenzo de’ Medici to keep financially supporting Pope Sixtus IV and his aggrandizement of the Papal States and his own family. The Pope turned instead to another Florentine banking family, the Pazzi, and this eventually climaxed in what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy and the assassination of Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano de’ Medici.

Lorenzo’s namesake, St Lawrence is one of two martyrs whose lives are portrayed in the Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican. The other is St Stephen. The frescoes were commisioned by Pope Nicholas V and painted by Fra Angelico Lippi. 

According to Wikipedia, “St Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome under Pope Sixtus II who were martyred in the persecution of Christians that the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered in 258”. As Archdeacon of Rome Lawrence was in care of the treasury and riches of the Church and distribution of alms to the poor.

Detail of St Lawrence distributing alms to the poor, painted by Fra Angelico for the Niccoline Chapel

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).

Pope Sixtus II, by Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

One of the legends asociated with the martyrdom of St Lawrence was the declaration he made while being roasted on the gridiron: “I’m well done of this side, turn me over!” And so another reference why Botticelli’s figure of Lorenzo is shown turned facing away from the Three Graces representing the water of faith through baptism. The biblical reference to wandering souls given any number of fatal wounds can also be be understood in context with the wounds inflicted on Giuliano – twenty – when he was assassinated in Florence Cathedral. Lorenzo escaped with a minor wound to his neck.

A final connection in all of this is the fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting Pope Sixtus ll, the bishop of Rome who made St Lawrence an Archdeacon of Rome and also martyred by the Emperor Valerian. The fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli during the time he and other Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV.

Springtime!

This cherry and white blossom tree stands on the street outside my home. I took a photo of it today as it reminds me of some of the ‘grafting’ features in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. For instance, notice the ‘cleft’ shape of Chloris’ right hand as she is about to be grafted onto the thigh of Flora. Narratives are also grafted onto the thighs of the other figures. More on this in future posts.

Detail from Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Passover and the Primavera

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.

Called to Communion

I stated in my last post that there was more to Botticelli’s Primavera other than being a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences. However, the translation of mythological identities from Greek to Roman is a key to understanding the major narrative in the painting.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The mergence of the figure of Chloris with Flora, her Roman counterpart, is an example of this, brought together by Zephyrus the Greek god of the east wind, or his Roman equivalent, a favourable wind called Favonius.

The scene is an allegory of Greco-Roman coalescence, Greek language and Latin language, Orthodox Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church, a marriage or unification of the Catholic Church following its several schisms during previous centuries, including the Great East-West Schism that happened during the eleventh century.

It points to the Council of Florence, the seventeenth ecumenical council between the “two lungs” of the Church that began in Basel (Switzerland) in 1431, reconvened at Ferrara (Italy) in 1438 and then moved to Florence in 1439, concluding in 1445.

Among many of the issues under discussion by the Council was papal primacy and the jurisdiction of bishop of Rome over the whole Church. This was resolved and agreed when a final decree, a papal Bull of Union with the Greeks, was issued in July, 1439. It officially reunited the Roman Catholic Church with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, so ending the East-West Schism (until the next time).

Papal primacy and authority is also expressed in another sense in the Primavera. The painting makes reference to the reconciliation of Lorenzo de’Medici and the city of Florence with Pope Sixtus IV following what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, as mentioned in the previous post.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is characterised by the term Byzantium. Although centred on Constantinople which was considered the “cradle of Orthodox Christianity”, “it orientated towards Greek rather than Latin culture”, hence the papal bull reference to “Union with the Greeks”.

Byzantine bezant featuring Basil I

The most familiar Byzantine reference to be seen in the Primavera are the orange balls that appear as fruit of the orange trees. In heraldic terms they are known as roundels, depicting gold bezants, the currency associated with the Byzantine Empire. They can also be understood as the orange balls that appear on the coat of arms or “stemma” associated with the Medici banking family. A mythological representation is that they are the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides given as a wedding gift to Hera, wife of Zeus, and Queen of the gods, and of marriage, family and childbirth, Juno being her Roman equivalent.

The Medici Stemma

So what appears on the surface to be oranges can also be a lead into other themes embedded in the painting. For instance, understood in terms of being associated with the Medici coat of arms, the word “stemma” can be linked to the positioning of the stem-like arms of the figures in the painting. Generally they act as pointers to other narratives and an aid to identification.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the twelve signs of the Zodiac can be identified in the painting. For example the left arm of the VirginMary, fragmented in places and its hand showing three fingers, is meant to represent a crab’s leg and so the sign of Cancer. Her right hand is also a telling pointer which I shall explain at a later stage.

Note the crab-leg shape of the Virgin’s left arm representing the Zodiac sign of Cancer
The Marzocco

The lonic image of Flora is symbolic of Florence’s heraldic lion, the Marzocco. Her left thigh is shaped as the shield that Donatello’s famous lion rests one of its paws on, except in Flora’s portrayal the flower on the shield is a rose and not the “Fleur de Lys”. There is a reason why Botticelli has used a rose which connects to another narrative in the painting and I shall explain in a future post.

The Primavera is saturated with symbols.

“The term symbolism is derived from the word ‘symbol’ which derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition, in turn from classical Greek σύμβολον symbolon, an object cut in half constituting a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two-halves…” (wikipedia)

Reassembling two halves reconnects to earlier mention of the Council of Florence and the “two lungs” of the Church coming together. And if we take a fresh look at the arch formation of trees behind Mary, the Mother of the Church, we can see they are shaped and presented as two lungs, left and right. This leads on to other Church connections in the painting, particularly Pope Sixtus IV, which I shall explain in a future post.

Making Assumptions…

A section of the Northern Wall in the Sistine Chapel and some of the frescoes depicting the Life of Christ

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?

Giuliano de’ Medici by Sandro Botticlelli

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.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli
Pope Sixtus IV

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.

The Duomo in Florence, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower

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.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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.

A drawing made by Pinturicchio, one of Perugini’s assistants, of the lost Assumption of the Virgin,
Notice the apostle Peter, the first Pope, confirming the legitimacy and authority of Sixtus as Pope.

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.

Primavera, the painter and the nun

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.

Love or Duty, chromolithograph by Gabriele Castagnola, 1873, published in Paris by Hangard-Mangué

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.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels, Fra Filippo Lippi, Ufizzi 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.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Filippino was one of the painters who worked alongside Botticelli in producing some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. He is portrayed looking up and standing behind Botticelli in the Northern wall panel, Temptations of Christ.

Temptation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
(Left) Filippino Lippi and (Right) looking up and standing behind the figure of Sandro Botticelli.

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.

Detail from the Temptation of Christ, Sistine Chapel

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)

More on the Primavera in my next posting.