Niche work

Artist, goldsmith and sculptor Andrea del Verroccio, self portrait, c 1468-70, Uffizi, Florence

Andrea del Verroccio is probably better known for his work as a sculptor than a painter. Even the two principal figures in his Baptism of Christ painting appear rigid as if placed on pedestals. Both Christ and John the Baptist are shown standing on the bedrock of the shallow river Jordan with their feet submerged in water. The weight of each man is placed on his right leg and balanced by the left. The feet are the ‘footings’ or ‘founds’ supporting the whole body which in this scenario can be understood as Christ’s body representing the Church he founded.

I mentioned in a previous post how the river is depicted as both water and blood and is connected to the Massacre of the Innocents carried out by King Herod, and also the later beheading of John the Baptist. But there are also two other events which link to the blood and water theme: (1) the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church, seen as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) when Jesus was pierced with a lance at his crucifixion and the wound was seen to pour out blood and water.

His pierced side was later witnessed by Thomas, one of the disciples who had doubted Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus later appeared to him he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet and telling him, “Give me you hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”

Before he painted the Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Merchant’s Guild in Florence to produce a bronze sculpture depicting Christ and St Thomas. This bronze and the niche it was placed in on an exterior wall of the Orsanmichel was the main source of inspiration for Verrocchio when he came to outlining his composition for the Baptism painting completed in 1475. Work on the bronze sculpture very ikely took a back seat at times as it was not unveiled and in situ until 1483.

Christ and St Thomas, 1467-83, Andrea del Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence
© photo courtesy of Ron Reznick, digital-images.net
Donatello’s gilded bronze of St Louis of Toulouse

The niche, or tabernacle, where Christ and St Thomas was displayed (it still is, but a copy), was previously occupied by Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture of St Louis of Toulouse, completed in 1425. However, in 1459 the niche was sold to the Merchant’s Guild and Verrochio was commissioned to fill the gap with his bronze. The niche itself is said to have been sculpted by Donatello. Verrochio paid tribute to his former master by referencing some its features for his Baptism of Christ, as well as linking his painting to a legend attributed to St Louis.

The stance of Christ and St Thomas in the bronze commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild echoes the two standing figures in the Baptism painting. Donatello’s predella supporting the tabenacle area features two winged-angels carrying a wreath crown. These are the two ‘angels’ portrayed by Verrocchio. One carrying Christ’s garments and kneeling on the rock shelf by the waterside.

Donatello’s tabernacle showing the pediment and the frieze, montaged with the predella.
© photo courtesy of Ron Reznick, digital-images.net

The two heads looking out at the ends of the predella, facing right and left, are the two heads in the rock outcrop in the painting – one is King Herod, the other Goliath. It’s likely the heads featured on the predalla may refer to Greek or Roman philosophers.

The Trinity represented in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ.

Centred on Donatello’s triangular pediment are three heads encircled within a winged olive crown. They represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is also referenced in Verrochio’s painting and is an integral part of the Baptism of Christ account in John’s Gospel. The Father’s two hands are seen extending from Heaven, while the Spirit is coming down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus.

The frieze below the pediment is a twist bracelet of four winged-cherubs. The four heads represent four identities Verrocchio has linked to the face of the baptised Christ.

The spiralled columns inside the tabernacle and their Ionic capitals are the inspiration for the palm tree and its crown on the left of the painting, matched on the other side by the Baptist’s shaft crowned with a golden cross.

The scalloped ceiling inside the dome of the tabenacle is represented by the dish used by the Baptist to pour water over Christ’s head. The patterned scallop is echoed by the arrowed rays emanating from Heaven.

Either side of the dome are two angels with an arm reaching out along the arch, in a manner similar to the portrayal of John the Baptist reaching out over the head of Jesus. This is also reflected in the actual sculpture with Jesus’ right hand outstretched over Thomas and blessing the doubting disciple.

Doubting Thomas reaches into the side of Christ and the wound made by a soldier’s lance
Leonardo’s angel bearing Christ’s baptismal gown

As far as matching Thomas touching the side wound of Jesus, this is shown in the kneeling figure of the angel said to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Here Leonardo is drawing attention to the shoulder wound he apparently carried throughout his life (represented by him carrying the robe worn by Jesus – or even a shroud – and so referring to the death and resurrection aspect of baptism). The cloth can also be related to as a wing, and therefore pointing again to Leonardo’s damaged shoulder and his fascination for birds and for flying. This is another feature referenced in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi where Lorenzo de Medici is seen carrying the wrap of his light blue gown over his right forearm. It was this that protected him from a more serious injury during the attack in the Duomo on himself and his brother Giuliano who was not so fortunate and died during the assassination attempt.

Then there is the mystery of the halos in the Baptism of Christ painting… but more on this in my next post.

Angels of light?

Two ‘angels’ from the Baptism of Christ, by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi

The two young boys featured in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ are usually described as angels – but in this instance are shown without wings. They have halos, so are they angels or saints? The halos over the two other figures in the painting, Christ and John the Baptist, differ in colour, and the Saviour’s halo is marked with a cross.

Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1481) also features angels without wings. Two of his ‘angels’ are arranged to mirror those in the Verrocchio painting. He repeated the motif in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.

Giuliano de’ Medici (left), Leonardo da Vinco (right)
Adoration of the Magi, 1482?, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Is there a connection between the three groups? Probably, and likely to be Leonardo da Vinci. It is said to he painted the angel on the left in Verrocchio’s panel produced in 1475 for the Vallomvrosan monastery of St Salvi in Florence.

A section from Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1482), Uffizi, Florence

In the Magnificat, some historians have suggested that the two angels are meant to represent the Medici brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano, while in the Adoration scene the two men placed left and right of the group are Giuliano de’ Medici and Leonardo.

The Baptism painting also connects to Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, where Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered in April 1478. Botticelli makes reference to both the assassination and Verrocchio’s painting in the Uffizi Adoration. The gold-brimmed hat (right) refers to the halo theme and its iconography in the Baptism of Christ.

More on this and the secret of the halos in a future post.

There stands a man among you, uknown to you…

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

The Baptism of Christ is attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio and partly to a young Leonardo da Vinci who worked in Verrecchio’s studio at the time when the painting was produced around 1475. It depicts Jesus being baptised in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Two young angels kneel on the bank of the river, one holding Christ’s garments. It was said by Francesco Alberti in a guidebook published in 1510 that this figure was painted by Leonardo. Some art historians suggest that he had a hand in other parts of the painting, notably the background scene and perhaps even the figure of Christ

According to the art historian, painter and architect Georgio Vasari: “Leonardo painted an angel who was holding some garments; and despite his youth, he executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better than the figures painted by Verrocchio. This was the reason why Andrea would never touch colours again, he was so ashamed that a boy understood their use better than he did.”

Perhaps an exaggeration by Vasari who was born in 1511, forty years after the painting was completed and never spoke with Verrochio who died in 1488.

What Vasari failed to record and may not have noticed about the painting is that the Baptist figure is modelled on Leonardo, and whose angel rendition is another image of himself. Verrichio knew this but seemingly not Vasari.

Verrocchio also knew the painting was linked to another artist, the sculptor Donatello and the two statues he made of the biblical David, one in marble and the other bronze. Verrocchio also produced a bronze of David which links to this painting as well as his bronze of Christ and Thomas.

Bottecilli also refers to the Baptism of Christ painting in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. He also recognised the ‘hidden’ hand of Leonardo in Verrochio’s Baptism of Christ – and the shoulder injury he sustained probably in childhood – a ‘fallen angel’, so to speak, nursing a broken wing and uncertain if he would ever resurrect and ‘fly’ to rise above the earth again.

More on this in my next post.

A naked man of many guises

Vulcan, from Parnassus, Andrea Mantegna, 1497, Louvre, Paris

This naked figure traditionally identified as Vulcan, the Greek god of fire, features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. Its attribution date is 1497. In mythology Vulcan was the husband of Venus and this depiction shows him raging against her because of her presumed infidelity with Mars.

Although naked, Mantegna has applied other guises to the figure, notably Francesco II Gonzaga, husband of Isabella d’Este (in the guise of Venus), and the Domincan preacher Girolamo Savonarola. The figure also references three artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Antonio Pollaiuola.

Battle of the Naked Men, 1470-90, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Met Museum, New York

It was Pollaiuolo who produced the engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men in which Leonardo is depicted fighting with himself in the centre. Mantegna has borrowed the naked man to portray Vulcan. The identity transition is a deliberate smoke-and-mirrors technique by Mantegna to reference Leonardo’s sfumato painting style and mirror writing. The Mantua court artist also makes and mirrors other pointers to Leonardo in a counterpoising manner.

Jerome in the Wilderness, c 1480, Leonardo da Vinci, Vatican Museums

For example: the naked man is a pointer to Leonardo’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Wilderness. Mategna has portrayed his figure with the left arm outstretched whereas the right arm is extended in Leonardo’s Jerome. It also grips a stone. Close inspection of Mantegna’s version reveals the left hand has some of its fingers bent to form the shape of a skull, and so another reference to Leonardo’s Jerome and his skull symbolising a ‘memento mori’. The ‘memento mori’ theme links to the identity of the fiery friar Girolamo Savonrola who set Florence alight with his end-time preaching and prophecies during a four-year period that ended in his own execution and burning in May 1498. His moral campaign encouraged the people to burn and destroy their secular art, books and other objects considered as “occasions of sin”. These public events became known as “bonfires of vanities” and Botticelli was an artist said to have taken heed and destroyed some of his work in this way.

A representation of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and a ‘bonfire of vanities’

The red cloak tied around the neck of the naked man also ties to other meanings. Not only does it represent a flame of fire stemming from a hot-head, it is also shaped to represent a dog. This is matched in three ways, first to the facial features as that of a werewolf and therefore connected to a hellhound. This then links to Botticelli and his Adoration painting that features the Twelve labours of Hercules, one being his descent into the underworld to combat the dog Cerberus that guards Hades. The third match is to the epithet applied to Savonrola’s Domican Order, Domini canes, meaning ‘dogs of the Lord’.

Mantegna also presents the red cloak as a wing, and the probable inspiration for this is a passage from one of Leonardo’s notebooks on the flight of birds: Leonardo writes: “The centrepiece of the shoulder of the bird is the part turned by pectoral and dorsal muscles. These muscles control whether the elbow is raised or lowered, according to the will and needs of the animal that is moving.” This note is accompanied by a wing illustration similar to the shape of the red cloak. A later note observes: “Always in the raising of the hand the elbow is lowered and presses the air down, whereas in the descent of the hand the elbow is raised and remains sideways on in order not to impede the movement in the air compressed within the wing.”

Leonardo’s observations about lowering and raising are adapted by Mantegna to refer back to Savonarola who was tortured before he was hanged and his body set alight. The method of torture used on the preacher was the strappado. The victim’s arms and legs are tied behind his back. He is suspended by a rope tied to his wrists and then dropped at intervals from a great height. The outcome usually results in a dislocated shoulder and permanent damage. Mantegna alludes to the drop process by showing water cascading from three levels of the high ground behind the naked man. Notice how the right arm hangs as if his shoulder is dislocated. Is Mantegna also alluding to the damaged right shoulder Leonardo is said have suffered with? And was this also caused by a fall, perhaps from a great height? How similar is the shape of the crouched, bird-like figure of Jerome in Leonardo’s painting, to the bound figure suspended in the Jacques Callot drawing of the strappado. It is said that Leonardo bought caged birds in the marketplace just to set them free.

The strands of wire gripped in Vulcan’s right hand refer to the fine net he made to throw over Mars and Venus (similar to how birds on the ground are captured). The wires also represent the strands of a spider’s web stemming from the lopped tree root. Alongside are bunches of grapes. The combination represents the fable of the spider and the grapes that Leonardo recorded in one of his notebooks.

Another feature that connects Leonardo to this section of Mantegna’s painting is Vulcan’s furnace. Its flames represent a “bonfire of vanities” and its red and blue flames are possibly the predominant colours favoured by Botticelli in the paintings he assigned to the fire. Vulcan’s left foot points to a recess in the furnace where ashes can be removed. A close inspection reveals a ‘charcoal’ representation of Leonardo. It connects to the head of one of the dancers. She is Isabella d’Este who Leonardo drew a portrait of – in charcoal – when he once visited Mantua.

Leonardo amongst the charcoal remains of the ‘bonfire of vanities’

The charcoal reference to Leonardo disguised in the stone furnace has two other links: First to his representation as the head of the sphinx in Botticelli’s Uffiz Adoration and its associated reference to preparing ink for writing; and the second to an early painting – The Baptism of Christ – attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in painting one of the angels.

Between the figures of Christ and the Baptist is a rock outcrop with a recess at water level. It depicts the helmeted head of herod, the king who later ordered the beading of John the Baptist. Herod also ordered the killing of all Jewish boys under the age of two, hoping that among them would be Jesus the new-born king.

The face of King Herod amidst a bloodbath at ‘Herod’s Gate

This prompted the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and so provides a link to another painting by Leonardo, the Virgin of the Rocks. According to legend, the Holy Family was met on the road by an angel escorting John to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Herod’s bloodbath became known as the Massacre of the Innocents, indicated in the painting above by the blood-red water at ‘Herod’s Gate’. The slaughter of innocents, or even innocence, is represented in other parts of Mantegna’s Parnaussus painting.

The Virgin of the Rocks, 1495-1508, Leonardo da Vinci, National Gallery, London

There are two versions of the Virgin on the Rocks, both attributed to Leonardo, and in both paintings the infant John is shown with the Virgin’s right hand placed on the child’s right shoulder. Another pointer, perhaps, to Leonardo’s shoulder injury?

and more…

It’s interesting to note in the Last Supper fresco which Leonardo began to paint in the mid 1490’s, both the right hand of Jesus and the left hand of Judas are shown as claw-shaped. John’s hands are joined as if symbolising the good and evil sat either side of him.

The feminised figure of John is possibly a portrayal of Leonardo’s right hand man, Salaì, who was described by Vasari as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted” even though his master also wrote that his servant for 25 years was “a liar and a thief”.

Also very noticeable is the large knot resting on the shoulder of Barholomew standing at the left end of the table. Even in the fresco’s poor state it can be seen to represent a lion’s head to echo the fiery head of Batholomew. The arm band is also significant and symbolic of restriction. Both these motifs are repeated in Mantegna’s Parnassus painting in which he refers to the works of Leonardo.

All the figures in Leonardo’s Last Supper can be interpreted as representing a claw hand or pointing to Leonardo’s shoulder injury.

Leonardo’s ‘claw’… there’s more…

Last week, the world’s media reported on the diagnosis made by two Italian doctors which suggested Leonardo da Vinci suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. The claim was first presented in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine on May 3, 2019, by Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi.

That Leonardo was inflicted with a paralysis in his right hand is not unknown to historians. Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, wrote in his travel diary about a visit to Leonardo in 1517. “One cannot indeed expect any more good work from him as a certain paralysis has crippled his right hand.”

Drs Davide Lazzeri and Carlo Rossi base their diagnosis on two portraits of Leonardo, a red-chalk drawing attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1540-1608), and the other to an engraving made in 1505 by Marcantonio Raimondo (ca 1480-1527)

A section of the engraving of Orpheus made by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505 which is said to resemble Leonardo da Vinci. Cleveland Museum of Art.

The engraving purports to show Leonardo playing a lira da braccio, suggesting therefore he may still had use of his right hand to enable to bow the instrument. The red-chalk drawing depicts Leonardo with his right hand cradled in the folds of his gown as if supporting an injured arm.

A section of the red-chalk drawing of Leonardo da Vinci by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino.

Historians generally attribute Leonardo’s paralysis to have manifested late in his life, but there is evidence to suggest the polymath bore his affliction even earlier and to the period he was living in Florence before moving to Milan in1482. The evidence is provided by three of his contemporaries, Andrea del Verriccio, Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Perugino. Even Leonardo himself produced work that hinted at his disability.

Dr Lazzeri suggests that an acute upper limb trauma, possibly from a fall, could have resulted in ulner palsy. He eplains, “The ulnar nerve runs from the shoulder to the little finger and manages almost all the hand muscles that allow fine motor movement.” Perhaps in the light of the this new analysis by Drs Lazzeri and Rossi, it can now be better understood just why Leonardo did not always complete his paintings or was at least slow to do so.

In 1479 a group of Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was considered a reconciliation initiative between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’ Medici following the murder of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano by conspirators supported by Sixtus. The four principal artists were Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugini, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli. Surprisingly Leonardo da Vinci was not among the group. Could one of the reasons for his absence have been some kind of incapacity at the time, perhaps the result of an injury to his right arm?

In 1481, Leonardo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi. It was never completed. Prior to that he started to paint St Jerome in the Wilderness. This work also remained unfinished and is now housed in the Vatican Museums.

A section of Jerome in the Wilderness by Leonardo, now housed in the Vatican Museums.

Revisitng this work it is clear to see the emphasis placed on the suffering of St Jerome in the process of beating his breast with the rock held in his right hand. What is now particularly obvious in the light of last week’s report is the prominence and detail given to the right shoulder, the collar bone and afflicted expression on Jerome’s face. Outstretching his arm is seemingly a most painful process, enough to make him grimace and turn his head away. Could this be Leonardo recording the pain of his own injury in some way? Notice the claw-shaped grip around the stone held in the right hand.

Another painting that throws light on Leonardo’s claw-hand is Andrea de Verrocchio’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1470-65). For the angel Raphael read Verrocchio and for Tobias, Leonardo – the master instructing his apprentice. Close inspection of the linked arms clearly shows deformity in the young man’s right hand, particularly the little finger. Some art experts suggest Leonardo may have painted the fish that Tobias is carrying in his left hand.

A section from The Angel and Tobias by Andrea del Verrocchio, 1470-75, National Gallery.

Although Leonardo wasn’t part of the Florentine team sent to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, he does feature in one of its paintings – The Trials of Moses – attributed to Botticelli. Leonardo is presented as the Egyptian being put to the sword by Moses and later buried. Both hands of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, are formed as claws!

A section from the fresco depicting the Trials of Moses, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

Returning to Florence in 1482 Botticelli went onto complete an earlier commission before he was called away to Rome, the Adoration of the Magi, the adaption now housed with Leonardo’s version in the Uffizi, Florence. The earlier mention of Leonardo being buried is alluded to again by Botticelli. The stone head to the left of the Holy Family group is Leonardo shown as the half buried Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. But this is not the only reference to Leonardo in the painting. In fact, there are are several, one of which points to the claw feature in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel but is also given another meaning by Botticelli as part of one of several themes in the painting.

Adoration of the Magi, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Leonardo is the figure wearing the pink cape crouching in front of Botticelli who is positioned in the right corner of the frame. The fingers of Leonardo’ right hand claw into the back of the hand of Giuliano de’ Medici. As to the reason for this, that’s another story.

Leonardo’s right hand is shown as clawing into the back Giuliano de’ Medici’s left hand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, positioned next to Botticelli and wearing a feathered hat, was one of the artists who shared the workload in frescoing the walls of the Sistine Chapel. He also returned to Florence afterwards to complete a commisison he was given earlier to fresco the Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita basilica. He produced five frescos on the life of St Francis. One of these, the last in the cycle, depicts the Death of St Francis seen surrounded by fellow friars and Florentine notables. The central figure hovering above the dead saint is meant to represent a knight named Jerome who doubted the authenticity and claims of the stigmata associated with Francis during his saintly life. When Francis died, Jerome examined the manifested wounds of Christ on the body of the holy man and was convinced they were genuine and so convereted his life.

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

Here Ghirlandaio has borrowed the Leonardo/Egyptian figure from Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco – note the similarity in hair colour and style, and the shade of the red and blue garments. Leonardo is known for dissecting dead bodies in his search for how the human body functions, and his notebooks are filled with drawing and sketches recording his findings. So here we have not only the connection back to Leonardo’s early painting of Jerome in the Wilderness, but also Ghirlandaio linking it to the knight known as Jerome who doubted the stigmata of Francis. Ghirlandaio also confirms Leonardo’s claw hand, not just by the shape of the right hand reaching into the body’s side wound, but also by the claw-shaped ‘praying hands’ of the two figures either side of Leonardo.

Leonardo held a skeptical view about some aspects Christianity, and was even considered a non-believer by some people. Ghirlandaio, it seems, was a believer in ‘miracles’ and in the use and power of relics to obtain physical healing. Perhaps this is why he presented Leonardo before the dead Francis in this final fresco, as an expression of his own personal faith and prayer made visible for others to witness. It is said that Leonardo renconciled with the Catholic Church when he was close to death and paid for Masses to be said for his soul’s salvation after he died.

The claim that Leonardo is represented in the engraving produced by Marcantonio Raimondo in 1505, has some merit. When he left Florence for Milan he brought with him a a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head as a gift for the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza. In Raimondo’s engraving Leonardo is depicted playing a ‘lira da braccio’ – an arm lyre – for the animals gathered around him. He is presented as Orpheus, “a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth”, said to be able to charm all creatures with his music.

Parnnasus, 1497, Andrea Mantegna, Louvre, Paris

Leonardo portrayed as Orpheus may have been inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s famous painting Parnassus, now displayed in the Louvre. This is another work with several references to Leonardo and also Botticelli. In fact, it’s a parody on Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which explains why Mantegna embedded the references to Leonardo. In the left corner of the painting is a young man seated on a tree trunk and playing a lyre for the dancing Maneads. The figure is Orpheus but also represents Giuliano de’ Medici. His left hand is claw-shaped to pluck the strings of the lyre. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration Giuliano is also placed in the left corner, alongside a silver-head horse representing Leonardo’s lyre.

Orpheus, but also representing Giuliano Medici and possibly the young musician Atalante Migliorotti who accompanied Leonardo when he moved to Milan.

From these examples it can be seen that Leonardo’s claw-hand was not a late development in life, and that his contemporaries portayed his ailment in their paintings. There are probably more to come to light as the works I have cited are only those I have studied in recent months.

Cosimo, Sixtus, and now Jerome

St Jerome in the Wilderness, c 1480, Leonardo da Vinci, Vatican Museums

St Jerome in the Wilderness is another unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Believed to have been started sometime in 1480 before Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan, it’s now housed in the Vatican Museums.

At sometime in its history the panel was reduced in size. However, before it was cut down it served as inspiration for the upper half of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi. It’s not hard to recognise that the kneeling Magi before the Infant Jesus is not only meant to resemble both Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV as mentioned in previous posts, but also the figure of St Jerome depicted in Leonardo’s early work.

Other elements in Leonardo’s painting are also echoed and in a future post I will refer to these and the reason why Botticelli has made the connection to Jerome and placed the Saint – one of the early “Doctors of the Church” – in such a central position in his painting.

Matching pair… Leonardo’s St Jerome and Botticelli’s Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV

Stolen artworks ‘stamped’

Italy has issued a set of stamps depicting stolen artworks recovered by its “monuments men” taskforce as it tries to shake off its status as the country with the highest number of art thefts in the world.

The stamps, which show works by Van Gogh, Mantegna and Raphael, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

More at The Guardian

When Leonardo was ‘murdered’ by Moses (and Botticelli) in the Sistine Chapel

Today marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. The milestone is being acknowledged by special events around the world.

A little further back in time, 37 years to be precise and 1482, Sandro Botticelli recorded the death of Leonardo in a novel way – by portraying him in two roles, both as an Egyptian and a Hebrew slave in a fresco painting on a wall in the Sistine Chapel. The panel depicts the Trials of Moses and was one of several commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV using Botticelli and other Florentine artists.

A section of the Trials of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1482, Sistine Chapel.

The section shows Leonardo as the model for the Egyptian slain by Moses, as recorded in Exodus (2 : 11-14). Leonardo is also depicted as the bloodied Hebrew making an exit from captivity in Egypt but in danger of being enslaved by a woman seemingly set on protecting him. The woman is Florentina, the symbol of Florence.

Here Botticelli is referring to Leonardo’s brush with the law when he was one of a group of four men accused of sodomy. The charges were eventually dropped, some say because one of the other men was connected to the powerful Medici family. Had the law been applied in full then the four men could have faced execution. Guilty or innocent, the risk of execution was probably one of the reasons why Leonardo eventually left Florence and moved to Milan.

So here Botticelli expresses Leonardo’s fear of the severity of Florentine law, applied justly or unjustly, as portrayed by Moses who was chosen to present God’s law written in stone but which he had earlier applied unjustly on his own account by killing the Egyptian and hiding his body.

The passage from Exodus also relates what happened after Moses had killed the Egyptian. The following day he came across two Hebrews fighting each other. He said to the man who was in the wrong, “What do you mean by hitting your fellow countryman?” The man retorted, “And who appointed you to be prince over us and judge? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Moses became frightened when he realised his crime had been discovered and fled to the land of Midian. Was Botticelli using this analogy to compare the flight of Moses to the flight of Leonardo to Milan, referring to the fact his “crime” was also uncovered?

Another narrative is that Leonardo was perhaps at odds with himself, battling with his sexuality and experiencing his nature to be in conflict with the law that threatened not only his existence but also his way of life, hence the reason why Botticelli depicted Leonardo as both of the Hebrew men.

The self-conflict motif can also be read into the fighting group of Moses and the Egyptian. In Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration, Leonardo is painted in similar colours, green and yellow, to Moses in the Sistine Chapel frescos. But there are also other explanations for this match in the Adoration painting which I shall post on at another time.

The facial expression of the Hebrew on the ground is meant to relate to the screaming face of Leonardo that can be seen on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici sculpted by Andrea del Verrocchio. The cuirass is hollowed as a protective piece of armour, similar to a shell. This is why Botticelli has shaped Leonardo’s cloak as a shell. Leonardo collected and made study draiwngs of shells. However, Botticelli is also suggesting that the vunerable point of any creature carrying a shell on its back and hiding underneath it, is its underside and belly region. This point is also made with a similar motif in the Uffizi Adoration painting.

There is another feature that links the face of Leonardo on the breastplate to his face portrayed on the Egyptian, and which connects with Moses. When the prophet came down from Mount Sinai for the second time “the skin on his face was radiant”. Artists generally show this as “horns of light” or what became known as the “horns of Moses”, usually depicted as two horns projecting from his head. They are meant to represent enlightenment or knowledge, as in knowing God’s law. In the fresco, Moses has yet to receive God’s law written on stone tablets.

However, the face of the Egyptian, aka Leonardo, has hair curled in the shape of horns. These are not only meant to represent the snakes associated with the image of the Gorgon Medusa and the pagan worship of the Egyptians of the time, but also suggest the brilliance of Leonardo, as gifted with knowledge and talents. The horns and the enlightened theme is also expressed on the breastpate, referring not only to Leonardo, but also the wearer Giuliano de’ Medici, considered a shining light and chivalrous knight of the Renaissance.

Giuliano de’ Medici by Andrea del Verrocchio, c 1475-78, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Heads of state

Seeing double… Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV… adoring the Infant Saviour

In my previous post I pointed out that in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, the figure of Joseph is leaning on a stone shelf which depicts Leonardo da Vinci as the head of the Great Sphinx. It wasn’t the first time Botticelli had portrayed Leonardo as the Sphinx. He had used the motif in an earlier work when he and other Florentine artists were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The commission was seen as a gesture of goodwill in building the peace process between Florence and the Pope in the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and assassination of Giuliano de’ Medci.

I also mentioned that the two tree trunks supporting the roof of the building housing the Holy Family represent the Roman numeral IV – four – and made the connection to the pharaoh Thutmose IV.

Now the numeral can also be understood as a pointer to Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere.

The two supports are from oak trees. Some oak leaves sprout from the vertical support even though it has been stripped of its bark at the base and so starved from nutrients and therefore any future life, a likely reference to the figure below of the hanged assassin Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, who served on the side of Sixtus in the pope’s efforts to remove the Medici family from its power base in Florence.

The Pope’s family name of Della Rovere means “of the oaks” or “the place of the oaks”. So here we see Botticelli expressing the Pope’s desire to take control of the Florentine Republic of which Lorenzo de’ Medici was the de facto ruler.

Art historians generally agree that the figure kneeling in front of the Infant Jesus is Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, but it also depicts Pope Sixtus IV as head of the Church on earth, and so a bridge (pontiff) between heaven and earth, a crossing into the promised land, not only led by Moses as described in the Old Testament, but also through the death and resurrection on the new-born Saviour, Jesus – hence the hands of Cosimo and Sixtus clasping the feet of the Infant. The two families, the Medici and the Della Rovere, are shown united in a symbolic sign of reconciliation and peace.

It was Pope Sixtus IV who built the Sistine Bridge across the Tiber in Rome. Notice the river-bend shape of the white scarf draped around his shoulders. Seen as Cosimo, the drape represents a waxing crescent moon.

There is another reference to ‘the place of oaks’ – the head of Sixtus – shaped as an acorn with its cup and nut. It’s gaunt appearance is reminiscent of some of the skull studies in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and is meant to act as a ‘bridge’ to the sculpted head of Leonardo portrayed in the ‘rockface’ above. Which brings me back to the start of this post and the mention of Botticelli painting a similar motif in an earlier work.

For this we have to return again to the Sistine Chapel and the connection to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from Egyptian captivity. The particular fresco is the Trials of Moses (or the Youth of Moses) painted on the southern wall.

My next post wil explain how and why Botticelli has linked references to Leonardo da Vinci in this fresco and the Uffizi Adoration.

Together in eclectic dreams

The Great Sphinx of Giza, partly under the sand, ca. 1870s

The top section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shows the Virgin Mary presenting the Infant Jesus on her lap to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder. Behind her stands Joseph, while above the group the Star of Bethlehem shines through the rafters of the temporary dwelling portrayed in a state of ruin and collapse.

What remains of the walled structure is divided into three distinct sections, the bricked corner walls to the right of the group; the dark and craggy rock that forms the back wall; and the pale outcrop which Joseph rests on. Then there is the raftered roof supported by two tree trunks.

A time to cast away stones, a time for gathering them together… (Ecclesiastes 3 : 4)

The left half of the bricked walls section is shaped to represent the sejant erect heraldic lion, the symbol of Florence known as the Marzocco. Placed alongside the infant Jesus representing the sacrificial Lamb of God, it becomes the Lion and Lamb peace symbol.

Sculpted from the rock shelf which Joseph is leaning on is a head representing Leonardo da Vinci. When this is merged with the lion feature it produces a sphinx-like form of half-man and half-lion. Botticelli is specifically drawing attention to the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and Leonardo’s claim in one of his notebooks that he travelled to Egypt and further East. However, historians put this down to fantasy on Leonardo’s part.

The Taurus bull and Lion of Babylon

The shape of the dark rock that forms the back wall is a bellowing bull, its horns are represented as part of the roof’s rafters. The bellowing represents thunder, the horns, lightning (next to the light from the Star of Bethlehem breaking through the darkness). The bull is Taurus and another pointer to Leonardo’s travelogue and the mysterious draft letter letter to “the Decatdar of Syria, Lieutentant of the Sacred Sultan of Babylon” found in one of his notebooks, detailing his time spent in Armenia and describing the Taurus Mountains.

The dark rock also represents the sculpted Lion of Babylon that depicts a man pinned underneath (Leonardo). Its inclusion is another reference to Egypt but particularly to a part of Cairo at the time known as Babylon. The motif may also refer to the biblical “Babylon Captivity” of the Jews and so a symbol of oppression. Leonardo as the pinned man under the lion points to the polymath’s of oppression by the Florentine authorities and the likely false and malicious charge of sodomy made against him, hence his desire to leave the city when an opportunity arose and move to Milan. The mayhem and random slaughter of citizens following the assassination of Giluiano de’ Medici was another likely factor in Leonardo’s desire to leave Florence.

The Lion of Babylon, with a man pinned underneath

That Joseph is depicted leaning on the flat cap of Leonardo’s sculpted head, seemingly asleep, reinforces the dream and journey theme. After the departure of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intention to slay the new-born child, and that he should escape into Egypt. (Matthew 2 : 13-15)

Adding support to the premise that Leonardo is portrayed in his familar peaked flat cap as the Great Sphinx are the two tree trunks supporting the timbered roof of the building. They form the Roman numeral IV –four – and refer to a period in the Sphinx’s history and that of the short reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV.

It was Thutmose who, as a prince, was out hunting one day and decided to rest in the shade of the Sphinx which was buried up to its neck in sand. Wikipedia explains: “He soon fell asleep and had a dream in which the sphinx told him that if he cleared away the sand and restored it he would become the next Pharaoh. After completing the restoration he placed a stone tablet, now known as the Dream Stele, between the two paws of the Sphinx. The restoration of the Sphinx, and the text of the Dream Stele would then be a piece of propaganda on Thutmose’s part, meant to bestow legitimacy upon his unexpected kingship.” (Peter Clayton, Chronicles of the Pharaohs)

This propoganda theme likely mirrors the motive and steps taken by Lorenzo de’ Medici to enhance his reputation following the Pazzi consiracy. The de facto ruler of Florence soared in popularity among the people of the Republic after the brutal murder of his brother Giuliano.

Like the Sphinx, Leonardo’s head is buried from the neck down. The shadowed area falls behind the head of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He is also in a dream-like state and focused on the face of the Child Jesus. This particular feature is a defining link to Deiric Bouts’ painting of the Last Supper from which Botticelli has adapted features to include in his Uffizi Adoration. Bouts also included Thutmose IV and the Dream Stele and linked the pharaoh to the apostle Jude Thaddeus and the Image of Edessa, the so-called Mandylion. Botticelli makes the connection to the Last Supper painting and the raising of the Host (the time during the Mass when Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the Duomo) by identifying Lorenzo with Jude Thaddeus who is said to have brought the Mandylion (the cloth miraculously imprinted with the face of Jesus) to king Abdar of Edessa.

Comparing Lorenzo de’ Medici to the Apostle Jude Thaddeus in Diriec Bouts’ Last Supper

In icons of St Jude, one of his attributes is a flame around his head to indicate his presence at Pentecost. This is shown as a ‘tongues of fire’ symbol on the top of Lorenzo’s hat. Lorenzo is also draped in a cloak meant to represent the Shroud of Jesus on which the covered face of Christ is depicted. Notice also the features of the face and beard of the turbaned man to the left of Lorenzo’s hat, intended to match the profile of Jude in the Bouts painting. The fold on Jude’s left arm represents the head of the Sphinx while there is also a suggestion of the shrouded face of Christ on his back, similar to that shown on Lorenzo.

Leonardo da Vinci portrayed as the Great Sphinx

The stone carving of Leonardo is shaped as a double head. It may represent two aspects of Leonardo as well as the double-headed eagle, facing East and West, and perhaps a pointer to Leonardo’s flight frrom Florence to Milan as well as the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It’s just possible to make out the shape of an angel (above Cosimo’s head). This winged angel is also likely a reference to the ‘winged’ shape of a nemes crown, the striped extended head cloth worn by pharaohs. The left side head of the rock is formed from the other wing of the nemes.

Another link to Leonardo being portrayed as a sphinx was his fondness for composing riddles. The mythical Greek sphinx that guarded the city of Thebes would devour any traveller unable to answer its riddle. It was classed as female with the wings of an eagle and considered malevolent, while the Egyptian sphinx was portrayed with a man’s head and seen as benevolent.

The main profile of the sculpture shows Leonardo facing two figures connected with the East, the drooped head of Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli who escaped to Constantinople after assassinating Giuliano de’ Medici, only to be brought back to Florence and hanged while still dressed as a Turk. The other figure is the turbaned man alongside Leonardo, representing both King Agbar of Edessa and Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, who sanctioned the extradition of Baroncelli back to Florence. He also represents Epicurus, the Greek philosopher. More about him and his connection to the painting in a future post.

My next post will deal with how Leonardo and this particular section of Botticelli’s painting links to the Parnassus painting produced about 12 years later by Andrea Mantegna, and how it shows evidence which points to Bianca Giovanna Sforza as La Bella Principessa in the painting said to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

Mantegna’s masterpiece

La Bella Principessa part 03

“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.”

So wrote the British art historian in the Daily Telegraph on April 12, 2010.

Well, such a document does exist 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. He took his lead from Botticelli, and particularly the Florentine’s painting of the Adoration of the Magi which is now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.

What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. Both paintings parody aspects of Leonardo’s life and his works. Mantegna acknowledges his source of inspiration by including references to other notable works of Botticelli apart from the Uffizi Adoration.

(Top) Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna, Louvre, Paris
(Above) Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

Whereas Botticelli’s painting accounts for the time before Leonardo left Florenece and moved to Milan around 1481-82, Mantegna has added updates to the Leonardo references, including some which point to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza, or La Bella Principessa as titled by the Leonardo expert Professor Martin Kemp.

It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497 (a year after the deaths of Bianca and her stepmother Beatrice) although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.

That there are references to the portrait of Bianca Giovanna Sforza in the Parnassus painting alongside other works of Leonardo would suggest La Bella Principessa belongs to the same period and was produced by the artist that many experts claim to be Leonardo da Vinci. While the fact that the portrait is on vellum may be considered as a negative by some critics, there is a clear reference to this material in Mantegna’s presentation, utilising the written source from one of Leonardo’s notebooks.

“…And if you want to prepare a thing, you should not have plain glass, take some skin of a goat, soft and well prepared, and then dry it; and when it is ready, use it for drawing, and then you can use a sponge to cancel what you first drew and make a second attempt.” (source)

Bianca Giovanna Sforza

La Bella Principessa part 02

La Bella Principessa. photo by Gianluca Colla

Bianca Giovanna Sforza was the illegitmate daughter of Ludovico Sforza and Bernardina de Corradis. 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 while suffering with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned.

Some six months later Ludovico’s wife Beatrice d’Este died after giving birth to the couple’s third child, a stillborn boy. Beatrice was 21.

Bianca and Beatrice had been close companions at the Milanese court. Following the death of Bianca in November 1496, Beatrice wrote to her sister Isabella d’Este:

“Although you will have already heard from my husband the duke of the premature death of Madonna Bianca, his daughter and the wife of Messer Galeaz, none the less I must write these few lines with my own hand, to tell you how great is the trouble and distress which her death has caused me. The loss indeed is greater than I can express, because of our close relationship and of the place which she held in my heart. May God have her soul in His keeping.”

Bianca was also known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband Galeazzo Sanseverino was a patron and friend of the polymath.

La Bella Principessa and the Botticelli connection

La Bella Principessa part 01

La Bella Principessa, private collection, attribution uncertain

This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, the illegitmate 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.

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?

I propose that there is such a document. It is linked to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and I shall present details in future posts.

Wall to wall artists

Painters and patrons… a section from the Sistine Chapel frescoe, The Temptaion of Christ, painted by Sandro Botticelli.

Shown above is detail from The Temptation of Christ, one of the frescoes that line the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This particular panel was painted by Sandro Botticelli. The frescoes were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. Botticelli shared the work with three other artists, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The three are depicted in the back line while the front row shows Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio and Guasparre dal Lama.

A similar line-up is featured in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shown in the clip below: (left to right) Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, Guasparre dal Lama, Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

A similar line-up of painters and patrons from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi)

Verrocchio’s workshop trained many artists and skilled craftsmen (including Leonardo de Vinci) and was possibly a liaison link between the artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, while Guasparre was the man said to have commissioned Botticelli to paint the the Adoration of the Magi.

But why would Botticelli have placed Guasparre in a frescoe he had no apparent connection with, and in such a prominent position?

Botticelli’s frieze of artists

A section from Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi that depicts a lineup of artists.

A couple of months ago I pointed out here that Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi could not have been completed before 1480 and perhaps even 1481.

Since then, after further study of the iconography, I can say the painting was not finished until at least 1482, after Botticelli had returned from Rome where he had spent several months as part of a team of Florentine artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to frescoe the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Evidence for this claim is the line of figures Botticelli has ‘frescoed’ against the extended wall on the right side of the painting. Most of the men represent the main artists involved in the Sistine Chapel project, and some of the iconography in the group is linked to parts of the frescoed panels.

The Trials of Moses, one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel painted by Sandro Botticelli.

When Botticelli went to Leuven

The Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (1464-68) by Dieric Bouts, St Peter’s church, Leuven

In my previous post I revealed how the portraits of Sandro Botticelli and Hugo van der Goes featured in corresponding versions of the Adoration of the Magi, suggesting that Van der Goes may have visited Florence in connection with his painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds, commissioned for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.

Further research has produced evidence to suggest that Botticelli likely travelled to Flanders and, in particular, to the Flemish region of Brabant and the city of Leuven, now part of Belgium.

While in Louven, for whatever reason, it appears that Botticelli visited St Peter’s church and laid eyes on the famous altarpiece (still displayed there) painted by Dieric Bouts – the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The triptych was commissioned in 1464 and completed four years later in 1468.

As Bouts died in May 1475, it is likely that Botticelli’s visit would have occurred sometime during a seven year span between 1468 and the early part of 1475.

Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi incorporates in detail some of the iconography and ideas embedded in the Bouts triptych, particularly in the centre panel depicting the Last Supper. I can only assume that this detailed knowledge was given to Botticelli by Dieric Bouts himself, which may further explain why Hugo van der Goes, a close associate of Bouts, placed portraits of the two artists side by side in his Adoration triptych known as the Montforte Altarpiece.

A look of admiration and appreciation from Sandro Botticelli for Dieric Bouts in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes.
Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, inspired by not only by the works of Leonardo da Vinci but also the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament painted by Dieric Bouts, still displayed in St Peter’s church in Leuven.

When Botticelli ‘goosed’ Hugo van der Goes

Botticelli, the mischiveous Kobold

So why did Sandro Botticelli decide to include a profile of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and Van der Goes do likewise and feature Botticelli in the Monforte Altarpiece?

Did the two artists meet at some time, perhaps in Florence after Hugo was commissioned to produce an altarpiece for the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova? Or maybe on his way to making a pilgrimage to Rome?

Botticelli’s self portrait is shown above (left). In Hugo’s painting he is depicted wearing a blue cap and staring at another artist, Dieric Bouts who was deceased at the time. The reason why Hugo painted the cap in ‘cobalt’ blue was to reference the German mythical Kobold, a house sprite reputed to play malicious tricks if insulted or neglected – and a fitting description for Botticelli’s reputation for vindictive humour, often expressed in through his paintings.

Not seen in the frame above is the piece of rock placed across the chest of Bouts. It’s there for two reasons, but in this instance relates to the Kobbold and hints at the probable cause of Bouts’ death. Wikipedia explains: “The name of the element cobalt comes from the creature’s name, because medieval miners blamed the sprite for the poisonous and troublesome nature of the typical arsenical ores of this metal (cobaltite and smaltite) which polluted other mined elements.”

As a young apprentice, Bouts was probably tasked to grind minerals and rocks as part of the process in preparing paint. It likely contributed to his health problems later in life. This may also explain why Hugo van der Goes descended into bouts of depression and odd behaviour. Botticelli also struggled with depression.

Hugo van der Goes portrayed in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (left) and his own version (right)

Hugo van der Goes gave himself a prominent position in the Monforte Altarpiece, almost centre stage. Draped in black, an indication of his approaching death, he depicts himself as the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Frederick III, perhaps somewhat in recognition of his own vainglory.

Botticelli paints Hugo in the role of Balthazar, said to be a Babylonian scholar, in the secondary line of Magi. The iconography relating to this is detailed and complex, but one example is the striped scarf around his shoulders, the stripes representing myrrh and its association with death.

But there is another reference Botticelli creates with the scarf – that of a goose, a play on Hugo’s name, Goes, and its pronunciation “hoose”. The goose shape with its long neck can be seen by turning the feature on its side. Another pointer to the long neck might be the inferrence that Hugo was sticking his neck out by taking on a commission in Florence and the work from the mouths of local artists. Perhaps this is why Van der Goes responded by showing the figure in front of Botticelli with a long neck and what appears to be a ‘steel’ collar pointing to Botticelli’s cheek!

The long-necks… Botticelli’s ‘goose’ scarf version, and Van der Goes retort aptly applied to his figure of St Augustine doubling up as ‘Il Moro’, the shorn Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

As said, there is more iconogrphy related to this section of Botticelli’s painting which I will post on another time. Enough to say at this stage the ‘spat’ between the two artists suggests the Monforte Altarpiece was painted after the completition of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration.

Two versions of the Adoration of the Magi… The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, and Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version

‘Fake’ Botticelli is the real deal

Though smaller than the original, the painting is still very detailed, with gold leaf in Mary’s halo and the wings of the angels at her side. Photo: English Heritage

Experts cleaning a supposed imitation of a Botticelli painting have discovered it was actually created in the Renaissance master’s own studio. The work had been thought to be a later copy of the Madonna of the Pomegranate, painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1487. But English Heritage conservators changed their minds after scraping thick yellow varnish off the painting. Extensive tests showed it did in fact originate from Botticelli’s 15th Century workshop in Florence. More details at this link

On the trail of Leonardo

Leonardo painted by Pollaiuolo as the Angel Raphael, and mirrored in Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration

I recently pointed out the face of Leonardo da Vinci as one of several references to him made by Botticelli in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.

Botticelli, in fact, had mirrored one of the figures in Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1460). The model for the angel Raphael was Leonardo. You can see Botticelli’s figure of Leonardo points to the ‘wing’ of the man next to him. He has also placed a ‘red-wing’ on Leonardo’s shoulder to reference the ‘red kite’. Then there is the ‘fluted’ folds on the shoulders of the two men standing behind Leonardo to echo the ‘fluted’ wing of the stooped figure on the opposite side of the picture, also meant to represent Leonardo from behind. So we have two depictions of Leonardo – from the front and from behind.

This points to another image produced by Pollaiuolo, an engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men (c 1370-80). Its two central figures are likely front and back versions of Leonardo da Vinci.

Top left: Antonio del Pollaiulo’s Hercules and Antaeus.
Top right: Possibly Leonardo depicted in Pollaiulo’s engraving of the Battle of the Naked Men.
Above left: Central figures in the same engraving.
Above right: Leonardo depicted on Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici

Pollaiuolo may have also featured Leonardo in other works depicting combat between naked men: the panel painting showing Hercules crushing Antaeus (1470-75) and, perhaps, the bronze sculpture he made on the same theme (1470s). Both items are housed at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. As to which figure portrays Leonardo, if any, Botticelli may have simply been pointing to the idea that Leonardo not only modelled for Pollaiuolo but also shared Antonio’s interest in disecting bodies to study and portray the human form, particularly of men.

Andrea del Verrocchio noted this interest and connection, hence his portrayal of the screaming angel, aka Leonardo da Vinci, depicted by Pollaiuolo as the angel Raphael and also the screaming and crushed figure of Antaeus.

There is another interpretation that can be applied to the ‘screaming angel’ on Giuliano’s protective breastplate. If we suppose that the portrait does depict Leonardo in distress, then perhaps it was Giuliano who gave his support when he was anonymously acused with four other men of sodomy. The men had to report to the courts two months later and the charges were then dropped. Some historians have speculated it was because of one of the men’s family links to the Medici. Could the Medici ‘saviour’ have been Giuliano?

Shortly after Pollaiuolo had painted Tobias and the Angel, Andrea del Verrocchio produced a similar version. The Raphael figures differ slightly – the angel’s right arm, for instance. Verrocchio’s angel is comparable to the upright figure of Leonardo in Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. The right arm is placed across the chest; the left hand holds up his cloak; and the head is inclined slightly and turns to one side with eyes cast downward.

Another feature is the linking of arms, similar in both Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio versions. This is carried through in Botticelli’s painting. Below the chin of the stooped man with the white cap (aka Leonardo and Jacopo Saltarelli) is a pair of hands. First impression is that both hands belong to Giuliano de’Medici. The hand underneath does, but the hand placed on the back belongs to the stooped man. This relationship points to Verrochio’s version of The Angel and Tobias in which, according to Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, Leonardo may have had a hand in some of the work, particularly in painting the fish, and possibly another reason why Verrocchio chose to depict Leonardo with an open mouth on Giuliano’s protective cuirass. Hooked and presented on a breastplate.

The breastplate acting a protective shield is also mirrored by the stooped man’s cap. It represents the discarded shield of Pollaiuolo’s naked man (seen from the back).