The Early Renaissance


   

 


Botticelli
    

 
   
Renaissance Art Map
 
   
   
Exploration:
Candro Botticelly  "Visual Poetry"
 
 
    Early life and career    
    Devotional paintings     
    Secular patronage and works    
    Mythological paintings    
    How the Nymph became a Goddess    
    Botticelli: lyrical precision    
    Late works    
    Illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy and Dravings    
         
    APPENDIX: Venus - The Evening Star
 
   

 


Sandro Botticelli

1445-1510
Italy

 
 
 

 


Botticelli: lyrical precision

(by Sister Wendy Beckett)

 
After Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli comes as the next great painter of the Florentine tradition. The new, sharply contoured, slender form and rippling sinuous line that is synonymous with Botticelli was influenced by the brilliant, precise draftsmanship of the Pollaiuolo brothers, who trained not only as painters, but as goldsmiths, engravers, sculptors, and embroidery designers. However, the rather stiff, scientifically formulaic appearance of the Pollaiuolos' painting of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, for instance, which clearly follows anatomical dictates, finds no place in the paintings of Botticelli. His sophisticated understanding of perspective, anatomy, and the Humanist debate of the Medici court never overshadows the sheer poetry of his vision. Nothing is more gracious, in lyrical beauty, than Botticelli's mythological paintings Primavera and The Birth of Venus, where the pagan story is taken with reverent seriousness and Venus is the Virgin Mary in another form. But it is also significant that no one has ever agreed on the actual subject of Primavera, and a whole shelf in a library can be taken up with different theories; but though scholars may argue, we need no theories to make Primavera dear to us. In this allegory of life, beauty, and knowledge united by love, Botticelli catches the freshness of an early spring morning, with the pale light shining through the tall, straight trees, already laden with their golden fruit: oranges, or the mythical golden apples of the Hesperides? At the right, Zephyr, the warm wind of spring, embraces the Roman goddess Flora, or perhaps the earth nymph Chloris, diaphanously clad and running from his amorous clasp. She is shown at the moment of her metamorphosis into Flora, as her breath turns to flowers that take root over the countryside. Across from her, we see Flora as a goddess, in all her glory (or perhaps her daughter Persephone, who spends half her time beneath the earth, as befits the patron saint of flowers) as she steps forward clad in blossoms. In the center is a gentle Venus, all dignity and promise of spiritual joy, and above her, the infant Cupid aims his loving arrows. To the left, the Three Graces dance in a silent reverie removed from the others in time also, as indicated by the breeze that wafts their hair and clothes in the opposite direction from Zephyr's gusts. Mercury, the messenger of the gods, provides another male counterpart to the Zephyr. Zephyr initiates, breathing love into the warmth he brings to a wintry world, and Mercury sublimates, taking the hopes of humanity and opening the way to the gods.
Everything in this miraculous work is profoundly life-enhancing. Yet it offers no safeguards against pain or accident: Cupid is blindfolded as he flies, and the Graces seem enclosed in their own private bliss. So the poetry has an underlying wistfulness, a sort of musing nostalgia for something that we cannot possess, yet something with which we feel so deeply in tune. Even the gentle yet strong colors speak of this ambivalence: the figures have an unmistakable presence and weight as they stand before us, moving in the slowest of rhythms. Yet they also seem insubstantial, a dream of what might be rather than a sight of what is.
This longing, this hauntingly intangible sadness is even more visible in the lovely face of Venus as she is wafted to our dark shores by the winds, and the garment, rich though it is, waits ready to cover up her sweet and naked body. We cannot look upon love unclothed, says The Birth of Venus; we are too weak, maybe too polluted, to bear the beauty.

 

 

 

 

Neo-platonism

This was a school of
philosophy in which
elements of the classical
Greek systems of
Plato, Pythagoras,
and Aristotle were
combined. It was first
established in the 3rd
century, but during
the 15th century it
was revised and made
compatible with
Christian belief.
Neo-Platonism entailed
a-view of the universe
in which ideas were
more important than
things, and the belief
that the soul is endowed
with virtues and is
capable of an inner
ascent to God. Cosimo
de' Medici founded the
Platonic Academy of
Florence in 1459,
employing the foremost
theorist and classics
translator of the time,
Marsilio E. Ficino.
 

    


NEO-PLATONISM


The Birth of Venus, in fact, contains the first monumental image since Roman times of the nude goddess in a pose derived from classical statues of Venus. Moreover, the subject of the picture is clearly meant to be serious, even solemn. How could such images be justified in a Christian civilization, without subjecting both artist and patron to the accusation of neo-paganism? To understand this paradox, we must consider the meaning of our picture, and the general use of classical subjects in Early Renaissance art. During the Middle Ages, classical form had become divorced from classical subject matter. Artists could only draw upon the ancient repertory of poses, gestures, expressions, and types by changing the identity of their sources. Philosophers became apostles, Orpheus turned into Adam, Hercules was now Samson. When medieval artists had occasion to represent the pagan gods, they based their pictures on literary descriptions rather than visual models. This was the situation, by and large, until the mid-fifteenth century. Only with Pollaiuolo—and Mantegna in northern Italy—does classical form begin to rejoin classical content. Pollaiuolo's lost paintings of the Labors of Hercules (about 1465) mark the earliest instance, so far as we know, of large-scale subjects from classical mythology depicted in a style inspired by ancient monuments.
In the Middle Ages, classical myths had at times been interpreted didactically, however remote the analogy, as allegories of Christian precepts. Europa abducted by the bull, for instance, could be declared to signify the soul redeemed by Christ. But such pallid constructions were hardly an adequate excuse for reinvesting the pagan gods with their ancient beauty and strength. To fuse the Christian faith with ancient mythology, rather than merely relate them, required a more sophisticated argument. This was provided by the Neo-Pla-tonic philosophers, whose foremost representative, Marsilio Ficino, enjoyed tremendous prestige during the later years of the fifteenth century and after. Ficino's thought was based as much on the mysticism of Plotinus as on the authentic works of Plato. He believed that the life of the universe, including human life, was linked to God by a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending,so that all revelation, whether from the Bible. Plato, or classical myths, was one. Similarly, he proclaimed that beauty, love, and beatitude, being phases of this same circuit, were one. Thus Neo-Platonists could invoke the "celestial Venus" (that is, the nude Venus born of the sea, as in our picture) interchangeably with the Virgin Mary, as the source of "divine love' (meaning the recognition of divine beauty). This celestial Venus, according to Ficino, dwells purely in the sphere of Mind, while her twin, the ordinary Venus, engenders "human love."
Once we understand that Botticelli's picture has this quasi-religious meaning, it seems less astonishing that the two wind gods on the left look so much like angel and that the personification of Spring on the right, who welcomes Venus ashore, recalls the traditional relation of St. John to the Saviour in the Baptism of Christ (compare fig. 431). Aa baptism is a "rebirth in God," so the birth of Venus evokes the hope for "rebirth" from which the Renaissance takes its name. Thanks to the fluidity of Neo-Platonic doctrine, the number of possible associations to be linked with our painting is almost limitless. All of them, however, like the celestial Venus herself, "dwell in the sphere of Mind," and Botticelli's deity would hardly be a fit vessel for them if she were less ethereal.
 

 
 

 

 

 

 

The Birth of Venus

This secular work was painted onto canvas, which was a less expensive painting surface than the wooden panels used in church and court pictures. A wooden surface would certainly be impractical for a work on this scale. Canvas is known to have been the preferred material for the paintings of nonreligious and pagan subjects that were sometimes commissioned to decorate country villas in 15th-century Italy.

 

 

 

 


The Birth of Venus
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

 

 

 


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

 


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

 

 

 

The west wind

Zephyr and Chloris fly with limbs entwined as a twofold entity: the ruddy Zephyr (his name is Greek for "the west wind") is puffing vigorously, while the fair Chloris gently sighs the warm breath that wafts Venus ashore. All around them fall roses -each with a golden heart - which, according to legend, came into being at Venus's birth.


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

 

 

 

The shell

Botticelli portrays Venus in the very first suggestion of action, with a complex and beautiful series of twists and turns, as she is about to step off her giant gilded scallop shell onto the shore. Venus was conceived when the Titan Cronus castrated his father, the god Uranus - the severed genitals fell into the sea and fertilized it. Here what we see is actually not Venus's birth out of the waves, but the moment when, having been conveyed by the shell, she lands at Paphos in Cyprus.


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

 

 

 


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Wooded shore

The trees form part of a flowering orange grove - corresponding to the sacred garden of the Hesperides in Greek myth - and each small white blossom is tipped with gold. Gold is used throughout the painting, accentuating its role as a precious object and echoing the divine status of Venus. Each dark green leaf has a gold spine and outline, and the tree trunks are highlighted with short diagonal lines of gold.

 

 

 

 

Nymph

The nymph may well be one of the three Home, or "The Hours," Greek goddesses of the seasons, who were attendants to Venus. Both her lavishly decorated dress and the gorgeous robe she holds out to Venus are embroidered with red and white daisies, yellow primroses, and blue cornflowers - all spring flowers appropriate to the theme of birth. She wears a garland of myrtle - the tree of Venus -
and a sash of pink roses, as worn by the goddess Flora in Botticelli's Primavera.


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

 


The Birth of Venus (detail)
c. 1485
Tempera on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 

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