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Botticelli: The Cult of Beauty

An unprecedented group of Botticelli paintings comes to the U.S., giving occasion to reflect on the Florentine quest to unite the carnal with the spiritual.

Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist

Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, about 1500, tempera on panel.

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How can wealth and education find expression in a public space dominated by an obsession with good and evil? It’s a question to which the Florentine Renaissance of the 15th century might be seen as a comprehensive answer. At the heart of that Renaissance was the Medici family; bankers of no special prominence at the beginning of the century; magnates, dictators, and cardinals toward the end. It was their money and to some extent intuition that guided and provided for the many artists, writers, and architects they gathered around themselves to transform not just the look but the whole ethos of the town they lived in.

Born in 1445, Botticelli outlived that first period of Medici dominance—which ended in 1494 with the expulsion of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s son, Piero—and died in 1510, just two years before the illustrious family would be reinstated as dukes on the back of Papal and Spanish power. Whether the artist ever really got over the collapse of the dynasty that had so often employed him is one of the questions visitors to “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” will be bound to ask. Scheduled for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston from April 15–July 9, the show (organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia in partnership with Italy’s Metamorfosi Associazione Culturale) will be the largest-ever exhibition of Botticelli’s works in the U.S., featuring 24 paintings from museums and churches in Italy, important loans from Harvard and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and one painting, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, from the MFA’s own collection The show also includes paintings by Botticelli’s teacher Filippo Lippi, his student Filippino Lippi, and other contemporaries.

Certainly, some sense of the ideas and politics of the period will be useful if you are to understand what you are looking at. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church had insisted on a metaphysics whose supreme expression was to be found in depictions of the Last Judgment. Humanity was divided into the blessed and the damned; your overriding concern must be the salvation of your soul, to which wealth was a serious obstacle. As Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The Florence baptistery, the religious heart of Florence, was emblematic; a Last Judgment in rigidly Byzantine style looked down from the ceiling, while the bare walls were divided into an austere pattern of black and white. Everything was vice or virtue. Nothing else mattered. It must have been disquieting for the city’s bankers, since lending at interest was a mortal sin, and hardly encouraging for the manufacturers and merchants of a town renowned above all for its luxury textiles. You could think of the Renaissance, if you like, as a process of making that austere sacred space rather more comfortable for the rising mercantile class.

A crucial turning point was the funeral monument to Baldassarre Cossa, a Pope who was later judged a heretic, sodomite, and fornicator and declared never to have been pope at all. But he had been a close ally of the Medici family, and on his death in 1419 a young Cosimo de’ Medici managed to arrange for his burial in the Baptistery. Other tombs in the church were plain stone sarcophagi lined against the wall. Strict rules forbade any ostentatious projection into the congregation. Observing the letter of the law, but ignoring its spirit, Cosimo had the architects Michelozzo and Donatello build upward, placing a reclining Baldassarre in gleaming bronze above sinuous female representations of faith, hope, and charity and beneath a lavish bedroom canopy carved in marble. For the first time, worshippers found themselves confronted not by a symbol or emblem, but by a beautifully depicted individual who represented nothing but himself, a man of evident character and intellect, neither in heaven nor hell, but simply asleep. It was as dangerous a moment for medieval Christianity as the day a certain poet had ventured down into the Inferno and begun to find some of its inhabitants worthy of compassion.

In 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici asked Pope Eugenius how he might be assured of God’s mercy for any wrong he had done. A sum of 10,000 florins to restore the Monastery of San Marco might do it, the Pope thought. Cosimo had the crumbling pile splendidly restored with a dazzlingly airy library designed by Michelozzo, lush paintings from Fra Angelico, and, in a cell reserved especially for the banker himself, an Adoration of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli—the Adoration being one of the few occasions when the Bible gives rich men a positive role. Cosimo also insisted that the monastery be turned over to the most austere religious order of all, the Dominicans. So the bourgeois bankers and ascetic monks would mingle together and cease to be enemies. But someone wasn’t pleased with the arrangement. In a dormitory corridor, on a scroll in a painting only the monks would see, an unknown hand had written: “I invoke God’s curse and mine on whoever introduces wealth into this order.” It was a warning of things to come.

Botticelli, the nickname for Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, started work in the mid-1460s in the workshop of Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi, a monk turned artist who had recently run off with a novice nun. By this time, bankers’ money had not only revolutionized church interiors, with the multiplication of family chapels featuring frescoes where patrons and their families mixed freely with figures of scripture, but transformed votive images in the home into luxury items. So Botticelli’s Madonna della Loggia (circa 1467), the earliest of the paintings in the Boston exhibition, seems to validate the thesis Richard A. Goldthwaite puts forward in his 1995 book Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300–1600, that artists’ workshops were deliberately stimulating demand for devotional paintings by making changes in iconography and painting style.

Here the Madonna is dressed up in the best fabrics Florence could offer, while Baby Jesus is unusually affectionate as he balances on a parapet to throw his arms around Mom in the shelter of an elegant portico. Virtue no longer lies in a mystical virginity but seems to emanate from a deep melancholy, or simply thoughtfulness, an absorption both mental and physical that would become the hallmark of Botticelli’s mature work. As your eye moves from this to the more or less contemporary Madonna of Botticelli’s master, Lippi, and then the later Madonna of the Book (circa 1479), one can perfectly well understand how a sophisticated public was being enticed to desire new versions of the same product. It was an early form of fashion-driven consumerism, certainly a long way from the simple icon one contemplated as an aid to worship and prayer.

Books are important, and indeed learning in general. Three of the Botticelli paintings in the exhibition show books, while others—Pallas and the Centaur (circa 1480), for example—required the viewer to draw on a certain erudition. Clearly these paintings appeal to an elite rather than to the general public. After all, how could new money, without nobility, distinguish itself if not by buying education, developing refined taste, and putting it on display? “Money alone could not compete with what has been done here,” marveled the Duke of Milan’s son, Galeazzo Sforza, when shown around the treasures of the Medici household in 1459.

At the end of the previous century, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who founded the Medici bank, had had no education beyond accounting. But his son Cosimo, who vastly expanded the family’s wealth, was educated by humanists, and just as the works of art he commissioned shied away from a strict opposition of vice and virtue, so, without ever being anything other than a devout Christian, Cosimo oriented his reading away from the scriptures toward an exploration of the ancient world and classical philosophy. In the early 1460s, as Botticelli was beginning his apprenticeship with Fra Lippo, Cosimo commissioned the scholar Marsilio Ficino to translate the entire works of Plato into Latin for the first time.

Plato’s notion of a universe divided into brute material on the one hand and refined ideas on the other was old hat of course, long appropriated and Christianized by the medieval church. But in his commentaries Ficino added his own Neoplatonist twist: man was at the mid-point between material and spiritual, pulled downward to the one and aspiring upward to the other. And his aspiration was reflected in learning, in art, in love, which perhaps began with erotic love but tended to the divine. So Venus wasn’t a whore; she was the seduction of the beautiful and the good. All at once, simply by virtue of being beautiful, art could think of itself as necessarily pious; it no longer needed to depict religious scenes to assume the aura of the sacred. No artist in all history has more determinedly cultivated beauty—a thoughtful, absorbed, at once vaporous and human beauty—than Botticelli. No one more than him succeeded in reconciling, at least in the framed space of the painting or fresco, the luxuriously carnal and the innocently spiritual.

All the canvases from the mid-1470s to the late ’80s, whether it be the naked Venus herself, or Pallas Athena taming the centaur, Saint Augustine in his study or the Madonna with a book, or simply a beautiful young man in scarlet cloak and black hat, fall under this Neoplatonist spell. The figures are absolutely human, believable, but drawn away into some place of contemplation that is as pure as the decorative background against which they move. Venus is an object of physical yearning (Botticelli painted “very naked” women, remarked Vasari) but simultaneously an ideal. Saint Augustine is surrounded by the instruments of earthly science, but his gaze is toward another dimension.

And there were hidden messages that only educated initiates could grasp. Was Athena’s taming of the centaur to be understood as Reason subduing Carnal Desire? Or is she, as some supposed, Lorenzo the Magnificent calming Florence’s violent enemies? It’s worth noting that two of the paintings in the exhibition show Baby Jesus way ahead with his reading skills. The virtuous are learned, the learned virtuous, and both of them beautiful. Augustine is a saint, but virile and handsome. This is a world of immense optimism, wonderful drapery and conveniently long blonde hair, all drawn upward, to heaven.

There is a certain comedy, then, in seeing, in the death mask of Lorenzo il Magnifico, just how ugly the artist’s great patron was. It is the only thing on show in this exhibition that is not enchanting. Great poet and Neoplatonist as he was, Lorenzo was also extremely divisive. Unlike his grandfather Cosimo, he boasted of knowing nothing of banking, took his wealth for granted, and when the money ran out, largely due to his own mismanagement, robbed the state he had usurped to prop up the family’s declining fortunes. For those who yearned for the monkish austerity of the past, Il Magnifico was emblematic of sinful decadence.

Girolamo Savonarola became the spokesman for this groundswell of resistance to wealth, luxury, and secular beauty. Invited to Florence by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself for the quality of his fiery preaching, Savonarola in 1491 became prior of San Marco, the very monastery Cosimo had paid so much to restore and adorn. But if Lorenzo thought he could collect the friar as his family had collected so many priests and artists in the past, he was disappointed. Savonarola was an early manifestation of what we now call Christian fundamentalism. In a society buzzing with too many ideas, a Church cluttered with pricey bric-a-brac, he stripped his Christianity down to the naked crucifix.

Without repentance, catastrophe was imminent, he declared. “Oh priests, oh prelates of the Church of Christ, leave your pomp, your splendid feasts and banquets.” Spiritual renewal could only come through poverty. And the only good art was the old medieval art that concentrated the viewer’s mind on God, not human beauty or painterly genius. When Lorenzo de’ Medici died relatively young, and two years later the French invaded Florence, it seemed his prophecies had come true. Appointed Gonfalonier, a kind of prime minister, Savonarola ordered all luxury goods and profane images to be burned in the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities in the Piazza della Signoria, where in 1498 he would himself be burned, at the stake, for heresy.

What was Botticelli’s response to all this? There are two post-Savonarola paintings in the exhibition, Mystic Crucifixion and Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (both circa 1500). The crucifixion suggests a regression to pre-Renaissance styles, the flattened figures of Christ, a prostrate Magadalena, and an angel beating a wild beast seem detached from any realistic background, while above the city of Florence, in the distant background, an aerial battle of angels and demons suggests a metaphysical showdown. In the other picture, all perspective is annulled as a strangely elongated Virgin stoops to stay inside the frame and hand the young Christ into the arms of an infant John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence. The sense of suffering and contraction is extremely powerful as the whole threesome seem in danger of toppling over to the right.

These regressive elements and the evident stress on spirituality and pathos have led critics to suppose that Botticelli underwent a personal crisis and became a supporter of Savonarola and his apocalyptic vision. But there is no documentary evidence for this, beyond a reported comment that the artist felt it had been a mistake to execute Savonarola. And despite their gestures to an older vision, these paintings remain very much luxury items offering a decidedly sumptuous piety, where every figure is breathtakingly beautiful. It is more as if, in his constant search to reconcile the bourgeois and the spiritual, Botticelli had been forced to shift the point of equilibrium away from optimism toward suffering and sadness. Certainly, having lost his patron and seen his own financial security evaporate in the upheavals of the ’90s, there was plenty to be sad about. His work no longer in fashion, the artist was largely ignored in later years and died in poverty, aged 65, leaving considerable debts.

By Tim Parks

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2017

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