BOTTICELLI (allegorical paintings and beginning of religious pathos, from 1483 to 1488).

By the 1480’s Botticelli was a famous artist, perhaps a little unstable in character but in the fullness and vigor of his age. In 1481 his father Mariano, in a statement to the cadastre office, said that Sandro “aged 33, is a painter and works at home whenever he wants”. On 20th February 1482 Mariano died and was buried in the Church of the Ognissanti, which was the neighborhood church he regularly attended. In the month of October of that same year 1482, on his return from Rome, Botticelli, together with Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Piero del Pollaiuolo and Biagio d’Antonio Tucci, was commissioned by the Signoria of Florence to decorate with fresco paintings the Sala dei Gigli (Room of the Lilies) of the Palazzo Vecchio. But these frescoes were never made, except for those by Ghirlandaio.

In 1483 (some authors believe in 1487) Botticelli made the sketches and completed four elegant paintings to decorate the bridal room on the occasion of the wedding of Giannozzo Pucci with Lucrezia Bini, a commission that was carried out mainly by his workshop assistants. These panels (three of them today in the Prado Museum in Madrid, ​​and the other in the Palazzo Pucci, in Florence) illustrate the theme of Boccaccio’s Decameron on the Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, set in part in the pine forests of Ravenna.

The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (first episode), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1483, 83 x 138 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Nastagio degli Onesti, a nobleman from Ravenna, is the protagonist in one of the 100 short stories included in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, specifically, the eighth story of the fifth day. The story narrates the unrequited love of the nobleman Nastagio for a girl who will eventually be induced to accept his affection after witnessing the infernal punishment of another woman guilty of the same sin of ingratitude towards her lover. Botticelli made a series of four panels illustrating many episodes of this story, a commission believed to been made by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1483 as a gift to Giannozzo Pucci at his marriage to Lucrezia Bini that same year. The panels were originally stored in the Palazzo Pucci, in Florence, but during the second half of the 19th century they were dispersed: three are now in the Prado, and only one, the last episode, has returned to its original location at the Pucci Palace. The first episode, pictured above, is set in a pine wood around Ravenna. Degli Onesti (in red and blue) has left the city, and appears terribly distressed because his fiancé had refused to marry him. He wanders alone and sorrowful in the woods, while suddenly he sees a nude woman being chased by a knight in armor and a pack of dogs, which ultimately seize her in their jaws in spite of Nastagio’s attempts to defend her. On the left we see some tents, in which Nastagio is seen being advised by his friends to leave town for a while. Then, in the foreground, Nastagio is shown in close-up, roaming the forest. He appears again nearby with a stick, trying to drive away the dogs that bite the half-naked young woman, chased by a dashing knight with a sword and golden armor. The tall, upright trunks of the trees combine with the horizontal seascape in the background, form a kind of grid, thus giving a remarkable effect of depth. Although the conception and design of the four panels was done by Botticelli, the execution was entrusted in part to his assistants, in particular Bartolomeo di Giovanni for the first three panels and Jacopo da Sellaio for the fourth.
The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (second episode), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli and workshop, ca. 1483, 82 x 138 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). In the second episode, we see the young woman has fallen dead, bitten by the dogs and wounded by the knight’s sword. The knight dismounts his white horse and proceeds to cut open the woman’s back in order to rip out her heart which he threw to feed his dogs. In the background, we see the woman again running, while knight and dogs start the chase. Degli Onesti (to the left) realizes that he has witnessed a phantom hunt, a curse.
The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (third episode), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli and workshop, ca. 1483, 83 x 142 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid). In this panel we are witnesses of a grand picnic; the ghostly young woman’s atrocious murder appears again in front of the astonished multitude, while Nastagio tries to bring calm to the panic-stricken participants explaining them they are are nothing but ghostly images.
The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (forth episode), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli and workshop, ca. 1483, 83 x 142 cm (Palazzo Pucci, Florence). In the fourth panel we see the woman in white (seating at the table, to the left) accepting the marriage proposal from Nastagio, who bows in front of her. Finally we witness the grandiose marriage of Dona Lucrezia Bini and Ugolino degli Onesti.

Around 1483-1485 Botticelli, together with Filippino Lippi, Perugino and Ghirlandaio, was commissioned to decorate the Villa of Spedaletto, near Volterra, owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent, but these frescoes have disappeared without a description of the themes they portrayed.

Portrait of a Young Man, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1483, 37.5 x 28.2 cm (National Gallery, London). In his later portraits Botticelli frequently avoid including landscapes or interiors in the background, instead concentrating solely on the person being portrayed. One of his most beautiful portraits is this depicting an unknown young man wearing a red cap, the only known en face* portrait by the artist. It is captivating due to the vivid and alert presence of the model, whose youthful informality Botticelli has succeeded in capturing masterfully. The identity of the sitter is unknown.

In fact, around 1485, an agent of Ludovico Sforza-Duke of Milan, informed him about the best painters that could be found in Florence and quoted those who worked in the Sistine Chapel and later in Spedaletto, “being difficult to know who to award the palm of victory”. It is worth transcribing the high esteem in which these four masters were taken at the time: “Sandro de Botticelli, an excellent painter on panel and in fresco on walls; his works have a virile air and have excellent reasoning and integral proportions. Filippino son of Fra Filippo, excellent disciple of the former, and son of the most extraordinary painter of his time; his works have a sweeter air, but I think they show less art. Perugino, an excellent painter, especially in his frescoes; his works have an angelic air and are very sweet. Domenico de Ghirlandaio, a good painter on panel and even more on wall; his works have a good air, and he is an expeditious and hard-working man”. As can be seen, the strongest praise is that for Botticelli; it is curious to highlight that “virile air” as characteristic of his art, in stark contrast to the epithet of “feminine” that a part of modern art criticism attributes to Botticelli’s art. In fact, his contemporaries felt the energetic force of his painting, the manly intellectual power and style, albeit within the delicate elegance of the Quattrocento.

Approximately from the same period are the frescoes of the Tornabuoni-Lemmi villa (now in the Louvre), perhaps related to the wedding of Lorenzo Tornabuoni, held in 1486, and that represent two allegorical scenes. One of them A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts, the other, Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman (perhaps Tornabuoni’s wife?). Some critics rate these two frescoes among Botticelli’s most spiritual and refined.

Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman, fresco detached and mounted on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1484 or between 1483-1486, 211 x 284 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The only secular frescoes by Botticelli that still exist are those from the Villa Lemmi which belonged to the Tornabuoni family, friends of the Medici. It is possible that these frescoes were commissioned on the occasion of a marriage between members of the Tornabuoni and Albizzi families. These 2 frescoes (see the other below) were originally separated by a window. On this particular fresco, there is a lack of certainty as to the identity of the group of four young classically dressed women, who are gracefully stepping towards a young woman in front of the splashing spring in order to bring her gifts. They are believed to be Venus and the Three Graces, symbolizing chastity, beauty and love. The young woman is probably Giovanna Tornabuoni, who appears holding an open white cloth, into which Venus is laying roses symbolizing beauty and love.
A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts, fresco detached and mounted on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1484 or between 1483-1486, 238 x 284 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). This fresco is the companion piece of Venus and the Three Graces Presenting Gifts to a Young Woman (see picture above). Here, we see a young man (perhaps Lorenzo Tornabuoni) being led by a personification of Grammar towards the female allegories of the seven liberal arts presided over by Prudentia, they are rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, each recognizable by means of various attributes. In antiquity, the liberal arts denoted the education worthy of a free person and the painting therefore testifies to the young man’s broad education.

This was the exact moment of the artistic plenitude of Botticelli, between the return from Rome and the year 1485 approximately, and it was characterized by a more solid and penetrating artistic vision, an elegant but sensual painting, a broad and calm harmony. In the Madonna of the Magnificat (Uffizi) the seven figures are adapted, with the most genuine freedom of composition, to the circular shape of the painting; the Madonna does not occupy the center, but is a little to the right, contributing with her curvature to the circular rhythm that brings together the various characters on the painting. In the Madonna of the Book (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan) the panel is, instead, vertical, and the only figures are those of the Virgin with the Child, placed in the intimacy of a room with a window open to the landscape.

Madonna of the Magnificat, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1483 or 1481, diameter 118 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Departing from the then traditional view of Mary as a reader, here Botticelli depicts her as a writer. The Virgin Mary, crowned by two angels, is depicted on a throne. The crown she is wearing is a delicate piece of goldsmiths work consisting of innumerable stars; they are an allusion to the ‘Stella matutina‘ (morning star), one of the Mother of God’s names in contemporary hymns devoted to Mary. Under the guidance of her son, she is writing the canticle “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’) taken from the Gospel of Luke (1:46-55), which gives the painting its title. Jesus is sitting in his mother’s lap. The pomegranate which He and his mother are both holding is a symbol of the Passion and adds to the basic melancholy and meditative mood of the painting. The scene takes place before a window that opens out onto a bright, peaceful country landscape; above, the Pietra Serena stone frame creates a division between the kingdom of Heaven and the earth. The Virgin’s blonde hair with bright gold finish is covered by transparent veils under a richly decorated maphorion*, while the hairstyles and clothing of the wingless angels are based on the fashions followed by the youngsters of the rich Florentine families of the late 15th century. The angel at the front is kneeling and holding an open book and inkwell. Encouraged by the Christ Child, the Virgin is about to dip her quill and write the last words of the Magnificat, beginning on the right page with the large initial “M”. The landscape depicted on the background shows influences of contemporary Netherlands’ artists such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes. This portrait of the Virgin represents the costliest tondo that Botticelli ever created: in no other painting did he employ so much gold as in this one, using it for the ornamentation of the robes, for the divine rays, and for Mary’s crown, and even utilizing it to heighten the hair color of Mary and the angels. It is highly probable that the man who commissioned this painting was a Florentine.
Madonna of the Book (Madonna del Libro), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1483 or 1480-1481, 58 x 39,5 cm (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan). Mary and the Child are sitting in a corner of a room in front of the window, and her hand is resting on an open book. Some words are visible, showing that this is a Book of Hours, the Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis. The hands of both mother and son are positioned similarly, with the right hands open as in a gesture of blessing, and left hands closed. As a symbol of his future Passion, the Christ Child is holding the three nails of the Cross and the crown of thorns. Behind the central figures, the ensemble of boxes and the lavish fruit bowl are very much like a still-life. The fruits, though, have also an emblematic meaning: the cherries represent the blood of Christ or an allusion to Paradise, plums indicate the tenderness between Mary and the Child, and the figs are characteristic of the Resurrection. The parchment pages of the book, the materials and the transparent veils have an incredibly tangible quality to them. Another refinement of Botticelli’s painting is the gold filigree with which he decorated the robes and objects. The identity of this painting’s patron is unknown.

The beautiful panel with Venus and Mars in the National Gallery in London —dated somewhat uncertainly—was probably inspired by Giuliano de’ Medici and Simonetta Vespucci, while the motif of the two facing semi-lying figures comes from a late Roman sarcophagus in the Vatican Museums. The well-formed naked body of young Mars, sunk into a deep sleep after pleasure, is nevertheless defined by a rigorous and agile line; Venus, on the other hand, is awake and is dressed in a sumptuous tunic; she has the appearance of a restless and aristocratic young woman, and the draping of her clothes, rich in harmonious folds, accentuates the fluid composition. On the other hand, the two figures are linked by the very elegant addition of the “chain” of three little satyrs who play with Mars’ weapons, while the landscape is reduced to a meadow under the blue sky between two lateral patches with myrtle trees.

Venus and Mars, tempera on wood, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1483 or 1485, 69 x 173,5 cm (National Gallery, London). A grove of myrtle trees (the tree associated to Venus), forms the backdrop to the two gods who are lying opposite each other on a meadow. At the far background, there is a limited view of a meadow and a distant walled city. Venus is clothed and is attentively keeping watch over Mars as he sleeps. The god of war has taken off his armor and is lying naked on his red cloak; all he is wearing is a white loin cloth. The goddess of love, who is clothed in a costly gown, is watching over the sleeping naked Mars, while little satyrs are playing mischievously with the weapons and armor of the god of war. The painting’s theme is that the power of love can defeat the warriors strength. This painting was clearly inspired on classical models. The whole scene was probably suggested by a description of the famous classical lost painting ‘Wedding of Alexander the Great to the Persian princess Roxane’, written by the Greek poet Lucian from the 2nd-century AD. Also, a Roman sarcophagus in the Vatican is carved with a similar Mars and Venus reclining, accompanied by putti. In his painting, Botticelli replaced the cupids which Lucian describes playing with Alexander’s weapons with little satyrs. One of them is cheekily blowing into Mars’ ear through a Triton’s shell, which was used in classical times as a hunting horn. He was, though, unsuccessful in disturbing the sleeping god as are the wasps nest to the left of his head. These wasps may be a reference to the clients who commissioned the painting. They are part of the coat of arms of the Vespucci family, whose name derives from vespa, Italian for wasp. Other satyr plays, carrying Mars’ helmet and other his lance, while another rests inside his breastplate under Mars’ arm. Given that its theme is love, this painting was possibly also commissioned on the occasion of a wedding and examining its format, it was likely to have been set into paneling or a piece of furniture to adorn the bedroom of the bride and groom.

The date of Botticelli’s second superb masterpiece is also uncertain: the Uffizi’s Birth of Venus. For some art scholars, that date would be close to that of the Primavera, that is, around 1478; others date it to 1485-1486 or 1484. The precise sources of the iconography of this painting are also discussed. As probable source it has been cited a Homeric hymn published then in Florence, also Angelo Poliziano’s writings, who described in his rhymes a painting by Apelles, as well as other episodes from ancient literature, but none of these correspond precisely to the scene depicted in the painting. As for its meaning, it is generally assumed to be of Neoplatonic origin, to show that beauty is born from the union of spirit with matter, of the idea with nature, etc. Be that as it may, as the reading of the Primavera goes from right to left, in this painting it is arranged in reverse. A pair of Gods of Wind in flight and tightly embraced, push with their blows the naked Venus that stands on a seashell; while, on the shore, an Hour waits for the goddess to cover her body with a rich mantle.

The Birth of Venus, tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1485, 173 x 279 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Unlike the Primavera, which was painted on wood panel, the famous Birth of Venus was painted on canvas, a support that was widely used throughout the 15th century for decorative works destined to country houses, for canvas was less expensive and easier to transport than wooden panels. The subject of the painting, which celebrates Venus as symbol of love and beauty, was perhaps suggested by the poet Angelo Poliziano. It is highly probable that the work was commissioned by a member of the Medici family. This hypothesis would seem to be derived by the presence of the orange trees in the painting, which are considered an emblem of the Medici dynasty. For the designing of the painting, Botticelli took inspiration from classical statues of Venus and, for the pair flying in one another’s embrace, was based on an ancient work, a gem from the Hellenistic period, owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent. Although the painting is known as The Birth of Venus, the composition actually depicts the moment when the goddess comes ashore on the island of Cythera, where she is supposed to have landed following her birth (the Venus anadyomene). Inspired by classical tradition, the poet Angelo Poliziano described this scene in his epic poem “Stanze per la Giostra“, thereby providing what was probably the most important source of inspiration for the painting. Poliziano, as also the painting, describes Venus as being driven towards the shore on a shell by Zephyr, her flowing hair caressed by the wind. The god of the winds, Zephyr, and the breeze Aura are in a tight embrace, and are gently pushing Venus towards the shore with their breath. She is standing naked on a golden shining shell, which reaches the shore floating on rippling waves. There, the Hora of Spring is approaching on the tips of her toes, in a graceful dancing motion, spreading out a magnificent cloak to cover Venus. Botticelli made extensive use of gold to highlight the hair, wings, garments, shell and some areas of the landscape.
The Birth of Venus (detail), tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1485, 173 x 279 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The figure of Venus stands on the shell like a statue. Her hair, which is playfully fluttering around her face in the wind, is given a particularly fine sheen by the use of fine golden strokes. The unapproachable gaze under her heavy lids gives the goddess an air of cool distance. The goddess of love, one of the first non-biblical female nudes in Italian art, is depicted in accordance with the classical depiction of Venus pudica. A famous example of this type is the Venus de’ Medici, a marble sculpture that was in a Medici collection in Rome by 1559, which Botticelli may have had opportunity to study. Although the pose of Venus is classical in some respects, the overall treatment of the figure, standing off-center with a curved body of long flowing lines, is in many respects from Gothic art.
The Birth of Venus (detail), tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1485, 173 x 279 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The rose is supposed to have flowered for the first time when Venus was born. For that reason, gentle rose-colored flowers are blowing around Zephyr and Aura in the wind. These personifications of winds are blowing the Goddess of Love ashore. In this painting, Venus’ body is anatomically improbable, with elongated neck and torso. Her pose is also impossible: although she stands in a classical contrapposto stance, her weight is shifted too far over the left leg for the pose to be held. The proportions and poses of the winds do not quite make sense, and none of the figures cast shadows. Thus it can be argued that the painting depicts the world of the imagination rather than being very concerned with realistic depiction.
The Birth of Venus (detail), tempera on canvas, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1485, 173 x 279 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). At the shore, Venus is being received by one of the Horae, Goddesses of the Seasons, who is spreading out a robe for her. The flowers which embellish the garments distinguish this Hora as the Goddess of Spring.

The precise diagonal drawn by the two gods of wind, the vertical but almost unstable line of Venus’ body balanced on the shell, the tension placed in the opposite direction by the Hour’s body, all contribute to communicate a sense of movement as well as a fluent and varied rhythm to the painting. The extension of the sea waters and the presence of the coast line to the right, with its sinuous advance, help to expand the pictorial space —which in the Primavera was, however, limited— making us feel how the goddess comes from remote distances, in the lonely purity of nature. The central nude of Venus, towards which the lateral figures converge, exudes such refinement that it surpasses all sensual traces, transforming sensuality into a spiritual and tense contemplation. This painting manages to express the most delicate sensations: the freshness blowing of the spring winds, the slight curling of the sea waves and the salty fragrance of the sea, the smooth skin of the bodies and the velvet surface of the beautiful grass fields on the shore. Here the linear stylization has an unspeakable grace as seen in the shape of the shell or in Venus’ loose hair in the wind.

In 1484, Botticelli painted an altarpiece for the altar of the chapel of Giovanni di’ Bardi in the Church of Santo Spirito: the Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, today in the Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin. A kind of neo-Gothicism is insinuated in this work, where the plants in the background create a kind of division that forms a triptych and the tall figures acquire an excessive mystical tension. Also in the “tondo” painted for the Palazzo Vecchio in 1487, the so-called Madonna of the Pomegranate (today in the Uffizi), there is a melancholic sense and a tension different from that shown in the Madonna of the Magnificat.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned (Bardi Altarpiece), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1484, 185 x 180 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Botticelli painted one of his most impressive altar paintings, the Virgin and Child Enthroned between St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, known as the Bardi altarpiece, for Giovanni de’ Bardi. Bardi, who came from Florence, was known as the “great English merchant” by his contemporaries; he had directed the London branch of the Medici bank for a long period and had made his money exporting wool. When Bardi returned to his native city from England in 1483, he built a chapel in Santo Spirito for his spiritual salvation. The altar top and paneling is still in the Bardi Chapel today. The altarpiece, in contrast, is now in Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Portrayed as the so-called Madonna lactans, the Virgin is baring her breast in order to feed her child. The client, Giovanni de’ Bardi, chose the two saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, his patron saints, as intercessors. The Baptist, being the patron saint of Florence, was accorded the place of honor to the right of the Mother of God, and he is pointing the observer towards the Madonna and child. At his feet lies the instrument of his work, the baptismal bowl. The Evangelist to the left of Mary is an old man; he is holding a quill and book, and the eagle behind him is his evangelist’s symbol. The composition of this Sacra Conversazione clearly shows original additions by Botticelli. He devised a different solution to the classical three-part structure of such paintings, instead of using architectural elements to structure the picture surface, Botticelli mainly used naturalistically painted niches of foliage to form a deferential backdrop for the holy figures. The Virgin is depicted enthroned in an arbor niche between St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The detailed fashioning of the meadow flowers and the plants in the arbor niche reminds us of the Primavera. The flowers represent a eulogy in symbolic form of the Mother of God, the significance allotted each of them being explained by means of thin banderoles attached to the individual plants. With reference to the roses which fill the bowls on the back-rest of the throne bench, for example, we can read, “Like a rose tree in Jericho”; the olive branches in the copper vases behind them bear the comparison, “Like a beautiful olive tree in an open field”. The lemon trees completing the painting on each side have the text: “I am as tall as a cedar from Lebanon.” The fact that Botticelli reproduced lemon trees here instead of cedars may be explained by the common confusion of these plants during the Renaissance, resulting from the ambiguity of the Italian translation of Latin “cedrus” as both cedar and lemon tree. This careful breaking-down of the plant symbolism through the banderoles probably stems from a tradition that was more indigenous to the northern countries than to Italy. Giovanni Bardi had presumably seen a similar painting during his period of residence in England and brought the idea back with him to Florence.
Madonna of the Pomegranate (Madonna della Melagrana), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1487, diameter 143,5 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The picture’s title is explained by the pomegranate in Mary’s hand: this should be understood as symbolizing Christ’s Passion, the wealth of seeds conveying the fullness of Christ’s suffering. A comparison of this painting with Botticelli’s earlier tondo ‘Madonna del Magnificat’ (see picture before) reveals that the artist has now arranged the angels symmetrically, thereby avoiding the compositional difficulties of the older depiction. The Christ Child, whose hand is raised in blessing, is lying securely in the arms of Mary, but the sad, melancholy expression on the faces of mother and child are intended to remind the observer of the torments the Son of God will suffer in the future. The angels are worshipping Mary with lilies and garlands of roses. The Rosary is a prayer that was created in its present form in the 15th century, and rapidly became widespread. The beginning of this prayer is embroidered on the left angel’s stola: AVE GRAZIA PLENA (‘Hail Mary, full of grace’). Some scholars have compared the depiction of the pomegranate held by Child Christ in this painting to an accurate representation of actual cardiac anatomy. It has been also argued that the fruit is being held in front of the left side of the chest, which overlays the position of the heart. During the Renaissance, artists were able to reclaim lost ancient knowledge about human anatomy through the dissection of corpses, which led them to a better understanding of the human body which would improve their artwork to be more life like.

The date of the Altarpiece of Saint Barnaba, painted for the homonymous Florentine church and which is now in the Uffizi, is not certain: its grandiose architecture suggests Botticelli had a certain contact with Piero della Francesca (see his “Pala Brera”), but the great refinement of the figures is here linked to an almost hallucinated mysticism. Also notable are its predellas (also at the Uffizi), among them a suggestive Vision of Saint Augustine with a lonely seascape in which a child appears on the seashore.

The Virgin and Child with Four Angels and Six Saints (Pala di San Barnaba), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1488, 268 x 280 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The architecture, both concise and majestic, seems to point towards the art of the 16th century, and it is certainly the best example of Botticelli’s mastery in this field. At the sides of the curtain, very finely drawn in little tondos, are the two figures of the Annunciation, the Virgin and the Angel. The angels on either side of the tall throne carry the crown of thorns and the nails of the cross, symbols which refer to the passion of Christ. The same facial features are used for the delicate figure of the Virgin, St. John the Baptist and the young warrior Michael, one of the most beautiful parts of the painting. On the steps of the throne, there is for the first time in the history of painting an inscription in Italian. The line comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. This is the first evidence of Botticelli’s interest in Dante’s poetry. On the left of the Virgin is St. John the Baptist, St. Ignatius of Antioch as a bishop, and the archangel St. Michael, who provides aid in battles.
Vision of St. Augustine, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1488, 20 x 38 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This panel is the second predella of the St. Barnaba Altarpiece (see picture above). According to a legend, St. Augustine the bishop, while he was thinking about the Holy Trinity, met a child on the beach who was attempting to use a spoon to transfer the waters of the ocean into a small hole. When Augustine explained to him that this was not possible, the child replied that it was far more foolish to try to find an explanation for the mystery of the Trinity.

From 1489 is the Annunciation (today in the Uffizi) that was first in the Monastery of Cestello and later in Santa Maria Magdalena dei Pazzi, in Florence, for which the committente Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi paid Botticelli 30 ducats. In comparison with the aforementioned Annunciation of San Martin alla Scala, of 1481, we notice the change in style that took place in a few years; the feeling has become more severe and sad, the rhythm more angular and tense, the background, still preserving the amenity of the Tuscan landscape, is populated with fantastic Flemish castles; the architectural setting depicted in impeccable perspective becomes a stark, cold counterpoint to the violent and contorted emotions expressed by the characters.

Cestello Annunciation, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1489-1490, 150 x 156 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This panel was commissioned from Sandro Botticelli in 1489 by the Florentine moneychanger, Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi for the family chapel in the Florentine convent of Cestello (today church of Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi), in borgo Pinti, Florence. The essential nature of the scene, almost bare of furnishings, the sober clothing of the archangel Gabriel and Mary, featuring a limited use of color tones and decorations, the accentuated, almost theatrical gestures of the subjects, reflect the search for simplicity and the religious fervor that had become established in Florence during the sermons of the Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola. There are some of the usual elements of Marian symbolism, such as the opening in the wall that suggests a door of heaven to Mary, and the walled garden visible in the background, an emblem of Mary’s virginity (the Hortus conclusus). In this painting, Botticelli enables the observer to look through a room structured according to the laws of perspective and across the red floor tiles, along its converging lines, out onto a landscape. The lively movement of the figures contrasts with these spatial dynamics, which lead towards the background. There is a diagonal line running from the edge of Gabriel’s robes to his raised hand, and it continues in the arm which Mary is holding across her chest. The angel’s robes, which are billowing in great folds, show that he has just made a sweeping landing. Gabriel is kneeling reverently in front of Mary and his mouth, which is slightly open, suggests that he is in the process of speaking the words of St. Luke’s Gospel. The architectures on the landscape, which includes a river spreading out, reveal northern features. A multi-towered, medieval castle rises on a bizarrely shaped mountain to the left. The hands of the angel and Mary constitute the central point of the painting.

From 1490-1492 dates the Coronation of the Virgin (Uffizi Gallery) for the chapel of “San Aló” in the church of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence, also showing some rigidity in the four severe saints portrayed in the lower part of the painting, while above in the sky a troupe of dancing angels hover around the scene of the coronation of Mary (the troupe of musician angels by Filippino Lippi in the Carafa Chapel in Rome show some resemblance to this motif). Also from this altarpiece, the beautiful five panels of the predella are characterized by their austere sense of elevated solitude.

Coronation of the Virgin (San Marco Altarpiece), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1490-1492, 378 x 258 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This altarpiece is the largest of these type works still in existence and was originally created for the church of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence. The guild of goldsmiths, which was responsible for the maintenance and decoration of this church, ordered the altar for their own chapel. It was dedicated to their patron Saint Eligius. The lavish use of the expensive gold paint was probably due to the identity of the clients, who wanted to make a sumptuous display of their profession. The gold background in the upper part of the painting marks the dividing line between the heavenly and earthly spheres. The four saints (John the Evangelist, the Fathers of the Church St. Augustine and St. Jerome, and St. Eligius) are standing in a semicircle on a meadow. Behind them, on either side of a lake, is an extensive landscape. At the top, the coronation of the Virgin in a glory of seraphs and cherubs is taking place. God the Father and the Virgin are enthroned on an airy carpet of clouds, setting them apart from the dancing groups of angels. This angelical playful group engaged in a whirlwind round dance creates an illusion of depth. The angels are holding each other’s hands and urging one another on in order to give their dance the necessary movement. The angel on the left, wearing the yellow robe, is depicted in a bold foreshortening and seems about to make his way out of the picture.


En face portrait: A portrait done with the sitter having his/her face or front forward.



Maphorion: A byzantine style head-cloth.

3 thoughts on “BOTTICELLI (allegorical paintings and beginning of religious pathos, from 1483 to 1488).

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