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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.