by Roderick Conway Morris

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Grace and strife in Medici Florence

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 5 June 2004
National Gallery, London
The Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli, 1500



Both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo owed a great deal to Botticelli, but as their work took Florentine art in new directions, the latter's style fell from favor and by the time of the artist's death in 1510 it was regarded as positively old-fashioned.

The subsequent eclipse lasted a remarkably long time, nearly until the end of the 19th century. Since then Botticelli's rehabilitation has been rapid and enduring, and his 'Spring' and 'The Birth of Venus' have achieved a worldwide iconic status on a par with Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa' and Michelangelo's 'David.'

Considering the extraordinary beauty of many of the works on show at 'Botticelli and Filippino: Disquiet and Grace in Florentine Painting in the 15th Century' at Palazzo Strozzi, it is now difficult to understand how Botticelli could ever have dropped so thoroughly out of the public gaze. And the inclusion of his pupil Filippino Lippi also suggests that Filippino was a more important artist than has been recognized and a more significant figure in bridging the worlds of Botticelli and that of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in the 16th century. (The show continues until July 11.)

Botticelli became closely identified with the court of the Medici and gave fullest visual expression to its ethos - one of the reasons the art he created seemed 'passé' after the Medici lost their grip on power and were expelled from the city. It was one of the painter's less enviable tasks, even if handsomely rewarded at the time, to do a fresco in Florence's city hall of the hanged bodies of the Pazzi conspirators after their failed attempt to wipe out the leaders of the Medici clan in 1478. (The work was destroyed in 1494 when the Medici were banished.)

Literature played a central part in Medician culture and this is reflected in many of Botticelli's paintings. His written sources ranged from Alberti's 'On Painting' and descriptions of ideal female beauty in the verses of Petrarch and other lyrical poets, to the tales of Boccaccio and the poems of the Tuscan humanist Poliziano.

To those less familiar with this literature, Botticelli's work began to appear esoteric and bizarre. Thus the very ambiguities, allusions and literary references that made the artist's paintings so attractive to his original patrons became a barrier to their later appreciation.

Given the centrality of literature to Botticelli's work throughout his career, it is not altogether surprising that toward the end of it he should have embarked on his vast, never to be completed, project to illustrate Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (the subject of exhibitions in Rome and London in 2000). But the eccentricity of this enterprise, as it appeared at the time, and the deliberately archaic aspects of the drawings tended to confirm that Botticelli was living in the past.

One of the pleasures of his work is the seamlessness of his production - his mythical scenes, captivatingly lovely madonnas and angels, and sympathetic portraits seeming all of a piece. And thus it is something of treat to see gathered in the same place, from collections all over the world, about 30 works by him, covering all the genres he essayed, and 20 by his most distinguished pupil.

The glittering epoch of the Medici, with its lavish public festivities and courtly jousts, street processions of pretty young women (whose poise and elaborate costumes were to be immortalized in Botticelli's mythical scenes in contemporary dress), lavish patronage of the arts and gorgeous displays of every kind, was brought to an end by social and political upheaval and the arrival in Florence from Ferrara of the hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola.

Displays of communal repentance and bonfires of vanities accompanied this outbreak of mass religious hysteria. Savonarola not only condemned the sinful female fashions of the day, but particularly denounced the fact that the Virgins and Saints depicted in church had taken to wearing them. 'You have made the Virgin appear dressed like a whore!' he furiously declared.

No images of the Virgin better fitted Savonarola's anathema than Botticelli's, but from what we know, the artist, too, swept along by the tide of mass religiosity, himself became a follower of the Dominican preacher.

A key late work, 'The Mystic Nativity,' lent by the National Gallery in London, shows Botticelli struggling to reconcile the teachings of Savonarola and his experience of Medician Florence. It is based on an apocalyptic text on the Second Coming, very much in tune with the new times, yet the composition is still infused with Medician philosophical complexity, and Botticelli cannot stop himself from lending the angels the graceful, nymph-like allure of his pictures inspired by pagan themes and the elegantly dressed, long-locked damsels of the city of his birth.

Filippino Lippi's art has often been seen as manifesting febrile qualities and a spiritual perturbation even going beyond the hypersensitive observation that lay behind Botticelli's style, and which became more explicit in his later work. Yet Filippino never seems to have become a fan of Savonarola's moral crusade.

Botticelli had been a pupil of Filippino's father, Filippo Lippi, and soon after the latter's death the 12-year-old orphan entered Botticelli's studio. In view of the boy's young age at the time, Botticelli was to be the more influential figure in Filippino's career and he received an excellent and attentive artistic education from the man who became a second father to him. However, Filippino showed determination in forging his own style, marked by a dynamic theatricality that was very much his own, and he soon achieved significant independent commissions. He was notably more open to the lessons to be learned from the Netherlandish masters and more attentive to landscape, which Leonardo had accused Botticelli of neglecting.

Filippino undertook the challenging task of completing frescoes left unfinished by Masaccio and Masolino more than half a century before at the Carmine church in Florence. He was called to Rome to paint the Caraffa chapel at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with the support of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who recommended the artist as the perfect candidate for the job, over his more senior Florentine confreres, including Botticelli. He also went to Venice and Milan, where he could study Leonardo's progress there. These journeys consolidated his distinct artistic identity. And the esteem that Filippino came to enjoy was confirmed by the commission to decorate the Strozzi Chapel at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which remains his greatest single monument.

The most remarkable Filippino painting in the exhibition is his 'Vision of St. Bernard,' in some respects a virtuoso Botticelli-esque work, but one that bears witness to the essential individuality of Filippino's vision. It has that almost neurotic attention to detail and 'truth to nature' that the Pre-Raphaelites were to cultivate more than 350 years later.

Strangely enough, seeing that both Botticelli and Filippino in their different ways represented so closely the Pre-Raphaelite ideal, neither of them attracted the special attention of the Victorian Brotherhood or their German near-contemporaries, the Nazarenes. But this was no doubt partly because it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the rediscovered works of the two artists began to be given the prominence they deserved in museums in Italy and abroad.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024