Sunday 3 March 2013

The Dark Side of Botticelli.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485, Tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

For many people Botticelli was responsible for producing the most well-known renaissance painting: the Birth of Venus. This masterpiece which is notable for its velvety grace and idealised beauty fixes in the minds of many the essence of Botticelli’s art: painting sympathetic to mythological classicism, yet responsive to the current innovations of design, stylistic elegance, all culminating in beauty of form. Whilist that is certainly a fair view of Botticelli’s art, there is a side of him that the public is less aware of: the artist who painted disturbing, proto-surrealistic panels, as well as disturbing religious allegories whilist under the spell of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola.  

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of Mary, 1486-90, Fresco, width 450 cm, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
 Botticelli’s late religious art is especially notable for its unsettling atmosphere and strained emotion, which is a far cry from the sedate rhythms of the Birth of Venus and Primavera completed in the middle years. The dark side of Florentine art did not escape the attention of seminal art historians like Aby Warburg who glimpsed a shadow peeping out from the  sweetness and light of bodies in works by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio;[1] the draperies and forms derived from classical antiquity could suggest liberation from the bourgeoisie life shown in domestic scenes; but classism without distance and control could intoxicate the painter resulting in a form of sterile mannerism and psychological disquiet, which characterises Botticelli’s late art. The dark side of the antique was also present in its scenes of violence which could unwittingly lead artists to a celebration of cruelty and decadence, a spirit alive in Botticelli’s highly unsettling Nastagio degli Onesti scenes, and even in early Medician commissions like the early Judith panels.[2] Later scholars have shared Warburg’s ambivalence towards the classical revival in the renaissance; some have observed a different body of Venus, not the perfect, idealized one that art history has worshipped: instead, a darker, disregarded body that belonged to the anatomists and obstetricians; not the body of composers of romantic poetry nor the frequenters of renaissance pageant.[3]

 Sandro Botticelli, The Return of Judith to Bethulia, c. 1472, Oil on panel, 31 x 24 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli, The Discovery of the Murder of Holofernes, c. 1472, Tempera on wood, 31 x 25 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

[1] Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (Getty, 1999).
[2] Ernst Gombrich, “Warburg Centenary Lecture” in Art History as Cultural History: Warburg’s Projects, (Amsterdam, 2002), 33-54, 44
[3] Georges Didi-Hubermann, Ouvrir Venus, (Paris, 1999).

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