Neoplatonic ideals affected Botticelli’s depiction of ideal beauty in his paintings
Adoration of the Magi (1475)
A famous scenes involving the Magi or Wise Men bringing gifts to the child Jesus
These are no ordinary wise men
Cosimo the Elder – the elderly man who kneels at Christ’s feet
Piero the Gouty – the Wise Man with the red cloak seen from behind
Lorenzo the Magnificent is seen in profile on the right (he is wearing a short black garment)
Botticelli included Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano the Handsome as one of the spectators.
Botticelli also included the Neoplatonist poet Poliziano, who wrote a poem about the birth of Venus!
Notice the balance and symmetrical composition – Renaissance artists preferred this classical composition in their paintings
To enhance the balance, Renaissance artists often used a pyramidal composition.
Botticelli also included a self-portrait on the right hand side of the painting
Birth of Venus (G-595)
Venus – Goddess of love and beauty. Venus is standing on a giant gilded scallop shell. The painting show the moment when Venus landed on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus
Zephyr (the West Wind) – male figure whose breath, the wind causes flowers to grow. He is accompanied by the earth nymph Chloris. Roses, each of which contains a golden heart and are sacred to Venus and symbolizeVenus fall around Zephyr and Chloris.
Flora – goddess of flowers stands on the island of Cyprus preparing to cover her with a richly patterned robe. Her lavishly decorated dress and the gorgeous robe she holds out to Venus are embroidered with red and white daisies, yellow primroses, and blue cornflowers – all spring flowers appropriate to the theme of birth. Flora wears a garland of myrtle – the tree of Venus – along with a sash of pink roses.
According to the myth, when Zephyr marries Chloris and blows wind upon her, she is transformed into Flora
The pose is based on the Medici Venus, a Venus statue in the Medici collection in which she is in a modest pose.
Botticelli drew Venus’ proportions according to a canon of Classical beauty going back to Praxitieles.
If Venus’ features seem elongated, that is because Botticelli wanted to depict Venus as a graceful beauty. Botticelli left outlines on the body of Venus as well as the other figures to enhance this feeling of gracefulness and elegance.
The model for Venus may have been an renowned Florentine beauty named Simonetta Vespucci.
Simonetta was so sweet and charming that all men praised her and no woman blamed her.
In 1475, she was Queen of Beauty in a great tournament held in Giuliano de Medici’s honor. Tragically, she died just one year later after a sudden illness. Simonetta died in April. The death of one so young amid so much beauty made even the most dignified citizens weep openly.
But what does it all mean?
Look closely at Venus’ face. What words would you use to describe her expression?
The love Venus (ie. Simonetta) brought to earth was the gift of life. But life also means inevitable loss, heartbreak, and death. Similarly, Simonetta’s life brought great love and joy. But, this proved to be EPHEMERAL (fleeting, brief). And that is why Botticelli gave Venus no joy in her birth, and why he filled her face with compassion.
The Nine Figures
The nine figures all originate in ancient Greek and Roman myth. They are almost life-size in scale.
The Three Graces – goddesses of charm, grace, and beauty – dance in a circle. They are shown “with hands interlocked – smiling and youthful, clad in loosened transparent gowns,” just as the ancient author Seneca described them.
Venus – goddess of love and beauty. She raises her hand in a traditional gesture of welcome. She appears like a beauty at a Renaissance fair.
Cupid – Venus’ son hovers above, playfully aiming an arrow at the Graces.
Zephyr (on the far right) – the west wind in pursuit of the nymph Flora.
Chloris – nymph. Zephyr’s breath causes Chloris to sprout flowers (“the roses of Spring”) from her mouth.
Flora – goddess of flowers and feritility. Chloris is transformed into Flora by Zephyr’s embrace. Zephyr married Flora.
What does the painting mean?
Primavera is not only one of the supremely beautiful pictures of the Renaissance, but also one of the most discussed paintings in the history of art.
Giorgio Vasari described the subject as “Venus as a symbol of spring being adorned with flowers by the Graces.”
The oranges were called “mela medica” in the 15th century. Oranges may refer to the Medici, who used the mela medica as a symbol on their family shield.
Here is another interpretation by the art historian Marilyn Stokstad:
Primavera was painted at the time of a Medici wedding, so it may have been intended as a painting on the nuptial theme of love and fertility in marriage. Venus, clothed in contemporary costume and wearing a marriage wreath on her head, here represents marital love. She stands in a grove of orange trees weighted down with lush fruit suggesting human fertility.
Whatever happened to Botticelli?
Botticelli was the first artist since Classical Civilization to paint mythological scenes on a large scale.
Botticelli’s paintings for the Medici established him as one of Italy’s foremost artists. His career reached a new height when Pope Sixtus commissioned Botticelli to decorate the side walls of the Sistine Chapel.
Botticelli returned to Florence and enjoyed a period of great productivity and prosperity. He painted about 150 paintings and employed 3 assistants in his busy studio.
But Botticelli’s fortunes changed in the 1490’s. Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492 and his son Piero proved to be inept. Five years later, Botticelli’s lifelong patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was forced to leave Florence for political reasons.
A religious leader in Florence named Fra Savonarola had been preaching against the spread of humanism in his city. He urged the Florentines to turn their backs on the sin of pride and enjoying worldly pleasures. He also decried the return of mythological, pagan imagery. For a short time, Savonarola became the dictator of Florence and the Florentines held a “bonfire of the vanities,” into which they threw their wigs, fancy clothes, and any references to paganism. Even Botticelli became very religious and may have burned some of his paintings!
Botticelli’s personal fortunes declined rapidly. Vasari describes Botticelli in his last years as “old and useless, unable to stand upright and moving about with the help of crutches.” By the time he died in 1510, he was both out of date and neglected. Botticelli died an old and forgotten man and no sign of his grave remains.
The eclipse of Botticelli’s reputation was for centuries almost total. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that there was a renewed appreciation of his genius. Today, few Renaissance painters enjoy such widespread appeal. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence houses the world’s greatest collection of Italian paintings, but even in competition with a galaxy of masterpieces, it is usually the room containing Primavera and Birth of Venus that is the most crowded in the museum!
“Most art historians recognize no other painter in history to have contributed so much to the development of a new style in so short a time as Masaccio.”
Masaccio’s teacher painted in the International Style. Masaccio, however, went in his own direction.
Masaccio’s paintings include:
Good CHIAROSCURO (dramatic contrasts of light and shadow which give the figures a greater sense of body mass) including the use of a singular light source.
Good illusion of depth. Masaccio incorporated discoveries of LINEAR PERSPECTIVE (all forms receding in size toward a single vanishing point). Masaccio also included AERIAL/ATMOSPHERIC PERSPECTIVE (making objects in the distance a bluish – grayish tone to convey distance)
Masaccio’s figures are muscular and idealized (influence of classical statuary)
Masaccio’s figures express emotion
Masaccio’s career was tragically cut short when he died at the age of 27.
His paintings influenced other artists such as Michelangelo.
Frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, Florence
Masaccio was commissioned to paint frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
The frescoes form an extensive narrative cycle about the life of Saint Peter.
Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden
Notice the convincing depiction of human emotion. This is just after the God has reprimanded Adam and Eve for committing the Original Sin. They are now banished from the Garden of Eden headed for a life of hard work, struggle, and mortality. We feel their pain.
Notice the CHIAROSCURO. Masaccio’s treatment of shadow and his smooth transition toward areas of light is convincing and very natural. The figures also cast shadows. Masaccio’s chiaroscuro on the Archangel Michael is also effective, in which he models the folds quite nicely.
Notice the illusion of depth. Adam and Eve’s shadows on the ground as well as the diagonal angle of the arch from which they emerge convey depth as does the background. Carrying on in the tradition of GIOTTO, Masaccio paints realistic figures in space.
Notice the classical references in the body types. Masaccio paints both figures as classical nudes. Adam is muscular like classical statues and Eve’s pose is derivative of Venus statues. The inclusion of classicizing nude figures in a Christian chapel shows the Florentine acceptance of humanism.
When Italy became more conservative religiously, in the 17th century during the Counter-Reformation, artists were hired to paint leaves over the private areas of Adam and Eve.
Tribute Money, ca. 1427
Shows an episode from the New Testament. Jesus and the Apostles arrived in the town of Capernaum. A tax collector told them that they needed to pay taxes when they entered town. Jesus told Peter to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee and that the first fish he caught would contain the tax money in its mouth. Peter obeyed Jesus and used the money to pay the tax collector.
Center scene: Arrival in town (tax collector shown from behind. Jesus in center. Peter – gray haired bearded figure who appears incredulous)
Left scene: Peter obtaining the money
Right scene: Paying the tax collector
What narrative technique did Masaccio use for this fresco?
Notice the diagonals on the architecture to the right (also notice that the architecture appears classical – round arches, etc.) – the diagonals are called ORTHOGONAL LINES – these orthogonal converge at a single vanishing point in the distance. This is LINEAR PERSPECTIVE. Masaccio uses AERIAL PERSPECTIVE as well.
Notice the sculptural treatment of the human form. Masacco models the figures muscular bodies with CHIAROSCURO. The figures also cast shadows on the ground. Shading is also very convincing on the architecture. The light appears to come from a single source to the right (There is actually a window in the wall of the chapel. Perhaps, Masaccio was trying to make the fresco look illuminated by real light from the window.
Holy Trinity, fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence
God the Father – depicted as an aged and bearded patriarch standing behind his crucified son. He is shown supporting both ends of the crossbar of the crucifix, thus echoing His Son’s sacrifice
God the Son (Jesus) – a real, suffering Jesus showing compassion for His fellow men and women as He dies
Mary – the only one of the people who looks directly out at us. She stands upright and dry-eyed and points toward her crucified Child. She seems to be reproaching us for our sinfulness.
Saint John – Apostle of Jesus, according to tradition, Jesus told John during the Crucifixion to take care of Mary as if she were his own mother and for Mary to regard John as her son
Lorenzo Leni and Mrs. Leni – the donors of the fresco. Their money paid for it.
Adam’s skeleton – a MEMENTO MORI (reminder of death) – shows the reason why Christ came to Earth, an inscription above the skeleton reads “I was once what you are and what I am you will also be.” This reminds the viewer of the transience of life (the shortness of life).
Painting is DIDACTIC – provides instruction, teaching
Shows the journey that Christians must take to overcome eternal death (Hell) – first we must rise from our mortal limitations (Mr. and Mrs. Leni) to become holy and close to Christ (Mary and John), coming to have a personal relationship with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit in our life, to reach God the Father.