Botticelli in Boston
The largest exhibition of paintings by Sandro Botticelli ever shown in North America.
By Bobbie Leigh
Botticelli’s Venus. We know her best standing in an open shell looking delicate and sublime, almost too perfect for this world. That painting, dubbed “The Birth of Venus,” is about as iconic a painting as you can get. It is celebrated in Art 105 college classes around the country. Venus is the poster girl for the ideal woman – slim, sexy, and sensual.
A Botticelli life-size Venus (about 1484-1490), this time standing alone on a narrow stone parapet, is one of the star attractions at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine.” It is the largest exhibition of paintings by Sandro Botticelli,(about 1445-1510), ever shown in North America. Among the 33 works are 15 paintings by the Renaissance master that span Botticelli’s entire career starting with his earliest works depicting pagan and literary themes and ending up with austere, sacred paintings created under the influence of the stern Dominican friar Savonarola.
Botticelli’s “Venus” is symbolic of his early career when his portraits and secular paintings reflected the taste of rich merchants in Venice and his super-wealthy patrons, the Medici. The Venus in this show represents the Roman goddess of love. She stands silhouetted against a black background, nude, posed as if she is an ancient Greek sculpture. Experts say her beauty and her modest pose express the dual nature of love, sensual and sacred.
While Venus gets much of the attention in this exhibition, Botticelli’s 1480 fresco of “Saint Augustine in His Study” is the one to contemplate for a long time. Of all the great paintings, this is the standout. Augustine, the patron saint of humanism, is seated in his impressive book-lined study wearing flowing robes. The artist captures his facial expression at a moment of rapture. Supposedly the saint was writing to Saint Jerome to ask him for some advice concerning a treatise on souls in paradise. (Saint Augustine is unaware that his fellow theologian had just died.)
The artist captures the moment when Saint Augustine looks up to the heavens and his studio is suddenly filled with light. At that very moment he hears the voice of Saint Jerome. According to the catalog, “the lesson of Botticelli’s image is that the deepest truths are revealed only through heavenly grace.” Regardless of your interpretation, you are witnessing an intense expression of religious reverence. Considered the most important public work by Botticelli in his lifetime, this fresco was only available for this exhibition because it was transferred in 1564 from one part of All Saints Church in Florence to another for safekeeping.
The exhibition also features paintings by Botticelli’s teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi, a monk turned artist who ran away with a novice nun, and several of his peers. Filippo, the only pupil of the legendary Masaccio, is well represented with Madonna and Child paintings depicted in tender embraces with background ornate arches and gothic pediments, styles that Botticelli often emulated.
As he rose to fame in the 1470s in Florence under the patronage of the Medici family, Botticelli was praised and popular because of his religious imagery, luxurious and elegant mythological scenes like his secular beauty Venus. Even in an early religious work, “The Virgin and Child” (about 1466) the Virgin is dressed in the best of Florentine textiles, the baby Jesus is touchingly affectionate, and the setting is an ornate, gilded portico. It was just the sort of painting that wealthy Florentine merchants wanted in in their homes. Delicate but substantial, representing the sunlit world of the Italian Renaissance.
By 1491, the backlash against Florentine ostentation, money, and mercantile power began thanks to the fiery preaching of the prior of San Marco, Savonarola. Think of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” where everything in Gilead was now evil that was once thought good. That more or less is what Savonarola brought to Florence. He instituted the infamous “Bonfires of the Vanities,” burning early Botticelli paintings that did not have strict religious narratives and even much-loved books like “The Inferno,” because Dante’s guide to the underworld was the pagan, Virgil.
Scholars are not sure whether Botticelli ever met Savonarola personally, but most likely he heard him preach about moral decadence and renewing Christian core values. The master’s late paintings were a response to the friar’s teachings and emphasized the centrality of Christian teachings. In contrast to earlier works of the Madonna and Child, the later ones are far less intimate, the child looks more distracted, the Virgin’s eyes are often half-closed and her head is turned away from the child. These last paintings are austere and much more solemn that the lyrical earlier ones.
Eventually, Savonarola was challenged, excommunicated, and hanged by secular authorities in 1498. As seen in Boston, Botticelli’s paintings, whether early or late, are magnificent. The Venus and the Saint Augustine are worth the trip alone. This is a show not to be missed.
ALSO IN BOSTON
A visit to the MFA can be a double header as the delightful exhibition, “Matisse in the Studio” is also on view. The paintings are familiar but what is new are the actual rugs, vases, costumes textiles, masks and sculptures, which play a significant role in the paintings. Matisse was a “squirrel” endless collecting stuff that he incorporates in his work. It’s revealing to see what he collected and how he used his paraphernalia in his paintings.
Museum of Fine Arts Boston: www.mfa.org Both exhibitions can be seen until July 9, 2017.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques