Botticelli at the MFA

July closed out a four month exhibit on Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell — picture a beautiful, nude woman on a clamshell in the water. Perfect. You’re thinking about The Birth of Venus or any of the parodies that have been done on it — Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Simpsons.

(Sadly, the original painting is in the Uffizi in Florence and did not make the flight over for this exhibit.) But, the MFA went straight to the heart of mid-15th century Florence.

The exhibit began with a few examples from Fra Filipo Lippi, Botticelli’s mentor.

I'm never sure how to feel about these teacher-student pairs. It's fascinating that the students are able to perfectly replicate their teacher's style, but it's not very creative.

And then I laugh when you see the artist's attempt to definitively look different from their teacher in their later years, only to end up looking pretty similar. But I guess they all had to start somewhere, right?

I’ve always found Botticelli almost cartoonish, but his early works reflect the progression of rendering human forms in the classical style.

In Botticelli’s early years he was influenced by the Pollauioli brothers who were beginning to incorporate the anatomical correctness the Renaissance is known for revitalizing from the classical era.

Prior to the 15th century, paintings of human forms were usually flat and unrealistic.  St. Michael the Archangel Killing the Dragon, Antonio del Pollaiuolo 1470

From Lippi to Pollauioli — Botticelli began to incorporate dynamic movement in his paintings. If you look at the draping of the clothing on his figures, you can really believe that there are bones and muscles holding the person together.

Interestingly, for a painter caught up in the progressive changes of the Renaissance art style, he continued the practice of outlining his figures' features, which had begun to go out of style as artists opted for more realistic depictions of flesh through skilled blending of red and cream tones.

If you take a close look at the faces his paintings, you can often make out a dark, black line that outlines the curve of the face. While his delicate modeling of hands and feet heightens the intimacy of gestures (look at any of his Madonna and Child), he held onto the outdated dark facial outlining. 

Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, 1500.

The exhibit followed Botticelli’s progression from a young apprentice, to a middle-aged painter engrossed in beautiful allegorical scenes, to an older more reverent and religious artist.

While religious art was always on his horizon, you see a clear end to the lightheartedness of his scenes as his life progressed. This can be attributed to the Medici exile and rise of raving Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. The Medici exile proved an important turning point for his critical and harsh public sermons, giving him a platform to urge the citizens to return to a pious way of life devoid of the decadence of art.

Botticelli seems to have heeded the advice from Savonarola — whether to save his name or because he truly agreed with the friar’s zealous prophecies — and there is a clear change in his paintings.

He turned away from the more frivolous and fun, allegorical scenes from the 1480s like The Birth of Venus and Primavera.

Don’t get me wrong — his later religious works still incorporate symbolism and grandeur as befits Jesus Christ and the Catholic church, but it all seems much more toned down.

Adoration of the Magi, 1500.

Though he certainly kept some of his humor. Check out the amazing expressions on the horses at the bottom right; bored, scared, surprised!

Minerva and the Centaur 1482.

I loved this work. And I don’t think I had ever seen it before — always a win!

There's real play in the power between Minerva and the Centuar and I think I'll have to deep dive on this one sometime for and Art in Focus.

Have you seen Botticelli's work before? What did you think?  

Fun Facts about Botticelli and Boston. Thanks to Isabella Stewart Gardner, Botticelli was brought over to America and into Boston. She acquired the Tragedy of Lucretia, and the MFA followed suit with their own purchase of Virgin, Child, and St. john the Baptist.

Overheard in the Exhibit

1. What’s the difference between a centaur and a satyr?

Centaurs are traditionally half-man, half-horse, with the torso of a human and the bottom half of a horse. Satyrs are traditionally half man, half goat (think Mr. Tumnus from Chronicles of Narnia). Satyrs often sprout small horns on their head, while Centaurs are only animal torso-down.

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