Botticelli and Humanism


Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi) was one of the most esteemed painters in Italy in his lifetime, enjoying the patronage of the leading families of Florence, in particular the Medici and their banking clients. He also received enthusiastic praise from the famous mathematician Luca Pacioli and the humanist poet Ugolino Verino. His art increasingly combined the characteristic features of a courtly style (with antecedents ultimately deriving from Angevin Late Gothic art of the previous century) with qualities learnt from the study and analysis of Classical prototypes. The effect of this assimilation--a style simultaneously nuovo and antico--is first apparent in the Primavera.



The First Spring; Humanist allegory in full flower

Warburg understood the Primavera in the context of the humanist revival and imitation of ancient poetry and also drew attention to parallels in sensibility and detail between Botticelli’s imagery and contemporary vernacular poetry of love, especially Poliziano’s Stanze. Since this poem mythologizes a contemporary event, the joust won by Lorenzo de' Medici’s brother Giuliano in 1475, the painting has also been considered a manifestation of the quasi-chivalric civic rituals celebrated in such tournaments. Botticelli’s imagery also expresses the Neo-Platonic philosophy of love as expounded by Marsilio Ficino.

The subject of the Birth of Venus is the same as in the Primavera, namely the springtime advent of Venus, with Zephyr carrying Chloris on the left, the roses generated by his warming breath falling to the earth, and Flora on the right, clad in her white dress painted with budding flowers and preparing to mantle the goddess with a fully flowered cloak. Here, however, Venus does not appear as the humble garden goddess she was for the primitive peoples but resplendently nude and in her Classical form, in fact so shown for the first time since antiquity.

The Mighty Medici and the fires of Savonarola

A comparison of two versions of the Adoration of the Magi, separated by only about five years, is instructive. The earlier version (ca. 1475-1476, Galleria degli Uffizi) is a celebration of the power of the Medici, resplendent in finery overlooked from a perch in the manger by a peacock. The Medici crowd the Holy Family eagerly.

The later work (ca. 1478-1482, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) is a more somber affair in the wake of the preaching of Savonarola. The viewer, rather than being overwhelmed by rich detail, is instead aware of the quiet distance between him and the holy figures--and like the worshipers in the painting leans toward the infant. This yearning to close the gap between human existence and the divine was a frequent Neoplatonic theme.