No city other than Florence contains such an intense concentration of art produced in such a short span of time: from the 1300s through the 1500s. The sheer number and proximity of works of painting, sculpture and architecture in Florence can cause visitors who try to see them all to experience an artistic overload labeled in the 1980s by Italian medical researchers as Stendhal’s Syndrome.
Named after the 19th century French author who first described it, the malady consists of symptoms such as dizziness, panic, confusion, fainting and overwhelming exhaustion caused by trying to see too many works of art in too short a time. Although this may sound like a joke, Florentine hospitals treat hundreds of visitors each year for these symptoms. A visit to Florence, whether brief or extended, should be enjoyable, exciting and inspiring, not bewildering and exhausting.
That means you don’t visit Florence (or any other city) with an obligation to see everything and you have an idea of which works of art to see, along with some information about them. You can confine yourself to the greatest works of the period or you can consider other works that you find interesting and worthwhile but not necessarily Masterpieces. That way you can successfully navigate the chosen museums, as well as the city’s streets and piazzas, churches and palazzos. We also alternate, one day of art, one day of shopping… 🙂
The Uffizi Galleries are immense and trying to see everything in them is a formula for utter exhaustion and a possible case of Stendhal’s Syndrome. But they are on the must-do list for Florence.
Aside from its status as a museum, one of the oldest and most renowned in Europe, the Uffizi is also among the architectural masterworks of Renaissance Florence. The name Uffizi comes from the Italian word uffici, which means “offices” and refers to the building’s original purpose. Commissioned in 1560 by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici to gather under one roof all the numerous tribunals, archives, and magistrates’ offices of the ducal administration, and thus to concentrate power near the Palazzo della Signoria, it was built from a design of Giorgio Vasari.
But the origins of the Uffizi go back to 1546, when Cosimo initiated an ambitious plan to transform the neighborhood. He had a long straight street cut through the crowded district between the Palazzo della Signoria, a portion of which he had recently adapted for his living quarters, and the Arno River. The original plan approved by Cosimo called for a building that would have eliminated, among other structures, one of the most important buildings associated with the medieval Florentine government: the Loggia dei Lanzi, or Loggia della Signoria, as it was known at that time.
Just before construction was to begin, Cosimo changed his mind and rejected the plan, having decided to spare as much of the surrounding neighborhood as possible, preserving not only the Loggia della Signoria but also the Mint and the ancient church of S. Pier Scheraggio. He called on Vasari to come up with a new design. Although better known in his own time as a painter, and in ours as the first biographer of Italian artists, Vasari produced a handsome, original plan, creating a narrow U-shaped four-story structure with two long wings that extend from the Piazza della Signoria all the way to the Arno River, linked at the far end by a short façade that faces the river, with a corridor above and a triple archway on ground level. The courtyard is not a yard at all but preserves Cosimo’s street between the two wings. The wings remain open on the short side that connects the building with the Piazza della Signoria.
Vasari’s plan didn’t require as much demolition and expropriation of property as the previous plan, and it better integrated the Uffizi into its urban context. Cosimo was perfectly capable of being autocratic, but he was also a shrewd enough politician to know when it was important to show respect for the city’s traditions. By preserving buildings closely associated with the Florentine republic of past centuries, he could demonstrate that he honored the city’s communal heritage. The new building would embody the general welfare of the state and not merely Cosimo’s own convenience in having his uffici next door to his residence.
From the start, Duke Cosimo planned to use the piano nobile, one floor above ground level, for the display of important works from the Medici art collections, a project carried out by his son and successor, Duke Francesco. Over the years, other parts of the building also became display spaces for works commissioned or collected by the Medici. When the dynasty died out in the 18th century, the last Medici heiress willed the family’s treasures in the Uffizi to Florence, in perpetuity, thereby founding one of the first modern museums. It opened to the public in 1765.
Today, the uffici of the vanished ducal regime are long gone, and the entire, vast building is devoted to the display, storage, and conservation of art. The Uffizi owns thousands of works of art, most — although not all — of them collected by generations of the Medici family. Its holdings include not only panel paintings, in particular those created during the Italian Renaissance, but also a variety of sculptures and many frescoed ceilings.
Beginning in the 1300s, Florence was part of an international mercantile and banking network that led to all kinds of cultural exchanges, which eventually enriched the collections of the Uffizi. A Medici bank representative in Bruges sent home to Florence one of the greatest works of 15th century Flemish painting, the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, which several centuries later found its way to the Uffizi. Gifts from diplomats and prelates courting Medici favor, the dowries of Medici brides, and inheritances from both Italian and international marriages of the Medici dukes enlarged the collections still further. Duke Ferdinand II (1621–1670), for example, inherited Titian’s Venus of Urbino from his wife, Vittoria della Rovere, a member of the ducal family of Urbino.
So much art, too little time! Although the Uffizi contains one of the greatest art collections in the world, going through it can sometimes seem like an attempt to consume at one sitting an Italian meal with an infinite number of courses. Just to look at — never mind appreciate — such an enormous amount of art in a single visit is impossible. But there are ways to survive the Uffizi without developing a case of aesthetic indigestion.
The secret is to be selective. Don’t try to see, or even glance at, everything. There are many works of great interest, and you should feel free to look at any that engage your interest.
During the Florentine Renaissance, art was not something separate from life, on display merely to be admired. It was a part of people’s lives, bound up with both their public and their private experiences. Uccello’s Battle of San Romano Paolo provides a perfect example to highlight how politics, sex and religion informed art during this period.
Uccello’s Battle of San Romano bears no resemblance to the bloody reality of an actual battle — it looks more like the illustration of a fairy tale or a decorative tapestry. Known for preferring the study of perspective to sex (he’s supposed to have rejected his wife’s suggestion that he come to bed in favor of consorting with his “sweet mistress”, perspective), the artist here indulged his peculiar passion to the point of obsession. But there’s more to the Battle of San Romano than is evident at first glance. Embedded in this seemingly fantastic work — where armor and headdresses are ceremonial, combatants’ splintered lances fall precisely on the lines of the perspective grid, and horses’ bodies form segments of perfect circles — are fragments of actual history, and a political significance powerful enough that struggles for possession of the painting were almost as fierce as the battle it portrays.
The panel in the Uffizi, signed by the artist, is one of a set of three; the other two are in the Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery, London. Although they don’t form a continuous visual narrative, they were created as an ensemble. All three show incidents from the battle of San Romano, which took place on June 1, 1432, when the Florentine forces confronted the Sienese. For many years scholars assumed that Cosimo de’ Medici had commissioned the paintings, since the hero of the event is the condottiere Niccolò da Tolentino who was a friend and ally of Cosimo. Furthermore, the paintings appear in the inventory of the contents of Palazzo Medici, compiled after the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico in 1492, and they were hung in an impressive ground-floor room used by Lorenzo to conduct state business. Although these factors were long assumed to be conclusive evidence of a Medici commission, new material brought to light in 2001 proves that the works were instead commissioned by a Medici supporter in Florence, Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, probably in the late 1430s. They came into the possession of Lorenzo de’ Medici only around 1484.
The actual battle of San Romano was still recent history at the time Uccello received the commission. It was part of a larger ongoing struggle between Florence on one side and Lucca along with its allies Siena and Milan on the other, a struggle in which Lionardo Salimbeni played a part. Although he’d enjoyed a modestly successful political career in Florence, his highest achievement was his membership on the city’s ten-man war council (dieci di balia), the body that oversaw the war that included the battle of San Romano. Commemoration of the Florentine victory would have provided an obvious motivation for commissioning the paintings.
Another series of events also occurred in the mid- to late 1430s that may have further increased Lionardo Salimbeni’s interest in the battle. In 1433, Cosimo de’ Medici helped negotiate an end to the war with Lucca, a war that had cost Florence an enormous amount of money while fomenting a lot of civic unrest and bringing little in the way of territory. Shortly after the truce, Cosimo’s enemies, led by Rinaldo degli Albizzi, succeeded in having Cosimo arrested and later exiled. Cosimo was accused of paying Niccolò da Tolentino and his soldiers in order to set himself up as a tyrant rather than to serve the republic. The Albizzi regime, distrustful of Tolentino because of his Medici connections, sent the condottiere off to fight in support of Bologna against Milan, apparently hoping he might be killed in combat. Instead, his troops lost the battle and Tolentino was captured by the Milanese. In Florence, the defeat caused an uproar and strong criticism of the Albizzi regime. Voices began calling for the return of Cosimo de’ Medici.
In 1434 Cosimo returned from exile, and he quickly consolidated his power as the behind-the-scenes ruler of Florence. In 1435 Niccolò da Tolentino died while a prisoner of the Milanese. At the request of the Florentine government, Milan returned his body to Florence for burial, but the Medici-dominated government did more than just inter Tolentino — they gave him an elaborate funeral, buried him in the cathedral, and some years later sponsored a painted monument there to his memory. Perhaps Salimbeni concluded that a series of paintings of the battle of San Romano that showed Tolentino as its hero would be a reminder of a glorious moment in a conflict that had included all too few such moments. It would be a fitting episode to decorate his newly renovated home (he had just remarried), since it would both commemorate his own part in the victory and advertise his support for the now firmly established regime of Cosimo de’ Medici.
It’s not easy to figure out the relationship between Uccello’s panels and the actual battle, since what took place on the battlefield is no longer clear, and Uccello hardly qualifies as an objective illustrator. The artist relied on written (and possibly oral) reports on what had taken place and then used his imagination to fill in the details. Several contemporary chroniclers left descriptions of the battle that vary widely, depending on the writer’s biases. One, who disliked the Medici, described Tolentino as “foolhardy” and claimed that when the battle went against him the craven condottiere burst into tears and had to be rescued by his co-commander. Another writer, Neri di Gino Capponi, cast Tolentino as the hero of the battle, although his account may be colored by his having been one of the Medici supporters who had hired Tolentino. Matteo Palmieri, also a Medici partisan, penned a fuller account shortly after the battle took place. He describes it in some detail and praises Tolentino for both bravery and strategic skill, making him the individual most responsible for the Florentine victory — which was announced in Florence that same day, when according to Palmieri, “a holiday was celebrated and the exultation of the common people was beyond measure.” Palmieri’s account may have provided Uccello with some of the details that appear in his paintings. For their part, the Sienese claimed they hadn’t done too badly in the encounter, and they refused to concede a Florentine victory.
The Florentine government, though, clearly considered Tolentino’s exploits a victory worth celebrating. A year later, in 1433, when we might think that interest in this less than crucial battle had faded, the distinguished Florentine scholar and political leader Leonardo Bruni delivered an oration. Speaking in Tuscan rather than Latin, so everybody could understand him, Bruni delivered his speech in the Piazza della Signoria in the presence of government officials, ordinary citizens, and the guest of honor himself, Niccolò da Tolentino. He praised Tolentino in glowing terms for his service to Florence, comparing him to the great ancient Roman generals, the highest compliment the scholarly Bruni could offer. Bruni hailed Tolentino as the defender of Florence’s liberties against the duke of Milan. The Sienese, against whom Tolentino was fighting, were allies of the Milanese and so, by extension, Tolentino was defending democratic, republican Florence against the aristocratic tyranny of Milan.
It appears that the Medici looked very positively on all this glorification of Tolentino’s defense of the republic. Beginning with Cosimo, the 15th century Medici rulers of Florence were eager to associate themselves with the republic, so it’s clear that Cosimo must have approved of casting his friend and ally Niccolò da Tolentino as a republican hero. Given Tolentino’s subsequent death at the hands of the Milanese, which occurred after Cosimo’s brief exile and triumphant return to Florence, Cosimo may have been willing to see the condottiere considered a martyr in the cause of Florentine liberty. With this in mind, Lionardo Salimbeni’s multiple motivations for commissioning Uccello’s series of paintings become clearer — he could please himself with some handsome additions to his home while also pleasing the most powerful man in Florence by making a hero of the man they’d both been involved in hiring to defend the liberties of Florence.
The panel in London shows Niccolò da Tolentino launching an attack on the enemy; the Louvre panel displays the arrival of Tolentino’s co-commander Michelotto da Cotignola, and the Uffizi episode shows the unhorsing of a figure usually identified as Bernardino della Ciarda, the condottiere who had defected from Florence and who now led the Sienese troops. According to contemporary chronicles, though, this incident never took place, since della Ciarda prudently kept his distance from the field of battle. Perhaps the figure represents the defeated enemy, in general, rather than any identifiable individual. The warrior’s white horse rears at the center of the composition, with a Florentine lance thrusting the darkly armored rider from the saddle. Other horses fall about, turn away, or fling up their rear legs, their abdomens and hindquarters forming those segments of circles so beloved by Uccello.
If the central figure in the Uffizi panel really does represent della Ciarda being unhorsed, it would be a fitting counterpart to the more faithful condottieri, Niccolò da Tolentino and Michelotto da Cotignola, celebrated in the other two panels. In the open countryside in the background a dog chases rabbits that flee in all directions—a mocking and easily understandable reference to the defeated enemy and a further reason to conclude that the unhorsed warrior may represent della Ciarda, the leader of those scattered Sienese forces, no matter whether he was actually present during the battle.
How Lorenzo il Magnifico got hold of these paintings in the 1480s is not a pretty story, but it offers a rare glimpse of the ruler of Florence using something close to brute force to acquire certain works of art. After Lionardo Salimbeni’s death in 1479, his sons launched complex efforts to claim parts of his estate, but the issues became so contentious they consumed several years without any resolution. Finally, family members called upon the head of the Medici family, Lorenzo il Magnifico, to act as the principal executor and to settle the problems — not an unusual request, and one of many similar ones addressed to Lorenzo, who had a reputation for fairness in such matters.
The Salimbeni heirs must have been rudely surprised by Lorenzo’s behavior in this case, however. As Il Magnifico looked over their inheritance, he expressed a strong interest in acquiring Lionardo Salimbeni’s three panels of the Battle of San Romano by Uccello, probably because of their connection with the Medici family through Cosimo’s sponsorship of Niccolò da Tolentino. Lorenzo may already have been familiar with the paintings, since the Medici had enjoyed the Salimbeni family’s hospitality in the past. Lorenzo “persuaded” one of the Salimbeni heirs, an employee of the Medici bank in Milan, to give him the portion of the series he’d inherited (the man was no doubt afraid of losing his job if he refused), but when Lorenzo encountered resistance from the owners of the rest of the series, he resorted to an uncharacteristically open display of power. He sent a group of his own workmen to the Salimbeni’s Florentine palazzo where, in the dead of night, they forcibly removed the remainder of the large paintings (each 1.8m feet high by 3.2m
wide) and carried them to Palazzo Medici. One suspects the men involved in this act of artistic piracy were not your average servants but, rather, strong-arm types hired for the occasion, as they were led by a well-known and presumably burly woodworker named Francione (Big Frank), whose job it must have been to pry the paintings out of their settings without damaging them.
What could Salimbeni’s sons do when the ruler of Florence walked off with a portion of their inheritance? Nothing, as it turned out, at least not while Lorenzo was alive. After 1483 the panels disappear from the Salimbeni inventories, so we assume that 1484 was the year they entered the Medici collections. The fact that no one in the Salimbeni family made any attempt to reclaim the panels until after the Medici had been exiled in 1494 is a clear indication of Lorenzo’s enduring power. The Salimbeni were part of the patronage network maintained by the Medici, and they knew better than to defy their padrone and his family.
One obvious reason that Lorenzo was so eager to acquire Uccello’s Battle of San Romano series is that the paintings represented a historic military victory closely associated with his own family; his grandfather Cosimo had been a key figure in both the financing and the planning of the war during which the battle took place, and its hero, Niccolò da Tolentino, had been a close associate of Cosimo’s. Furthermore, the large ground-floor room where Il Magnifico displayed the paintings originally had been used by Cosimo as a place to conduct the group meetings and one-on-one encounters where the real economic and political business of Florence took place.
Lorenzo used the room for similar though not identical purposes. It was there that he welcomed foreign dignitaries into his home. Although he sometimes kept his fellow Florentines waiting for hours in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, important foreigners — diplomats and rulers from Italian states and abroad — gained quick admittance to this politically potent room adorned with scenes of hunts and battles. In a grand room, surrounded by the artistic achievements of Florentine artists and with Uccello’s imposing panels reminding those who entered of Florentine military prowess (more fiction than fact), Lorenzo could present himself to his foreign visitors as a ruler whose political power equaled that of any prince.
One way an affluent man could repay the Medici for favours granted was through flattering portrayals of leading members of the family in a work of art, and this was the route taken by an otherwise obscure individual named Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama. Around 1475 he hired Botticelli to paint an Adoration of the Magi that later decorated his funerary chapel in S. Maria Novella. The panel is a small but beautifully realized work that contains an intriguing collection of portraits. Along with del Lama himself, there’s an assertive self-portrait of the artist, as well as several portraits of Medici family members.
The dispensing of patronage — in the form of political favors, financial assistance, business advantages, employment opportunities, professional advancement, dowry funds and marriage negotiations, written recommendations, or just a word dropped into the right ears — was a cottage industry for members of the Medici family, and the dense network of people indebted to them was among the family’s principal sources of power. In return for their efforts, the Medici received the personal gratitude and political support of those they assisted. Although we don’t know what help the Medici gave del Lama, a man of humble origins (his father was a barber) and a somewhat shady reputation, we know he somehow became a successful broker and a fellow member with the Medici of the Guild of Money Changers and Bankers. Why del Lama chose to include Cosimo de’ Medici and his two sons Piero and Giovanni, who were all dead by the time the work was painted, is uncertain. Perhaps those elders had given del Lama the assistance that enabled his financial success. Clearly, del Lama wanted to make sure the Medici knew how grateful he was, and he no doubt intended his tribute as a way of assuring continued good relations with Florence’s most powerful family.
Although the painting measures ‘only’ 1m by 1.7m, it was a perfect size for del Lama’s small chapel, long ago destroyed, which was squeezed in against the inner wall of the church of S. Maria Novella, to the right of the main door. Several factors explain the subject chosen. The del Lama chapel was dedicated to the Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi) because the patron’s name, Guaspare, is an Italian form of Caspar, one of the Three Magi. But there’s another and equally important reason for the choice of subject: it was a favorite of the Medici family. The story of the Magi decorates one of Cosimo de’ Medici’s private cells at the monastery of San Marco as well as the Medici Palace chapel, and male members of the family were active in the prestigious Company of the Magi, one of Florence’s major religious confraternities.
In his biography of Botticelli, Vasari mentions the existence of three Medici portraits in del Lama’s Adoration of the Magi. He identifies the elder Magus, who tenderly kisses the Child’s foot, as a portrait of Cosimo (d. 1464) and, kneeling on the right in the guise of the youngest Magus, Cosimo’s younger son, Giovanni, who died in 1463. But Vasari misidentified the middle-aged Magus, in red at the lower center of the scene, claiming the figure is a portrait of “Giuliano de’ Medici, the father of Pope Clement VII.” That’s impossible, as Giuliano was barely twenty years old at the time the work was painted. The middle-aged Magus is more likely a portrait of Cosimo’s older son, Piero, who died in 1469.
Even if we assume these are posthumous tributes to Medici family members who had helped del Lama, it still seems odd that Vasari, having misidentified the middle-aged Magus as Giuliano de’ Medici, made no mention of any portrayal in the painting of Giuliano’s older brother, Lorenzo, the head of the family and the ruler of Florence in 1475. We might expect that Lorenzo would have a prominent place in a composition where the Medici have literally become the Magi.
The absence of any mention by Vasari of Lorenzo and his mistaken identification of Giuliano has not stopped modern scholars from speculating on which figures among the spectators might be correctly identified as Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, although there’s little agreement on which figure represents which brother. Several scholars identify the cocky youth portrayed leaning on his sword in the extreme left foreground as Lorenzo; another claims Lorenzo is the serious-faced man portrayed in profile, third in on the right, wrapped in a long, pale-blue robe trimmed with gold and staring raptly at the Virgin and Child. Giuliano is sometimes thought to be the young man in red and black, shown at half length and in profile on the right, just next to the kneeling Magus identified by Vasari as a portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici.
Another (better?) guess is that Lorenzo may be the more mature man in black and red who remains modestly to one side, among the group on the right but a little apart from them, with his head slightly bowed and his eyes lowered, his profile silhouetted against the wall behind him. Without in any way spotlighting him, the space around the man’s head subtly draws attention to him. His dark skin and jet-black hair accord well with contemporary descriptions of Lorenzo. The plant growing out of the wall near him is sometimes identified as laurel (lauro in Italian), a play on the name Lorenzo that also appears in the poetry of the Medici circle. If informed of del Lama’s artistic plans, which he probably was, Lorenzo may have asked not to be displayed too prominently. Such calculated modesty, no doubt learned from his grandfather Cosimo, would have made good sense in the mid-1470s, when Lorenzo was still learning his role as head of the family and behind-the-scenes head of state.
A further reason to identify this figure as Lorenzo is the presence, just behind him and to the right, of an elderly man with white hair who gazes out at the viewer and points to himself. This is most likely Guaspare del Lama, who was well into his sixties when he commissioned the work. If Guaspare aspired to remain in the good graces of the Medici, what better way of demonstrating his continuing loyalty than by having himself shown right next to the current head of the Medici family?
We might suspect that Guaspare was a bit startled, though, when the painting was delivered to him, and he noticed the bulky blond man in a gold-colored cloak on the far right, who stares arrogantly outward, a pendant to the aristocratic-looking youth with a sword on the left side. Although Vasari says nothing about it, the figure is usually taken to be Botticelli’s self-portrait. Even though it’s not common to find the painter shown more prominently than his patron, perhaps Guaspare was practicing some Medicean modesty.
Despite the emphasis on portraiture in the scene, Botticelli never forgot that he was portraying a religious subject. The elevated setting for the Holy Family emphasizes their difference from the ordinary mortals around them and replicates the position of the altarpiece itself, which would have been positioned above the altar of del Lama’s chapel. The event takes place in a shed constructed on an outcropping of rock, with ruined masonry on the right and the weedy remains of an ancient Roman arcade in the left background. Crumbling classical architecture was a traditional symbol of the old pagan order shortly to be replaced by Christianity. A hole in the roof allows the gold rays of the star of Bethlehem to enter the shed and fall on the Christ Child.
Vasari comments at some length on Botticelli’s portrayal of the oldest Magus, noting the deep emotion displayed by the elderly man “as he kisses the foot of Our Lord with wonderful tenderness and conveys his sense of relief at having come to the end of his long journey.” The elder Magus does not hold the Child’s foot directly in his hands but has covered both of Christ’s feet with a veil that drapes around his own shoulders, an action imitating that of a priest at the benediction of the Sacrament, when he covers his hands with a veil to hold up by its foot the vessel, called a monstrance, that contains the Eucharist, the body of Christ, for the adoration of the faithful. Cosimo de’ Medici, whose portrait Vasari identifies in the person of the old Magus, was one of the rare laymen granted papal permission to keep a consecrated host in his chapel, an indication not merely of Cosimo’s piety but of his power and exceptional status in the Florentine community. Along with the other presumed portraits of the Medici family, the identification of the eldest Magus with Cosimo can be seen as an instance of religious imagery that reinforces both the impression of Cosimo’s deep piety and the reality of Medici political power.
“Venus, that is to say, Humanitas, is a nymph of excellent beauty, born of heaven and beloved by God. Her soul and mind are Love and Charity, her eyes Dignity and Generosity; her hands Liberality and Magnificence; her feet Comeliness and Modesty. Her whole form is Temperance and Honesty, Charm and Splendor. My dear Lorenzo, a nymph of such nobility has been wholly given into your hands! If you were to marry her and claim her as your own, she would make sweet all the years of your life.”—Letter of Marsilio Ficino to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, ca. 1477
“[T]his enchanted world, permeated by mute music, silent song.” — Paul Barolsky, 2000
When the distinguished Florentine intellectual Marsilio Ficino penned a letter to his fourteen-year-old pupil Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, he wasn’t advising the young man about his love life but, rather, urging on him the study of philosophy. By identifying the Humanities with the goddess of erotic love, perhaps he hoped to make studying more attractive to the boy, as well as showing him the value of humanitas, the sum of all the fine qualities most valued in a Renaissance gentleman. Ficino personified this abstract concept through Venus, with each part of her body standing for a virtue that his pupil should strive to attain.
About five years later, in 1482, someone — we still are not certain who — gave Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco an extraordinary wedding gift, which at times has been interpreted in terms of Ficino’s letter as the world’s most beautiful painted philosophy lesson: Botticelli’s Primavera, or Springtime. Today, though, the belief that the painting is merely the visual equivalent of Ficino’s letter is no longer accepted; instead, art historians regard the work as both a poetic and sensual dreamworld and a complex symbolic statement that reveals different levels of meaning to different viewers. Nevertheless, disagreement persists about how the painting should be understood. Scholars have cited a variety of possible sources for its imagery, ranging from rarified intellectual texts to poetry, marriage manuals, and popular pamphlets on astrology. There’s no doubt that the painting is rich in literary, familial, political, sexual, religious, and mythic associations, but as one present-day scholar commented wryly, the painting “has been affected by an obvious crisis of over-explanation”. None of the evidence is definitive — the painting may simply celebrate marriage, in general, and its importance for family continuity rather than any one particular marriage.
Arguments also continue about who commissioned the work, for what purpose, and at what precise date, although a good case can be made that the painting was commissioned around 1480 by Lorenzo il Magnifico as a wedding gift for his young second cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, an orphan who had grown up surrounded by art and classical culture in the home of Il Magnifico. We know that the elder Lorenzo arranged the marriage of his youthful ward, and that his reasons were political. The bride, Semiramide degli Appiani, was the sister of Jacopo IV degli Appiani, the lord of Piombino and Elba, and the Medici needed the military and economic support of the Appiani family. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, though still in his teens, was the only available Medici bachelor who’d reached a minimum age for marriage; in the early 1480s the male children of Lorenzo the Magnificent were still too young. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco appears to have been less than pleased by the arrangements made on his behalf, and he professed indifference to his upcoming nuptials, so the gift of such an extraordinary painting by a favorite Medici artist may have been part of the elder Lorenzo’s efforts to placate the young man.
Visitors to the Uffizi are often spellbound by the beauty of the Primavera but mystified by its enigmatic content. The individual figures and groups of figures have no apparent relationship to one another. Although reading the painting from left to right as if it were a written text enables us to identify the figures, all from classical mythology, this fails to produce a coherent narrative. On the far left is the god Mercury, clad in a rose-red cloak and recognizable by his winged sandals and caduceus (a staff intertwined with serpents), which he holds in his right hand and uses to dispel clouds that might disturb the painting’s idyllic atmosphere. Next to him the Three Graces, classical embodiments of beauty, perform a sinuous dance, their long blonde hair and gauzy white garments rippling around them.
At the center stands a modestly clothed Christianized Venus, whose rose-red cloak echoes the color of Mercury’s garb, reminding us of the connection between those two planetary deities. We might mistake Venus for the Virgin Mary rather than the goddess of sexual love but for the presence of the winged and blindfolded Cupid who hovers above her, aiming his fire-tipped arrow at one of the Graces. Although Cupid’s paternity remains uncertain, in some versions of the ancient myth he was the child of Venus’s affair with Mercury. On the right side is the only real narrative: the wind god Zephyr, puff-cheeked and blue-skinned, pursues the nymph Chloris, from whose mouth issues a stream of flowers as she is transformed into Flora, or Primavera, the flower-bedecked personification of Spring. The exquisite figures inhabit a lush, shadowy garden where dark green trees laden with oranges form a backdrop, and flowers carpet the grassy meadow.
The work abounds in painted images that most likely refer to the Medici family. The round golden fruit would have suggested to fifteenth-century Florentines the well-known family emblem of the Medici: the palle, six red or gold balls on a shield. Around the figure of Zephyr the orange trees give way to laurel, lauro in Italian and traditionally in the Medici family a reference to the name Lorenzo. Among his activities in classical myths, Mercury bore a special responsibility for doctors; the Italian name Medici means doctors, and the god’s serpent staff is still the symbol of the medical profession.
The myth of Zephyr and Chloris, Greek in origin, comes to us from the Roman poet Ovid, who describes the month of May by telling the story of Flora, whose feast the ancient Romans celebrated in early May. Ovid relates how Zephyr, the west wind, pursued Chloris, the nymph of fields, and how, at his touch, she was transformed into the far more splendid Flora. After capturing her, Zephyr raped her, but eventually he regretted his lustful excess and married her, making Flora the mistress of flowers and the patroness of springtime. There can be little doubt that Botticelli illustrates this story on the right side of his painting. The flowers streaming from the mouth of Chloris blend into the flower-embroidered dress of Flora, which in turn melts into the flowers of the meadow, creating an almost cinematic sequence, an imaginative visual translation of a verbal description.
But what relationship exists between this ancient nature myth and the rest of the painting? Poetry and philosophy from the Medici circle in Florence may offer some clues, but they don’t provide a definitive explanation. Many of the poems composed by Lorenzo the Magnificent and his friend Angelo Poliziano evoke the gods and spirits of the ancient world, and they abound in evocations of springtime and love. We don’t need to assume that Botticelli read Ovid in the Latin original, since either Lorenzo or Poliziano could have suggested Ovid’s story as a starting point for Botticelli’s images, perhaps along with handing over copies of their own poems. But it’s also possible that the artist never intended to illustrate a narrative — the painting can be seen as a series of loosely connected poetic “stanzas” about springtime that don’t produce a continuous story line. Botticelli was a creative spirit, a visual poet, who possessed an unparalleled ability to transform words and ideas into unforgettable painted images.
The philosopher Ficino interpreted Venus as Love in its broadest sense — as that which both gives physical life and has the power to soar beyond the senses, into the realm of the intellect and the spirit. Although Ovid doesn’t mention Venus or Mercury in his telling of the Primavera story, the goddess of love was associated with spring because she presided over growth, flowering, and fertility. In ancient Greek art Mercury often appears as the leader of the Graces, a connection that survived into the fifteenth century. Even though the figure of Flora-Primavera has given her name to the painting, the central placement of Venus, the halo-like circle of light that surrounds her head, her hand gesture of regal invitation, and her gaze directed at the viewer all suggest that she may hold the key to the work, welcoming the viewer into her magical springtime garden.
The resemblance of Botticelli’s Venus to the Virgin Mary surely isn’t accidental. From the center of her garden of love, Venus presides over her classical court as a haloed queen, very much as Mary — pictured in religious art as the Queen of Heaven — presides over the celestial Garden of Paradise. Even the relationship between Zephyr and the nymph he’s pursuing may have a quasi-religious dimension. A close look at the face of Zephyr reveals fine gold lines representing his breath as it flows from his mouth to that of Chloris. Religious paintings of the Annunciation often show the progress of the Holy Spirit toward Mary the same way: as golden rays of light that extend from the Dove to Mary. But unlike the Angel Gabriel, who is merely the messenger, Zephyr takes physical possession of Chloris, though Botticelli wouldn’t have dreamed of showing an actual rape. Instead, in one of the most ingenious and daring details of the painting, he may be illustrating what art historian Paul Barolsky calls an imaginative form of oral sex: as the personification of the spring wind, Zephyr impregnates Chloris by blowing into her mouth. And her mouth, in turn, gives birth to her new, transformed self: beginning as a stream of flowers, Chloris becomes Flora.
Another way to understand the painting is through the seasonal imagery that pervades it. Spring begins when Zephyr transforms Chloris into Flora and brings forth the first flowers. The Graces dance in celebration of the season, while Venus and Cupid remind us that spring is the time of love, fecundity, and their consequence—procreation. Venus is the astrological deity who rules the spring season from April 21 through May 21, just as Mercury rules the later spring, from May 22 through June 21, the first day of summer. Although today few people take astrology seriously, in the Renaissance it was still considered by many to be a valid science. Ficino wrote about it extensively, and in the early 1500s Pope Leo X, a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, endowed a Chair of Astrology at the University of Padua.
Clearly, a painting as dense with visual imagery as this one doesn’t appear out of nowhere. In addition to its relationship to religious traditions and classical mythology, the work is also part of a Tuscan tradition of depicting the Garden of Love, a subject featuring Venus as the central figure that’s often depicted on birth trays — a popular gift to new mothers — and other objects related to marriage and childbirth. In that context the function of such imagery is clear: Venus brings love, and love brings marriage and children.
The elegant, courtly qualities of the painting may be related to the festivals sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent, celebrations that formed an important part of Lorenzo’s political activity. Botticelli was directly familiar with those events, as he’s known to have produced banners and other decorations for them. Such pageants, performed by gorgeously costumed members of the city’s elite but intended for everyone to enjoy, were part of the Medici family’s long-standing political program of keeping the common people happy by keeping them entertained. May Day celebrations were particularly elaborate.
Although the Primavera, a private commission, wasn’t meant as a public political statement, even paintings of mythological subjects may have a political dimension. The unusually large size of the painting (two meters high and more than three meters wide) places it on a scale with other large paintings owned by the Medici: Uccello’s series of battle pictures and the now lost Labors of Hercules series by the Pollaiuolo brothers. It’s easy to see how scenes of battles and heroes might be used to support the Medici political agenda, but a celebration of fertility and procreation that implies the continuation of the family dynasty could have formed another part of the same agenda.
Mythic stories about the season were also a way of linking Florence to its classical past and the city’s contemporary life — to the peace and prosperity that Lorenzo wished to associate with his reign. The hundreds of flowers scattered about in the painting as well as their personification as Flora remind us that the name Florence means “flowers”, and that the city’s cathedral was dedicated to St. Mary of the Flower. If Il Magnifico himself commissioned the painting as a gift to his ward on the occasion of the younger Lorenzo’s wedding (uncertain, but possible, even probable), then such a reminder would not have been out of place.
The youthful Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco might have drawn further from Botticelli’s painting the moral that passionate physical love, the province of youth and Springtime seen in the Zephyr-Chloris-Flora myth, is transformed by the influence of Ficino’s “heavenly” Venus and the chaste Graces into a higher, more mature, and more spiritual love that is ultimately the love of God. By this route, classical deities could be revived in a Christian context, because they’re no longer dangerous pagan gods but have been transformed into benevolent symbols and personifications with Christian significance.
Since the work was most likely a gift to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco on the occasion of his marriage, the work also may be related to the marriage customs and beliefs of the time. According to a Medici inventory of 1498–1499, the work hung over a lettuccio, or daybed, in a ground-floor room of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s town house, an older dwelling next door to the famous Palazzo Medici in Florence. The painting’s theme of fertility and procreation would make it an appropriate decoration to be placed over a bed, and although a daybed isn’t the same as a marriage bed, it could have been a place where, in the evening after the servants had gone to sleep, the young couple could doze, dream, and perhaps even make love, under a picture of the enchanted garden of Venus, the goddess of love.
Along with whatever philosophical inspiration and sexual stimulus the painting provided for the groom, it may have conveyed very different messages to the bride. Italian Renaissance marriage manuals endlessly repeat the ideal behaviors expected of an upper-class wife: chastity, submissiveness and childbearing. Chastity refers to the necessity that the bride be a virgin at her marriage and that she maintain a demure appearance and virtuous behavior as a wife. Submissiveness was essential because aristocratic marriages were political and economic alliances between families, not love matches, and the bride, usually between fourteen and sixteen years old, had little say in choosing her husband, and an ironclad obligation to obey him.
The manuals further emphasized that for women the purpose of marriage was procreation, and that the wife’s pleasure, happiness and satisfaction must come from childbearing and motherhood. Art historian Lillian Zirpolo relates each of these lessons for the bride to Botticelli’s Primavera. She sees the Three Graces as personifications of the ideal behavior of a Renaissance wife: chaste, demure, graceful, and decorous. She interprets Flora’s smile and Venus’s contented expression, as well as the bulging abdomens of the two women, as expressions of their satisfaction with motherhood. In seductively beautiful painted form, the work may offer a lesson in female familial duty.
Zirpolo further relates the story of Zephyr and Chloris to a more alarming aspect of Renaissance marriage manuals, all of them written by men: they find the origins of marriage in the story of the mass kidnapping and rape of the Sabine women by the Romans. That tale, one of the fundamental myths of ancient Rome, claims it was necessary for the Romans, who had a severe shortage of women in their own tribe, to carry off the women of the Sabine tribe, against the women’s will, in order to marry and procreate with them, thus saving the Roman race. Renaissance brides were instructed to submit to their husbands for similar reasons.
Zephyr and Chloris, viewed from this perspective, take on quite a different meaning. Zephyr becomes truly menacing, and Chloris becomes a frightened and defenseless woman, the panic-stricken prey of a determined assailant. For the Renaissance bride, the lesson was clear: resistance to her husband’s will was both futile and dangerous, but submission to him would bring the rich rewards embodied in the contented and literally flourishing Flora. It’s easy to imagine Semiramide degli Appiani — probably no more than fifteen at the time of her marriage, but already well schooled in proper behavior for her important new role as a Medici wife — having little difficulty in absorbing the message Primavera held for her.
How should modern viewers, both male and female, regard this many-leveled work? Today, few people of either sex read the Roman poems and Renaissance philosophical treatises that provided Botticelli with his material. Even fewer women would want anything to do with marriage manuals that celebrate kidnapping and rape as a model for the beginning of a happy marital union. Perhaps the best option is to acknowledge the work’s various possible meanings to its Renaissance viewers and then to step back from those meanings and appreciate the painting for the deep spell cast by the sheer physical beauty of Botticelli’s painted forms: the palette of rich, muted colors, now restored after a recent cleaning; the elegant, studied poses of the figures; the rich patterns of curving, interlocking lines and intricate surface patterns that resemble the tone-painting and complex, interweaving voices of a Renaissance madrigal. To appreciate such musical magic, we don’t need to understand every last one of the words; and to appreciate Botticelli’s visual magic, we don’t have to accept — or even understand — every idea that his images convey.
In the end, the Primavera leaves us with more questions than answers. The fact that several centuries of scholarly efforts have not provided any definitive answers to what the painting means should alert us to the possibility that the work was never intended to have just one meaning. Perhaps the very elusiveness of its meanings and the many possible interpretations of its imagery were all part of the “game” — the intellectual exercise so enjoyed by the artist’s sophisticated clientele. As a contemporary of Botticelli commented about the meaning of one of the artist’s works: “Some give one explanation and some another; no one is of the same opinion, so that it is the most beautiful of painted images.”
“From the midst of the sea there emerged a divine face of an appearance worthy of veneration even by the gods. Then gradually I saw the whole shining figure rising out of the sea. Her hair, most abundant in its richness, flowed yieldingly about her divine neck in slight curves, fluttering luxuriously.” — Apuleius, The Golden Ass
The Birth of Venus is Botticelli’s most famous and beloved painting, a marvelous mixture of classical mythology, Renaissance poetry, and Christianity, fused by the artist’s ability to transform even the most unpromising material into magically beautiful images. As told by the ancient Greeks, the birth of the goddess of erotic love is a gory family saga that features infanticide, parricide, cannibalism, and castration. And yet, Botticelli’s charmed brush purges the final chapter of the story of all such associations and turns it into a triumph of elegance and delicacy.
Unlike Botticelli’s Primavera, the Birth of Venus may not have been a Medici commission. Although at a later date both paintings belonged to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the original patron of the Birth of Venus is unknown. The two works are not a pair and most likely never hung next to each other as they do today in the Uffizi. The Birth of Venus, probably from around 1486, is painted on canvas rather than on a wood panel, and it is somewhat smaller in its dimensions, although the figures are larger. The central figure is Venus, here newly born from the sea foam and wafted to shore on a pale pink shell by the breath of the winged wind god Zephyr, shown cozily entwined with Chloris, the nymph of flowers whom he had abducted in Botticelli’s slightly earlier Primavera.
The ancient Greek story of the birth of Venus begins at a much earlier moment than the one Botticelli shows. Back in the shadowy beginnings of the world, the father god Saturn ruled by terror. Warned by some primal instinct that his children would eventually kill him, he developed the nasty habit of eating each of them as they were born. But the various mothers managed to save a few of their offspring, and eventually a group of the god’s children rebelled against him and killed him. Fearing that his powers would survive even death, they dismembered their father’s corpse and castrated him, flinging his genitals into the ocean. But the grisly old god was so prodigiously fertile that his severed genitals mated with the sea foam, and the unlikely result of that union was Venus.
Not a trace of the legend’s savagery remains in Botticelli’s painting. His source wasn’t the ancient myth itself but one of the retellings that appeared during the Renaissance. Perhaps Botticelli had read The Golden Ass, an ancient Roman novel that appeared in an Italian translation in 1469, which contained a more refined description of the birth of Venus, or perhaps he’d read Renaissance poems that treat the subject with equal delicacy. In any case, Botticelli’s sophisticated patron — whoever this was — wouldn’t have been satisfied with a slavish copy of a literary text.
Botticelli met the challenge brilliantly. He does not show the actual birth of Venus but, rather, the moment of her landing on shore. For the pose of his Venus he used the classical Venus pudica, or modest Venus type, where the goddess appears with one hand covering her breasts and the other concealing her sex, an image that appears in Italian art as early as the 1300s. Although ancient Roman statues show Venus as a mature and worldly woman unconcerned with being seen in the nude, Botticelli portrayed the goddess as a wistful, virginal-looking girl sincerely interested in preserving her modesty. She uses the curling streams of her long, taffy-blonde hair, lightly touched here and there with gold pigment, to conceal her nakedness, and she looks more than ready to receive the flower-embroidered pink cloak in which an attendant on the right side of the painting is about to wrap her. The latter — identified as one of the Horae, or Hours of the Day, in classical mythology among the attendants of Venus — hurries toward the goddess with the grace of a dancer, her garments and the cloak she carries billowing around her body.
Despite similarities of pose, Botticelli’s Venus bears little resemblance to a classical goddess. Her body is oddly shaped, with an elongated neck, sloping shoulders, circular breasts, high waist, and thick ankles, and yet such is the authority of Botticelli’s style that most viewers barely notice these aberrations. Instead, the artist enchants us with the gentle melancholy of Venus’s face, the sinuous play of line in her abundant hair, and the contrast of her simple, somehow modest nudity with the complex draperies of the clothed female attendant on the right and the decidedly carnal tangle of Zephyr and Chloris on the left.
Behind the figures are a body of water and a landscape. The trees on the far right have absolutely straight, parallel trunks touched, like the strands of Venus’s hair, with highlights of gold. The waves of the chalky green sea form perfect little V-shapes or, closer to the shore, swirl into prominent patterns of foam that more closely resemble lace than water. Considering the circumstances of Venus’s birth, the artist was no doubt aware that the Italian word schiuma, which can mean “sea foam”, was — and still is — slang term for semen. A flat blue sky provides the kind of summary background that caused Leonardo da Vinci to accuse Botticelli of creating landscapes by throwing a sponge at his pictures. But realism wasn’t Botticelli’s goal. The flat, almost tapestry-like composition is part of the painting’s magic, creating a dreamlike atmosphere in which the figures seem to float.
Modern viewers familiar with the ghastly Greek myth of the origins of Venus are sometimes puzzled by the determination of Renaissance humanists and art patrons to ignore that aspect of the legend. But despite the enthusiasm for classical culture that prevailed in elite circles in Florence in the late 1400s, it was still a Christian society, and stories such as the birth of Venus required some reinterpretation before they were considered fully fit for Christian consumption.
The group of humanist scholars who gathered around the Medici family included several whose ambition was to reconcile classical culture with Christianity — a tall order, given such stories as the birth of Venus and numerous others that enliven Greek and Roman mythology. Nonetheless, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, one of the most talented of the group, offered a reinterpretation of the story of the birth of Venus that was rarified enough to satisfy even the most sensitive Christian minds. He suggested that we shouldn’t take the story literally but, instead, should interpret it symbolically. The birth of Venus, he declared, is really about “the birth of beauty in the human mind, fertilized by divinity.” The idea that beauty can be born in the human mind only when that mind is “fertilized” by God is certainly a most imaginative transformation of the Greek myth of the ocean impregnated by the severed genitals of Saturn.
The possibility that the painting can be interpreted on more than one level, and that the literal meaning is perhaps the least important, is an approach that would have appealed to Botticelli’s highly educated and cultured circle of patrons, a group that included poets, linguists, and philosophers as well as wealthy merchants and bankers like the Medici family. As noted in the essay about Botticelli’s Primavera, the same Marsilio Ficino who came up with the ingenious reinterpretation of the birth of Venus had also written to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in enthusiastic terms a few years earlier, equating Venus with humanitas, a concept embodying all the desirable traits of a Renaissance gentleman. In Ficino’s flexible philosophical categories, Venus could also personify ideal beauty — and beauty, according to Plato, is identical with truth. Still adapting Plato, Ficino claimed that the contemplation of earthly beauty could lead the soul upward to divine beauty and ultimately to the contemplation of God. With these ideas in mind, it would be inaccurate to conclude that Botticelli’s painting is purely pagan in its subject matter. Although it tells the pagan story of the birth of Venus, the painting is also resonant with Christian meanings.
On the visual level Botticelli made his own references to Christianity. For members of his cultured Renaissance audience the modest pose of Venus and the running female figure on her right would bring to mind paintings of both the Baptism of Christ and the Annunciation to Mary that they’d seen as altarpieces in churches. As if to emphasize the latter parallel, Botticelli often used the same face for his images of Venus and the Virgin Mary, providing a vivid illustration of another idea of Ficino’s: that both Venus and the Virgin Mary are emanations of Divine Love, with Venus representing its earthly aspect and Mary its heavenly one.
According to a charming but unprovable legend, Botticelli fell in love with the famous Florentine beauty Simonetta Cattaneo, the wife of a compliant fellow named Marco Vespucci and reputed to be the favorite mistress of Il Magnifico’s younger brother, Giuliano de’ Medici. As a result of Botticelli’s infatuation, it is supposedly Simonetta’s lovely face that appears in the artist’s paintings of the goddess of love and the Virgin Mary, including the Birth of Venus. Several portraits by Florentine artists, said to be of Simonetta, reveal an attractive young woman, but one who lacks the ethereal loveliness of Botticelli’s Venuses and Virgins, whose appearance no doubt owes as much to the artist’s imagination as to his alleged passion for Simonetta.
There’s something about the dreamy, otherworldly beauty of Botticelli’s work that has given rise to all kinds of misconceptions about the artist, extending even to his name. The nineteenth-century English art critic and esthete Walter Pater used to repeat the name “Botticelli” over and over, enchanted by the sound of it. The unromantic truth is that Alessandro di Filipepi (the artist’s baptismal name) had a portly older brother, Giovanni, a successful pawnbroker whose friends nicknamed him “Il Botticello,” the Little Barrel. Since the young Alessandro appears to have been raised in his brother’s home, it was natural that people would begin to refer to the boy as “Sandro del Botticello”, which in time became the more familiar Botticelli. A possible picture of Botticelli as an enthusiastic partygoer emerges from a playful poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici, devoted to Florence’s best-known drinkers. The following ditty, a portion of that poem, may refer in punning terms to the artist:
Botticelli, little barrel . . . Where’d they get the “little” from?
Cramming food and talking nonsense; fat and full and quite at home.
Here to lunch and there to dinner, never misses, never doubt.
He’s Botticelli on arrival, and full to the brim goes rolling out.
The picture of the artist that emerges from Lorenzo’s affectionate lines suggests a man who enjoyed good food in good company, but it appears that Botticelli may have been part of the Medici intellectual circle as well, an unusual honor in an era when most artists were still treated like servants or tradesmen. Where else, if not from these intellectuals, would Botticelli have acquired his sophisticated and detailed knowledge of classical mythology and its possible levels of meaning? Botticelli may have listened to and perhaps even participated in wide-ranging discussions of the dialogues of Plato, ancient Roman poetry, and classical mythology, as well as the efforts to reconcile all of those with Christianity. But the written works produced by the scholars of the Medici circle are little read today, except by specialists. Only Botticelli possessed the gift of turning their ideas into ravishing visual images.
It appears that the Medici valued Botticelli as both a painter and a loyal supporter of their regime. In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 they called upon him to produce “disgrace pictures”—portraits of the bodies of the hanged conspirators, painted on the exterior walls of the city hall, a commission that must have left the sensitive artist shuddering but which he executed without hesitation. Although the payment — the considerable sum of forty gold florins — came from the government, there’s little doubt that Lorenzo the Magnificent was behind the choice of a painter and his generous remuneration.
For all his success with the Medici and other wealthy clients in the 1470s and 1480s, Botticelli outlived his own popularity. During the later 1480s Florence fell under the spell of the fanatical Dominican preacher Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who railed against the city’s materialism and the fascination of its intellectuals with pagan ideas and attitudes. He urged the Florentines to burn their “vanities” — jewelry, tapestries, paintings, luxurious clothing — in a huge bonfire in front of the city’s cathedral. Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492, in some accounts begging on his deathbed for Savonarola’s blessing, and two years later the family that had so consistently patronized Botticelli was forced into exile.
According to Vasari’s report, Botticelli became such a dedicated follower of Savonarola that he repented of his interest in classical subject matter and later gave up painting entirely. Here too, legends have replaced less dramatic facts. Botticelli continued to paint for various clients into the early years of the 1500s, although he was no longer in such great demand. His later works took on an austere appearance, and his subject matter became exclusively religious and moralistic. We may believe Vasari’s sad description of the aged Botticelli, crippled and impoverished at his death in 1510. The world the Medici had nourished, where pagan ideals coexisted with Christianity and where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus had found success, was gone from Florence, and Botticelli was by then too old and ill to participate in its spectacular revival in Rome in the 1500s.
The intricate and intimate connections of religion and politics in the Renaissance are never more numerous than in images of popes and prelates. Although many Renaissance portraits offer no clues to either the identities of the sitters or their motivations for commissioning a portrait, in the case of Raphael’s masterly portrayal of Pope Leo X with two cardinals, we can dip into a rich trove of Renaissance history to fill out the political context, as well as the lives of the three men in the painting and the supremely gifted artist who immortalized them.
Always a consummate portraitist, Raphael was at the peak of his powers when, around 1517–1518, he created this image of Leo X Medici in the company of two cardinals who are also his cousins.† Raphael had come to Rome from Florence around 1509, called there by Pope Julius II. While Michelangelo labored almost alone, painting the ceiling of the nearby Sistine Chapel, Raphael, helped by a troop of assistants, frescoed the walls of several important rooms in the Vatican Palace. When Leo X succeeded Julius in 1513, the new pope soon sent the irritable, intimidating Michelangelo home to Florence to work on Medici projects there, but Raphael remained in his employ in the Vatican. Leo liked the gracious, diplomatic artist as well as the work he produced, and he must have been especially satisfied with this portrait, as he kept it among his personal possessions. After the pope’s death it passed to another member of the Medici family, was later owned by Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, and except for a brief exile in Napoleonic France, it has always been displayed in Florence.
Raphael’s genius in capturing the character of his sitters is on full display in what amounts to a dynastic portrait of Leo X and his two cousins. This is not the usual official papal portrait — we don’t see the politically oblivious pope occupied with affairs of state, which interested him very little. Instead, he is about to examine, through a gold-framed magnifying glass, a splendid illuminated manuscript, a Bible opened to the beginning of the Gospel of John, perhaps in honor of the pope’s baptismal name, Giovanni. Raphael depicted the page so accurately that the book has been identified as a manuscript now preserved in Berlin. Next to the manuscript sits a finely worked bell of gold and silver, topped with a red silk tassel. The brilliant rendering of textures — the shimmering dark-red velvet and lustrous white silk brocade of the pope’s vestments, the glossy crimson silk of the cardinals’ robes, the gleaming gold and silver of the bell, the magnifying glass frame, and the decorated manuscript page, as well as the differing skin tones of the three men — stands as evidence of Raphael’s complete mastery of the art of painting.
Although the seated pope is at a slightly lower level than his two standing companions, Leo’s large head and bulky, richly clothed body dominate the composition. Raphael succeeded in giving the homely and somewhat timorous pope a commanding, even majestic presence—his corpulence becomes an expression not of indolence but of authority. Contemporary sources report that Leo was extremely proud of his elegant white hands, prominently posed in the painting and without rings that might distract from their beauty. Those same sources also relate that the pope was severely myopic and that he could read only with the help of a magnifying glass. But Raphael knew better than to portray him squinting through the glass. Instead, Leo holds it, not like a reader but like a connoisseur, ready to have a closer look at a work of art. Raphael often idealized his subjects, but this doesn’t mean he made them better-looking than they were in reality. In this portrait the idealization consists of emphasizing the pope’s attractive qualities and transforming his unattractive features into advantages that showcase his power.
How Giovanni de’ Medici, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s second son, became Pope Leo X is a story that reveals much about the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries. Born in 1475, since childhood Giovanni had been destined by his father for an ecclesiastical career, because Lorenzo believed that a presence in the highest echelons of the Church would be a great political advantage to the Medici family. The boy received his monastic tonsure at age seven, and by the time he was ten his father’s tireless efforts had acquired dozens of benefices for him—income-producing Church offices that required no responsibilities. In 1489, after a great deal of pressure, bribes, and persuasion exerted on Pope Innocent VIII by Lorenzo de’ Medici (actions that included giving his teenage daughter Maddalena in marriage to the pope’s dissolute forty-year-old illegitimate son), the thirteen-year-old Giovanni was named a cardinal. His formal investiture was delayed until 1492, but even for that lax period the appointment was considered premature.
Although Giovanni had been educated by the finest minds in Florence and later studied theology and canon law at the university in Pisa, he’d also received a very different kind of education during his youth, when he learned to take for granted that all the benefits and favors at the disposal of the Church could be bought and sold though influence, barter, or gold and that this was perfectly normal. To enter the Church was not to begin a life dedicated to spiritual matters but to embark on something more like a profitable career in business or politics. His later inability to grasp that the trading or selling of Church offices, benefices, pardons, and indulgences was inappropriate — and could even be seen as sordid — is a reflection of what he’d experienced throughout his childhood, as he witnessed his father using every means at his disposal to assure his son’s advancement in the Church. Perhaps some of the seeds of the Reformation sprouted in the garden of the Palazzo Medici.
After the death of his influential father in 1492, Giovanni’s promising clerical career was nearly ruined by his older brother Piero, Lorenzo il Magnifico’s successor as the unofficial head of the Florentine state. By 1494 Piero had made his family so detested in Florence that the people revolted and forced the Medici to flee the city. Giovanni passed the next years in wandering exile, spending time at the court of Urbino, as well as in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. After the election of Julius II in 1503 and Cardinal Giovanni’s return to Rome, the young prelate’s career prospered, and he was able to contribute to the restoration of Medici rule in Florence in 1512.
At the death of Julius II in 1513, Giovanni de’ Medici was elected pope, taking the name Leo in honor of the lion (leone) known as the Marzocco that was one of the symbols of Florence. But Leo X was no lion in his personality or his papacy. An easygoing, luxury-loving man only thirty-seven years old and not yet ordained as a priest at the time he assumed the papal office, Leo is supposed to have responded to his election by saying: “God has given us the papacy; now let us enjoy it.” And enjoy it he did, filling the Vatican not only with artists, poets, and philosophers but also with actors, dancers, acrobats, animals (including an elephant) and their trainers, gourmet cooks, clowns, and courtesans.
To the relief of many both within and outside the Vatican, Leo X abandoned the aggressive militarism of Julius II, but he lacked his predecessor’s energy and determination, and he failed to understand the seriousness of the religious unrest stirring in northern Europe. He dismissed Martin Luther’s now famous protest of 1517 — his posting on the church door in Wittenberg of the Ninety-Five Theses challenging the Church’s sale of indulgences — as nothing more than “monkish squabbles” that would soon fade away. Raphael may well have been painting this work at the very moment Luther set off the spark that ignited centuries of religious resentments and led to the Protestant Reformation.
Fate had very different destinies in store for the two cardinals who attend Leo in Raphael’s portrait. On our right, the tense and watchful Luigi de’ Rossi meets the viewer’s eye with a sharp, suspicious glance of his own. Born in 1474, he was the son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s illegitimate half sister, Maria, wife of Leonetto de’ Rossi. Luigi had been raised and educated along with Giovanni de’ Medici, and the two had become close friends. Leo made his cousin a cardinal in 1517, which indicates that the painting cannot have been begun before that year.
Rossi had reason to look nervous. He was one of thirty-one cardinals Leo created in 1517, an unusually large number to be appointed at one time. The explanation for the sudden expansion of the College of Cardinals was the uncovering of a plot by certain members of the Curia to assassinate the pope. After having the perpetrators executed or exiled, Leo decided it would be prudent to weight the College in his favor, and among those friends and relatives he promoted was his cousin Luigi. Cardinal de’ Rossi died in 1519, so Raphael’s painting must have been completed before that date. Although Rossi accomplished little during his short life, his presence in the painting gives us a firm time frame for one of Raphael’s masterpieces.
Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the handsome, sad-eyed man on our left, was the illegitimate son of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s brother Giuliano, who was murdered in 1478 during a plot against the Medici known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. Giulio was raised by Lorenzo among his own children, and he formed an especially close bond with the slightly older Giovanni. When Giovanni became pope in 1513, Giulio was one of the first cardinals he created. After serving his cousin in various capacities, in 1523 he was himself elected pope, as Clement VII. Expected to be at least competent, he instead proved to be among the most disastrous pontiffs in the history of the Church. His inept diplomacy and his inability to make decisions and stick to them brought down on the Eternal City in 1527 the worst attack since the barbarian invasions of a thousand years earlier: the Sack of Rome.
But those events — de’ Rossi’s death, the crises of the Reformation, the stormy papacy of Clement VII — were all in the future. Although we don’t know the pope’s precise motivations for commissioning this portrait, the fact that he chose to have himself portrayed in the company of two cousins who had been his companions since childhood, and whom he’d raised to the cardinalate, suggests he considered the work the clerical equivalent of a traditional dynastic portrait, an expression of his desire to have the Medici family remain as potent and enduring a force in the Church as they were in the Florentine state. Although the Medici coat of arms — six balls on a shield — doesn’t appear in the painting, the brilliantly reflective gold knob on the back of the pope’s chair serves as a reminder of the palle, a word that was also a rallying cry for Medici supporters.
The symbolic significance of the portrait as a stand-in for the pope is attested by its presence at several important Medici weddings in which the family of bankers who’d become rulers allied themselves with the aristocracy and even with royalty. Shortly after the painting was completed, it was rushed from Rome to Florence and given a prominent place at the festivities following the wedding in September 1518 of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, duke of Urbino and grandson of Il Magnifico, to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a niece of King Francis I of France. The same portrait also occupied a place of honor at the wedding in 1533 of Alessandro de’ Medici, the first hereditary duke of Florence, and Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V.
The most important appearance of the portrait was at the marriage in 1539 of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and Eleonora di Toledo. Cosimo had obtained the painting shortly after he became duke in 1537, and in displaying it he paid homage to Leo X, his relative who had providentially fated him for fame and power by baptizing him with the potent name of Cosimo. He was named after the great Cosimo de’ Medici of the fifteenth century, who had attained such authority and respect in Florence that after his death the city declared him Pater Patriae, the father of his country. By coincidence, one of Duke Cosimo’s godparents, Cardinal de’ Rossi, is also in the portrait.
Although Leo X proved no match for the wily German princes when it came to dealing with Martin Luther and his adherents, the major goal of his papacy had nothing to do with either international diplomacy or the religious conflicts in northern Europe. The pope’s main interest was in supporting and consolidating the recently reinstated Medici government in Florence and in assuring the protection and advancement of Medici family members. In this quest he succeeded. Not only did his cousin Giulio eventually become the second Medici pope, but Giulio’s illegitimate son Alessandro (fathered on an African slave some years before the future pope was named a cardinal) became the first Medici duke, the beginning of a dynasty that would endure for more than two hundred years.
From An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence by Judith Testa.