Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is widely recognised as one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and a handful of his images – Spring, The Birth of Venus – have become almost universal due to their reproduction on posters etc.
This exhibition brings together the largest number of works by Botticelli, his pupils and followers, seen in Britain since 1930, but there is a twist. For Botticelli’s reputation underwent a strange decline after his death and for 300 years he was eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. Only in the mid-Victorian period did his fortunes revive and then flourished as he was copied and emulated by, in this country especially, the pre-Raphaelites.
This era of new appreciation was followed, in the 20th century, by a mixture of homage and parody as some of his most famous imagery became ripe for re-appropriation, satire and comedy.
And so this exhibition is in three parts: 20th century homage; the 19th century rediscovery; the original Botticelli, pupils and followers. The exhibition is laid out in reverse chronological order, starting with the 20th century, and the first thing you see is a video screen showing the clip from the movie Dr No where Sean Connery wakes up on the island of Dr No to see Ursula Andress emerge from the sea in a bikini. This is taken as homage to Botticelli’s most famous image, The Birth of Venus, as is the other clip in the sequence, from Terry Gilliam’s movie Baron Munchausen, the scene where the picture comes alive and the statuesque Uma Thurman emerges naked from a huge sea shell.
Having grasped this layout I preferred to start in the opposite order from the exhibition, and spend my Saturday morning energy soaking up the real thing, before progressing to the Victorians, and only then returning the shiny plastic modern spoofs and homages.
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445-1510) belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. By 1470 he had his own workshop in which numerous pupils and craftsmen worked. One of the problems of Botticelli scholarship is that of attribution: only two paintings have his signature on them; all the rest are scholarly guesses, many causing controversy to this day.
In this respect the exhibition fascinatingly hangs sequences of paintings of the same subject in the same style next to each other: six Madonna and Childs, one (?) by the man himself, several (?) from his workshop, the rest (?) by contemporaries working in the same style, allow you to fine tune your understanding of his style and, incidentally, to understand a little the challenging world of art attribution.
The distinctive thing about Botticelli’s style is the way it is flat and diagrammatic, with no attempt at light and shade, of chiaroscuro, of blurring or shadowing. 1) The outlines of faces, noses, chins, arms and especially tresses of hair are all conveyed with a cartoon clarity 2) In particular the women’s faces all look the same or similar, oval with a strongly defined chin and jawbone which continues in a graceful curve round to the earlobe 3) The hair is stylised into into a kind of schematic diagram of hair 4) The women are tall and slender with high small boobs, the body generally covered in a light diaphanous-feeling, many-folded robe.
My favourite work in these rooms was Portrait of a young woman, possibly Simonetta Vespucci (1484) the hair in particular more like a flat book illustration than a painting, each pearl painted with the same amount of detail, no attempt at modelling light and shade, further and nearer, blurring some area to create a sense of depth or shadow: everything in the same hyper-clarity, but all against an impenetrable black background, itself a change and a rest from the stereotypical broken columns or distant lakes with a boat on it which populate so many Renaissance paintings. Just her, in super-clarity.
In these two rooms are gather some 40 paintings by Sandro or his workshop as well as 11 pen and ink drawings and half a dozen early books from the period. A Renaissance junky could probably spend the whole morning poring over these marvellous works. The really classic works, the Spring and Birth of Venus are held in the Uffizi in Florence and are never leaving. I was surprised that the National Gallery’s Venus and Mars hadn’t made the 3 mile trip to be included (note Venus’s strong jawline and statuesque white neck). The nearest thing to them was the large and beautiful Pallas and the Centaur, with the slender grace of the goddess and the vines twining over her arms and breast.
The main thing I learned was about his later style. In his last years Botticelli fell under the influence of the fundamentalist preacher Savonarola, a period shrouded in rumour. Some say he abandoned painting, others that he burned all his paintings (the ones which weren’t hanging in the villas of his rich patrons the Medicis). What the show illustrates is that is later style was heavier. Two paintings represent it, notably the Flight from Egypt. In this the figures fill the frame, looming and heavy, the composition no longer feels light and dainty but heavy and threatening and the cartoon element is even more to the fore. Look at the donkey. Joseph’s head looks as if it was done by a completely different artist.
- The Flight from Egypt by Botticelli (c.1500)
Off to one side in a separate room were the prints and drawings. These included five illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (there is currently a fabulous exhibition of thirty of these drawings at London’s Courtauld Gallery). The best of them was the Allegory of Abundance – or by ‘best’, do we just mean the one that looks most like the figures in Prinmavera and Venus? The paintings include a lot of Biblical subjects, a lot of Madonnas in tondi (round paintings). None of these are canonical ie none of these are what we expect our Botticelli to be: we expect slender graceful women, and so…
The Victorian rediscovery
The exhibition suggest that it was the heaviness of these later works which caused Botticelli’s eclipse. For three hundred years or so (1510 to 1810) he was largely overlooked in history books and art course. The exhibition claims that the first step in his revival was the way, during the Napoleonic Wars, lots of Catholic religious houses were closed down, and the art works they contained came onto the market. But then it leaps to the 1860s, to an essay by Englishy critic Walter Pater, and especially to the patronage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite painters for causing a rebirth of Botticelli’s reputation.
There is a smallish room with Victorian books and magazines and posters explaining the Victorian resurgence in his reputation; and then there is a stunning long room full of beautiful sumptuous pre-Raphalite masterpieces. If you like Victorian painting it is worth visiting for these alone, with lovely big sensual works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and many more.
Rossetti has taken the shape of the female head – all strong jawline and statuesque neck – and overlaid a whole world of Victorian sensuality and green velvet. Next to these images of sensuality Botticelli’s women look blankly emotionless. It is fascinating – and an amazing experience and opportunity – to wander back and forth between the Botticelli originals and what artists three hundred years later made of them.
The end wall of the room is covered by a fabulous William Morris tapestry, The Orchard, dominated by four female figures, loosely based on the Botticelli lightness and grace, but note the changing fruits of the trees which make up the background pattern of foliage. A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the scale and impact of this beautiful tapestry. Obviously Morris felt at home with, or was inspired by, the foliage themes of the Primavera.
There were also lovely works by Aubrey Beardsley and artists I’m less familiar with such as Arnold Böcklin, Simeon Solomon, Sartorio, and a couple of works by woman artist Evelyn de Morgan, including her Flora from 1895.
The twentieth century response
The thing about the twentieth century is how big and messy it was. From between the wars were traditional (sort of) paintings by the likes of:
- Augustus John –Portrait of the artist’s son Pyramus (1910)
- Edward Baird – Birth of Venus in a surreal, de Chirico style (1934)
- René Magritte – Le bouquet tout fait (1957)
- Noël Laura Nisbet – Dyads in Flight
But the lion’s share of the 20th century room is dominated by post-war art which, from one point of view, becomes progressively bigger and more facile. There is:
- Orlan – Occasional strip-tease (1974) Like many of the women photographers featured in Performing for the camera at Tate Modern, Orlan thinks taking her clothes off is an artistic or subversive act, here done in homage, at last in the penultimate shot, to Sandro’s Venus.
- Cindy Sherman – #225 (1990) homage to one of Sandro’s Madonnas
- Vik Munix – VantagePoint X This is a huge work. Only when you go close do you realise every element in it is junk, rubbish collected from the streets and garbage bins, arranged to reproduice the famous image.
- Tomoko Nagao – The Birth of Venus Apparently a homage to the instantly recognisable Japanese style of ‘Superflat’
Here is an image chosen to publicise the show, David Lachapelle’s kitchy, campy studio re-enactment of the Birth of Venus with some fit young men from the YMCA in attendance.
The ‘best’ of the 20th century homages had to be the Andy Warhol silk screens of Venus’s face from 1984. God knows how many exist in what combinations of colours, but this exhibition featured two with strikingly different colour schemes. The most attractive one, with a pink face, is used as the exhibition poster.
- Andy Warhol – Details of Renaissance paintings (1984)
Warhol had a great eye for classic design, from Campbell’s soup tins to Elvis pulling a gun from his holster. These silks are an appropriate homage from one master of clarity of design and strength of line to another, Sandro’s cartoon-like tresses and features highlighted and retouched for the age of plastic and imacs.
- Botticelli Reimagined continues until 3 July 2016 at the Victoria and Albert Museum
- Guardian review by Laura Cumming
- Guardian review by Jonathan Jones
- Independent review by Boyd Tonkin
- Telegraph review by Alastair Sooke