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Botticelli Revised

Lavish book uses new discoveries and historic sources to correct misconceptions about the gifted 15th-century Florentine painter

SANDRO BOTTICELLI by Ronald Lightbown, New York: Abbeville Press,

350 illustrations, 250 in color, 340 pp., $85

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RECENTLY, I was startled to see a full-size copy of Botticelli's 1487 painting (now in Florence's Uffizi Gallery) of six mischievous boy angels surrounding the Madonna and Child, with the Child holding a pomegranate. It was the odd context of this large round painting - hanging over a fireplace during an orchestral concert of new jazz pieces - that started me thinking: ``What would Botticelli say about jazz?'' I decided, fancifully, that he would love its surprises, wit, serious passages, and technical virtuosity.

Art historian Michael Baxandall calls Botticelli's innovative mythological paintings (in contrast to the religious paintings that were more bound to precedent) ``danced sort of paintings.'' Baxandall had discovered that, when an educated viewer in 1490 described Botticelli's paintings as having a ``virile air,'' the words were calibrated to apply also to a certain genre of new dance and that Botticelli could count on his viewers to ``read'' qualities in his artful groupings as clearly as they did the various genres of dance.

Insights like Baxandall's make us want to re-think our views of Botticelli's exquisite works, paintings we may have admired first as mere greeting-card images. When the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari writes of Botticelli's ``Adoration of the Magi'' of 1475 (now in the Uffizi) that the ``beauty of the heads defies description,'' Vasari is speaking as a master of description. When he adds that the ``Adoration'' ``today amazes every artist by its coloring, its design, and its composition,'' he is referring to fellow artists of the mid-16th century, artists (such as Michelangelo) whose work Vasari felt was almost unsurpassable in its perfection.

The ``Adoration of the Magi'' and all of Botticelli's other surviving works are generously displayed in ``Sandro Botticelli,'' by Ronald Lightbown, the former ``keeper'' of the metalwork department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and author of excellent books on the sculptor Donatello and the painter Mantegna (as well as a forthcoming study of medieval jewelry).

The new book is an updated edition of his 1978 monograph ``Botticelli,'' which incorporates technical discoveries made during restoration of six of the painter's major works in the intervening years. In an unromanticized discussion of the paintings, Lightbown uses hard facts from contemporary sources to correct many enthusiastic but incorrect readings.

Since it is often a patron's political alliances, religious concerns, and social aspirations that determine the theme, size, shape, quality of colors, and intended location of a painting, Lightbown's command of this detail deepens his meticulous descriptions. His text also allows us to mentally enlarge or shrink the beautiful color photographs to conform to the size of the paintings: Some were hand-held, others to be seen from great distances.

In the recent restorations, the 1475 Uffizi ``Adoration of the Magi'' gained a few inches on the right, enlarging the landscape background. The cleaning of the Uffizi's ``Primavera,'' painted around 1482, revealed little storm clouds that Mercury is shooing out of the hedged ``Garden of the Hesperides,'' a symbol of chaste married love. The refreshed state of the painting allows Lightbown to correct a misunderstanding that originated before World War II and associated the painting with individuals interested in the study of Neoplatonism.

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Lightbown praises the Uffizi's ``Birth of Venus,'' painted a few years later on the less-expensive canvas surface, for a ``radiance'' which, in part, is explained by Botticelli's technique: Omitting a panel painting's layer of green color under the flesh tones, Botticelli painted figures and azure sky with a watercolor-thin wash right onto the prepared white ground.

LIGHTBOWN'S book is not the final word on Botticelli, but it is thorough, responsible, sensitive, and unique. For while some modern formal critics belittle Botticelli's contribution, calling him a throw-back to late Gothic ideas (in part, for his use of much gold), Lightbown explains this use in terms of the wealth of the painter's patrons, such as Pope Sixtus IV in his new Sistine Chapel in Rome. The author relishes what gold can do to enhance color or to indicate a second, divine source of illumination.

Lightbown tells us that Cosimo de' Medici actually dressed in a gown of gold cloth and a rich furred mantle to reenact, with other Florentines in exotic robes, the story of the Magi. It was done on Epiphany day every five years.

Now, when we see Cosimo's posthumous portrait with those of his sons and grandsons as the Magi and leaders of their entourages in Botticelli's 1475 ``Adoration of the Magi,'' we know we are seeing the Florentines as they had already envisioned themselves.

Lightbown's synthesis of recent scholarship, together with his own acute observations, makes ``Sandro Botticelli'' a sound reference book, painting by painting, and a thought-provoking guide to Botticelli's remarkable pictures.

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