When you think of art world rebels, the likes of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst probably come to mind. Chances are a painter out of the 15th century like Sandro Botticelli wouldn’t make your list.
But he should. He was a Mannerist, you see, who dared to break with the venerated Renaissance – particularly in his later work.
Mannerists had their reasons for the break. Renaissance painters were all about harmony and balance. Mannerists didn’t want to focus on perspective and ideal proportions. They wanted their art to stand for the human condition of struggle and conflict. They sought passion, not repose, and they wanted their viewers to feel the same way.
Do we feel that way? With all the rebels in the art world these days, can we look at the Mannerists the way they wanted us to? Forty of Botticelli’s works, on loan from the Glasgow Museums, are on view now at Compton Verney in England. Will the Brits get him?
They should. Shakespeare was a Mannerist and said as much in King John, when the Bastard declares, “Come the three corners of the world in arms/And we shall shock them. “ (Act 5, Scene VII).
As the bard makes clear, Mannerists did their shocking best with overstated forms, contorted gestures, upended compositions, and intensified color.
In their zeal to evoke feeling by way of exaggeration, Mannerists were accused of affectation, which is how they earned their name. The naysayers of their time were, not surprisingly, Renaissance sympathizers.
Historian George Vasari was not one of them. He extolled the virtues of Mannerism, defining it as “a grace in the figures that exceeds exact measurement.”
Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi was his ticket to stardom. With convincing devotion its main feature, every figure in the painting is actively participating in the event. There is no passivity.
One standout figure is that of an old man kissing the foot of the Christ-child with an “at-last-I-found-you” look. Another, with hand on chin, appears deep in thought.
The Adoration of the Magi was more than an illustration of the three worshipful kings. It was also a group portrait of the Medici family, key figures in Florentine life at the time (1537- 1621). The old man was the elder Cosimo de Medici, forefather to the Medici family, which came to power in Florence in 1434. Also on hand were his sons, Giovanni and Piero, and his grandsons Giuliano and Lorenzo the Magnificent. Botticelli is in the painting as well, in the far right corner.
The work was so popular at the time that Pope Sixtus IV put Botticelli in charge of all art at his chapel in Rome.
Botticelli may be better known for his secular work The Birth of Venus, which describes the Roman goddess of love being sent to land on a breeze. A wistful expression on Venus’s face suggests a sad awareness that love coming to Earth is an impossible dream. Her very lightness of being adds to the dreamlike air.
While this is a pagan tale, there is also a holy purity to the image, visible in the pale light of morning, as yet untouched by workday matters.
Another pagan image that likewise suggests purity is Primavera, a tapestry-like vision of a garden of glistening flowers and golden-haired women in filmy, flowing robes. A scene of innocence that ties people to nature, the garden summons up the biblical Garden of Eden.
As for the tapestry appearance of Primavera, it’s not surprising given Botticelli’s other talent: designing embroidery. Each leaf in The Birth of Venus is outlined in gold, as if with thread. Both Primavera and The Birth of Venus were painted for Lorenzo de Medici‘s family villa outside Florence
Botticelli was clearly a busy guy, but you’d never know it by the name he gave his studio: “Academy for Idlers.”
A rebel who didn’t take himself too seriously – how refreshing.