Botticelli: A touch of the divine

Published 4 March 2016

Botticelli was a huge success, then virtually forgotten before his resurrection by the Pre-Raphaelites, reveals Simon Wilson ahead of a lavish V&A show.

  • From the Spring 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    One of the most fascinating phenomena in the history of art is the cycle of taste. Artists ignored in their own time are elevated by later generations, and artists who reached a pinnacle of acclaim are thoroughly buried and then resurrected. The early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli was famed in 15th-century Florence, mainly for his (admittedly ravishing) Madonnas. After his death he was forgotten for two centuries, and then underwent an astonishing revival in the 1800s to become one of the most admired and best-loved of all Renaissance artists. His Birth of Venus (1482-85) has a place in the popular imagination equalled only by the Mona Lisa (c.1503-19), and frankly is an infinitely more compelling work of art.

    The whole extraordinary story is the subject of a major new exhibition at the V&A, Botticelli Reimagined, which examines Botticelli himself, the phenomenon of his eclipse and revival, and his subsequent increasing grip on the imagination of both artists and public. Among his other achievements Botticelli was the father of modern, secular book illustration. In the 1480s he produced an astonishing cycle of nearly 100 large illustrations, drawn on vellum in metalpoint and pen and ink, for Dante’s Divine Comedy. A group of these is a feature of the V&A exhibition, but by the wonders of the zeitgeist the Courtauld Gallery is also showing no less than 30 of them in its show of treasures from the collection of the 12th Duke of Hamilton.

    So why was Botticelli forgotten? One answer is that, together with his precursors in the early Renaissance, he was completely overshadowed by the great triumvirate of the next generation, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo, who took naturalism, the convincing representation of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface, to a new peak of perfection. The earlier artists were made to look stiff, awkward, technically unsophisticated and naive in their simple religious faith. They were given the pejorative label of “Primitives”.

  • Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur

    Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c.1482.

    © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015/Photo Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura.

  • And then, how and why was Botticelli resurrected? The idea that Raphael represented the absolute pinnacle of art went entirely unchallenged until, by the mid-1800s, its possibilities had been so exhausted that artists started to question the whole premise. Rather gratifyingly, for readers of RA Magazine, this revolt – the beginning of what was to become known as modern art – had one of its starting points at Burlington House itself, at the 1849 Summer Show. This was when the 20-year old John Everett Millais (later Sir John, PRA) exhibited a painting, Isabella, that in style, spirit and in some specific details borrowed from Botticelli. It was signed with the mysterious initials PRB, for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and marked the launch of a hugely influential movement that explicitly rejected Raphael and looked instead to the early Renaissance.

    In 1867 another of the original PRB, Rossetti, bought for £20 (about £2,000 today) a portrait by Botticelli of a young woman called Smeralda Bandinelli. Now in the V&A collection, it lies at the heart of this exhibition, where its feminist force and luminous beauty offer a retrospective rebuke to Leonardo’s similarly posed and sized but simpering and shadow-shrouded sitter. It was also at about this time that the railways reached Florence and a new public discovered Botticelli’s Venus and Primavera in the Uffizi. These are not religious paintings, but highly imaginative pagan mythologies with love as their true subject. And this, as Botticelli Reimagined makes clear, is the real reason for our modern response to him.

    The curators of this show have been rather clever in that it tracks Botticelli’s influence through the English Pre-Raphaelites and their Continental Symbolist followers to their Surrealist and Pop Art successors. We see these artists reworking the tradition with a vision that was fresh, highly imaginative, highly sensuous and often sensual. The exhibition then finally gives us Botticelli himself in a climactic selection of about 50 works. The Birth of Venus and Primavera can never travel but, among many other goodies, we have two of his large-scale masterpieces, the life-size standing Venus (1490), from Berlin, in which Botticelli presents the figure from Florence in splendid solitary grandeur, and Pallas and the Centaur (c.1482; pictured), his great mythology, almost equal in its magic and mystery to Primavera. Its meaning remains obscure – why, for example, is Pallas entwining her fingers in the centaur’s hair? Is she about to kiss him or kill him? Do not miss the opportunity to see this exhibition and speculate for yourself.

    Simon Wilson is an art historian and columnist for RA Magazine.

    Botticelli Reimagined is at the V&A until 3 July.

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