Sunday, 3 March 2013


“The mind of the Renaissance was not a pilgrim mind, but a sedentary city mind, like that of the ancients.” - George Santayana

Botticelli (Sandro Filipepi) ca. 1445 – 1510 was an Italian Renaissance painter whose large canvases idealise female youth and beauty. Sandro Botticelli was born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi in Florence around 1445. “Botticelli” was a nickname applied to his corpulent brother who was nicknamed “il botticello” - the small barrel. Even though Sandro was not fat, the nickname seem to have stuck for all family members...

Boitticelli  worked in Florence all his life and today, many of his works are on display in the amazing Uffizi museum. The only interruption from his life in Florence was his short stay in Rome, where he produced three frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. After his training with Frà Filippo Lippi, father of Filippino Lippi, Botticelli fell in with the Florentine rulers of the day - the De’ Medici family. Through circles surrounding the artistic Lorenzo “il Magnifico” he received commissions for classical works, including the “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” (Spring). At the same time he worked on a religious body of works.

When Lorenzo’s died (1492) and the De’ Medici family declined, Botticelli all but stopped producing classical works. Botticelli became a follower of the monk Savonarola who was a prominent civic leader in Florence, advocating a puritan and spiritual life. Savonarola renounced the luxurious and “ungodly” lifestyle of Florence’s rulers and stressed giving up all worldly things. He was very charismatic and often spoke of death and God’s wrath upon the people.

Many of Botticelli’s previous paintings were considered ungodly and were burned along with objectionable books and playing cards. When Savonarola’s popularity declined, he himself was burnt at the stake in the centre of Florence. Many followers fled the city, but Botticelli stayed and continued to paint. Most of his works now had a religious theme. Religious symbolism in his paintings was widespread, just as allegorical and mythological allusion was in his previous thematic period.

Botticelli became known as an altarpiece painter and earned large amounts of money through church commissions. However, his later years seemed to be a disturbing and unsettling time for him. As times changed in Florence, Botticelli tried to keep up. He often took on difficult commissions that other painters turned down. His changing style reflected that Botticelli was struggling to keep up with the changing tastes of a fickle public. His paintings were full of emotion raging from violence to grace and compassion.

Botticelli died at the age of 65. There are reports of him beings poor and unaccomplished at his death. This could be attributed to the rising popularity of new and contemporary artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci. Even though his work is now thought to be among the most masterful of his time, his work lay forgotten for over 400 years after his death. Looking back at history, he now has the respect he earned through a lifetime of achievement.

The painting above is from a series of paintings that Botticelli executed to illustrate the picaresque stories of Boccaccio’s “Decameron” It is the “The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (I)” of 1487. It is a modest work, 83 × 138 cm, tempera on wood, currently exhibited in the Prado Museum in Madrid. It is an illustrative work of one the climactic moments of the story. Botticelli’s work displays unequalled skill at rendering narrative texts, whether biographies of saints or stories from Boccaccio's Decameron or Dante's Divine Comedy, into a pictorial form that is at once exact, economical, and eloquent.

Botticelli revels here in the savage violence of the scene where the naked female figure is beset upon by dog and hunters alike in a brutal rendition of what seems to be punishment of a heinous crime. The viewer cannot be helped to be moved to pity for this woman, whose crime, however extreme does not seem to merit this savage and vicious punishment. The serenity of the setting and the soft tones of twilight Botticelli has used is a stark contrast to the scene played out in the foreground. The painting is as much an illustration of Boccaccio’s tale as it is  social commentary on the fate of women as second class citizens in Botticelli’s time.

1 comment:

  1. he painting depicts in tempera a scene from a contemporary novella called The Decameron , an allegorical work of storytelling written by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron consists of 100 tales of love, tragedy, wit, and practical jokes. The stories are framed by a narrative about seven women and three men who flee the woes of the Black Death in Florence to a villa in the countryside. They tell stories to pass the time and enjoy one another’s company. The Decameron is important for its documentation of life in the 14th century.

    The tale, Nastagio degli Onesti, is one of The Decameron’s stories about lovers who survive misfortunes and find happiness. Nastagio suffers rejection from the daughter of Paolo Traversaro to whom he proposes. Supposedly she turns him down because of her extraordinary beauty and exalted rank. Nastagio plunges into despair, considers suicide, but is persuaded by his friends to get away to the sea to hang out alone for a while. Occasionally he invites friends to have dinner with him in his pavilions under the trees.

    One day Nastagio, walking about the woods, comes upon this nightmarish chase. The beautiful, nude young woman is torn apart by the dogs. The crazed knight jumps from his horse, knocks down the woman, cuts out her heart with his knife and feeds it to the dogs. Within moments, the girl jumps to her feet and continues with her desperate flight. The knight explains to the horrified Nastagio that both of them have long been dead but at one time he had proposed marriage to the girl and she had rejected him. Now both are condemned to this cruel punishment by God: the knight for committing suicide over his depression at being rejected and the girl for rejecting the man due to her hard, cold heart. They are eternally doomed to repeat the chase. Every Friday at the same hour he overtakes her in the same woods and attacks her.

    After they depart, Nastagio stands alone, disturbed and horrified. But he’s a practical man and begins to form a plan.

    The next Friday he invites Paolo Traversaro and his family to an outdoor banquet. As the final course is being served, the hellish attack plays out. The girls at the banquet especially draw back in horror, upsetting a table and dashing dishes to the ground. One figure stands in composure: Nastagio in the foreground in blue tunic, red tights, and yellow boots. He explains to the crowd the meaning behind the ghosts and the chase to which they are doomed. The moral seems to be: Ladies, comply with men’s wishes! It has to be the rare Renaissance woman who turns down an appropriate and willing suitor.

    Off to the right, in an intriguing inclusion of consecutive episodes within the same panel, the marriage is depicted in front of the pink tent. The girl, apparently persuaded by the scene to relent and consent to Nastagio’s offer, trustingly lays her hand on her new husband’s arm.