Upon the unveiling of the new Leonardo Da Vinci room, Room 35, in 2018, the director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, stated,
The new arrangement has been designed not only to permit a slow, meditated visit, whereby visitors can compare the art and understand the stylistic evolution of Leonardo in his youth, but it is also correct in terms of art history, placing the artist’s works immediately after the rooms dedicated to the Florentine Quattrocento…It is part of a set of changes implemented to adjust the Uffizi to the needs of understanding by visitors as well as adhering to the museum’s educational principles.
The walls were painted grey to both enhance the mediative atmosphere as well as to mimic the church environment for which the paintings were originally meant. On the left is the Baptism of Christ (c. 1480), which was commissioned for San Salvi Church sometime around 1475-78. Leonardo worked on this painting during his apprenticeship with Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, a Renaissance legend in his own right, although more gifted as a sculptor than a painter. (Verrocchio designed and installed the golden palla (“ball”) on lantern of il Duomo). In fact, due to his background as sculptor and engineer, Verrocchio was a master at conveying movement in his art. Leonardo would adopt his maestro’s skill to transform his own art from intrinsically static into a narrative.
Art historians believe Leonardo painted the angel on the far left of the scene, the body of Christ, and the background. The twisting figure of the angel is typical of Leonardo (one of his many methods to demonstrate movement in his works), as are the angel’s beautiful curls.
In the work, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and harbinger, performs the first baptism of the Christian faith. He is shown pouring water from the River Jordan on Jesus’ head, as recounted in the Gospels:
4. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
5. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
6. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
7. And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
8. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
9. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Mark 1: 4-11 (KJV).
Thus, the Holy Trinity is represented here: God the Father, represented by the arms, Jesus the Son, in the flesh and therefore no representation necessary, and the Holy Spirit, represented, as it so often is, by the dove. The scroll unfurling from John’s hand states, “ECCE AGNUS DEI,” the shortened version of “ECCE AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI” (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1: 29).
The centerpiece of this room is Leonardo’s Annunciation (c. 1472 or c. 1475-78), which is believed to be Leonardo’s first work that he completed single-handedly (although he is believed to still have been in Verrocchio’s employ). The paintingwas recently restored in 2000, revealing the work’s original luminosity, clarity of detail, and sharp perspective. According to Christian belief, the Annunciation is the moment when the Archangel Gabriel appears before the Virgin Mary to announce that she is to bear God’s only son. Leonardo departs from previous representations of this moment, which typically depicted the exchange in an enclosed space, such as a loggia, by placing the Virgin and Gabriel outside.
Verrocchio’s continuing influence on Leonardo is evident in the shape of the lectern, which is reminiscent of Verrocchio’s design for the tomb of Pietro de Medici, located in the Church of San Lorenzo. Moreover, although the Annunciation is no doubt a masterpiece (and way beyond the bounds of anything I could even dream of producing, as devastatingly evident in every wine and paint night I’ve ever participated in), Leonardo’s youth is discernible due to several anomalies. First, the Virgin’s right arm (the arm reaching towards the lectern) is disproportionately long. Secondly (and hypercritically, but important to point out to demonstrate Leonardo’s exponential growth in his skilled use of light and shadow), Gabriel’s shadow is too dark for dawn, which the restoration revealed was the time of day Leonardo chose to set his scene. Leonardo likely chose dawn to symbolize the Annunciation, i.e. the dawning of Christianity.
The dawn light casts a pale yellow glow on the garden wall and top of lectern, and shadows are seen where the sun light would be blocked. Moreover, the lectern’s side, however, has a blueish tint. This tint signals Leonardo’s bourgeoning interest in refracted light; indeed, Leonardo discerned that white marble sitting outside is lit by refracted light of the sky, not the light of the sun. Leonardo’s detailed observations and scientific acumen is also evident in Gabriel’s wings, which fold realistically, as though they were actual bird wings. Here, Leonardo once again departs from the conventional depiction of the Annunciation, which dictated that Gabriel’s wings should be multicolored.
Leonardo purposefully used light and shadows to create plasticity (i.e. the effect of three dimensional volume in a two dimensional space), a technique that would be later be known as chiaroscuro (derived from the Italian word for light, “chiaro,” and dark, “scuro”). To employ chiaroscuro in his works, Leonardo created a tonal range for each pigment that ran from white to black and then coordinated each tonal range with another to ensure that all hues were represented in a single overall light to dark range, creating the effect of shadows. These colors could react uniformly to where the light hit a particular object. For instance, the Virgin’s sash looks further back in the painting than the blue robes despite blue being the darker of the two hues. The previous system, known as the absolute color system, which had been in use since the middle ages, involved adding white to a pigment to make the color lighter. Problematically, adding white to pigment dilutes the pigment and therefore does not accurately capture the effects of light on color. Because the darkest tones would be the most saturated with color (since they had less white mixed in), they would be the most intense. But in reality, intensity of color corresponds to the amount of illumination and light. Therefore, Leonardo rejected this system and invented chiaroscuro.
Leonardo also used a technique known as sfumato, a method involving the blurring of contours and edges. In pursuit of his scientific studies, Leonardo realized that the eye does not register sharp edges; instead, the human eye blurs edges of objects. Therefore, when drawing, Leonardo did not outline his figures and then fill in the details. Instead, he modeled his figures from space; building their forms from inside out. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote, “The line forming the boundary of a surface is of invisible thickness. Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). Leonardo’s use of sfumato is most clearly evident when you compare the painting’s foreground, which features detailed flowers, with its background, which fades into haziness. It is therefore counterintuitive that it is the background that is the focus of this work, more specifically, the mountain in the background. All perspective lines lead to the mountain, drawing the viewer’s eye towards it.
Moreover, it is framed by the trees. One of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon on the Annunciation speaks of the “Mountain of Mountains” and the sky giving forth dew, which is received by the Earth (representing Mary’s womb). From this fertilization (i.e. the Annunciation), comes forth Christ, who is spoken of as the Mountain on the Sea.
The final work by Leonardo in this room is the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1481), which was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in 1481, but was never finished. It remains – even in its unfinished form – as one of the greatest works of the Renaissance.
Art historian Kenneth Clark called Adoration, “The most revolutionary and anti-classical picture of the fifteenth century.” Kenneth Clark, Leonardo da Vinci (1939). Indeed, Adorations typically contain an ordered, stately procession, with a focus on the Holy Family, who typically wait in a lower corner of the painting. Leonardo throws that convention out completely, giving us a frenzied swirl of activity that surrounds the Christ child, pictured in the center of the work.
These frenzied and emotional figures prefigure mannerism, an artistic style that would become the mainstream in the late Renaissance (about forty to fifty years after this work was commissioned). Typical of Leonardo, the Adoration focuses on the onlookers’ reactions to the Incarnation, part of the reason for the chaos. Leonardo’s notebooks are full of doodles exploring human facial expressions. His notes make clear that his figures’ emotions are paramount and take expression in their movements: “In painting, the actions of the figures are, in all cases, expressive of the purpose of their minds.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). Leonardo even experiments with the placement of the horses. For instance, the horses on the right are actually different potential positioning of one horse:
Leonardo, as was typical, failed to finish this commission; this time, he failed to finish because the Duke of Milan accepted Leonardo’s what essentially plea for employment. Filippino Lippi was asked to replace the unfinished work. Lippi paid homage to Leonardo’s original design:
The Green Rooms were opened in 2014 on the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. Perhaps surprisingly to some, given that these rooms were opened to celebrate Michelangelo, the Green Rooms actually house works from Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, it was the ancients that inspired Michelangelo, giving him the insight into the human form that had been lacking prior to this time. In fact, while Michelangelo was busy painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the famous Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso, were unearthed. The impact of these sculptures on Michelangelo is evident in his work in the Sistine Chapel.
It is therefore fitting that Rooms 33 and 34 were opened on the anniversary of Michelangelo’s death to celebrate his life and work.
Room 33 is dedicated to Greek Portraits, most of which came from the Medici collection. The room is set up to mimic the genre of decoration known as uomini famosi (“famous men”) that was so popular during the Renaissance. In these types of cycles, each individual depicted was intended to inspire the viewers (usually the ruling elite) to a higher standard of behavior and governance. The idea was that with the uomini famosi looking upon individuals, those individuals’ actions would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc.
Room 34 is dedicated to the many sculptures that are of the type that would have been in Garden of San Marco. The Garden of San Marco was created by Lorenzo de’Medici to allow young artists to practice drawing and painting ancient sculptures. Sadly, it no longer exists, but it was where Michelangelo would have studied and worked as an up and coming young artist. (Allegedly Lorenzo de’Medici gave the young Michelangelo the key to the Garden so he could study the ancient sculptures whenever he so wished). Although those sculptures have since been dispersed, the pieces in this room evoke the same atmosphere that surely must have been felt in the Garden itself. These works are Roman copies of Greek marbles dating from the fifth to the third centuries B.C., some of which were intended to decorate ancient Roman residences. Also located in this room are memorials stones and altars of Greek origin, which have been unearthed in Rome.
One relief, the Processional Scene from the Ara Pacis, is a copy of the Processional Scene on the south side of the Ara Pacis, purchased, along with several other friezes, by Ferdinando de Medici at the end of the 16th Century.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) was commissioned by the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, and completed in 9 B.C. The altar celebrated the “peace” that Augustus had supposedly brought to the Roman Empire. I think the Gauls and the Germanic tribes would dispute the term “peace,” but with Augustus, the major civil wars where Romans fought Romans did come to a respite. The Altar was presumably used for blood sacrifices to the Roman gods (not human sacrifices though – the Romans very rarely practiced human sacrifice; in fact, only a few known occurrences of Roman human sacrifice are recorded, and those occurred only during times of great upheaval, including during the Second Punic War when Hannibal invaded Italy).
The frieze in Room 34 shows Romans in traditional religious garb processing towards the physical Altar itself, as if they were about to participate in a religious rite themselves. The figures in this relief are members of Augustus’ immediate family, including his son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa (the hooded figure in the center of the piece). Agrippa is performing the role of high priest. Some scholars believe that the veiled woman to Agrippa’s left is Liva, Augustus’ wife. By placing his family on the monument, Augustus was proclaiming his dynasty and the death of the Republic. Unfortunately for Augustus, siring a dynasty proved a little problematic. It was his step-son Tiberius who inherited the role of Emperor, not a blood relative as Augustus had initially wished.
The animation and individualism of each figure demonstrates the high point of Roman sculpture that had been achieved and that was only to be achieved (at least in western Europe) once again during the Renaissance.
Another relief located in this room is a depiction made during Hadrian’s reign, i.e., 2nd Century AD, of an animal sacrifice.
On the right side of the relief are corinthian columns while on the left side of the relief are ionic columns topped with tympana. The victimarii, who are identifiable via their naked torsos and limi (plural of limus, which was a type of loincloth worn by the slaves who handled the animals during a sacrifice) have led the sacrificial bull to the victimarius known as the popa, who stuns the animal with an axe while another, known as the cultrarius, holds the sacrificial knife, known as the culter.
Also located in this room is the Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone (AD 160-180), the front of which depicts a scene from the Greek myth explaining the origins of the seasons.
According to this myth, the god of the underworld, Hades (whose counterpart in Roman mythology was called Pluto) came across a young girl playing in the fields, with whom he immediately fell in love (although as the name of the sarcophagus implies, it was more likely that he fell in lust). This young girl was Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter (i.e., Ceres). Upon deciding that he wants to marry Persephone, Hades travels to Mount Olympus (where the gods lived) to ask his brother Zeus, king of the gods (and Persephone’s father), for her hand in marriage. This request puts Zeus in a pickle: he felt that he could not deny his brother, but he knew that Persephone’s mother (and Zeus’ sister) Demeter would absolutely be against the marriage so he answered equivocably, neither saying yes nor no. Hades took this non-answer as permission and laid a trap to capture Persephone so as to elude her mother.
Of fair-tressed Demeter, Demeter holy Goddess, I begin to sing: of her and her slim-ankled daughter whom Hades snatched away, the gift of wide-beholding Zeus, but Demeter knew it not, she that bears the Seasons, the giver of goodly crops. For her daughter was playing with the deep-bosomed maidens of Oceanus, and was gathering flowers—roses, and crocuses, and fair violets in the soft meadow, and lilies, and hyacinths, and the narcissus which the earth brought forth as a snare to the fair-faced maiden, by the counsel of Zeus and to pleasure the Lord with many guests. Wondrously bloomed the flower, a marvel for all to see, whether deathless gods or deathly men. From its root grew forth a hundred blossoms, and with its fragrant odour the wide heaven above and the whole earth laughed, and the salt wave of the sea. Then the maiden marvelled, and stretched forth both her hands to seize the fair plaything, but the wide-wayed earth gaped in the Nysian plain, and up rushed the Prince, the host of many guests, the many-named son of Cronos, with his immortal horses.
“The Homeric Hymns.” Trans. Andrew Lang. Apple Books.
Demeter eventually discovers that Hades has kidnapped her daughter and demands Zeus order Hades to return her. But, once again, Zeus equivocates and decides that if Persephone has eaten anything while in the underworld then she has to remain there. When Persephone is questioned about her eating habits while in Hell, she claims that she has been so distraught that she hasn’t eaten a thing. It turns out, however, that she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Therefore, Zeus decided that Persephone must stay in Hell with Hades for six months of the year, and she may return to her mother for the other six. During Persephone’s stay, her mother falls into a depression and refuses to allow anything to grow (hence fall and winter), but when Persephone is back with her mother, everything grows in abundance.
The sarcophagus itself demonstrates the moment Hades grabs Persephone from among the flowers. Here, the goddess Athena, identifiable by her helmet and shield, is shown trying to save Persephone while the goddess of passion, Aphrodite tries to stop Athena by grabbing her shield. Athena and Aphrodite represent the two warring sides of the story: the passion of Hades and the virginity of Persephone (Athena was renowned for her virginity).
The scene takes on a cosmic importance as the chariot tramples the goddess of the earth, Gaia, demonstrating death’s ultimate triumph over everything in the world.
The other sarcophagus in this room is known as The Sarcophagus Depicting the Labours of Hercules, which dates from AD 150 to 160 (slightly older than Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone, supra).
Six of Hercules’ Labours are depicted on the front of the Sarcophagus; from left to right there are: (1) the Nemean lion; (2) the Lernean Hydra; (3) the Erymanthean Boar; (4) the Hind of Cerynea; (5) the Stymphalian Birds; and (6) the stalls of King Augeus. As the story moves from left to right, the youthful, beardless Hercules moves through his own life and ages right before the viewers’ eyes, reiterating the Roman ethos that life is fleeting, but a man may live on through the glory of his deeds. The Sarcophagus is missing its lid, which is where the other Labours were likely depicted (the back of the Sarcophagus is blank).
Halls 25 through 32 were recently renovated in 2015 as part of the “Nuovi Uffizi” project. During the renovation, the walls were painted green, which denotes exhibitions dedicated to 15th century art (i.e. 1400s, or Quattrocento).
Hall 24. Cabinet of Miniatures.
After Duke Ferdinando de’Medici married Christina of Lorraine, he constructed this room to hold the immense amount of gems and precious stones Christina brought with her as her dowry. Today, the room houses more than 400 miniatures.
Hall 25. Baldovinetti and Ghirlandaio
The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us.
E.M. Forster, A Room with a View.
Hall 25 focuses on work painted by Alesso Baldovinetti and his pupil Domenico Ghirlandaio. Baldovinetti was himself the pupil of Domenico Veneziano, a connection which is made manifest in Baldovinetti’s Annunciation when compared with the loggia depicted in Veneziano’s Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece.
The Annunciation was likely produced during Baldovinetti’s early phase of work and is characterized by slender figures, columns, and trees. Like most depictions of the Annunciation, Baldovinetti sticks to the traditional conventions: the walled garden (hortus conclusus), symbolizing Mary’s separation from the material world; Mary’s blue robe, alluding to her role as the Queen of Heaven, not only due to the color of the sky, but also due to the great expense of the blue pigment derived from lapis lazuli; and the central column dividing the space, prefiguring the column of flagellation (the column upon which Christ was flogged prior to his crucifiction). The central column also signifies the separation of Mary from the world and her untouched purity. In fact, even the beams of light (presumably representing the Holy Spirit, which impregnates Mary) do not penetrate the Virgin’s sacred space, thereby demonstrating the impenetrability (and therefore purity) of Mary’s body.
The cypruses in the background harken to the Garden of Eden. Baldovinetti is credited with introducing attention to landscapes to Florentine art, which is clear here in the lush landscape he created for this painting. Giorgio Vasari, artist and art critic, wrote of Baldovinetti, “He took much delight in making landscapes, copying them from the life of nature exactly as they are; wherefore there are seen in his pictures streams, bridges, rocks, herbs, fruits, roads, fields, cities, castles, sand, and an infinity of other things of the kind.” Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Stadium Publishing, 2018.
Baldovinetti’s pupil, Domenico Ghirlandaio, is also exhibited in this room. He painted this Adoration in 1487. Based on the circular shape of the work (known as a tondo), it is likely that this work was commissioned for a private palazzo. Some scholars link it to a tondo listed in the inventory of the Tornabuoni family and therefore believe it was painted on the occasion of the birth of Giovanni Tornabuoni, first born of Lorenzo Tornabuoni and Giovanna degli Albizi, in 1487.
Ghirlandaio links the classically inspired composition so favored during the Italian Renaissance with the detailed realism of the Netherlandish school that was favored in Northern Europe at the time. Here, Mary sits on a dais that Ghirlandaio decorated with an antique leaf relief surrounded by the adoring Magi. In front of the scene is a travel bag, sack, and inscribed ashlar (square-cut stone) while the background demonstrates an acute attention to minute details characteristic of Northern European painting.
The Adoration became a popular subject during the Fifteenth Century in Florence, in part because its feast day, January 6, was also the day of celebration for Christ’s baptism, an event during which Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, was obviously integral (John the Baptist baptized Christ, hence his moniker). This connection between Florence and the Adoration was furthered by the ruling family, the Medici, who closely identified with the cult of the Magi. Moreover, the Magi were associated with Eastern scholarship/the inheritors of men such as Hermes Trismegistus, Pythagoras, and Plato, i.e. ancient wisdom that had been “lost” to the West during the so-called “Dark Ages.” Along that vein, beginning in the late Fifteenth Century, Adorations started to be commonly set amongst the ruins of ancient temples rather than the more traditional barn/cave. Compare Ghirlandaio’s Adoration with that of Gentile Fabriano, where Mary sits in front of a barn and a cave, not ancient ruins.
Placing the Adoration among ruins signified the triumph of Christianity over paganism both physically, as Christian churches replaced the crumbling temples, and socially. It also allowed Renaissance artists to harken to the classical era from which so much of their art was inspired, yet still express the utter sense of loss of the ancient past.
Also in this room is Biagio d’Antonio’s allegory of Justice, which, as its name implies, depicts the personification of the virtue of Justice.
She is pictured with her traditional attributes, the sword, the sphere, and the scales of justice, which denote both the two sides of Justice (the distributive, which rewards and punishes, and the commutative, which mediates disputes and symbolize the weighing of evidence) as well as the weighing of evidence. Justice, like most of his figures, is characterized by her slender appearance and pale/pinkish skin.
Hall 26 – Cosimo Rosselli
Cosimo Rosselli is mainly known for his work in the Sistine Chapel, which he did alongside Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Unlike the others, however, he is known for using bright colors and much more gold in his works, as is evident in this Madonna and Child EnthronedWith Angels, St. Nicholas, and St. Anthony the Abbot.
A cloth of honor is fastened to a number of trees, whose tops are visible and allude to the Garden of Eden. On the Virgin’s right is St. Nicholas while on the left is St. Anthony the Great.
Rosselli’s other work in this room is his Adoration. In this work, Christ is holding a bird, a goldfinch, which symbolizes the soul because, like a bird, it was believed that the soul would fly away after death. The use of the goldfinch specifically is due to the belief that the red spot on a goldfinch’s chest was acquired when a goldfinch removed one of the thorns from Christ’s head and was splashed with blood.
By this time, landscapes have become common background in paintings as opposed to the traditional Byzantine gold, yet the ground where the figures stand in this work still resembles the artificial ground in a tapestry rather than real earth, which feels and reacts to figures’ weight on it.
Hall 27 – Perugino
Like Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino worked on the Sistine Chapel alongside Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
In Perugino’s rendition of the Crucifixion, he has placed St. Jerome on the far left of the work, identifiable by the lion by his feet and his red cardinal’s hat, which Jerome has thrown to the ground as a symbol of his rejection of earthy honors. Next to St. Jerome is St. Francis, identifiable by the stigmata on his hands and his monk’s habit. At Jesus’ feet is Mary Magdalene with her traditional attribute, ointment, on the ground in front of her. Next to Mary Magdalene is Blessed Giovanni Colombini, founder of the Jesuati (not to be confused with the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola), and St. John the Baptist in his hair shirt.
The figures all give off shadows, indicating a single light source, a relatively new innovative concept in art. Additionally, the deep perspective and the infinite background that it creates is typical of Perugino.
Also located in this room is Mater Dolorosa (“Mother of Sorrows”), a copy of Hans Memling’s painting. It is here because it was likely copied by a Perugino follower. The painting itself is quintessentially Netherlandish. The Virgin is depicted as indisputably human, not as a creature of Heaven. The only acknowledgement of her holy status is her thin, almost nonexistent halo that fades into the dark background.
Hall 28 – Piero di Cosimo and Filippino Lippi
The next room features work by two artists: Piero di Cosimo, student of Cosimo Rosselli, and Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo Lippi.
In the first piece, Piero di Cosimo depicts the mythical story of the hero Perseus and Andromeda. According to the myth, Perseus was traveling back after killing the gorgon Medusa when he spotted the Princess Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia, who had boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, the daughters of the sea god Nereus. To avenge Nereus, the king of the sea, Poseidon, sent his sea creature to attack Queen Cassiopeia’s country. Cassiopeia consulted an oracle, who told her that by sacrificing her daughter, the sea creature would be appeased. Instead, Perseus flies in and saves the day, killing the sea monster and marrying Andromeda.
Perseus is shown three times in the painting: flying in the winged sandals loaned to him by the god Hermes in the top right hand corner; standing atop the sea monster; and celebrating with Andromeda in the bottom right corner. His multiple appearances indicates that this work is intended as a narrative piece, not a static picture.
The background is as interesting as the narrative in the foreground:
Here, Piero depicted three altars to the gods (from left to right) Hera, Zeus, and Hermes. While the mountain behind the altars takes the shape of a man, specifically the titan Atlas. (Titans were the children and grandchildren of the primordial gods Gaia, or Earth, and Uranus, i.e. Sky.) According to the Perseus myth, after killing Medusa, Perseus asked the titan Atlas if he would give him shelter from Medusa’s sisters, but Atlas refused. So Perseus pulled Medusa’s head out of the bag that he had been carrying it in, and when Atlas looked into her face, he turned into a mountain.
Given the timing and the subject of the painting, scholars believe that it was commissioned for the marriage of Filippo Strozzi the younger and Clarice de’ Medici. Multiple Medici emblems occur throughout the work. First, in the center is a laurel branch, which is capable of regenerating (like a phoenix, another Medici emblem), which reflects the Medici’s return to the city of Florence after a brief exile. Near the branch is Perseus’ shield, the top of which is shaped like a diamond, another Medici emblem. (They are the original proprietors of the phrase “Diamonds are forever.”)
The Medici also liked to identify themselves with Perseus. In fact, the family commissioned this statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa from Benvenuto Cellini when they returned from exile. Perseus was the son of Zeus, King of the Gods, and a princess and therefore descended from royalty, a status for which the Medici had always been grasping until they finally achieved it in 1569 with Grand Duke Cosimo I. Thus, identifying the family with Perseus signified that they too had royal status. Additionally, if the Medici could identify as Perseus, then it could be inferred that they swooped in to save Florence from the “sea monster” (i.e. the Republic) just as Perseus did to save Andromeda.
To ensure that these underlying messages were not missed, Perseus, and therefore Medusa’s head, were placed so that Medusa is looking straight at Michelangelo’s David, a symbol of the Republic, “turning” him to stone.
The other artist represented in this room is Filippino Lippi, son of the famous Fra Lippi. One of Lippi’s (the younger) works housed here is an Adoration of the Magi (1496), which was commissioned by the Convent of San Donato in Scopeto because the original Adoration that they had commissioned was never finished. (Perhaps not a surprise to anyone, but the original commission had been given to Leonardo da Vinci, who had run off to Milan without finishing it.)
Some scholars have posited that the misty lake in the top left is a homage to Leonardo’s famous sfumato technique since it was his Adoration that this one replaced. Compare the unfinished Leonardo with the Lippi:
In the left corner of the work kneels a man holding a globe, alluding to the Magi’s astrological knowledge. This man is believed to be Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, whose sons (Lorenzo and Giovanni) are supposedly depicted as the king being crowned and the young blonde holding a vase. Such a statement was bold in a republican Florence, but the Medici had long been identified with the Magi.
Like Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, Lippi’s Adoration places the main characters in the center of the work rather than off to one side. Previously, artists would place the Virgin and the Three Kings in a corner of the work to emphasize the movement of the kings’ procession. But, with the advent of perspective, artists like Filippino Lippi were able to convey movement with shadows and light and therefore were able to focus the main action in the center without losing the movement of the Magi’s trains/processions they wanted to convey.
The other work in this room by Filippino Lippi is St. Jerome Penitent, which depicts St. Jerome kneeling before a crucifix. This painting is one of the first times that we see a saint dressed in rags and depicted old in a grizzled, downtrodden way rather than the more usual aged, but venerable and wise.
Beneath the saint’s left elbow trots his lion, his usual attribute, while in the cave lays his cardinal’s hat, left unnoticed and without care, demonstrating Jerome’s retreat from earthly pleasures.
Also in this room is Lippi’s Madonna degli Otto (1486), painted for the Sala degli Otto di Pratica, a room in the Palazzo Vecchio. This commission, like so many others, had first gone to Leonardo da Vinci, who, once again, failed to finish, and so the commission ended up resting with Lippi.
The niche that holds the Virgin is in the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol which had been appropriated from the classical world, wherein the scallop shell was a symbol of fertility. The Christian tradition limited the meaning from “all births” to simply the birth of Christ. Mary, therefore, was dubbed as the “new Venus.” Mary is surrounded by the patron saints of Florence, from left to right, St. John the Baptist, St. Vittore, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Zanobi. St. Bernard is holding open a book, on which pages are written his homily to Mary.
Above Mary are two angels holding garlands of roses. The roses allude to charity, Christ’s passion, and Mary herself, who was and is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns). Crowning the entire scene is the Croce del Popolo, a symbol of the Florentine Municipality.
Hall 29 – Lorenzo di Credi
Hall 29 is dedicated to Lorenzo di Credi, who was a pupil of Andrea del Verrocchio (Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher) and took over Verrocchio’s workshop after he died.
Hall 30 – Doriforo
In Hall 30 is a sculpture from the early First Century AD known as the Doryphoros (“Spear-Bearer”) Torso. The Doryphoros Torso is one of the most well preserved copies of the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. The original Doryphoros of Polykleitos no longer survives, but it was a Greek marble from the 5th Century B.C. Polykleitos earned his fame because he “solved” the issue of reproducing the ideal male body in motion.
Hall 31 – Signorelli and Florence
This room is known as “Signorelli and Florence” because it gives the visitors a splendid view of Florence through a window next to one of Signorelli’s tondos.
Hall 32 – Signorelli
One of the more striking works in this room is Signorelli’s Madonna with Child (c. 1490), which features Mary and Christ with male figures in the background. The Tondo is framed in a false frame with two prophets flanking a bust of St. John the Baptist. The monochromatic frame brings the Madonna into stark realization. Madonna and the Christ Child are sitting among ancient ruins.
Rooms 19 through 23 of the Uffizi are known as the Salette (“small rooms”). They were renovated in the early 2010s, reopening in April of 2014. These rooms bring us back to the Italian Renaissance, showcasing Italian artists who originated outside of Florence in a total of 44 paintings. Perhaps the most beautiful works of art are not hanging on the walls, however, but instead are the ceilings themselves, which were painted by Ludovico Buti in the “grottesque” style in 1588.
Grotesques mimicked ancient Roman frescoes, making them all the rage in a time when anything “classical” was considered higher art. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, Medici court painter, explains:
The painter Morto da Feltro, who was as original in his life as he was in his brain and in the new fashion of grotesques that he made, which caused him to be held in great estimation … He was a melancholy person, and was constantly studying the antiquities; and seeing among them sections of vaults and ranges of walls adorned with grotesques, he liked these so much that he never ceased from examining them. And so well did he grasp the methods of drawing foliage in the ancient manner, that he was second to no man of his time in that profession.
Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.
Originally, these rooms housed the Medici Armory. Thus, some of the decorations on the ceiling are of armor and battle scenes. Sadly, some of the ceiling in Room 21 was damaged during German bombing in World War II in 1944. To commemorate this event, a new design was placed on the ceiling that had been destroyed which depicts the bombing of Florence.
Hall 19. Sienese Artists
The first room in this series, Hall 19, is filled with pieces by Sienese artists. The first, Giovanni di Paolo, painted the Guelfi Altarpiece in 1445 for the Guelfi Chapel in the Church of San Domenico in Siena, also known as the Basilica Cateriniana, pictured below.
Giovanni famously kept Gothic elements present in his artworks, especially visible in the shape of this altarpiece. (By the time Di Paolo produced this altarpiece, it had been vogue for some time to shape altarpieces as a single panel rather than a polyptych.)
Giovanni also depicts the Christ child in the traditional Byzantine manner, i.e., as a miniature adult rather than a baby. Moreover, Giovanni knowingly flouted the newly discovered concepts of perspective that dominated contemporary art in neighboring Florence. The lack of perspective is incredibly evident in his depiction of the angels holding Mary aloft. They are flat, with no depth or shadowing. Rather than use gradient coloring, Giovanni greatly admired Gentile da Fabriano, and used Gentile’s technique of creating light using gold.
Giovanni became famous for his illustrations commissioned for Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and Paradise, themes that he seemingly took to heart, as the predella of this altarpiece suggests.
The globe represents the universe, comprised of a flat Earth, surrounded by concentric circles that represent the four known planets, one of which is the sun, in accordance with Medieval cosmological belief. The enclosing circle represents the constellations of the zodiac. The imagery was likely inspired by the text that Giovanni himself had illustrated: Dante’s Paradiso, Canto XXII, lines 133-5 (the Longfellow translation).
with my sight returned through one and all
The sevenfold spheres, and I beheld this globe
Such that I smiled at its ignoble semblance
Interestingly, Giovanni decided to place Dante’s “lofty wheel” within the Garden of Eden. God is held up by blue cherubim, which are usually associated with Dominican knowledge (as opposed to the red seraphim associated with the Franciscan Order). Such connection is fitting because the work was commissioned for the Dominican church. Unusually, the angel expelling Adam and Eve takes on the naked form of a human.
Another piece of the predella (also located in the Met) depicts Paradiso, the moment when mankind redeems itself and enters into the kingdom of Heaven.
Several saints are identified below:
Giovanni’s open rejection of the perspective trend in Florence creates a rather flat pictorial space, reminiscent of a medieval tapestry, demonstrating that Giovanni wanted to celebrate the pictorial space rather than concentrate on the depth of the depiction.
Another Sienese artist, Lorenzo di Pietro, more commonly known as Vecchietta, was more receptive to the burgeoning Florentine trends. Indeed, Vecchietta was known for his combination of the Sienese tradition with the emerging Florentine humanism. His later altarpieces, including the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (1457), below, disposed of the traditional polyptych shape in favor of the Florentine pittura quadrata, literally “square painting.”
Vecchietta, however, does retain the gold background and the austere figures commonly seen in traditional Byzantine works.
Hall 20. Mantegna, Bellini and Antonello da Messina
During the late 16th century, the ceiling in Room 20 was repainted to showcase Florentine landmarks, including the Palazzo Vecchio.
Like Room 19, Room 20 showcases Italian Renaissance artists from cities other than Florence. Here, the artwork was painted by the “heavy hitters” of the Venetian 15th century: Mantegna, Bellini and Antonello da Messina.
Andrea Mantegna’s work, known as the Uffizi Triptych, was painted sometime between 1460 and 1464. It is unknown for whom and for where it was commissioned, but because it was painted around the time Mantegna was living at the court of Ludovico Gonzaga in Mantua, some scholars posit that it was painted for Mantegna’s patron, Gonzaga.
The left-hand panel is a depiction of the Ascension of Christ, the middle is the Adoration of the Magi, and the left-hand depicts the circumcision of Christ. Some scholars believe the three panels were not originally conceived as a triptych and instead were meant as three separate pieces.
Mantegna’s depiction of the Adoration is exceptionally notable because it is one of the first known depiction of the Magi as men of different races. Indeed, prior to this piece, Italian painters almost always depicted the Magi as white men, but Mantegna chose in this work, and in his later Adoration painted c. 1430-1506, to depict one of the Kings as African. This depiction of the Adoration would not gain any sort of traction until well into the 16th Century, until such time as it became the convention to depict the Magi as Kings from the three known continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Mantegna has also disposed of the typical crowns worn by the Magi in conventional depictions, and thereby was able to emphasize the gem-laden gifts the Magi present the Christ-child. Melchior, depicted kneeling, presents Christ a vase topped with a pearl. The pearl, known as unio because an oyster can only contain a single pearl at a time, probably refers to the virgin conception of Christ. Melchior’s gift is gold, which represents Christ’s kingship. Balthasar stands behind Melchior holding his gift of frankincense in a vase topped with a sapphire. Sapphires represent heaven/the sky and virtue, which explains why Mary is typically dressed in blue, symbolizing her role as the Queen of Heaven. Frankincense, which moves through the air towards the sky, is used during liturgical practices to convey prayers to Heaven; thus, its association with the sapphire. Gaspar, kneeling behind Balthasar, presents his gift of myrrh, held in a vase crowned with a ruby. Myrrh was used during the embalming process, and therefore symbolizes Christ’s humanity. The vase’s ruby is a symbol of charity and fire, i.e. Christ’s martyrdom, which is only possible due to his humanity.
Each element of Mantegna’s work is meant to reference the Epiphany. Mary and Christ are placed within the mouth of a dark cave, conveying the then popular Epiphany metaphor of light filling darkness. So too the coming dawn.
In the background are the typical exotic animals and dress that routinely crop up in Adorations. Interestingly, the camels are rendered expertly because Mantegna had access to a real life example housed in his patron’s menagerie.
Mantegna was fascinated by classical culture, most likely spurred on by his childhood home of Padua. Padua, once known as Patavium, was very proud of its ancient past as part of the “glorious” Roman Empire. This pride took the shape of an enthusiastic revival of Roman culture in all areas of life, including academia (Padua is home to one of the oldest universities, founded in 1222), names (children were named after Caesar, Hercules, Aeneas, etc. rather than after, as was traditional, saints), arts, etc. Indeed, Mantegna’s (and Padua’s) fascination with Roman culture is evident in the architecture in his paintings. For instance, in the panel depicting the circumcision of Christ, the architecture is reminiscent of an ancient Roman temple.
Another “heavy hitter” of Venice, Giovanni Bellini, known as Giambellino, painted what is known as the Sacred Allegory (sometime between 1487 and 1504). It is considered one of Bellini’s most enigmatic pieces. The shape of the painting suggests that it was meant for a palazzo for private consumption. Some scholars believe it was the painting requested by Isabella d”este for her studiolo in Mantua.
Bellini has placed several saints among others within a hortus conclusus. A hortus conclusus, translated as “enclosed garden,” was a common artistic device used to denote a sacred space. It is believed that the term was derived from Song of Solomon, Chapter 4, verse 12 (“A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.” King James Version). The Virgin Mary and a child whom many scholars believe is Christ, although others believe may be the infant St. John, are the only two seated figures. The other children are placed atop a chequered tile, which some believe is a reference to the Cross.
Some scholars have identified the female figure on the Virgin’s right as the personification of the virtue Hope. She is floating several feet above the pavement, thereby alluding to Hope’s traditional association with elevation. Indeed, Hope is generally depicted either with wings or with her face tilted towards the heavens. Those that buy into this interpretation of the painting identify the other female figure as Faith. Some representations of Faith, as it would seem this one, are depicted wearing a crown in reference to Revelations 2:10, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (KJV).
Hall 21. Venetian Artists
Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna and Child, painted around 1504, demonstrates Cima da Conegliano’s typical style in his use of deep blue and red.
Cima represents the bridge between Venetian arts Bellini and sons and Andrea Mantegna and the later Venetians Titian and Giorgione. Like the Bellinis and Mantegna, Cima produced emotional, sacred pictures, but he imbued them with a new sense of naturalism, made possible by the emerging trend of painting with oil paint. Moreover, neither the Madonna nor the Christ-Child is depicted with a halo; instead, the figures are shown as fully human – not divine nor idealized. Behind the figures is Cima’s hometown, Conegliano, which he typically painted as a landscape in his works.
Hall 22. Emilia Romagna
Hall 22 houses paintings from the Ferrara school, including paintings by Cosmè Tura, Ercole da Ferrara, Lorenzo Costa, and Francesco Francia.
Francesco Francia painted this Virgin Enthroned with SS. Francis and Dominic.
Francesco Francia was born in Bologna and trained as a goldsmith, which is apparent in his acute attention to detail in his works, the rigid drapery, and enamel-like surface. He specialized in religious works, particularly in altarpieces with the Madonna and Child and saints, like the one depicted here. The saints depicted with the Virgin are St. Francis and St. Dominic. St. Francis is recognizable by the stigmata (the appearance of the wounds suffered by Christ) on his hands. Interestingly, St. Francis is clean shaven as the fashion had changed during the last decade of the 13th century, when beards became to be thought of as characteristic of the poor, uneducated, and the outcasts of society. His works are also characterized by their gentleness/softness. Indeed, Vasari noted of Francia’s art: “The people, when they beheld the new and living beauty, ran madly to see it, thinking it would never be possible to improve upon it.”
Hall 23. Lombardy.
The final Hall in this series houses works by Lombard painters.
A large painting by an unnamed artist, known only as the Master of the Pala Bertone, painted this Nativity scene.
The Bertone Altar in the church of Sant’Agostino in Chieri is the work of a fascinating and unknown painter of the early sixteenth century active in Piedmont strongly influenced by transalpine painting, i.e., Flemish.
Finally, Boccaccio Boccaccino painted what is commonly known as the Portrait of a Gypsy, although there is no indication of who this woman actually could be.
Her necklace is in the formation of a cross, indicating that she is likely a Christian. The ruby symbolizes love and Christ’s passion. The color of her head scarf, however, indicates that some money went into this painting, as blue was an expensive pigment to use in painting. Boccaccino’s use of the dark background to create depth is a forerunner to its use by later artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who commonly used the same technique.
The Hall of Geographic Maps had been closed to the public for more than twenty years, but it has been recently reopened after a 700 thousand euro restoration. The Medicean (the Medici family was ruling family of Florence) geographer Stefano Bonsignori designed the original room and Ludovico Buti frescoed with geographical renderings of Medici Tuscany, including Florence, Siena, and Elba, around 1589. Cartology, or the making of maps, formed a key pillar of Medici propaganda and myth-making. Indeed, the renderings of Florence and the hard-won colonies of Siena and Elba, conquered during the reign of Cosimo I, represent the the Grand Duchy’s place within the history of the universe and cosmos, a persisting preoccupation of the Medici dynasty.
It was intended to house Grand Duke Ferdinand’s collection of scientific instruments, thereby emphasizing the connection between science and art. These scientific instruments, many of which were commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinand himself, were works of art in and of themselves. The Medici family believed that both art and scientific knowledge conferred political power and prestige and so became prominent patrons of both. Copies of several of those instruments are housed here; the originals have been transferred to the Florence Museum of the History of Science, also known as the Galileo Museum. One of the copies housed here is the cosmographer Antonio Santucci’s armillary sphere, known as, straightforwardly enough, Santucci’s Armillary Sphere. (Santucci also made a copy of the sphere for King Philip II of Spain, which can be viewed today in the main library of the Escorial Monastery, outside of Madrid, Spain). The word Armillae in Latin can be translated as “rings.” Each ring represents a prong of the Aristotelian universe.
Another copy located in the Hall is the great terrestrial globe made by Egnazio Danti for the Palazzo Vecchio. Danti was the first “Cosmographer to the Most Serene Grand Duke,” appointed in 1562 to the new institutional figure.
The room was meant to represent Ptolemaic cosmography, i.e., the union of cosmography proper, i.e., the sky/heavens (Santucci’s Armillary Sphere), geography (Danti’s terrestrial globe), and chorography (Buti’s frescoes), as expressed in Ptolemy’s Geographiké Uphégesis.
Room 17. Stanzino delle Matematiche
The Mathematics Rooms or Room of Military Architecture was once known as the “Hermaphrodite Room” because it once housed the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, an ancient sculpture that caused a sensation in the Renaissance due to its sensuality (now located in the Louvre, in Paris, France).
The original room was dedicated to military architecture, as devised by the diplomat Filippo Pigafetta. In a letter to the Grand Duke Ferdinando, Pigafetta wrote:
The place devoted by Your Highness to keep the devices of military architecture (principal part of the science of warfare) was missing to the perfection of your Galleries, where so many other arts with their artificers are found, and it being certain that Your Serene Highness is well furnished with instruments for drawing and measuring by sight, both in the sky and on earth, and models for hoisting the heaviest weights with ease, and inventions as well as various devices and texts pertinent to the aforesaid Architecture, it was well worth to assign them a room where they could be placed, not only to demonstrate their utility but also to be displayed to visitors.
Filippo Pigafetta, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 137.
Giulio Parigi painted the frescoes in the first bay of the ceiling, which celebrate mathematics. Each frieze depicted an invention and/or discovery of antiquity, including the Pythagorean theorem, Ptolemy’s cosmographic system, Euclid’s geometric elements, Archimedes’ inventions, or a contemporary application of mechanics, including the wheel crowned with sponges, the pile-driving and excavating machines used in building the Port of Livorno, and ships, nautical charts, and the compass. Many of these contemporary scenes were sketches depicting the actual machines themselves, as they were held in the Medici collections.
Since the War with Siena, military engagements were no longer thought of as chivalric art, but as a mathematical science, based in part on the emergence of firearms. No longer was a military man exalted for his skills in hand-to-hand combat, but now needed to possess the knowledge of “military architecture” in order to be able to win at a distance. That is not to say that strategy and mathematics had not been a part of warfare prior to the 16th century; indeed, one of the most famous mathematicians, Archimedes, earned much of his fame due to his defense of his native city Syracuse against the invading Romans in the 3rd century B.C. But with the advent of firearms, compasses, and other such advances in military technology, the need for a general to understand ratios between weight and range of cannonballs, the geometry of fortresses, navigability of the oceans, etc. was greatly increased.
For what pertains to warfare, nothing is required but practice in the mathematical sciences, that is, cosmography, geography and topography, mechanics and perspective, as well as a good knowledge of civil and military architecture with excellent skill at drawing and a good understanding of arithmetic, because with the practice of these alone, and through the live voice of intelligent and practice persons, he [Prince Lorenzo de’Medici] can easily learn everything that a good soldier needs to know.
Ranuccio Farnese to Christina of Lorraine, Museo Galileo and Masterpieces of Sciences, Filippo Camerota, ed., p. 140.
The new warfare was based on engineering and new technologies including compasses, plumb levels, and surveying compasses, which invariably led to a collectors frenzy over such items. This room once housed the geometric and military compasses that Galileo had dedicated to Cosimo I in 1606 and the telescope that had been used to reveal a new image of the universe in 1610, which relaunched Copernicus’ understanding that the Earth travelled around the sun, not the other way around.
Now, this room houses 19 small marble and alabaster Roman arts dated to the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD, statues in marble and Bronze by Tuscans from 16th to 19th centuries, 24 bronze statuettes by Flemish sculptor Willem van Tedrode, and a bronze by Lombard Leone Leoni.
Room 18. The Tribune
Perhaps one of the more well-known rooms in the Uffizi, the Tribune was constructed during Francesco de’Medici’s reign to display the Medici’s ever-growing horde of treasures. Architect Bernardo Buontalenti deigned the room in 1584.
The room is in the shape of an octagon because it was Christian belief that the number eight was a heavenly number while the room’s high vault symbolizes vault of heaven, the venetian glass windows symbolize the cosmos, and the floor, which is in the shape of a flower, symbolizes the earth. In fact, artist Jacopo Ligozzi painted animals and plants along the base of the walls to reinforce the floor’s symbolism. To symbolize water, Buontalenti designed the cupola to be encrusted with over 6,000 mother-of-pearl shells whereas he designed the red velvet walls to symbolize fire and the lantern at the top of the cupola to symbolize air. Thus, the messaging of the cosmos, so important to the Medicean propaganda, is physically built into the Tribune.
The Tribune was also supposed to evoke the spirituality of a chapel. Indeed, its very name, Tribune, was appropriated from Catholic parlance: a tribune (Tribuna in Italian) is the semicircular domed end of a basilica.
The star of the Tribune is undoubtedly the statue known as the Medici Venus (Cleomenes, son of Apollodorus), which entered the Tribune in 1677.
The Medici Venus was allegedly found near the Trajan Baths, in Rome. The statue is a 1st century B.C. marble copy of a Greek bronze. Traces of the paint that once adorned the marble can still be detected. Although many people think of Greek and Roman statues as quintessentially white, they were actually painted with highly pigmented colors, which were rubbed off over the thousands of years spent combating the elements. The Medici Venus is no exception. For a riveting commentary on the Medici Venus and the nude as depicted in art in general, watch Mary Beard’s two-part series, The Shock of the Nude.
Once the home of multiple Leonardo’s, Room 15 of the Uffizi was recently renovated to house Hugo van der Goes’ well known work, the Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1477-1478).
The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari for the main altar of Sant’Egidio, a church connected to the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Portinari was intimately connected with Santa Maria Nuova because the hospital was founded by one of his ancestors in 1288. Astonishingly, Santa Maria Nuova remains an active hospital to this day and is one of the oldest active hospitals in the world. It is believed to be the hospital where Leonardo da Vinci performed his innovative experimental dissections of human cadavers.
Tommaso Portinari managed the Bruges branch of the Medici bank (located in modern Belgium) where he had access to artists who were operating outside the direct influence of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike their Italian counterparts, northern artists used oil paint as their main medium, as opposed to tempera mixtures. Oil paint took longer to dry than tempera, allowing artists to blend their colors more effectively. Moreover, due to its translucent nature, oil paint enables light to penetrate each layer of paint and reflect those layers back to the viewer, similar to what happens when light enters a prism or a diamond.
Compare the Cardinal of Portugal Altarpiece (left) with the Novitiate Altarpiece (right). The Cardinal’s altarpiece was done in oil paint while the Novitiate was done in tempera. As you can see, the Cardinal’s has a softness to it, which can be attributed to the superior blendability of oil paint whereas the figures in the Novitiate appear more solid and statuesque.
Because of the profound differences seen in oil paint, the Portinari Altarpiece caused a sensation when it finally arrived in Florence in 1483. Indeed, it was to fundamentally change the trajectory of the Italian Renaissance, inspiring famous artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael to use oil as their main medium.
In addition to his use of oil paint, Van der Goes was known for his acute attention to detail, complex landscapes, and superb lighting. Northern artists like Van der Goes were also well known for the extensive use of iconography. Indeed, the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece is rife with symbolism.
For instance, the abandoned clog by Joseph’s feet communicates to the audience that the figures stand on holy ground; the flowers in the forefront symbolize the impending Passion and humanity’s salvation. In the vase on the right, the seven blue columbines symbolize the seven sorrows of Mary while the three red carnations symbolize both the three bloody nails as well as the holy trinity. Moreover, the glass of the vase symbolizes Mary’s virginity, as St. Bernard notes:
“Just as the brilliance of the sun fills and penetrates a glass window without damaging it … thus, the word of God, the splendor of the father. entered the Virgin chamber and then came forth from the closed womb.”
Meiss, Millard. “Light as Form and Symbol in Some Fifteenth-Century Paintings.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 27, no. 3, 1945, pp. 175–181. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3047010. Accessed 14 Jan. 2021.
The vase on the left symbolizes purity (the white flowers), royalty (the purple flowers), and Christ’s passion (the red flowers) and is particularly noteworthy because it indicates a vibrant trade with Spain; indeed, the vase is what was known as a Spanish albarello vase, a luxury item only available in Bruges due to its status as an international trade hub. The flowers held in the albarello vase not only symbolize Christ’s qualities, but also provide a link to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, the hospital to which Sant’Egidio was connected because the flowers are herbs and ointments typically used by apothecaries. Moreover, the vases were strategically placed to look as though they were sitting atop the altar once the altarpiece had been installed in its intended location. Placing flowers in front of holy images is a common practice.
Behind the vases is a sheaf of wheat, lying parallel to the Christ child. When the work had been displayed in its intended place above the altar, both Christ and the sheaf would be parallel to the altar, which held the holy communion. According to Catholic rites, the bread blessed during mass transforms into the actual body of Christ. Thus, the placement of Christ parallel to the wheat parallel to the altar with the holy communion visually translates this transformation, know in Catholicism as Transubstantiation.
The entire scene is permeated by angels, who are generally dressed in rich priestly vestments that were common at the time this work was produced.
In the background of the main panel are the very same shepherds who appear before Mary and Jesus in the foreground. Depicting figures twice to show continuous movement within a single work, a technique known as continuous narrative, was well known in Florence prior to the influence of northern painting, but what sets northern continuous narrative apart is Flemish artists’ ability to use light in such a way as to denote different times of day in a seamless way.
The side panels were actually painted later than the central panel, and so they possess some stylistic differences than the central panel. For instance, the side panels are darker and have less spatial depth.
The right wing of the triptych depicts Portinari’s wife, Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, kneeling next to their daughter, Maria Margherita. Behind the patron’s family stand (in exaggerated stature to denote their importance) the name saints of Maria Maddalena and Maria Margherita, Mary Magdalene and St. Margaret. The saints, however, are transposed: St. Margaret is not standing behind her namesake, but instead is directly behind Maria Maddalena. Her positioning behind the mother of Portinari’s heirs is likely meant to emphasize St. Margaret’s role as the patron saint of childbearing. In fact, studies of the painting have demonstrated that the two saints had been positioned behind their name sakes, but the artist changed his mind and transposed them. The original positioning of the saints explains St. Margaret’s red cloak and loose hair, attributes typical of Mary Magdalene, not St. Margaret.
Maria Maddalena is depicted wearing a necklace of pearls, symbolizing purity, a diamond, symbolizing strength, and a ruby, symbolizing charity.
This necklace is believed to have been actually owned by Maria Maddalena, rather than the artist’s invention, because it appears in another portrait of Maria Maddalena and her husband.
Moreover, it is believed to be the necklace Tommaso Portinari was forced to sell to settle his debt to the Medici; debt he incurred by causing the bankruptcy of the Medici bank he was charged with operating.
On the left side of the panel kneels Portinari and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello. Behind Portinari stands his namesake, St. Thomas the Apostle (identifiable by the spear he holds in his hand), and behind the boys stands St. Anthony the Great, Antonio’s namesake saint. St. Anthony is a plague saint, and therefore has links not just to the Portinari family, but also to the hospital.
The link to childbearing is referenced in this panel as well, via the background scene wherein Joseph tends to a pregnant Mary as they travel to Bethlehem to register for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
Northern artists such as Hugh Van der Goes had a massive impact on their Italian counterparts as their work began to drift southward. To emphasize this link, the Uffizi placed Van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece next to Botticini Francesco’s Tobias and the Three Archangels (c. 1470).
In this piece, Botticini sticks to the contemporary conventional iconography of the once well known Biblical tale of Tobias and the Archangels from the Book of Tobit. The Book of Tobit is found in the Old Testament Apocrypha (i.e. the collection of works that the Church fathers decided, for one reason or another, to leave out of the accepted Catholic canon). The story is about a young boy named Tobias who is sent by his father Tobit, a blind and devout man, to collect a debt from a family member. Tobias is accompanied on his journey by the Archangel Raphael, who, unbeknownst to Tobias, has taken on the appearance of one of Tobias’ relatives. When bathing on the road, Tobias is almost swallowed by a fish, but Raphael tells him to catch it, which he does. They extract its heart, liver, and gall. Its heart and liver were subsequently used by Tobias to kill demons haunting his future wife and the gall was used to cure his father’s blindness. Because of this story, Raphael was linked with travel and merchants, and the legend eventually morphed into the concept of guardian angels in the 16th century.
But, why did Botticini include the other two archangels, who were not mentioned in the original story? (Michael holds the Sword of Victory and the archangel Gabriel holds the lily he gave to Mary) One scholar has argued that the purpose of the depiction is not to tell the story, but to invoke the idea of guardian angels, and what could be better than having three guardian angels accompany you on your travels?
Botticini was fascinated by this story, painting at least seven versions over the course of his life. In fact, a year or so after this commission, in 1471, Botticini became a member of the confraternity of the Archangel Raphael of the church of Santo Spirito, the church for which this particular version was commissioned.
The last work in this room is Ghirlandaio’s The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus (1479). Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi, known as Ghirlandaio, is primarily known for his narrative frescoes. Flemish influences can be seen in his minute attention to details, but although influenced by the Flemish school, Ghirlandaio never experimented with oil paint, sticking instead with the more traditional egg tempera mixture.
This altarpiece was made for the high altar of San Giusto alle Mura, a church dedicated to St. Justus of Lyons, thus the appearance of a St. Justus in the lower left corner of the work. The pictured St. Justus, however, is not Justus of Lyons, but Justus of Volterra, who was sometimes confused and/or conflated with Justus of Lyons. We know that the pictured Justus is the Bishop of Volterra due to the scene depicted in the predella, discussed below. The saint opposite Saint Justus is Saint Zenobius, a patron saint of Florence. Standing above the Saints are the Archangel Michael, dressed in his conventional armor, and the Archangel Raphael, holding his healing ointment.
Gold is used throughout the piece, but Ghirlandaio did not use the typical gold leaf technique. Instead, he painted thin layers to achieve the shining effect.
Notice the unique frieze of the wall and the Madonna’s throne. It is encrusted with sapphires (symbolizing modesty), rubies (symbolizing charity), emeralds (symbolizing beauty), and pearls (symbolizing purity). Moreover, the Virgin’s broach is a large oval sapphires, surrounded by pearls, clearing marking her as dogmatically virginal.
The baby Jesus holds a crystal globe topped by a pearl encrusted cross. The globe had been a symbol of kingship for centuries, since both the Roman and Byzantine times. A common misconception is that the globe symbolizes the Earth. Problematically, the ancients believed the Earth to be flat, and so they would not have used a globe as a symbol for the Earth. Instead, the globe symbolized the cosmos and universality to the ancients. The added cross references Christ’s spiritual kingship and spiritual universality. The material of the globe, rock crystal, was believed to have healing powers due to its reflective ability. It was also linked with the Baptism of Christ and his incarnation.
Moreover, the globe is a typical attribute of St. Michael, the archangel. Therefore, the globe held by Christ suggests a privileged relationship between the two. The pearls in his girdle remind us of Michael’s angelic chastity, also linking him with the Virgin Mary. Michael, therefore, functions as an extension of both Christ and the Virgin.
The predella, which some scholars believe Ghirlandaio’s younger brother Davide had a major hand in producing, features well-known events from each of the depicted figures’ lives. For instance, the first panel, beneath the archangel Michael, depicts Michael fighting the rebel angels who sided with Lucifer prior to Lucifer’s ultimate defeat.
Next, the panel beneath St. Justus depicts him with St. Clement, offering bread to soldiers. According to Christian belief, the citizens of Volterra was starving because the city was under siege by the Vandals. St. Justus and St. Clement prayed for help, and the city’s granary was miraculously filled. Then, the saints, in accordance with the Christian maxim “if thine enemy hunger, feed him” (Romans 12: 20), gave bread to the Vandals. After such kindness, the Vandals ended their siege and left the city in peace. Ghirlandaio’s depiction slightly deviates from the traditional story, wherein the saints throw the food over the city walls. Ghirlandaio’s version, however, was likely easier to depict and had the added bonus of emphasizing the saints’ bravery.
The center panel depicts Mary’s marriage to St. Joseph, thereby emphasizing Mary’s centrality to Catholic faith. Ghirlandaio depicts Joseph’s branch blossoming, which designated him as Mary’s future husband, and to the left of Joseph, one man is depicted breaking his own branch in frustration at his loss.
To the right of Mary’s marriage is the depiction of the translation of St. Zenobius’ body from San Lorenzo to il Duomo. During the translation, the funeral bier touched a dead tree, and it burst to life. Behind the procession, you can see the Baptistry and the Campanile.
Finally, the panel beneath St. Raphael shows the popular Renaissance subject of Tobias and the fish, discussed above.
To give you some idea of how the altarpiece would have looked, I’ve arranged it as it was intended to be seen below:
The Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala (1481) was commissioned for the Ospedale di San Martino alla Scala, the Florentine branch of the Sienese Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala, a hospital dedicated to serving pilgrims, tending the sick, and caring for orphans. The work was a fresco, meaning it was painted directly onto wall of the entrance loggia, which explains its relatively chalky coloring. Decorating entrances to buildings with Annunciations had a long tradition in Christendom as a sign of welcome based on the notion that as Christ entered the world through Mary to save humankind from eternal damnation, so too would the pilgrim enter the building to receive safety and shelter.
The Feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25th, was such a favored feast day in Florence that it served as the first day of the Florentine calendar year. And, like most Florentines, Botticelli was fascinated by the subject, painting no less than ten different versions of the event through the course of his life. In this particular version, Botticelli sets his scene in a Renaissance palazzo and uses the tropes conventional of depictions of the Annunciation: the walled garden (hortus conclusus), symbolizing Mary’s separation from the material world; the lilies (held by Gabriel), which symbolize purity; Mary’s blue robe, alluding to her role as the Queen of Heaven; and the central column dividing the space, prefiguring the column of flagellation (the column upon which Christ was flogged prior to his crucifiction). Yet, unlike contemporary Florentine depictions of the Annunciation, the Annunciation of San Martino alla Scala depicts Gabriel hovering, rather than firmly planted on the floor. This artistic choice is likely due to the location of the hospital’s parent hospital in Siena, where it was the norm to have Gabriel floating rather than firm on the ground.
Another work that Botticelli produced around the same time as the Annunciation of San Martino is known as the Madonna of the Magnificat (1481-85). This Madonna is likely the most expensive tondo that Botticelli created (due to the amount of gold it required). It was also one of his more popular works; at least five replicas of it were produced.
Tondos, which get their name from the Italian word rotondo, meaning round, were generally produced for secular settings, particularly the palazzos of wealthy patrons. This tondo, the Madonna of the Magnificat, is named for the eponymous prayer, the beginning words of which are inscribed on the book pictured in the work. The “Magnificat,” also known as the “Canticle of Mary” or “Ode of the Theotokos” appears in the Gospel of Luke 1:46. where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Mary tells her cousin:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes
quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est et sanctum nomen eius
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies timentibus eum
fecit potentiam in brachio suo dispersit superbos mente cordis sui
deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles esurientes
implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes
suscepit Israhel puerum suum memorari misericordiae
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini eius in saecula.
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
This episode is also alluded to on the left page of the pictured book, which is inscribed with the beginning words of the Benedictus (Gospel of Luke 1:68). It was rare for the Virgin to be depicted writing, making this piece all the more interesting. The Virgin is also depicted with a crown made from many small stars, alluding to her title “Stella Matutina” (“Morning Star”). Whereas the angels are depicted with contemporary hairstyles and Christ is holding a pomegranate, known as the fruit of paradise and whose pips symbolize the Passion.
In fact, several years later, Botticelli painted an astonishingly similar work to the Madonna of the Magnificat entitled Madonna of the Pomegranate (c. 1487), where – you guessed it – Christ is depicted holding a pomegranate. (Also, fun fact, the emblem of Catherine of Aragon, the one time Queen of England or Princess of Wales, depending on your point of view on the Great Matter).
Like the Madonna of the Magnificat, this tondo likely hung in a secular setting. Some scholars have argued that the gilded lilies on blue field, which symbolize the alliance between Florence and France, are similar to those that decorate a room in the Palazzo Vecchio and thus it hung there, but there is no definitive proof that it did so.
We have much better information on where Botticelli’s Altarpiece of San Barnaba (Botticelli, c. 1487-89) was located, obviously, the Church of San Barnaba. San Barnaba was erected to celebrate victory over the Guelphs in 1289 on San Barnaba’s feast day, and it was managed by the Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries (Arte de’ Medici e Speziali) and the Augustinian monks.
It was the largest classical Renaissance painting by a Florentine at the time of its production. Beneath the Virgin, Botticelli painted an inscription, which proclaims, “Vergine madre; Figlia Deltvo Figlio” (“Virgin Mother; daughter of thy son”). The phrase was taken from Dante’s Paradise, XXXIII, 1-3 and was used to praise the uniqueness of Mary (i.e. a virgin cannot be a mother; a mother cannot be her son’s daughter). Because Mary both precedes Christ in earth’s chronology, but follows him in terms of spiritual ascension, she is the beginning and end of all things and makes the impossible, possible.
The saints are, from left to right: Catherine of Alexandria, Augustine, Barnabas, John the Baptist, and Ignatius of Antioch, next to whom stands the archangel Michael. St. Barnabas, on Mary’s direct right, is in the place of honor because this piece was intended to be in his church. The saint on Mary’s direct right would normally have been John the Baptist, the older and higher ranked saint in Church hierarchy, but since that position is occupied, he is placed on Mary’s direct left. John is likely included in this altarpiece because he is the patron saint of Florence. St. Augustine is present as the representation of the canons of the church, and therefore Christ is turned towards him and St. Barnabas to signify that it is through St. Barnabas’ church, and the Augustine priests that manage it, that the members receive Christ’s blessing. The archangel Michael’s presence is likely a reference to the Florentine military victory over the Guelphs, the occasion for which the church was built to celebrate. Catherine of Alexandria and Ignatius of Antioch’s presence are likely due to St. Barnabas’ connection with the cities Alexandria and Antioch, where he was active prior to his martyrdom.
Botticelli’s maturing style is evident in the elongated face of Virgin as well as the harsher expression of the figures. Indeed, during his mature period, Botticelli turned away from the sensual and elegant paintings of his past and instead focused on the spiritual. It was around this time that a certain monk by the name of Girolamo Savonarola was becoming popular in Florence. Savonarola was a firebrand monk, who preached against what he considered to be the materialistic upper class, especially against the Medici (although one author has suggested this is because he was not a Medici client and felt himself rebuffed). Botticelli actually gave up painting for a time and some scholars believe he burned some of his more pagan work in what has now become known as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Perhaps due to the inner turmoil he felt as he was drawn towards Savonarola’s teachings against art, Botticelli’s work began to be characterized by frenzied, elongated figures and artificial, abstract backgrounds.
Botticelli’s next painting, the Cestello Annunciation (1489-90), however, retains some of the graceful movement so treasured in his early works. The Cestello Annunciation was commissioned by Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi for his family chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi (which, at the time, was known as the church of Cestello).
The composition of the Cestello Annunciation is relatively conventional: Gabriel enters the Virgin’s house, interrupting her reading, to tell her that she is to bear the son of God. Yet, Botticelli reflects the desire for simplicity, as inspired by Savonarola as well as the sparsity of the church of Cestello itself, in the bare furnishings, sober clothing, and limited use of color. The door jam acts as a physical separator between the divine (Gabriel) and the earthly (Mary), emphasizing the idea of conception without physical contact.
San Marco Altarpiece (Coronation of the Virgin) (1490-1492) was commissioned by the Goldsmiths Guild (orefici) for the chapel of their patron saint, St. Eligio, in San Marco. The guild of the orefici (a branch of the Arte della Seta (the Silk Guild), known by contemporaries as the Arte di Por Santa Maria) was responsible for the upkeep of the San Marco.
This altarpiece was unique because it depicted two different episodes in single panel. The upper scene is set against an elaborately decorated golden background which comes into stark contrast with the sparseness of the landscape in the bottom part of the painting; a sparseness that is more typical of Botticelli. In fact, Leonardo da Vinci once wrote of Botticelli:
He who does not care of landscapes esteems them a matter involving merely cursory and simple investigations. So does our Botticelli, who says that such studies are vain, since by merely throwing a sponge soaked in different colours at a wall, a spot is formed, wherein a lovely landscape might be discerned.
Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. by Frank Zöllner, in Sandro Botticelli.
Against this sparse background are depicted St. John the Evangelist, the patron saint of the Arte della Seta, St. Augustine, who is dressed as a bishop, St Jerome, who is dressed as a cardinal and whose writings touch on the event taking place in the clouds, and St. Eligio. St. John is looking towards the Coronation itself, connecting the earthly with the heavenly (sacra conversazione) while his counterpart, St. Eligio, looks out to the viewer, connecting the viewer with the painting.
The last work I want to talk about is called Calumny of Apelles (1495), which was inspired by a work entitled “Slander, A Warning,” by the ancient Greek satirist Lucian. The work describes a painting by the famous Greek artist Apelles and the circumstances of its creation. Apelles had apparently been slandered by a jealous rival to Egyptian King Ptolemy I, but was rescued when a courtier intervened. Subsequently, Apelles painted the event, as Lucian explains:
“On the right sits a man with long ears almost of the Midas pattern, stretching out a hand to Slander, who is still some way off, but coming. About him are two females whom I take for Ignorance and Assumption. Slander, approaching from the left, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but with a heated, excitable air that suggests delusion and impulsiveness; in her left hand is a lighted torch, and with her right she is haling a youth by the hair; he holds up hands to heaven and calls the Gods to witness his innocence. Showing Slander the way is a man with piercing eyes, but pale, deformed, and shrunken as from long illness; one may easily guess him to be Envy. Two female attendants encourage Slander, acting as tire-women, and adding touches to her beauty; according to the cicerone, one of these is Malice, and the other Deceit. Following behind in mourning guise, black-robed and with torn hair, comes (I think he named her) Repentance. She looks tearfully behind her, awaiting shame-faced the approach of Truth. That was how Apelles translated his peril into paint.”
Lucian. “Slander, A Warning” Trans. by H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler.
Lucian’s quoted writing is what is known as an ekphrasis, i.e. a literary description of a painting. Below is Botticelli’s interpretation of what Apelles’ painting might have looked like:
In Botticelli’s version, King Ptolemy sits atop his throne. He has the ears of an ass, which are being whispered in by the personifications of Suspicion and Ignorance. Approaching the King is Calumny, dragging her victim, Apelles, by his hair. Calumny, meanwhile, is being led by Envy, personified by the man holding the burning flame. Calumny also accompanied by Treachery and Deceit, depicted as beautiful women, who are grooming her hair. In contrast to the beautiful women in colorful and elegant dresses stands Repentance, personified by a woman cloaked in all black. The meaning is clear (although a bit dated and chauvinistic): treachery and deceit are seductively beautiful and will lure you away from Truth, who is the lone nude in the work.
This little picture warns rules of the earth
To avoid the tyranny of false judgment.
Apelles gave a similar one to the king of Egypt;
That ruler was worthy of the gift, and it of him.
The trompe l’œil niches are just as fascinating as the main scene; each depicts an episode from classical mythology, the Bible, history, and literature. Scholars have identified the three statutes in the niches that face the viewer as: the Old Testament King David on the left, Saint George in the middle, and Saint Paul on the right. The statute directly behind King Ptolemy is Judith, with the head of Holofernes at her feet.
Rooms 10 to 14 once served as the upper part of the Medici theatre, but they are now filled with works by one of the Medici’s favorite artists: Sandro Botticelli. The rooms’ design as we see it today is a recent renovation, completed only in 2016. The rooms are meant to trace Botticelli’s development as an artist, which has been typically divided into three major stages: those works where the influence of his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi, are still evident, those works that were commissioned during his time as a Medici client, and those works that reflect the mystical crisis of the late 1490s. All of his works, however, are defined by elegant lines, elongated, weightless figures, and a certain disregard for anatomical correctness, putting him somewhat at odds with the general movement of 15th century Renaissance art.
One of his first known works, Madonna della loggia (c. 1466), is based on the Byzantine iconography known as Glykophilousa (“Sweet kissing”), wherein the Virgin and Christ’s face are lovingly caressing.
The painting takes its name from the loggia near which Christ and his mother appear to be resting.
Another of his Madonnas, Madonna of the Rose Garden (1469-1470), so named for the pink roses seen behind the Virgin and Child, is a rather conventional Madonna and Child.
Some scholars argue that Madonna of the Rose Garden was completed around the same time as Botticelli’s Fortitude due to the similar backdrop of a coffered arch, but others argue that it was created prior to Fortitude based on the slant of the floor. Indeed, in the Madonna of the Rose Garden, Botticelli strictly adhered to a technique known as central perspective, which allows artists to create three dimensional space on a flat surface. Problematically, however, the blind adherence to the technique causes the floor in the Madonna to look sloped rather than flat. Whereas, in Fortitude, Botticelli was willing to fudge the perspective a bit to make the floor appear more natural.
Regardless, the works are compositionally similar, albeit one secular, the other religious. Botticelli’s choice to place Mary within a rose garden was likely due to Mary’s titles as the “Mystical Rose” and “The Rose without Thorns,” which allude to her immaculate conception. According to Saint Ambrose, the Garden of Eden contained roses without thorns, but upon the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the roses grew thorns. Because according to Christian belief, Mary was born without sin, i.e. she was immaculately conceived, she is a rose without thorns; thus, Botticelli’s use of the rose motif. Mary is also depicted holding a pomegranate, a device Botticelli would continue to use throughout his career to symbolize the Virgin’s fertility as well as Christ’s Passion.
The St. Ambrose Altarpiece (The Converted Sisters) (c. 1470) is Botticelli’s first known altarpiece. Its name is a misnomer, however, because St. Ambrose is not depicted. It was, however, transferred from the convent of Ambrogio to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1808 (and from the Galleria to the Uffizi in 1946), which may have given rise to its name. Its other name, The Converted Sisters, was derived from the theory that it was from the convent of the Converted Sisters, but this theory has since been proven wrong.
The saints depicted in this altarpiece are Mary Magdalen (not pictured), John the Baptist (not pictured), Cosmas (not pictured), Damian, Francis, and Catherine of Alexandria. They are positioned, for the most part, according to late Medieval conventions, with Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist on the Virgin’s right (in the place of honor). St. John is placed closer to the Virgin than Mary Magdalene due to his role as the precursor to Christ and thus his appearance in the historical record before Mary Magdalene as well as his gender, which was considered superior by both the artist and (at least the male) contemporary viewers. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored on the Virgin’s left side, with St. Francis of Assisi standing closest to the Virgin and St. Catherine on his right. According to convention, however, St. Catherine, should have been placed ahead of St. Francis due to her closer proximity in time to Christ, leading art historians to believe that the altarpiece was intended for a Franciscan-linked location, which would explain his elevation over St. Catherine. That intention would also explain why St. Francis is depicted holding a reed cross, usually an attribute of St. John, and likely introduced here to emphasize St. Francis’ role as St. John’s successor.
The inclusion of Saints Cosmas and Damian have also led scholars to believe that the piece was either commissioned by a member of the Medici family or by the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries, both groups of which Cosmas and Damian were patron saints. Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (some sources claim twins). They were closely linked to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”). Moreover, Cosimo de’Medici, the founder of the dynasty, and his twin brother (who died young) were named after the two saints, making them the patron saints of Cosimo as an individual in addition to their role as his familial patron saints.
The influence of Lippi can be made out in the work’s overall composition as well as in the figures’ expressions:
But, scholars also believe that Botticelli was working under a new teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio (also teacher to Leonardo da Vinci), or at least working within Verrocchio’s orbit, because Fra Lippi had left Florence before the production of this altarpiece. Thus, this piece also reflects Verrocchio’s influence as well, evident in the metallic nature of the robes as well as the figures’ statuesque stances.
Portrait of a Youth with a Medal (1470-75) was once owned by Carlo de’Medici, the illegitimate son of Cosimo “il vecchio” de’Medici, but it is not clear who the sitter may be. Although the most likely candidate seems to be Botticelli’s older brother Antonio based on the sitter’s middle class clothing and his work as a goldsmith, denoted by the coin he holds in his hands, copies of which Antonio would have cast himself while working at the Medici court. Moreover, some art historians have noted the resemblance of the sitter to known self-portraits of Botticelli himself, which would lend credence to the belief that the sitter is his brother. Other possible candidates include Piero de’Medici, a youthful Cosimo de’Medici, or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, yet one would expect if the sitter was indeed a Medici, he would have been depicted in the resplendent garments more typical of an upper class family.
What we do know about this picture is that it demonstrates Botticelli’s leadership in contemporary portraiture. Prior portraiture was constrained by the traditional profile pose of the sitter, as exemplified in ancient coins depicting Roman emperors. Botticelli and several other innovative artists began picturing their sitters in three-quarters view, in the example of the Flemish. In fact, Flemish influences had fully penetrated Florentine thought. Compare the background of this work with that of Botticelli’s Florentine teacher, Fra Lippi:
Lippi’s is mystical and fantastic while Botticelli’s is steeped in realism and naturalism, which would become the new norm for portraits. Moreover, Botticelli painted the sitter’s hands, which typically were not included in portraits, but, obviously, the hands are necessary to exhibit the medal, so whether this was deliberately innovative or simply a means to an end is unclear.
The medal itself depicts Cosimo il Vecchio and is inscribed with the words “MAGNUS COSMUS MEDICES PPP,” meaning Cosimo de’Medici the Great, Primus Pater Patriae (First Father of the Fatherland). It is a cast made of pastiglia, not metal, and was either cast from the actual mold that made the real medal, which was cast between 1465 and 1469 to commemorate Cosimo, or from an impression of an already existing medal. To insert the pastiglia into the painting, a hole was cut in the panel, and the cast was affixed to it, making this work a multimedia piece. The medal is held over the heart, an organ associated with memory and sense impressions, and emphasizes the break from tradition and the beginning of a new age by juxtaposing the ancient Roman portrait with the new Renaissance style portrait.
And what could be more emblematic of the Renaissance than one of Botticelli’s best known works, La Primavera (1477-82). La Primavera was commissioned for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a member of the junior branch of the Medici family, on the occasion of his marriage to Semiramide Appiani in 1482.
It was the largest secular painting done in the Renaissance to date; the prior large scale representations of secular subjects were generally confined to tapestries woven in France and Flanders, which some art historians have argued explains the two-dimensional feel of La Primavera and the lack of linear perspective. Like those tapestries, the scene is sprinkled with flowers upon a dark grassy field.
Unlike most secular tapestries, however, the scene Botticelli chose to depict is thoroughly classical in nature. It is believed to be the story of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind, and the nymph Chloris as retold through multiple sources including, most famously, Ovid’s Fasti. According to the story, Zephyrus kidnaps Chloris, who, at Zephyrus’ touch, transforms into Flora, the latin goddess of the spring, and then marries Zephyrus.
[T]his is what the goddess replied to my questions (while she speaks she breathes from her mouth spring roses): ‘I who am called Flora used to be Chlōris. … ‘It was spring, I was wandering. Zephyrus caught sight of me. I began to leave. He pursues, I flee, he was stronger. ‘Boreas, having dared to carry off a prize from the house of Erechtheus, had given full right of rape to his brother too. The violence, however, he made up for by giving me the name of bride, and I have no complaint in my marriage-bed. ‘Spring I enjoy always, always the year is full of bloom, always the tree has leaves, the ground has fodder. I have a fruitful garden in the fields that are my dowry; the breeze warms it, it’s kept moist by a spring of clear water. This my husband has filled with noble flowers, and he says to me, “Goddess, have control of the flowers.”
Ovid, “Fasti,” Trans. Anne Wiseman & Peter Wiseman.
To modern viewers, the depiction of what really amounts to a violent sexual encounter would not be the most ideal of wedding gifts, but to Botticelli’s contemporaries, it served as a fitting conceit for marriage in 15th century Florence. At the time, women had little to absolutely no choice in husband, just like Flora. Once married, women, like Flora, were supposed to bring forth new life. Notice that no fruit nor blossoms are present in the upper right hand corner of the painting; it is only when Zephyrus touches Chloris and she is transformed into Flora that the trees begin to bear fruit, a nod towards fertility. Moreover, the Zephyrus is placed in front of two laurel trees (laurus nobilis), a reference to bridegroom, Lorenzo (Laurentius) di Pierfrancesco. Allegedly, the goddess Flora is a portrait of Giuliano de Medici’s mistress Simonetta Vespucci, although recent scholarship has questioned that assumption.
To the left of the Chloris/Zephyrus scene is Venus and her son Cupid, flying above her while firing his arrow of love, eyes covered to denote love’s blindness.
Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ winged courier Cupid runs in front. And all along the path that they will tread dame Flora carpets the trail of Zephyr with a wealth of blossoms exquisite in hue and fragrance.
De Natura Rerum V.737, Lucretius.
The trees around Venus act almost as a halo, radiating from her figure to create a semi-circle embracing her. Some scholars argue the clearing in the trees represent wings, and one even went so far as to claim that the clearing was a depiction of human lungs, signaling the recent phenomenon of human dissection increasingly practiced by Renaissance artists.
To the left of Venus and Cupid are the Three Graces. The Three Graces were a very popular subject in the ancient sculpting world, as it allowed an artist to show three different vantage points of the human body at once.
Mercury, the leader of the three graces and the messenger of the Gods, is also present; he is identifiable via his winged shoes and his caduceus (staff with serpents winding around it). Mercury was associated with the month of May, due to his mother, Maia, hence his inclusion in a picture depicting the spring. According to Virgil, he was also associated with dispersing the winter clouds: “Shepherding the winds before him with his want, he swam through the murk of the clouds.” Aeneid IV, 242-46.
Nourishing Venus comes, companion to her sister, and is followed by the little loves; Flora offers welcome kisses to her eager husband (Zephyr); and in their midst with hair unbound and bared breasts dances Grace, tapping the ground with rhythmic step.
Poliziano, Angelo, “Rusticus,” as translated by Miles J. Unger in Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’Medici.
Scholars have identified at least 138 species of different plants that have been accurately portrayed, one of which is an orange tree. Oranges were linked with Medici family, and in fact, oranges were commonly known as mala medica or palle medicee. Allegedly, this link had its roots in the belief that an orange grove located in the garden of the old Medici palace could foretell the family’s fortunes. If the orange grove blossomed, so too did the family, but if the orange grove failed to bear fruit, it was said that bad things were in store for the Medici.
Interestingly, the overall composition of La Primavera is likely based on Buonamico Buffalmacco’s Triumph of Death.
Like the figures in La Primavera, the figures here are in an orange grove, standing on meadow punctuated with flowers. Above the figures, winged putti hover, just as Cupid hovers over the gathered figures in La Primavera. Similarly, no fruit is in the top corner (albeit the left-hand corner) of the trees, closest to the figure of death, who is approaching the gathering from a violent scene into a peaceful event – reminiscent of winged Zephyrus, who moves from the violent rape into the peaceful marital scene. Thus, Primavera begins with violence, while The Triumph of Death ends in violence. The theme of each piece is obviously drastically different, but the similarities in the composition are striking.
Interestingly, Flora and Zephyrus feature in Botticelli’s other large-scale secular painting, the Birth of Venus.
e drento nata in atti vaghi e lieti
una donzella non con uman volto,
da zefiri lascivi spinta a proda.
gir sovra un nicchio, e par che ‘l cel ne goda.
and within, born with lovely and happy gestures, a
young woman with nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth.
Poliziano, Angelo. Stanzas Begun for the Joust of the Magnificent Giuliano de Medici, as Translated by David Quint.
The title, Birth of Venus, is actually a misnomer, as the episode does not depict Venus’ birth, but instead depicts Zephyrus and his wife Chloris/Flora blowing Venus towards the coast of Cyprus where she is greeted by a young woman, whom scholars believe is either one of the Graces or one of the Horae (also known as the Hours). Behind the Hora, there is an orange grove, but no blooms, indicating that Venus’ arrival is necessary for fertility. This work is first recorded by Giorgio Vasari, who described it as having been owned by the cadet branch of the Medici family since the mid-15th century, which makes sense as the scene depicts oranges, an emblem of the Medici family.
I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments….
Homeric Hymns VI 1-6.
The figures themselves are inspired by classical statues, such as the Venus de’Medici, a Hellenistic marble statue owed by the Medici family and of an iconographic type known as the Venus Pudica (“Chaste Venus”). For an in depth discussion of the Venus Pudica, I highly recommend Mary Beard’s two-part documentary series, The Shock of the Nude.
Despite its classical nature, the overall composition of The Birth of Venus borrows from the scheme commonly used to depict the Baptism of Christ.
Like St. John the Baptist, the Hora steps forward with her right arm raised. There are two figures to the left. Venus and Jesus stand still in the center. Thus, rather than a break from gothic tradition and a “rebirth” of so-called lost arts, the Renaissance was really about the fusion of the holy and the profane, the emphasis on community and the elevation of the individual, and science and the arts to create something startling and completely new.
Room 9 of the Uffizi is dominated by a panel depicting the Seven Virtues, the majority of which Piero del Pollaiuolo and his workshop painted (the exception being Fortitude).
Piero del Pollaiuolo and his brother, the better-known (and more celebrated) Antonio del Pollaiuolo, operated a workshop together in Florence, which produced paintings, sculptures, goldwork, and engravings. Their workshop is considered to be one of the most important Florentine workshops of the 15th century due to the brothers’ innovative practices, one of the more gruesome of which was the dissection of human corpses. Human dissection allowed the Pollaiuolo brothers to improve their understanding of the human form by fully appreciating where muscles were located and how they worked. Interestingly, they were dissecting humans a whole generation before Leonardo Da Vinci became famous for doing so, and they perhaps were the source of Leonardo’s interest in the subject. According to Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century art historian and artist, Antonio Pollaiuolo was “the first master to skin many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the nude in a more modern way.”
The Pollaiuolo brothers were also innovative in their use of the Netherlandish technique of layering pigment to add shadow, known as glazing. Such an innovation was made possible only because of their use of oil paint rather than the tempera (an egg and pigment mixture) used by other Florentine artists. Indeed, when conventional Florentine artists needed to add shadows or highlights to their work, they would either switch colors altogether, a technique known as cangiante, or would add white pigment to their tempera mixture, which lightened, but also slightly changed, the color of the mixture. The Netherlandish style of painting, on the other hand, created shadow via layers of pigment, which allowed the Pollaiuolo brothers to build depth while keeping their colors “pure.” Oil paint also took longer to dry, allowing artists to blend and modify their brush strokes. Although the brothers did not exclusively use oil paint, as is evidenced by the use of tempera in the Seven Virtues, their introduction of oil as a medium for painting had far reaching effects.
Due to the brothers’ long partnership, it has been difficult for art historians to attribute authorship for any particular piece and/or figures within a single piece. Indeed, for many years, art historians believed that the Seven Virtues were done primarily by Antonio, but based on new research, scholars now lean towards attributing the work to Piero, although it is suspected that Antonio helped with some of the detailing. The cycle was commissioned to decorate the audience chamber of the Tribunale della Mercanzia.
The Tribunale della Mercanzia housed a court of appeals with jurisdiction over disputes within the five major merchant guilds (bankers, wool, cloth, silk, and apothecaries; although in practice it also heard disputes within the minor guilds as well). Therefore, if you look closely, you can see the coat of arms of several of the guilds embossed on the façade of the building.
The function of the building as a courthouse was likely the inspiration for the subject matter of the pieces, i.e. the virtues on which courts (should) pride themselves. The subject was even more appropriate because the number of virtues mirrored the number of consuls who presided over the disputes; the consulate was a body of seven judges, one from each of the major guilds, one chosen from the myriad of minor guilds, and a non-Florentine magistrate, who acted as prior, i.e. the head of the consulate.
Public spaces were (and still are) commonly decorated with those principles considered foundational for “good governance.” The reasoning was (and is) twofold: to inspire those governing to reach for loftier ideals and to proclaim to those being governed that the ruling class did in fact practice those lofty ideals. Thus, it acted as both a galvanizing and legitimizing force. Nowhere is this message more overt than in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco in Siena’s City Hall, literally entitled Good Government.
Here, it appears that the Florentine Guilds wanted to send the message that their judges acted as the conduits of the Seven Virtues. Four of the seven, Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence and Justice, were known as the Cardinal Virtues while the other three were known as the Theological Virtues. Interestingly, although the Seven Virtues did not have a set order; the three Theological Virtues did. Charity was always placed at the center, with Faith on her right (the viewer’s left) and Hope on her left (the viewer’s right). According to St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most prolific of the early Catholic Church Fathers, Charity was the most important of the Virtues, thus the centrality of her position.
Since ancient times, the so-called Virtues had been depicted as women accompanied by different iconography, which was necessary to identify figures in an age when many were illiterate. Thus, we can also identify the Virtues based on their common attributes. Moving from right to left, the first virtue in the series is Fortitude (1470), the first and only panel painted by Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli, still very early on in his career at the time of this commission, was only awarded the commission because of support from Tommaso Soderini, a Medici operative. (The Medici were the de facto ruling family in Florence; Botticelli himself operated within Lorenzo il Magnifico de Medici’s inner circle). Pollaiuolo protested and so Botticelli’s participation was limited to a single panel, that of Fortitude. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, also submitted a drawing in an attempt to wrest the commission from Pollaiuolo, but was unsuccessful.
Fortitude is considered by many scholars to be Botticelli’s first masterpiece; the piece in which he “freed” himself from his teacher, Filippo Lippi, and developed his own enduring style.
Fortitude represents strength and perseverance in the pursuit of good. The pearls in her hair and neckline allude to her purity, but also would have served as a mark of aristocratic privilege. Pearls had been banned by Florence’s sumptuary laws (laws which dictated who could wear what; the rules were based on an individual’s rank, social class, and gender), and therefore only the wealthiest could afford to pay the bribe necessary to get an exemption. Despite this clear allusion to Florence, Botticelli shied away from including other “Florentine” references, most glaringly of which is his failure to include the Florentine attributes of Fortitude, i.e. a club and a lion skin (an allusion to the city’s hero, Heracles). Instead, he used her more traditional attributes that would have been recognized outside of Florence: the iron mace, breastplate, and corinthian column upon which Fortitude’s left forearm rests. The omission of the Florentine attributes was likely a nod to the large number of foreign merchants who came to seek justice within the Tribunale della Mercanzia. Thus, Botticelli adopted the more widely used and well-known iconography to ensure all merchants would get the message.
Comparing Botticelli’s Virtue to those of Pollaiuolo, you will notice that Botticelli’s throne is much grander, made so via intricate decorations and detailed design.
Moreover, Botticelli places his Virtue in the foreground, focusing on her figure rather than on the room in which she sits. Temperance, on the other hand, is set further back, placed in the center of a room. Although it is clear that she is the focus of the work, she seems diminutive and more contained when compared to Fortitude. Botticelli achieved this effect by depicting the slope of the floor with a less harsh angle than the technique of central perspective actually demanded. By relaxing the strictures of central perspective, Botticelli avoided one of the technique’s central problems: the creation of a stage-like view of interior spaces. Whereas Pollaiuolo applied central perspective rigorously to all of his panels.
Both women’s faces are shaped with shadow, but the shaping of Fortitude expressions comes off as much softer than the harsher treatment of Temperance’s face. The elaborate gold inlay and jewel encrusted hem on Temperance’s gown and the bejeweled golden bowl and ewer, however, demonstrates Pollaiuolo’s knowledge of goldsmithing and metal work that he learned from his older brother Antonio.
The bowl and ewer symbolize the mixing of hot and cold water to demonstratethe moderation that defines Temperance (1470) (although some claim that Temperance is pouring water into wine, the Uffizi has identified her act as mixing hot and cold water). Pursuant to Renaissance thinking, Temperance was the virtue of self-control and discipline.
Unlike Temperance, however, Faith (1469) occupies more of the space allotted to her panel. Thus, her midsection does not appear as though it has been sucked into the background. Indeed, the background is more constrained, allowing the viewer to focus on the figure of Faith, who is looking towards the heavens, holding the Eucharistic chalice in her right hand and a processional cross in her left, the typical attributes of Faith.
Her robes were inspired by the ecclesiastical ornaments worn by priests at the time, which, as you can see, were opulent. A fact probably not lost on the Florentines nor the foreign merchants; the opulence of the Catholic Church would, in several decades, turn out to be one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation.
Charity (1469) was the first of the virtues to be completed as she was the center of the piece due to her primacy within the set. In fact, this cycle of Seven Virtues was commissioned to replace a pre-existing picture of Charity.
The 15th century concept of charity differs drastically from the modern definition of the word. “Charity” is derived from the latin word “caritas.” In Christian ideology, caritas is the highest form of love, i.e. the love shared between God and man, and the manifestation of that love in the form of man’s love of his fellow man. St. Augustine explained:
Then, after this human love has nourished and invigorated the mind cleaving to your breast, and fitted it for following God, when the divine majesty has begun to disclose itself as far as suffices for man while a dweller on the earth, such fervent charity is produced, and such a flame of divine love is kindled, that by the burning out of all vices, and by the purification and sanctification of the man, it becomes plain how divine are these words, “I am a consuming fire,” and, “I have come to send fire on the earth.”
St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church.
Operating under this understanding, classical and early humanist thinkers believed that Charity was central to good governance because the proper function of the law rested with charity.
But the law is good to edify, if a man use it lawfully: for that the end of it is charity, out of a pure heart and good conscience, and faith unfeigned.
The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book XII
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Charity’s common attributes is a flame, demonstrating God’s love. Pollaiuolo’s Charity is depicted holding such a flame while smaller flames are hinted at on either side of her throne and atop her crown. Speaking of her crown, she is the only Virtue depicted with one, emphasizing her status as chief among the other Virtues. Her eminence is reinforced by her rich velvet gown, not shared by the others, and her deliberate resemblance to the Virgin. This configuration was likely influence by Filippo Lippi’s Novitiate Altarpiece, especially the posture of the child.
Although the children are different in several respects, i.e. they are mirror images, the child’s feet are placed on Charity’s knee while Lippi’s child rests one foot on the throne, etc., Pollaiuolo’s child is more akin to that of Lippi when compared to prior depictions of children. Here, the child is balanced upon his mother’s knee rather than sitting serenely on his mother’s lap, which was the more traditional depiction.
Moreover, Pollaiuolo’s baby is just that: a baby. He does not retain the adult-like qualities of some depictions of the Christ-child, but instead is structured like a real child, baby fat and all.
Unlike Charity, and in fact all of the other Virtues, Hope, is not defined by any attributes. She simply looks towards the heavens.
Hope, to us, has not much place within a legal context, unless you count the hope that all litigants have: to win. Yet, at the time of this painting, Hope was inextricably linked to the law. St. Augustine explains:
[W]e are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man sees, why does he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. [Romans 8:24-25] Full righteousness, therefore, will only then be reached, when fullness of health is attained; and this fullness of health shall be when there is fullness of love, for love is the fulfilling of the law; [Romans 13:10] and then shall come fullness of love, when we shall see Him even as He is. [1 John 3:2] Nor will any addition to love be possible more, when faith shall have reached the fruition of sight
On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, St. Augustine.
Thus, Hope acts as a conduit for the fulfillment of the law, placing it squarely within the realm of those lofty ideals judges were supposed to keep in mind when arbitrating a dispute.
Justice is depicted within in this series with her traditional attributes: the sword and the sphere.
Prudence also served an important place within Renaissance legal theory. In fact, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine’s theological successor, Prudence is the most important of the Cardinal Virtues, for without Prudence, there can be no other virtue:
Wherefore there can be no moral virtue without prudence: and consequently neither can there be without understanding. For it is by the virtue of understanding that we know self-evident principles both in speculative and in practical matters. Consequently just as right reason in speculative matters, in so far as it proceeds from naturally known principles, presupposes the understanding of those principles, so also does prudence, which is the right reason about things to be done.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I-II
Although clearly the Florentine Guilds thought differently, as they placed the more traditional primal virtue in the center, Charity.
Prudence’s main attributes are a mirror and a serpent. The mirror was considered a tool that helped one towards knowledge whereas a serpent had been a common symbol of wisdom since ancient times.
Christians appropriated this iconography from Greco-Roman culture. Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, was often depicted with a serpent. In the picture to the left, Athena (picture taken at the Vatican) has a serpent coiling near her feet. The serpent is also an essential attribute of the god Asclepius’s staff, known as the asklepian, and on the caduceus, the staff wielded by the god Hermes.
Another interesting detail of Pollaiuolo’s Prudence is that her veil mimics the shape of an ionic column.
Perhaps Pollaiuolo was inspired by the recently rediscovered work of the ancient scholar and architect Vitruvius (the original source of the so-called Vitruvian man, pictured to the right). According to Vitruvian, the Ionians designed their columns to resemble hair:
[I]n the capital they placed the volutes, hanging down at the right and left like curly ringlets, and ornamented its front with cymatia and with festoons of fruit arranged in place of hair, while they brought the flutes down the whole shaft, falling like the folds in the robes worn by matrons. Thus in the invention of the two different kinds of columns, they borrowed manly beauty, naked and unadorned, for the one, and for the other the delicacy, adornment, and proportions characteristic of women.
Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. Vitruvius. Trans. Morris Hicky Morgan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. London: Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press. 1914.
Another Pollaiuolo that I want to talk about is the Cardinal of Portugal’s Altarpiece, so named because it once graced the Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel in San Miniato al Monte.
The chapel was dedicated to James of Lusitania, Cardinal of Lisbon and grandson of King John I of Portugal. James died in Florence in 1459 at a very young age. From left to right, the Saints depicted are St. Vincent, patron saint of Lisbon, St. James the Great (no doubt included as the Cardinal’s patron saint and namesake), and St. Eustace (a martyr of noble blood, perhaps a nod to the Cardinal’s noble birth).
Strikingly innovative is the placement of the saints on a terrace, allowing the background of the altarpiece to depict a landscape. It was only a mere thirty years ago that the Byzantine gold background was still in vogue.
It is also perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the San Miniato altarpiece that the Pollaiuolo brothers were highly influenced by the Netherlandish style. The dark, rich hues of color are a marked departure from the soft pastels of Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi. The Pollaiuolo also departed from typical Florentine technique in their depiction of gold. Generally, Florentine artists were still using gold leaf (i.e.actual gold) in their paintings, but in this altarpiece, the Pollaiuolo produced a golden color by use the Netherlandish technique of glazing.
Compare Gentile da Fabriano’s gold brocade to that of the Pollaiuolo brothers. Fabriano’s technique, known as sgraffito, consisted of applying pigment over gold leaf, pieces of which would be scratched off in a decorative pattern. The Pollaiuolo brothers, on the other hand, painted a brown base in oil, over which they painted the color of the cloth, here blue, and finally they painted yellow thread with yellow oil paint (and in some areas, red oil paint to denote shadows) as a final layer to add the gold brocading. Oil paint’s refractive quality gave their work the shine typical of gold while allowing them to create shadows and depth that was not available when pure gold leaf was used. Thereby, allowing them to create a more naturalistic appearance. The workshop of Pollaiuolo brothers, therefore, can truly be credited as the most important Florentine workshop of the 14th century.
Like Rooms 2 and 3, Rooms 5 and 6 were curated during the 1950s. Unlike Rooms 2 and 3, however, Rooms 5 and 6 house pieces that document the transition from Late Gothic to Early Renaissance art, a period known as International Gothic. As its name suggests, the International Gothic period witnessed a blend of the elegant Gothic style favored in northern European courts with the emerging naturalism seen in Italian art over the 13th and 14th centuries. It is typified by bright, jewel colors, slender, elongated figures, increased interest in the “exotic,” detailed depictions of nature, crowded picture planes, and an increase in the movement of figures’ bodies. The depiction of Mary also changed during this period. Inspired by the chivalric tradition of the north, Italian artists shied away from depicting the Virgin as a homely, formidable matron, choosing instead to show her as the fair maiden so often mentioned in French romances. She was now a beautiful young woman, slender and elegant, dressed in luxurious robes and always gracefully posed.
This work by Agnolo Gaddi was produced during his later years, around 1390, and thus is a transition piece between the Giottesque and the International Gothic.
Gaddi trained in his father’s workshop, alongside his brothers Giovanni and Niccolò. This work’s relatively small size indicates that it may have been part of a predella to a larger altarpiece, which has since been lost. It is unique for its inclusion of a tremendous amount of figures, all with his or her own individual expression. At the foot of the Cross are Mary and St. John, while the unrepentant thief is shown dying on Christ’s left. His soul, in the conventional medieval motif of a newborn, is being taken by the devil. Beneath the impenitent thief are soldiers casting lots for Christ’s tunic.
Perhaps one of the greatest proponents of the International Gothic style was Piero di Giovanni, better known as Lorenzo Monaco (“Lorenzo the monk”), the name he took when he entered the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. It is likely that Lorenzo Monaco got his start doing miniatures in his monastery’s choral books, but he later trained in Agnolo Gaddi’s workshop and became the leading painter in Florence during the first decade of the 15th century. His most celebrated work, Coronation of the Virgin (1414), was commissioned to replace a panel for which Zanobi di Cecco del Frasca (a local banker) had paid for the high altar of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The inscription makes clear that Zanobi di Cecco had donated a painting that the monks at the church wished to replace, but due to the nature of donations at that time, the replacement had to remember the original painting to the viewer. Also according to the inscription, the work was finished in February 1413 (1414 according to the modern calculation of time; Florentines began their year on the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation, rather than on the more conventional 1st of January).
The work depicts Jesus crowning his mother Mary, flanked by angels and saints, including (from left to right) St. Benedict, St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Andrew, and St. Romuald. St. Benedict and St. Romuald are of special note as this altarpiece was destined for a Camaldolese church (and was painted by a Camaldolese monk). St. Romuald was the founder of the Camaldolese Order, a reformed branch of the Benedictine Order founded by St. Benedict. Lorenzo Monaco portrays the two men in white robes because, according to legend, Camaldolese monks adopted white robes after St. Romuald dreamt of men in white ascending the stairway to heaven. Mary is also depicted in white, eschewing her usual blue, to emphasize her relationship with the Camaldolese monks, especially important here due to the placement of this altarpiece at Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels).
Like his contemporaries, Lorenzo Monaco practiced a technique known as cangiante, derived from the Italian word “to change.” Cangiante was a technique used to create depth when an artist did not have the tones of color needed to depict shadows. Indeed, at the time, artists used tempera, a mixture of egg yolk, water, and pigment, to create color. This mixture lacked the layering abilities of oil paint (which was to become popular during the mid to late 15th century) meaning that it was very difficult to create shades of a particular color. Thus, rather than use a darker/lighter hue of the original color, the artist would change the color completely to a darker/lighter color. For instance, look at St. Andrew’s robe. Lorenzo Monaco changed parts of the robe from the original yellow to coral when he needed to add depth.
Lorenzo Monaco also created depth in his paintings by adding movement. Indeed, as mentioned above, the International Gothic school placed a higher importance on movement within the painting. Here, for example, Lorenzo Monaco inserted movement via angels swinging censers, giving the work depth, energy, and life.
Lorenzo Monaco’s other work in this room, Adoration of the Magi (c. 1420-1422), done in collaboration with Cosimo Rosselli, also demonstrates his desire to show movement in his paintings. For instance, the figures in the background of this piece are more contorted and elongated in an effort to convey motion. Moreover, the subject matter of this piece is not a static Madonna Enthroned or Coronation. Instead, it is a narrative subject matter, a subject matter wherein travel and motion are intrinsic to its depiction. The Adoration of the Magi tells the story found in the Gospel of Matthew where three wisemen (“Magi”) follow a star, which leads them to the newly born Christ-child. The Adoration became a popular subject during the Fifteenth Century in Florence, in part because its feast day, January 6, was also the day of celebration for Christ’s baptism, an event during which Florence’s patron saint, John the Baptist, was obviously integral (John the Baptist baptized Christ, hence his moniker). This connection between Florence and the Adoration was furthered by the ruling family, the Medici, who closely identified with the cult of the Magi.
Also incredibly innovative is Lorenzo Monaco’s choice to include a receding landscape (albeit a rather fanciful one) as the background rather than the traditional gold. The receding landscape reinforces the notion of travel, as the Magi have no doubt transversed the harsh terrain to place their gifts at Christ’s feet. Interestingly, Lorenzo Monaco also departed from the traditional tricuspid altarpiece shape, instead opting for a rectangle, although he kept the conventional three arches.
A stark contrast to Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration is Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration (1423), which is generally thought to be the most important example of International Gothic painting in Italy. Not only does Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration retain the traditional tricuspid shape, it is also steeped in realism, as opposed to the otherworldliness of Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration. The colors, lighting, focus on details, and naturalistic figures of Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration all combine to create a very different picture of the exact same episode. In fact, many scholars argue that it is the first painting in history to use a single natural light source. Yet, like Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration, the piece brings courtly values and romanticism to the forefront. The Magi are distinctly European and are depicted as traveling on horseback with squires and dogs, resembling a hunting party rather than a weary group of wanderers.
Gentile da Fabriano’s work was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a Florentine banker, for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The Strozzi family was a chief rival to the Medici, and therefore Palla used the occasion of this commission to show off his wealth and power, hence the heavy use of gold. His desire to “out do” the Medici, as it were, likely informed the subject of the painting; the procession of eastern kings with their retinues gave occasion for Gentile da Fabriano to paint luxurious silks, rich brocades, and “exotic” animals, as the “East” was commonly associated with luxury and splendor at the time.
The altarpiece is centered on “threes.” Indeed, it depicts the journey of the three wise men in three distinct stages, each separated by the arches of the frame. First, the wise men see the star; second, they pause at Herod’s palace; third, they return home. Moreover, the three wise men represent the three stages of life: old age (represented by the kneeling wise man), middle age (the bowing wise man), and youth (the standing wise man). Indeed, Gentile da Fabriano’s style was characterized by patterns and line. He also emphasized varying surface treatments, which created the appearance of thick and luxurious fabric, exceedingly appropriate for the subject matter depicted herein.
Behind the standing wise man is a portrait of Strozzi, holding a falcon, a nod to his family name (strozzieri was the Tuscan word for “falconer”). Many times patrons would include themselves in the works of art that they commissioned. Although, here, rather than include himself as a devout worshipper, as was generally the case in previous work, Strozzi chose to portray himself looking out and connecting with the viewer, as if to say, look at what I – and my wealth – created. Art was becoming less of a means of worship and more a method of displaying power.
The predella (the platform that forms the base of the altarpiece) portrays scenes from Jesus’ childhood, including the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple (which is actually a modern copy, the original is located at the Louvre), and the Flight into Egypt.
Beginning signs of the Renaissance can be detected in the predella, where Gentile da Fabriano used blue rather than the traditional gold background to depict the sky, thereby showing artists’ new attention to nature that would serve as a foundational element of the Renaissance.
Gentile also included the loggia of Brunelleschi’s Spedale degli Innocenti in the cityscape of the Presentation at the Temple panel.
Rooms 7-8. The Early Renaissance
The next room houses those paintings that began what we now call “The Renaissance.” In these paintings, the focus shifted from the simple act of worship to the more complex question of defining man’s relationship to God.
Tommaso Cassai, better known as Masaccio, is generally believed to be the first “great” painter of the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio was influenced by the great sculptors and architects of his time, Brunelleschi and Donatello, and derived his use of mathematical perspective from their work. Those influences tend to give his work a more formalized and monumental style, which is accentuated by his lack of concern for ornamentation and details, as well as his use of a single source of light. His work Saint Anne Metterza (c. 1424), done in collaboration with Masolino, was originally intended for Sant’Ambrogio Church in Florence; it was commissioned by Nofri d’Agnolo del Brutto, a cloth merchant. Art historians believe that Masolino painted St. Anne and the angels (aside from the angel on the top right), while Masaccio painted Mary and Jesus.
The austerity of the faces is of the Byzantine tradition, but their softness is of the 15th century. The Christ-child is also very 15th century; he is not portrayed as more-or-less a child in adult form, but as a true child. Moreover, his build reflects the emerging influence of classical sculpture.
The term Metterza was derived from the medieval latin word “met,” meaning “the same,” and tertius, meaning “third.” It was used to describe the common iconography of Mary sitting between her mother’s legs and the Christ child sitting between his mother’s legs. The depiction demonstrated St. Anne’s place as third in the hierarchy of the divine family as well as her role as protector of Mary and of Mother Church. It is not for nothing that the silhouette of il Duomo can be made out in St. Anne’s protecting embrace. As il Duomo protects Florence, so too does St. Anne protect Mary.
Although Masaccio’s overall structure was influenced by Brunelleschi and Donatello, you cannot miss Giotto’s influence in the drapery of Mary’s cloak, demonstrating Giotto’s continuing importance, even beyond the Gothic period and into the Renaissance.
The other of Masaccio’s work is located in Room 7 is known as Virgin and Child (Madonna del solletico) (c. 1426-27).
Masaccio himself was also a major influence on artists, including another of Florentine’s most famous artists, Guido de Pietro, better known known as Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico was a brother at the recently constructed San Marco Monastery, which he had a major hand in decorating. Although all of his works are of a religious nature, they took on innovations that spurred what is known as the High Renaissance. Room 7 contains Fra Angelico’s Pontassieve Madonna (c. 1435).
This piece was likely originally part of a larger altarpiece, the side panels of which have since been lost. The work is typical of Fra Angelico, however, as can be seen in the soft features of the faces, elongated fingers, monumental posture, and statuesque folds of cloth. These attributes are echoed in his Coronation of the Virgin (1435), also in Room 7 of the Uffizi.
In Fra Angelico’s Coronation, the angels act as the meditators between the divine company and the human world. Beneath the Virgin and Christ is a mass of winged heads; the blue wings indicate that they are cherubim (as opposed to the red wings of the seraphim; seraphim had red wings to reflect that they were inflamed with the love of God). Also beneath the Virgin are clouds, subtly, yet effectively, enhancing the perspective produced by the foreshortening of the angels in the background. Fra Angelico’s focus on movement goes even further than the motif of the angel swinging a censer and includes angels actually dancing, their robes swishing with motion.
Fra Angelico’s Coronation was commissioned to pair with Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration, discussed above, in the Church of Sant’Egidio.
Whether to match the shape of its companion piece or to make some other statement, Fra Angelico also did away completely with the tricuspid shape and opted for a fully rectangular altarpiece.
One of Fra Angelico’s most successful successors was Fra Filippo Lippi, who lived from around 1406 to 1469. Filippo Lippi was a frequent house guest of Cosimo de’ Medici. He had been a Carmelite monk, but allegedly left the order after a scandalous affair with a nun. According to Giorgio Vasari:
It is said that he was so amorous, that, if he saw any women who pleased him, and if they were to be won, he would give all his possessions to win them; and if he could in no way do this, he would paint their portraits and cool the flame of his love by reasoning with himself. So much a slave was he to this appetite, that when he was in this humour he gave little or no attention to the works that he had undertaken; wherefore on one occasion Cosimo de’ Medici, having commissioned him to paint a picture, shut him up in his own house, in order that he might not go out and waste his time; but after staying there for two whole days, being driven forth by his amorous—nay, beastly—passion, one night he cut some ropes out of his bed-sheets with a pair of scissors and let himself down from a window, and then abandoned himself for many days to his pleasures. Thereupon, since he could not be found, Cosimo sent out to look for him, and finally brought him back to his labour; and thenceforward Cosimo gave him liberty to go out when he pleased, repenting greatly that he had previously shut him up, when he thought of his madness and of the danger that he might run. For this reason he strove to keep a hold on him for the future by kindnesses; and so he was served by Filippo with greater readiness, and was wont to say that the virtues of rare minds were celestial beings, and not slavish hacks.
Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.
Lippi’s Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1435), once located on the main altar in Sant’Ambrogio, was produced in collaboration with various artists, including Piero di Lorenzo, Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini da Urbino, Fra Diamante, Manno de’Cori, and Domenico del Brilla.
In this Coronation, Lippi includes St. Ambrose and St. Eustace (kneeling with his two sons and wife, Theophista). On the right, in a mantle of red, is the donor, Francesco Maringhi, kneeling next to the inscription, “IS PERFECIT OPUS” (“He finished the work”) whereas some scholars believe the man kneeling in white is St. Benedict and the man next to him is a self-portrait of the artist himself.
Interestingly, Lippi’s focus is on the spectators rather than the actual coronation (unlike the depictions done by Fra Angelico, which centers on Mary and Jesus). Lippi was deeply interested in the individual and would model his angels off young women that he saw in the street. Lippi’s altarpiece moves from the sacred space of the Virgin to the intercessors who traverse between the sacred and the earthly and finally to the patrons who occupy the worldly space. This gradual transition from sacred to the profane mirrored Sant’Ambrogio’s congregation, which included a community of nuns as well as a parish. The community of nuns would identify with the Virgin, who, like them, took a profession of vows constituting a spiritual marriage with God/Christ. The lay members of the parish would identify with the patrons of the painting.
Cosimo de’Medici commissioned Filippo Lippi to paint another altarpiece, known as The Novitiate Altarpiece (c. 1445), for the recently constructed Novitiate Chapel in the Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce. Lippi paid homage to his patron by including red Medici balls across the top of the frieze and inlaid in the marble. He also included the Medici patron saints, Cosimo and his late twin brother’s namesakes, St. Cosmas and St. Damian (on the left and right of the Madonna, respectively). The other two saints are St. Francis, the patron saint of the church for which the altarpiece was destined, and St. Anthony of Padua, a member of the Franciscan Order.
The architecture is classical in nature, although the classical scallop shell ceilings allude to the Virgin and the divine conception. (Many confuse the concept of “immaculate conception” with the divine conception; the immaculate conception actually refers to Mary’s birth, free of sin, not Christ’s birth, divinely inspired). Scallop shells were often symbols of fertility in ancient times, a meaning which Christians co-opted and subsequently narrowed to signify only the birth of Christ rather than births and fertility in general. Although a single panel, the painting’s three arches recall the polyptych of old wherein the Virgin was physically separated from the saints.
Another great early Renaissance artist, Domenico Veneziano, also moved away from the traditional medieval triptych with his Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece (c. 1445). Like Lippi, Veneziano places his Virgin in the same space as the saints (i.e. in a single panel), but still separated by columns.
Additionally, Veneziano emphasizes his innovative attention to architecture by placing his scene in a classical setting, dominated by three arches inlaid with green and rose marble, remenscient of the marble used in the Duomo.
This piece is considered a masterpiece due to the innovative use of light. Indeed, you can see the shadow crossover the Virgin and Child, and St. John the Baptist’s foreshortened foot casts a shadow over the floor. In the foreground are (from left to right) St. Francis, St. John the Baptist, St. Zanobius, and St. Lucia, whose Latin name translates as “light.” Also look at St. John’s subtly defined musculature in his right arm. Such a detail looks much more classical than Gothic.
The predella is distributed between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K., and the Berlin State Museum in Berlin, Germany. One of the episodes depicted in the predella (and located in D.C.) is Saint John in the Desert.
In this episode, Veneziano depicts St. John exchanging his worldly clothes for a camel shirt. Shying away from traditional iconography of St. John as an old hermit, Veneziano chose to depict him at the moment of his spiritual conversion and thus as a young man in the classical model. Interestingly, this work is one of the earliest known depictions of such a model that would become the norm throughout Renaissance art. The piece, however, still retains several gothic elements, most glaringly of which is the representation of the mountains. They are more symbolic than realistic and are not at all in proportion to St. John.
Another episode (also in D.C.) is St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.
Here too, the proportions of the figures are not in keeping with the landscape. For instance, look at the small red book next to Brother Leo, St. Francis’ secretary. Yet, the episode demonstrates the growing concern for realistic landscapes and increasing reluctance to depict events “out of time” as they had been so often during the previous centuries.
One of the more recognizable pieces located in Room 8 is the Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino (Portraits of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro) by Piero della Francesca (c. 1467-1470). Here at last we come to humanism in its truest form, the celebration of man, in and of himself. In a stark move away from the worship, or at least the pretense of worship, of God, Piero della Francesca focuses this piece entirely on his patron, the Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and his wife, the Duchess Battista Sforza (1446-1472). The piece was part of Vittoria Della Rovere’s dowry for her marriage to Grand Duke Ferdinand II de’Medici. (Vittoria Della Rovere was the daughter of Duke Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, and thus a descendant of Duke Federico da Montefeltro). Interestingly, Duke Federico Montefeltro was actually Lorenzo de’Medici’s godfather (although this did not preclude the Duke from subsequently betraying Lorenzo for Pope Sixtus). Montefeltro received the title of “duke” from his papal overlord after his daughter, Giovanna, married Pope Sixtus’ nephew Giovanni della Rovere and in exchange for his services as condottiere (i.e. mercenary captain).
The Duke and Duchess are depicted in profile, in the Imperial Roman tradition. Yet, Duke Federico is depicted facing left, which is not in strict conformance with classical predecessors, which generally faced right. Some art historians posit that this break with tradition was done to hide the Duke’s missing eye, which he lost fighting in a tournament, while others believe it was intended to allow the couple to face each other. Regardless, this piece is striking due to the attention to the sitters’ features, even the more unattractive features (like the Duke’s broken nose). Some art historians believe that the Duchess’ paleness alludes to her early death (she died in childbirth at age 26). The background is the Marches landscape, over which the Duke ruled and sought to demonstrate his dominance with this portrait. The pieces were inspired by Florentine perspective and lenticular representation (a painting technique that emphasized depth) used in Flemish painting. It is no wonder that Piero della Francesca was the author of De Prospectiva pingendi, an important treatise on perspective that would influence the artists of the High Renaissance.
Finally, these room also house Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano (c. 1435-1440). The Battle of San Romano was originally supposed to be displayed with two other companion pieces wherein the set of three celebrated the Florentine victory over the Siense in 1432. These pieces were meant to be displayed in a private palazzo, where courtiers, who were enthusiastic readers of chivalric romances, would admire them. Thus, Uccello included decorative details and pageantry sufficient to recall those romances.
On the brown horse on the left of the painting sits Florentine Niccolò da Tolentino, whose long lance unseats the rider of the white horse, Bernardino della Carda, the commander of the Sienese troops. Interestingly, the whole scene, although a battle, is bloodless. Instead, the battle is depicted more like a chivalric tournament/game than a gruelling assault. Uccello elevates the battle to a place of fantasy, celebrating the idealization of war.
The panel in the Uffizi is the middle episode of the cycle. The first episode, below, is located in The National Gallery in London whereas the final panel is located in the Louvre in France.