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. -Vasari
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.