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 demonstrate the 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 sightOn 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.
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.
The last work 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.