Room 15: The Transition to Oils

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).

Portinari Altarpiece, Hugo van der Goes

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.

Detail of Portinari Altarpiece, Hugo Van der Goes

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. Many of the angels are crowned, and indeed one in particular is crowned with an interesting coronet made out of coral reef. This coronet is likely intended to be an amulet against evil; at the time, red marine material was believed to drive away evil spirits. In fact, such evil does indeed linger over the entire scene in the form of an angel shrouded in black, believed to be (by some scholars) the devil, who of course, was at one time an angel. It is a reminder that the devil always lurks nearby no matter the setting.

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.

Portrait of Tommaso di Folco Portinari and Maria Portinari (c. 1470), Hans Memling, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437056

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).

Tobias and the Three Archangels, Botticini Francesco

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.

The Madonna and Child adored by St. Zenobius and St. Justus, Ghirlandaio

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.

Saint Michael and the Angels at War with the Devil, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Courtesy of The Detroit Institute of Arts, https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/saint-michael-and-angels-war-devil-45840

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.

A Legend of Saints Justus and Clement of Volterra, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Courtesy of The National Gallery, London; https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2902

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.

The Marriage of the Virgin, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436487

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.

The Burial of Saint Zenobius, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436486

Finally, the panel beneath St. Raphael shows the popular Renaissance subject of Tobias and the fish, discussed above.

Tobias and the Angel, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436488

To give you some idea of how the altarpiece would have looked, I’ve arranged it as it was intended to be seen below:

Botticelli Part One

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 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.

Madonna of the Rose Garden, Botticelli

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.

Detail of St. Ambrose Altarpiece, Botticelli

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.

Portrait of a Youth with a Medal, Botticelli

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.

La Primavera, Botticelli

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.

Detail of La Primavera, Botticelli

[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.

Detail of La Primavera, Botticelli

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.

Triumph of Death, Buonamico Buffalmacco (early 14th century)

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.

Birth of Venus, Botticelli

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 a 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 forwarded 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. Several Pollaiuolos (And a Botticelli)

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).

The Seven Virtues, Piero and Antonio Pollaiuolo and Botticelli

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.

Tribunale della Mercanzia is directly behind the equestrian statue of Cosimo I; it is now home to the Gucci Museum.

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.

Good Government, Ambrogio Lorenzetti

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, Sandro Botticelli

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.

Temperance, Piero del Pollaiuolo

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.

Faith, Piero del Pollaiuolo

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.

Charity, Piero del Pollaiuolo

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, Piero del Pollaiuolo

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.

Justice, Piero and Antonio Pollaiuolo

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, Piero del Pollaiuolo

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.

Cardinal of Portugal’s chapel in San Miniato al Monte with a modern copy of the altarpiece.

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).

Cardinal of Portugal’s Altarpiece, Antonio and Piero Del Pollaiuolo

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.