Cinquecento Rooms

The Cinquecento Rooms, which house Florentine and Venetian works from the 16th century, were recently renovated and reopened in 2019. The rooms housing the Florentine paintings are painted gray to evoke the pietra serena (a type of sandstone used extensively in Florence; literally translated as the “serene stone”) of the Uffizi while the rooms housing the Venetian works are painted green as a nod to the draperies typically used as backgrounds by Venetian artists. Most of the Venetian works located in these rooms, including the famous Venus of Urbino, constituted part of Vittoria della Rovere’s dowry when she married her cousin Ferdinando II de’ Medici in 1634. (Vittoria della Rovere was the daughter of Claudia de’Medici and Duke Federico Ubaldo della Rovere of Urbino).

The Hall of the Dynasties is dedicated to portraits of the Medici Family, done primarily by Bronzino, which were produced to legitimize Cosimo I’s succession to the fledgling Duchy of Florence. The portraits include posthumous depictions of Medici ancestors, demonstrating the Medici’s historical links to the city, through depictions of the youngest of Cosimo’s children, demonstrating the continuation of the dynasty into the future.

Medici Family Tree

The Portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici by Giorgio Vasari (1534) was commissioned by Ottaviano de’Medici. Alessandro de’Medici was likely the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII, but was presented to the public as the illegitimate son of Lorenzo de’Medici, Duke of Urbino, himself the son of Piero de’Medici and Alfonsina Orsini.

Alessandro de’Medici, Vasari, Courtesy of WikiCommons

Alessandro was granted governorship of Florence by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in July of 1531 after Charles V’s imperial forces conquered the Republican city in 1530. (The Medici family had been ousted from the city in 1527). The delay in appointing Alessandro as head of the Florentine state was due to disagreement between Charles V and Pope Clement VII on how to style Alessandro’s hold on power. Pope Clement VII, who had grown up in his uncle Lorenzo il Magnifico’s household, believed Alessandro’s rule should be a continuation of the fiction that the Medici were simply the “first citizens” of a Florentine republic (a perhaps not so subtle imitation of Caesar Augustus’ role as “first among equals” in the Roman “republic”). Charles V, being the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, was a royalist to the core and therefore saw no problem in naming Alessandro as an outright duke. Thus, a compromise was made to name Alessandro as “Governor of the Republic of Florence and Head of the Government in Perpetuity.” Impetuous Alessandro was not satisfied. In 1532, after (one suspects) of much badgering and whining, the Pope relented and Alessandro was invested as the “Duke of the Republic.” Although Alessandro’s impetuousness scored him a ducal crown, it was also to prove his undoing. He was assassinated by his cousin Lorenzino in 1537 and with his death, the principal Medici line was extinguished.

In this portrait, completed several years before Alessandro was assassinated, he is depicted in full figure, which was atypical at the time. Generally, contemporary portraits depicted the sitter from his or her torso up. Using this unconventional posture, however, allowed Vasari to imbue the portrait with an abundance of symbolism, as he eloquently explains in his verse:

What do weapons mean? Love for the city, causing the great defeat of enemies.
And this round chair? A thing without an end.
And what do the truncated bodies tied to the chair say? Triumph.
And the red cloth that is covering his leg? Blood.
And the dry trunk that is sprouting green shoots? The Medici Family.
What comes from the ardent helm? Fecund peace. 

As trans. in The Medici Portraits and Politics 1512-1570. Carlo Falciani "Power and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Florentine Portraiture." 

In other words, the red cloak upon which Alessandro sits symbolizes the spilled blood of his enemies, the round stool covered by the “blood of his enemies” symbolizes his everlasting kingdom (a circle has no end), and the three bound legs of the stool symbolize the Florentine people, “with neither arms not legs, but guided by his wishes.” Behind Alessandro stands a stump with a full laurel leaf sprouting from it, which is an allusion to a portrait of Cosimo the Elder, the founder of the Medici dynasty, painted by Pontormo around 1519/20 and coincidentally hangs near Alessandro’s portrait in the Hall of Dynasties. The laurel leaf has been a potent symbol of victory since ancient times. The broken branch with a new offshoot is known as the broncone and was adopted by the Medici as a heraldic device to symbolize the family’s resilience despite multiple exiles and deaths of its members. As Vasari explained the branch symbolized “the house of Medici, once dead but now in the person of Duke Alessandro able to produce offshoots for ever.” (As trans. by Mary Hollingsworth in The Family Medici: The Hidden History of the Medici Dynasty). (Although, little did Vasari know, Duke Alessandro was soon to be dead too).

Alessandro chose to be depicted as a solider holding the baton of command and as a prince signaling that long gone are the days that the Medici proclaimed that they were simply “first among equals.” Instead, the Medici line is openly proclaiming its royal pretensions and demonstrating that their power is supported by their strength in arms. Indeed, in a letter to Ottaviano de’Medici, Vasari wrote:

White, shining armor is the mirror of the prince, so that his subjects can see themselves and their lives reflected in him.

As trans. in The Medici Portraits and Politics 1512-1570. Carlo Falciani “Power and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Florentine Portraiture.”

The Portrait of Cosimo the Elder (c. 1519-1520) by Pontormo, mentioned above, is a posthumous depiction of the founder of the Medici family, Cosimo il Vecchio, who died in 1464.

Portrait of Cosimo the Elder, Pontormo

Instead of sticking to the conventions of the time, Pontormo painted Cosimo il Vecchio in profile similar to those portraits that would have been produced during Cosimo il Vecchio’s lifetime.

Indeed, Pontormo’s choice to depict Cosimo il Vecchio in profile mimics the same choice made when humanist medals commemorating his lifetime were struck within a year of his death, a depiction of which is held by the man in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici painted in c. 1474. The medal held by the young man was cast either from the actual mold that made the real medal or from an impression of an already existing medal.

Although Botticelli used the medal to emphasize the break from tradition and the beginning of a new age by juxtaposing the ancient Roman portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio with the new Renaissance style portrait, Pontormo returns to the traditional “classical” model to emphasize continuity between Cosimo il Vecchio, the “Father of the Fatherland” and Cosimo I, thereby legitimizing Cosimo I’s rule as well as establishing a long-lived dynasty to obscure the Medici’s relative parvenu-status, as compared to the European royal families who could trace their royal ancestry back centuries.

The Pontormo portrait was commissioned by Goro Gheri, former secretary to Lorenzo de’Medici, Duke of Urbino. In the portrait is the Broncone (i.e. broken branch with new offshoot), a recurrent Medici emblem, as explained above. Curved around the Broncone is the motto “UNO AVULSO NON DEFICIT ALTER,” a corrupted line from Virgil’s Aeneid. The true line from the Aeneid is “Primo avulso non deficit alter,” meaning “When the first one is torn away, the other does not fail,” whereas the corrupted version states, “When one is torn away, the next does not fail.” The slight change suggests a continual, circular (like Alessandro’s stool) meaning, evoking notions of dynasty and the continual rebirth of the Medici.

Cosimo il Vecchio’s crimson robes allude to those worn by the Saints Cosmas and Damian when depicted in Italian art, the family’s patron saints.

Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (in some sources twins), and as such, they were closely linked to Cosimo il Vecchio, himself a twin (his twin did not survive childhood). The two Medici brothers were named after the saints, Cosimo and Damian. Additionally, the saints, who were physicians, were linked to the Medici due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”).

A companion piece to the portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio was commissioned by Ottaviano de’Medici in around 1534. This piece is the Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent by Giorgio Vasari.

Portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Giorgio Vasari.

Like Cosimo il Vecchio, Lorenzo is depicted in profile, a mirror image of Pontormo’s portrait. Also like Cosimo il Vecchio, Lorenzo is wearing domestic attire, but his wealth is still conveyed to the viewer via his fur lined sleeves and the purse that hangs from his belt, an allusion to the Medici’s role as bankers to the Pope.

I wanted to portray all the great qualities that adorned his life … his outstanding leadership, not just in his eloquence but in everything, especially in his judgement, which has provided a light for his descendants and this great city.

Giorgio Vasari to Alessandro de’Medici, as trans. by Mary Hollingsworth in The Family Medici: The Hidden History of the Medici Dynasty

Behind Lorenzo, Vasari, who was exceedingly fond of allegorical symbols, as demonstrated in his Portrait of Alessandro de’Medici, above, has inserted a multitude of strange objects, including masks, vases, an oil lamp, and a pillar. An ancient oil lamp in the guise of a mask is to the left of Lorenzo. According to Vasari, oil falls from the mask’s horns onto its forehead to fuel the wick of the lamp, sticking out of the mask’s open mouth. Its significance is also explained by Vasari: just as the wick lights the world around it, Lorenzo lights the path for his descendants to follow. To the right of Lorenzo, the inscription on the pillar reads, “vitia virtuti subiacent” (“Virtue triumphs over vices”). The personification of Virtue is the vase, on which is inscribed, “virtutum omnium vas” (“the vase of all virtues”). On the spout of the “vase of all virtues” hangs a mask, which Vasari called “the reward of all virtues.” In opposition lays Vice, personified by the monstrous mask on the pillar behind the vase. All of the allegories are captured in the inscription on the pillar against which Lorenzo leans: “sicut maiores mihi ita et ego posteris mea virtute praeluxi” (“As my ancestors did with me, I too, with my virtue, shall light the way for my descendants”).

Ironically, after the murder of one of Lorenzo’s descendants (Alessandro) by another of his descendants (Lorenzino) and consequently the extinction of the principal Medici line, the Senate of Florence proposed a member of the cadet Medici branch, named Cosimo, as successor to Alessandro. Charles V, Florence’s Imperial overlord, eventually accepted Cosimo as Duke, allowing Cosimo to become Cosimo I. To cemented Imperial backing, Cosimo negotiated a marriage between himself and Eleonora of Toledo, the daughter of Pedro de Toledo, Charles V’s viceroy in Naples.

As part of Cosimo I’s propaganda war to legitimize his claim to the ducal throne, he commissioned Bronzino to produce his state portrait, which was disseminated throughout Europe.

Cosimo I, Bronzino. Courtesy of Encyclopaedia.humana – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=116022946

In the Portrait of Cosimo I de’Medici (c. 1545), Bronzino chose to depict Cosimo as a man in his middle age, despite the fact that Cosimo was actually only in his twenties at the time the painting was commissioned. Aging the young Cosimo imbued the new duke with a sense of experience and wisdom; in other words, virtus, the Roman concept of manliness (Vir in Latin means “man”). Emphasizing Cosimo I’s authority is his depiction as a solider in his suit of armor, which was gifted to him by Ferdinand I, Charles V’s brother. Vasari’s statement made regarding his portrait of Alessandro, that “white, shining armor is the mirror of the prince, so that his subjects can see themselves and their lives reflected in him,” applies equally here to Cosimo’s portrait. Cosimo I’s armor also harkens back to his father Giovanni delle Bande Nere, a famous condottiere (Italian mercenary commander).

It is likely that this portrait is based on woodcut by Giovanni Britto of Charles V, which itself was a copy of a lost portrait of Charles V by Titian.

Copying the portrait of Charles V allowed Cosimo to emulate his feudal overlord, but perhaps also was his attempt to displace Charles V in the minds of his subjects and of those of the heads of states. In fact, Cosimo I appropriated much of Charles V’s “branding,” including the astrological sign Capricorn and the motto festina lente (coincidentally, or perhaps not, both the astrological sign and the motto were devices of Caesar Augustus).

Cosimo intended this portrait to be his official state portrait, and it was in fact reproduced by Bronzino and/or his workshop almost 30 times to disseminate to fellow heads of state. Some of the versions vary slightly on the details:

For example, the version housed by the Met contains a curtain and ornamental border, which may have been derived from the work of a fellow Florentine, Francesco Salviati, known as Portrait of a Gentleman, also housed in the Met.

Whereas the version from the Toledo Museum of Art shows Cosimo I with the badge of the Order of the Fleece, conferred on Cosimo I in 1545, indicating that this portrait is a later version of the Uffizi version.

The Toledo version also contains a broncone, linking him to Vasari’s portrait of Alessandro and Pontormo’s portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio. This branch, however, is an olive branch, alluding to Cosimo’s role in bringing peace to the Florentine people, which seems slightly inconsistent with his deliberate promotion of his martial prowess.

Cosimo I also commissioned Bronzino to produce state portraits of his growing family, including one of his son Giovanni, which is housed in the Hall of Dynasties. Bronzino’s Portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici as a Child (c. 1545) depicts Cosimo I’s second son at about eighteen months, based on the timing of his birth in 1543.

Portrait of Giovanni de’Medici as a Child, Bronzino

It was originally displayed alongside a companion portrait of his brother, Garzia de’Medici (now in the Prado Museum).

Both boys are dressed in crimson tunics trimmed in gold, but the portrait of Giovanni departs from Bronzino’s typical portrayal of the royal family as distant and expressionless whereas the portrait of Garzia maintains the solemnity utterly abandoned in that of his brother. Each child sports a gold chain from which several items hang. Garzia toying with his chain allows us to see a ring, which was likely a teething ring, but also attached is a crystal, which was believed to protect children by warding off witches, among other things.

Giovanni appears in another Bronzino state portrait, this time with his mother Eleonora de Toledo.

Portrait of Eleonora de Toledo and her son Giovanni, Bronzino (c. 1545)

The inclusion of Giovanni in his mother’s state portrait serves the same purpose as the broncone branch does in the portraits of the Medici men. Giovanni is the physical embodiment of the dynastic ambitions of Cosimo I. In fact, including Giovanni rather than Cosimo I’s first son, Francesco, proclaims Cosimo’s fecundity and the creation of a great and potent dynasty.

Eleonora and Giovanni are depicted with a background completely saturated with an ultramarine pigment made from Lapis lazuli, a pigment that was so expensive that it was usually reserved only for the Virgin Mary. Yet, this picture is in a sense the secular Madonna and Child. In fact, Bronzino uses light to produce a halo effect around Eleonora. Strikingly, however, is the difference between this mother/son portrait and Bronzino’s paintings of the Virgin and Child:

Mary exudes warmth towards her son whereas Eleonora’s attention is straight ahead, looking out with an almost imperial distain.

Eleonora’s portrait is echoed in that of Bianca de Medici, Cosimo’s illegitimate daughter, known as Bia.

Portrait of Bia de’Medici, Bronzino (c. 1542/45)

Bia died at the age of five in 1542, after which Cosimo commissioned this posthumous portrait. Like her step-mother, Bia is encircled in a halo of light, but rather as an allusion to the Virgin, here it is a reminder of Bia’s young and untimely death. She is dressed in white as an allusion to her name (Bianca) as well as her purity, and she wears a gold medallion with the likeness of her father, who appears in profile, like his namesake in the portrait painted by Botticelli, discussed above.

As this hall is the Hall of Dynasties, and as discussed in the intro, many of the paintings in these rooms were inherited from Vittoria della Rovere, the curators of the Uffizi have positioned the portraits of Vittoria’s great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother in this hall as well.

Duke Francesco ruled the city of Urbino, but is best remembered for his role as a condottiere of Venice and so is shown, like Cosimo I and Alessandro, dressed in armor and holding his baton of command, which displays the Venetian standard.

Francesco Maria della Rovere, Titian (1536)

Beneath his armor, however, peeks black and yellow sleeves, hinting at della Rovere’s own heritage via his mother, Giovanna da Montefeltro, daughter of Federico da Montefeltro, himself a famous condottiere. (Black and yellow were the heraldic colors of the Montefeltro house).

Duchess Battista Sforza and Duke Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino, Piero della Francesca

Whereas della Rovere’s paternal lineage is proclaimed via the batons and oak branch in the background. The gold baton bears the papal keys to reference his uncle, Pope Julius II, and the oak branch refers to the della Rovere name (“rovere” is the Italian word for oak).

Titian used differing brushstrokes to create the look of different materials. For instance, compare the flint of steel to the sheen of the crushed velvet hanging behind the Duke. Moreover, the materials displayed in the Duke’s portrait are meant to complement those in the Duchess’ portrait.

Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere, Titian (1538)

The red velvet hanging is contrasted with the green velvet tablecloth while the gold detailing of the Duchess’ dress reflects the gold detailing of the Duke’s armor. The duchess is shown rather conventionally, sitting in front of a window looking out onto the landscape. Several details are added to this convention, including a golden clock, denoting the Duchess’ wealth as well as demonstrating her constancy while waiting for the Duke to return home from war, and a sleeping spaniel, which was associated with loyalty and wifely devotion.

Room D13 of the Uffizi. Bronzino, The Medici Court Painter.

Bronzino was the court painter for the Medici family, painting several family portraits, including some that feature in the Uffizi’s Hall of Dynasties. Bronzino typically focused on portraits and allegorical paintings, such as his Portrait of Bartolomeo Panciatichi (1540).

Portrait of Bartolomeo Panciatichi, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Bartolomeo Panciatichi was a Florentine politician and humanist, but he spent his formative years in France, acting as a page at King Francis I’s court. Eventually, he moved back to Florence and became a member of the prestigious Accademia degli Umidi, a philosophical/literary group of men, where he likely encountered Bronzino, who was also a member. While in France, however, Bartolomeo picked up Lutheran tendencies, i.e., austerity, avoidance of overt sacred references, emphasis on individuality, etc., which are expressed in his portrait, as well as that of his wife, Lucrezia Panciatichi, discussed infra, which Bronzino painted a few years later. Although speaking of the portraits done by Albrecht Dürer, art historian Donald Kuspit’s analysis of same applies here as well:

[T]here was also a change of emphasis in [Martin Luther’s] doctrine; from sin to salvation. The mood has lifted, changing from one of suffering and danger to one of security and resoluteness, the new inner strength indicated as much by the absence of symbolic attributes … as by radical reduction of the portrait to little more than the face. Attributes are no longer needed––partly in acknowledgement of Lutheran sacramental simplicity and partly for the sake of stylistic concentration … But more significantly, their absence signifies a new affirmation, …. the attributes––skull and flail––all had negative connotations, being associated with the Passion rather than the Resurrection. In the … portraits we have men who have been resurrected as it were, displaying not signs of suffering but the forthrightness and self-possession of spiritual health so self-assured it is in no need of signs to mediate or interpret it.

To use Lutheran language, where the [Catholically-influenced] pictures show penitent men (poenitentiam agite), troubled by bad consciences and confessing their sins, at least to themselves, within the context of the old Christianity as their surroundings indicate, the [Lutheran] portraits show men who have come to their senses (metanoia) and have, in renewing their faith, renewed themselves, experiencing “a change in heart and love in response to God’s grace.” The late portraits show men who are spiritually renewed––“the renewal of man’s life” is a crucial Lutheran ideal––and who have experienced “inner transformation.” They are ready to accept repentance as “a lifetime matter,” for, as Benesch writes, “Life had to be mastered, and the human character had to be provided in it severely and harshly. Life was no longer an artistic (and one might add ‘intellectual’) performance of the personality, but a duty and a task. The Reformation gave to life this new meaning.” 

Kuspit, Donald. “DÜRER AND THE LUTHERAN IMAGE.” Art News, January–February 1975 issue.

Indeed, Panciatichi’s portrait contains no overt references to religion. The work is almost entirely focused on Panciatichi himself, as an individual.

As mentioned above, Bronzino also painted a portrait of Panciatichi’s wife, Lucrezia Panciatichi.

Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi (c. 1541), Courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Unlike her husband, who is dressed for the most part in black, Lucrezia is clothed in a strikingly red dress, which contrasts vividly with the dark, undifferentiated background. Yet, it was not so long ago that artists in the mold of Leonardo, and subsequently Raphael, depicted their female subjects overlooking verdant landscapes.

But Lucrezia’s portrait focuses on the sitter as she appears – not placed in an idealized landscape. The centering of the painting on Lucrezia herself enables Bronzino to highlight Lucrezia ‘s rich and luxurious attire, especially the soft crushed velvet sleeves and beautiful crimson satin, thereby underlining the Panciatichi’s wealth and prosperity.

The Panciatichis’ portraits are mirror images of one another: Bartolomeo’s sleeves provide only a hint of color that reflects his wife’s crimson dress while Lucrezia’s sleeves are the only dark cloth she wears, reflecting Bartolomeo’s somber Protestant attire. Unlike the background in Lucrezia’s portrait, however, the background in Bartolomeo’s portrait proclaims his identity (or perhaps more correctly Bartolomeo’s version of his ideal identity constructed for the public) to the viewer. Behind Bartolomeo stands his family’s palazzo, decorated with the Panciatichi’s family arms. Therefore, both portraits are really a reflection of Bartolomeo alone and his success, which is expressed through his wife’s luxurious ornamentation, and his piety, which is expressed through his own austere image.

Interestingly, Lucrezia’s portrait has appeared in multiple British and American literary works. For instance, her necklace, which states “Amour Dure Sans Fin” (“love is everlasting”), is gothicized in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings:

None of these portraits seem very good, save the miniature, but that is an exquisite work, and with it, and the suggestions of the bust, it is easy to reconstruct the beauty of this terrible being. The type is that most admired by the late Renaissance, and, in some measure, immortalized by Jean Goujon and the French. The face is a perfect oval, the forehead somewhat over-round, with minute curls, like a fleece, of bright auburn hair; the nose a trifle over-aquiline, and the cheek-bones a trifle too low; the eyes grey, large, prominent, beneath exquisitely curved brows and lids just a little too tight at the corners; the mouth also, brilliantly red and most delicately designed, is a little too tight, the lips strained a trifle over the teeth. Tight eyelids and tight lips give a strange refinement, and, at the same time, an air of mystery, a somewhat sinister seductiveness; they seem to take, but not to give. The mouth with a kind of childish pout, looks as if it could bite or suck like a leech. The complexion is dazzlingly fair, the perfect transparent rosette lily of a red-haired beauty; the head, with hair elaborately curled and plaited close to it, and adorned with pearls, sits like that of the antique Arethusa on a long, supple, swan-like neck. A curious, at first rather conventional, artificial-looking sort of beauty, voluptuous yet cold, which, the more it is contemplated, the more it troubles and haunts the mind. Round the lady's neck is a gold chain with little gold lozenges at intervals, on which is engraved the posy or pun (the fashion of French devices is common in those days), "Amour Dure—Dure Amour." The same posy is inscribed in the hollow of the bust, and, thanks to it, I have been able to identify the latter as Medea's portrait. I often examine these tragic portraits, wondering what this face, which led so many men to their death, may have been like when it spoke or smiled, what at the moment when Medea da Carpi fascinated her victims into love unto death—"Amour Dure—Dure Amour," as runs her device—love that lasts, cruel love—yes indeed, when one thinks of the fidelity and fate of her lovers.

Whereas the painting as a whole is immortalized in Henry James’ Wings of the Dove:

She was the image of the wonderful Bronzino, which she must have a look at on every ground. ... The Bronzino was, it appeared, deep within, and the long afternoon light lingered for them on patches of old colour and waylaid them, as they went, in nooks and opening vistas. ... the face of a young woman, all magnificently drawn, down to the hands, and magnificently dressed; a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair rolled back and high, that must, before fading with time, have had a family resemblance to her own. The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michaelangelesque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage - only unaccompanied by a joy. ...Splendid as she is, one doubts if she was good.

Thus, even though Bartolomeo sought to immortalize himself through both portraits, it is really his wife alone who achieved everlasting fame.

Bartolomeo also commissioned an image of the Holy Family from Bronzino, which is located near his portrait. His role in the creation of this painting is evidenced by the Panciatichi flag flying on the tower in the upper left corner of the work.

Panciatichi Holy Family, courtesy of wiki commons

Pictured are the Virgin, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and his cousin, St. John the Baptist, identifiable not only due to his age (St. John is usually the only saint to be depicted as a child since, according to Christian belief, he was born slightly before Christ), but also due to his traditional attribute of the scroll (here at the bottom of the work) proclaiming, “Ecce Agnus Dei” (“Behold, the Lamb of God”). Although, only the “Agnvs” is visible herein.

Jesus’ sleeping figure (sleep being an allusion to his early death) is central to the picture. His feet are placed up against a rock, which some art scholars read as an allusion to Jesus’ entombment. Art historian Lubomír Konečný, however, argues that the rock is actually key to understanding the work and is not, therefore, simply a mere allusion. In his article, BRONZINO’S PANCIATICHI “HOLY FAMILY WITH SAINT JOHN” RECONSIDERED, Konečný argues that this work is really a story about the virgin conception of Christ. Indeed, if you consider the mountain behind the Virgin, which (likely intentionally) traces the outline of the Virgin’s body along with the stone at Christ’s foot (and if you know the Bible inside and out, which I don’t, but luckily we have scholars like Konečný who do), the story of Daniel and his interpretation of the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king, not the ship in the Matrix) would pop into your head. The book of Daniel tells us:

Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure.           

Book of Daniel, Chapter 2, Verse 45 of the King James Version

“The stone cut out of the mountain without hands” is an allusion to Christ’s miraculous birth without a human father (the mountain is a common allusion to Mary) and his destruction of petty kingdoms to create the Kingdom of Heaven. Based on this reading of the work, the depiction of the Holy Family gains an altogether more important message: The Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand.

The other religious work in this room that Bronzino painted is the Lamentation, also known as Pietà with St. Mary Magdalen or the Cambi Pietà (1529).

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Here, like the feet of Christ in Bronzino’s Panciatichi Holy Family, Christ’s feet rest on a stone, perhaps signaling the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, as in the Panciatichi Holy Family.

In striking contrast is his Pygmalion and Galatea, which depicts the pagan sacrifice of Pygmalion, as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.

Pygmalion and Galatea, courtesy of wiki commons

In the story, Pygmalion is a famous sculptor who ends up falling in love with one of his statues, who he – quite literally – has placed upon a pedestal.

Meanwhile, Pygmalion began to carve
in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art,
 a female figure more exquisite than
a woman who was born could ever match.
That done, he falls in love with his own work.
The image seems, in truth, to be a girl;
one could have thought she was alive and keen
to stir, to move her limbs, had she not been
too timid: with his art, he’s hidden art.
He is enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame. He often lifts his hand to try
his work, to see if it indeed is flesh
or ivory; he still will not admit
it is but ivory. He kisses it:
it seems to him that, in return, he’s kissed.

The Metamorphoses of Ovid as trans. Allen Mandelbaum.

Due to this obsession with his statue, Pygmalion no longer finds human women attractive so he makes a sacrifice to Venus, asking that she provide him with a woman as wonderful as his statue. Understanding his true desire, Venus transforms the statue into living flesh.

Bronzino seems to have based Pygmalion’s pose on that of St. Francis in the Pucci Altarpiece, painted by Bronzino’s teacher, Pontormo, thereby likening Pygmalion’s devotion to his statue to divine worship.

The statue, known as Galatea, on the other hand takes the traditional pose of Venus Pudica, conflating the two women into a single divine entity.

By merging Galatea and Venus into one, Bronzino highlights the duality of love: earthly/physical love, which is represented by Galatea and spiritual love, which is represented by Venus.

Moreover, Venus herself appears twice – in the form of Galatea and as an engraving on the altar where she stands holding the infamous Golden Apple, a nod to the Judgment of Paris, who chose her as the most beautiful goddess and in so doing, started the legendary Trojan war. Significantly, next to Venus on the altar is her lover Mars and not her husband, Vulcan.


Venus may also be a stand in for Florence. Her pose is the exact inverse of Michelangelo’s David, which itself was a potent symbol of the Florentine Republic. (Although it is unlikely that Bronzino was advocating for the Republic since he fared very well under Medici dynastic rule; rather, he may have been attempting to evoke Florence itself.)

Halls D9-D12 of the Uffizi. Ferrara, Bologna, and (of course) Florence.

D9 – Dosso Dossi and His Circle

Giovanni Francesco Luteri, known as Dosso Dossi, worked for Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara and subsequently the Duke’s son Ercole II. His brother, Battista, was also a painter and was referred to as Battista del Dosso (Battista from Dosso) or Battista Dossi. “Dosso” was likely a small family property, hence why it was applied to both brothers. Eighteenth century historians, however, erroneously concluded that Dosso was the family’s last name, hence the double “Dosso Dossi.”

Many of Dosso’s paintings are typified by references to obscure allegories, which are made all the more cryptic due to his tendency to omit traditional iconography. His wit transcended his work, expressing itself even in his signature, which was unique in that it was a D next to a picture of a bone (which is translated as “osso” in Italian).

Dosso was also well known for his use of Venetian color schemes imbibed with Roman classicalism and was especially praised for his landscapes, in part, due to his ability to depict nature as vibrant and teeming with life. His works exhibited in Room D9 of the Uffizi include his Apparition of the Madonna and Child to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.

Apparition of the Madonna and Child to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, Dosso Dossi (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

On the right of the work is St. John the Baptist, identifiable via his cross-staff and his hermit’s robe, and on the left of the work is St. John the Evangelist, holding his own Gospel and a golden chalice with a serpent rising up, symbolizing Christianity’s triumph over death. The chalice alludes to a legend of St. John the Evangelist, wherein a poisoned cup was given to him, but he drank it without coming to any harm due to his faith.

Dosso was clearly familiar with Raphael’s work, Madonna of Foligno (c. 1511-12), and in fact, after Dosso’s interaction with Madonna of Foligno, all his altarpieces took on the work’s formulaic composition, i.e. the Virgin and Christ Child encased in a golden ring of light, surrounded by cherubs, with saints in adoration below.

Dosso, however, does not copy Raphael’s composition categorically. Instead, he employs his typical Venetian color scheme, characterized by deep, rich colors as opposed to those bright/pure used by Raphael and his Roman counterparts.

Another of Dosso Dossi’s paintings exhibited here is Allegory of Hercules, also known as Stregoneria (Witchcraft) (c. 1540-1542). It was also once described as “a painting of portraits of the duke of Ferrara’s buffoons.” As evidenced by the painting’s numerous names, no one is quite certain what this picture is supposed to depict, and it therefore has become the subject of multiple interpretations and scholarly debates.

Allegory of Hercules or Stregoneria (Witchcraft), Dosso Dossi (courtesy of wikipedia commons)

One view is that the old man on the left is Hercules. Those that ascribe to this interpretation do so based on the distaff, i.e. a spindle usually used to spin wool and used by the hero Hercules during a period of enslavement, that is depicted in the middle of the picture (held by the seated man in green). During one of his bouts of madness, Hercules killed a prince named Iphitus, and, as punishment, Hercules was sold into slavery to Omphale, a Lydian Queen. During this period, the gender roles ascribed to the sexes by the Greeks were reversed, and Hercules used tools typically employed by Greek women, including the distaff.

“But Herakles had the misfortune to kill Iphitus, and thereupon sailed to Lydia and was for a long time a slave in that country under Omphale, which condition he had imposed upon himself as a penance for the murder of his friend. During this period the country of Lydia enjoyed peace and repose; but in Greece the old plague of brigandage broke out afresh, as there was now no one to put it down.”

Excerpt From Plutarch's Lives, Volume I trans. AUBREY STEWART.

Yet, if this interpretation is accepted, Hercules is depicted here as an old, drunk man, not in his heroic prime. The various sexual references and illusions, including the pea pods, bird, and cheese depicted in the foreground, confirm Hercules’ descent into impotency and licentiousness. Additionally, the mask and tambourine sitting on the table are items that were typically used in Greek orgies. Hercules, if indeed the man is Hercules, is too busy looking at one of the women’s chests to notice the others are laughing at him. The picture therefore becomes a commentary on the detrimental impact of vice, which can consume the vitality of even Hercules.

Heracles was a popular subject in Ferrera due to his namesake Duke Ercole II d’Este, who had succeeded to the dukedom in 1534. Based on the connection between Heracles and Duke Ercole, some scholars find fault with the theory that the old man is Heracles because it would not have been likely for Dosso to depict a decrepit man as a stand in for his patron, the young Duke. So these scholars identify the old man as Bacchus, the god of wine.

The fruit basket that the woman is holding prefigures the still-life pictures that would later become immensely popular, especially by Dutch artists.

D10 – Painters from Ferrara

Some of Dosso’s works spill over into room D10, including his Rest on the flight to Egypt (c. 1516).

Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Dosso Dossi

The work depicts the Holy Family’s sojourn to Egypt to escape King Herod’s so-called Massacre of the Innocents, as told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2:

13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

15. And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.

King James Version, Matthew 2:13-16.

Despite the work’s name, however, Dosso failed to include any indicia of the traditional story: he depicted no donkey, no traveling pack, no palm tree, indeed no indicia of travel whatsoever. Compare the Uffizi work with his later work of the same subject, which he and his brother completed in c. 1520-1530 and contains most of the traditional iconography:

Many scholars date the Uffizi Flight to Dosso’s early period because the background is far more structured than his later works and his foreshortening of the figures lacks his later finesse (e.g., if you look at Mary’s outstretched arm, it does not appear to be proportional to her body). Although more structured, the background is Dosso’s answer to the contemporary Venetian landscapes that were being produced, like Giorgione’s The Tempest, wherein the landscape itself seemed to take on the role of a protagonist in the work.

D11 – The 16th century in Bologna

Francesco Francia was Bologna’s leading painter. He stuck to religious paintings, mostly altarpieces featuring the Madonna, like the one displayed in this room. Francia was highly influenced by Perugino, which you can see in his placid figures, highly structured drapery, and rich colors. He also took heed of Raphael’s style, copying Raphael’s signature pyramidal structure.

Madonna and Child with St Francis of Assisi and St Anthony of Padua, Francesco Francia

St. Francis is recognizable from the stigmata on his hands, as well as his monastic robes. He appears clean-shaven, which is in contrast to 13th century depictions of the saint showing him bearded. During the end of the 13th century, however, beards had become associated with the poor, uneducated, and sick. Therefore, the wealthy merchant class wanted to disassociate St. Francis from his revolutionary ideas of poverty and began commissioning works with a clean shaven St. Francis whereas the political factions that favored social chance favored a bearded saint. Thus, both depictions were in use during the 15/16th centuries.

St. Anthony, on the other hand, is identifiable via his traditional attribute of the white lily, which symbolized his purity. (White lilies were also associated with the Virgin for the same reason). Whereas the red roses at the based of the pedestal reference the Virgin, who is known as “a rose without thorns,” an epithet which is itself an allusion (to the garden of eden where roses grew without thorns). 

Homer’s Riddle by Bartolomeo Passerotti is the centerpiece of this room. The work was believed to be lost for centuries, but was recently rediscovered and purchased by the Uffizi.

Homer’s Riddle, Bartolomeo Passerotti, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The piece depicts a scene from The Life of Homer (the Greek edition of which was printed several times during the 16th century) wherein Homer meets a group of fishermen and asks them if they had a good catch. The Fishermen respond with a riddle:

They say he died on the island of Ios after finding himself at a loss, since he was not able to solve the riddle of the young fishermen. It goes like this:

What we caught we left behind, what we did not catch we carry with us.

And on his tomb the following epigram is inscribed:

Here the earth covers the sacred head, adorner of warrior heroes, divine Homer.

According to the story, Homer thought so hard about the answer to the riddle that it killed him. The answer was lice. Those lice that the fisherman could catch, they threw into the sea while those lice that remained un-caught were carried with them.

D12 Bacchiacca – The Florentine Portraits

Francesco Ubertini, known as Bacchiacca, was a student of Perugino, but he also incorporated the new lessons from mannerism. He is known for his smaller paintings and unusual color combinations.

In his Predella with the Life of St. Achatius, Bacchiacca depicts three scenes from St. Achatius’ life: 1. Achatius defeating the rebel host; 2. Baptism of Achatius and his men; 3. Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. The legend of St. Achatius is first referenced is in the Catalogus Sanctorum of Petrus de Natalibus, written around 1370-1400. The legend told of a Roman commander, St. Achatius, who was dispatched with nine thousand Roman soldiers against a rebel host that vastly outnumbered them. The night before the battle, an angel appeared to Achatius and his men, telling them if they were to convert to Christianity, then they would defeat the rebel host. The Roman soldiers took the message to heart and converted to the new faith, and thereafter defeating the host the next day. The Roman Emperor, however, later hears about the conversion and leads an army against Achatius and his now Christian army. Although no battle occurs, the Achatius’ men refuse to recant their new faith so the Emperor determines he will torture them. Yet, he cannot. Stones bounce off the men without doing any harm; the whips that were meant to flog them are dashed to the ground. Seeing these miracles, one of the emperor’s other commanders, Theodorus, switches sides and joins Achatius, bringing with him a thousand of his own men, bolstering the Christian army to ten thousand men. The Christians are then crowned with thorns, in mockery of Christ’s own passion, and baptized in their own blood before being led to Mt. Ararat and crucified.

Also located here is Bacchiacca’s Deposition (1518), which depicts the moment that Christ is taken down from the Cross. It was painted for the convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Milan.

The Deposition, Bacchiacca, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Another work, known as The Nun, in this room is what is known as a “blanket painting,” meaning the portrait was hidden behind a thin plate, known as “tirelle,” which could be scrolled up or down to reveal the portrait beneath.

The Nun, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Currently, this work is attributed to Giuliano Bugiardini, although its authorship has been the subject of intense debate over the years (in fact, when Grand Duke Ferdinand III acquired it in 1810, it was believed to be a Leonardo). The portrait takes on the traditional formula used by the early 16th century artists to depict females, which was derived from Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The half length portrait depicts the lady in three quarters pose, holding a book of hours, separated from the world by a barrier behind her. Her pose so closely resembles that of a work by Raphael, that some scholars believe Bugiardini may have traced it.

Interestingly, given that the portrait is known as “the Nun,” the lady’s bodice is subtly lower than was fashionable at the time, revealing more of her chest than was typically respectable. It is therefore likely that the woman is not a nun, but instead, the work received its name due to the landscape behind the lady, which in fact depicts the Hospital of San Paolo where nuns can be seen going about their day.

Tirella of The Nun

The cover of the portrait contains the words, “SVA CVIQVE PERSONA,” meaning “to each his own mask.” This phrase was likely derived from Adagia, a collection of proverbs published by the well-known humanist Erasmus. The proverb “suum cuique mihi meum,” translated literally as “to each his own, and mine to me,” was usually cited to explain that people prefer whatever they view as their own, whether that be their own looks, country, family, etc. The ancient Roman orator Cicero was famously fond of the proverb, and it is from one of Cicero’s letters that Erasmus quotes in his Adagia:

Suam cuique sponsam, mihi meam:
I Suum cuique amorem, mihi meam 

To each his own bride, and mine to me:
To each his own love, and mine to me.

Here, “sua cuique persona,” underscores that the sitter is removed from the world, i.e. the portrait itself is a theatrical mask (persona) and her inner self is not shown to the public world. This proposition demonstrates that the art of portraiture has come full circle. Indeed, in ancient sculpture, Roman Emperors portrayed themselves as the “ideal” Roman. In other words, the portraits that they presented to the public were indeed a “mask.” Subsequently, Leonardo da Vinci revolutionized portraiture in the 15th century with his Lady with an Ermine, which art historian John Pope-Hennessay dubbed the “first modern portrait” because it was “the first painting in European art to introduce the idea that a portrait may express the sitter’s thoughts through posture and gestures.” Yet here, the viewers are once again confronted with a mask, the sitter showing only what she wants to be seen. In fact, the representation of a portrait as a mask was enshrined in Cesare Ripa’s emblem book Iconologia, first published in 1593, which depicted the allegory of painting as a gagged woman with a mask hanging from her neck. Significantly, Bugiardini’s commentary seems increasingly prescient today as personally curated social media becomes the new portraits of the day.

Cinquecento Rooms D7 and D8 at the Uffizi

As I noted in my previous post, the Uffizi opened 14 new rooms following its reopening after its COVID shut down. That post discussed the rooms known as D1 through D6. This post explores the next two rooms, D7 and D8.

D7 – Corridor of the Marbles

A unique room in the new space is called the Corridor of the Marbles. Instead of paintings, viewers are confronted with Roman reliefs dating from the 1st century AD. Most, if not all, of the reliefs are copies of earlier Greek works. For instance, the first relief in the hall is likely one of the dozens of replicas of a Greek relief that was produced in the late classical period (400-300 BC).

Roman Relief

Scholars have pieced together copies of what they believe to be the original Greek relief, and, based upon this Frankensteinian creation, they have determined that the hand on the left on this replica belongs to the Greek goddess Selene, the Greek personification of the moon. (Her Roman counterpart was known as Luna). Selene would drive her moon chariot, typically led by two horses or two bulls, across the sky, giving light to the mortals during the night.

The next relief is known as the “Nike Balustrade.” Here, two women led an ox to sacrifice while the women in front is holding a thymiaterion, i.e. an incense burner, likely part of the sacrificial ritual.

This Roman relief is a copy of a frieze, depicted below, that once decorated the Nike-Athena Temple in the Pantheon in Athens.

The next relief depicts dancing maenads (female followers of the Greek god Dionysus) and, like the others, is a Roman copy of a late 5th century BC Greek original.

Courtesy of Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There were more than 60 copies of the original work made, including the one pictured to the left of the Uffizi version, currently at the Louvre. Copies were typically commissioned or bought by wealthy Romans eager to demonstrate to their house guests that they were cultured and educated (and wealthy) enough to have Greek art in their homes. Obviously there were only so many of the Greek originals to go around so a booming industry developed that created copies for those who weren’t lucky enough to get ahold of an original. Thus, why we have so many Roman replicas today.

The women in the center holds Dionysus’ Thyrsus, a staff of giant fennel covered in ivy toped with a pine cone. It symbolized prosperity, fertility, and hedonism (all attributes of the god Dionysus). The first two women in the scene are carrying hunks of animals that have been physically torn apart, references to the The Bacchae, a tragedy written by the Greek playwright Euripides. In The Bacchae, the god Dionysus punishes the people of Thebes for failing to believe that he is the son of Zeus by putting the city’s women into a frenzied trance during which they perform atrocities. The Bacchae is considered by some scholars to be not only Euripides’ greatest tragedy, but the greatest tragedy ever written.

D8 – Correggio and Parmigianino

Francesco Mazzola, known as Parmigianino (“the little one from Parma”), trained in close contact with Correggio, and so their work is exhibited together in Room D8. Parmigianino tended to give primacy to art, not nature, and is therefore hailed as the leader of Emilian Mannerism. (Emilia is a region of northern Italy, roughly encompassing Ferrera, Ravenna, Bologna, and Parma). The departure from naturalism is demonstrated in his works held here at the Uffizi, including his Madonna di San Zaccaria (1531-1533), which prefigures his more famous Madonna of the Long Neck, which is also discussed below.

Parmigianino, Madonna di San Zaccaria

Parmigianino depicts John the Baptist holding the baby Jesus while John’s father, St. Zachariah, stares into the distance, perhaps contemplating the tragic – but necessary – fate of both young boys. (For those unfamiliar with Christian belief, John the Baptist was said to have been beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas, the Roman Tetrarch of Galilee). Mary Magdalene is pictured behind the boys, identifiable via her traditional attribute of a jar of ointment. In the background stands a ruined triumphal arch and column, demonstrating the fall of the paganism that gave rise to such structures. The column also could point to the Virgin’s incorruptibility, as it likely does in Parmigianino’s later work, the Madonna of the Long Neck (c. 1534-1539).

Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long Neck

Madonna of the Long Neck was commissioned by Elena Baiardi Tagliaferri for her private chapel in the convent church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Parma. Unfortunately, the work remains unfinished because Parmigianino died during its composition, as is evidenced by a foot without a body in the lower right corner as well as an unfinished angel’s head underneath Mary’s arm. Scholars believe that this figure was supposed to be a fellow saint (likely St. Francis) standing next to St. Jerome, who holds a scroll. The work was actually found in the artist’s studio after his death at the age of 37 in 1540. Due to its unfinished status, an inscription was added to the bottom step of the column, declaring “Adverse destiny prevented Francesco Mazzola from Parma from completing this work.” The name of the work clearly reflects Mary’s elongated neck, which mimics the ivory-colored column (likely prefiguring Christ’s death) behind her. It may also be an illusion to the Marian hymn Collum tuum ut columna (“Your neck is like a column”), which celebrated Mary’s incorruptibility. The Christ-child’s reflection in the urn on the right of the painting loosely resembles a cross, which also prefigures Christ’s death. In fact, to underscore this reference, Parmigianino painted Christ’s left arm to look as though it was dislocated, a clear reference to Michelangelo’s Pieta (located in St. Peter’s):

The other artist showcased in this room is Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio, after the city in which he was born. Along with Parmigianino, Correggio was at the forefront of the revival of Emilian painting and is known for his small devotional pictures, such as his Adoration of the Christ Child (1518 – 1520), located in this room.

Correggio, Adoration of the Christ Child

The subject of Mary’s adoration of her child had been popular in the 15th century with artists such as Filippo and Filippino Lippi, where the iconography had been cemented, but its popularity had lost some of its steam as artists explored subjects outside the realm of religion. Thus, Correggio looked to the older examples of Adorations for the visual references that should be included when depicting such a subject.

The iconography was inspired by St. Bridget of Sweden, a mystic who had religious visions, including one of baby Jesus’ birth:

[S]he gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. …

But yet, at once, I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness. His flesh was most clean of all filth and uncleanness. … And the Virgin’s womb, which before the birth had been very swollen, at once retracted; and her body then looked wonderfully beautiful and delicate.

When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: ”Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!” And then the boy, crying and, as it were, trembling from the cold and the hardness of the pavement where he lay, rolled a little and extended his limbs, seeking to find refreshment and his Mother’s favor.

St. Bridget’s Revelations

Cosimo II placed exhibited Correggio’s work in the Tribuna, where it stayed for quite some time. Indeed, it is prominently featured in Johan Zoffany’s Tribuna of the Uffizi, painted 1772–1778.

Johan Zoffany, Tribuna of the Uffizi

Correggio’s other work in this room, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1520), depicts the Holy family on their sojourn to Egypt to escape King Herod’s so-called Massacre of the Innocents, as told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2:

13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

15. And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.

King James Version, Matthew 2:13-16.
Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Correggio (courtesy of wikipedia commons)

The actual scene itself, however, is based on the apocryphal gospel of pseudo-Matthew, which is part of the New Testament apocrypha, a group of writings by early Christians that were once cited as scripture. Since the early 5th century, however, the Catholic Church has limited what it believes to be the divinely inspired works to the current 27 books of the New Testament. The apocryphal gospel of pseudo-Matthew narrates a story wherein Mary is resting under a date tree and asks her husband, St. Joseph, to pick some fruit. The fruit was too high for Joseph to reach, however, so he told Mary that they should look for water instead. Jesus then asked the branch to bend down, which it did, and a spring appeared at the tree’s roots. Correggio depicts the moment that Joseph offers Jesus some fruit from the bowed branch.

The Altarpiece was commissioned for the family chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Church of St. Francis in Correggio, the artist’s hometown and namesake, by jurist Francesco Munari, which perhaps explains the anachronistically inclusion of St. Francis (identifiable via his monk habit) kneeling on right. (The church for which it was destined was also a Franciscan church).

The palm tree marks central axis of work, and in fact the work was once known as Madonna of the Palm Tree, denoting the tree’s importance. The palm is a symbol of Mary’s perennial life, virginity, maternity because it never dries up, grows only in pure water, and provides shelter. She is likened to a palm in the Song of Songs (7, 8): “your stature is like that of a palm tree, and your breasts like its clusters of fruit.” Yet, the Palm is also a foretelling of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory over death. In fact, in Greco-Roman culture, from which the Catholic church borrowed heavily, the palm was associated with the Goddess Nike (depicted here holding a palm), the goddess of victory and triumph. In Egypt, moreover, the country in which this work is set, the palm was used in funeral processions to represent eternal life.

Cinquecento Rooms D1-D6

Since closing due to the COVID pandemic, the Uffizi reopened 14 new rooms, which show masterpieces that have not been displayed in quite some time. Here, I’m going to talk about the first seven.

D1 – Plautilla Nelli Corridor.

The new entry to the First Floor begins with the Plautilla Nelli Corridor, named after the first known female Florentine painter of the Renaissance. Nelli entered the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina di Siena when she was fourteen years old. The convent, like its brother institution, the San Marco Monastery, encouraged its initiates to paint devotional works to express their own piety and devote to God. Her Annunciation, which has never before been on permanent display, is above the new entrance.

File:Annunciation painted by Plautilla Nelli.jpg
Annunciation, Plautilla Nelli

Nelli keeps several of the conventional iconographies of the Annunciation: Gabriel holds a white lily, a symbol of Mary’s purity; Mary is interrupted while reading and is wearing her typical red and blue mantle; the white dove appears as the holy spirit; the pillar separates Gabriel from Mary, symbolizing the untouchable purity of the Virgin as well as prefiguring Christ’s flogging upon a pillar during his Passion. Yet for all this, Nelli’s Annunciation is unique in its life-like treatment of the figures’ expressions and attention to minute detail.

Living in the sister institution of San Marco, Nelli no doubt was familiar with the works of her predecessor artist, Fra Angelico, specifically, his depiction of Gabriel’s wings in his own Annunciation.

D2 – Andrea del Sarto

Gallery D2 is dedicated to the Florentine artist known as Andrea del Sarto, whose name is derived from his father’s profession as a tailor (sarto is Italian for tailor). Del Sarto was known for being an “artists without errors,” as well as for works that were highly balanced and very formalistic. Perhaps his most famous piece, Madonna of the Harpies (1517), was commissioned by the Sisters of San Francesco de’Macci.

File:Andrea del Sarto - Madonna of the Harpies - WGA00370.jpg

Del Sarto, however, disappointed his patrons by painting St. Francis instead of St. Bonaventure, as was contracted, to the left of the Virgin and Child. It is likely that he chose to do so because of St. Francis’ identification as the “angel of the Sixth Seal.” The Seals, for those who are uninitiated in the cult of the television series Supernatural, are referenced in the Book of Revelation and according to same, as long as the Seals remain sealed, they keep the apocalypse at bay. Chapter Five of the Book of Revelation reveals:

1. And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

2. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?

3. And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.

4. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.

5. And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.

6. And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

7. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.

8. And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.

9. And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;

10. And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.

11. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;

12. Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.

13. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.

14. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.  

(King James Version)  

Based on the belief that St. Francis was included as an illusion to the Sixth Seal, scholars have identified the pedestal as the well of Hell. In fact, figures on the base relief of the pedestal have been identified as locusts and allude to chapter nine of the Book of Revelations, believed at the time to have been written by St. John the Evangelist, although modern scholars now debate the authorship. (The work is known as Madonna of the Harpies due to an error by the artist/art historian Giorgio Vasari, who believed that the figures depicted in bas-relief were harpies). Chapter nine of the of Book of Revelations states:

1. And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.

2. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.

3. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

4. And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.

5. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.

6. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

7. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.

8. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.

9. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.

10. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.

Mary and the baby Jesus are depicted as “closing the mouth” of Hell and stand between the viewers and destruction. Indeed, the smoke referenced in Verse 2, above, appears floating past Mary’s left. On the other side of Mary stands St. John the Evangelist, perhaps writing those prophesies that appear in his Apocalypse.

Del Sarto’s formalism is demonstrated in the statuesque figures, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s depictions of the human form, as well as the use of the pyramid formation used so often by Raphael. Moreover, del Sarto used colors themselves to unify his paintings; as you can see the bluish tint in St. John’s robes is a reflection of Mary’s drapery while the orange and lavender of St. John is also reflected in Mary’s tunic.

The other painting here is Woman with the “Petrarchino” (c. 1528), which some scholars believe is a portrait of either del Sarto’s wife, Lucrezia, or Lucrezia’s daughter from a previous marriage, Maria del Berrettaino. Regardless, the woman is pointing to the verses of two love sonnets written by Petrarch: “Go, Warm sighs, to the cold heart” and “The stars, the sky and the elements complete.”

D3 – Francesco Granacci – Alonso Berruguete

In this room is Francesco Granacci’s Entry of Charles VIII (1518).

Entry of Charles VIII, Granacci

This piece depicts the moment King Charles VIII of France entered Florence on November 17, 1494 after invading Italy in September of that year to claim the crown of Naples.

Also in this room is Alonso Berruguete’s Salome (1514), one of only a handful of known paintings from Berruguete’s sojourn in Italy. (Berruguete was Spanish). As its name implies, the work depicts Salome, the step-daughter of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who was infamously involved in Christ’s execution, as well as that of John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Mark, Salome requested that her step-father present her with the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Berruguete depicts Salome barely holding onto the silver platter with the saint’s dead. The beginnings of the artistic movement known as mannerism can be detected in Salome’s elongated fingers and idealized pose as well as the comparatively large size of the saint’s head. Mannerism was typified by exaggerated and complicated postures; it emphasized art over beauty.

D4 – Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino

Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, known as Rosso Fiorentino (the “red Florentine” on account of his hair), and Pontormo were both students of Andrea del Sarto, and they embraced his mannerist style. They are nicknamed the “different twins” because both discarded the teachings of the classical Renaissance, yet in different ways.

Rosso’s Madonna dello Spedalingo (Madonna with Child and Saints) (1518) is most famous for its reception, not its artistic value. In fact, the patron who commissioned this work, Leonardo Buonafé, the rector of the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital (the “Spedalingo”), actually refused the work when it was presented to him. Buonafé claimed that the saints looked like “devils.” Eventually, he was persuaded to pay 16 of the originally promised 25 florins for the piece.

File:Fiorentino Rosso, Madonna with Four Saints.jpg

Although “devilish,” the saints are still identifiable via their conventional attributes: St. John the Baptist wears an animal skin underneath his robes, St. Anthony is depicted in his habit, St. Stephen has a stone on his head, and St. Jerome holds his writings.

Rosso’s Musical Cherub (1521), on the other hand, demonstrates a sweetness to the artist’s style. This piece is probably a fragment of an altarpiece. In fact, reflectographic studies have shown that the black background covers what appears to be a step and part of a building.

Image
Courtesy of @UffiziGalleries Twitter Page

Rosso’s “different twin,” Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, was highly influenced by German artist Albrecht Dürer, as indicated in his The Supper at Emmaus (1525), which was commissioned for the guest-room of the Charter House in Galluzzo.

To create depth in his own work, Pontormo shifts two of the figures of Durer’s print to the front of the table. Another major change is the removal of the roasted lamb from the table, which was likely done to allude to the frugal meals enjoyed at the monastery.

The work depicts the moment after his Cruxifixction when Jesus’ disciplines recognize him as he breaks bread and says a blessing over it as told in the Gospel of Luke.

13. And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.

14. And they talked together of all these things which had happened.

15. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.

16. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

17. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?

18. And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?

19. And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people:

20. And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him.

21. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done.

22. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre;

23. And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive.

24. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

25. Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:

26. Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

27. And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

28. And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.

29. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.

30. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

31. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

(King James Version)
Supper at Emmaus

The monochromatic monks depicted in the back sharply contrast with the saints and their colorful robes. The prior (the head monk) of the Charter House for which this painting was commissioned, Leonardo Buonafede, is included as monk within the work; he is the withered monk standing on Christ’s right-hand side.

File:Anonymous Cusco School - Trifacial Trinity - Google Art Project.jpg

The (admittedly creepy) floating eye within a pyramid at the top is a symbol of God the Father within the trinity triangle. It was actually the result of a posthumous cover-up of a three-sided face meant to symbolize the Holy Trinity (known as the Trifacial Trinity or tricephalous trinity), which had been banned by Pope Urban VIII in 1628.

Pontormo’s Adam and Eve (c. 1519) as well as his Ten Thousand Martyrs (c. 1529) are also located in this room. The Ten Thousand Martyrs depicts the infrequently explored subject of the legend of St. Achatius.

Pontormo, The Ten Thousand Martyrs

The legend’s first known reference is in the Catalogus Sanctorum of Petrus de Natalibus, written around 1370-1400. The legend told of a Roman commander, St. Achatius, who was dispatched with nine thousand Roman soldiers against a rebel host that vastly outnumbered them. The night before the battle, an angel appeared to Achatius and his men, telling them if they were to convert to Christianity, then they would defeat the rebel host. The Roman soldiers took the message to heart and converted to the new faith, and thereafter defeating the host the next day. The Roman Emperor, however, later hears about the conversion and leads an army against Achatius and his now Christian army. Although no battle occurs, the Achatius’ men refuse to recant their new faith so the Emperor determines he will torture them. Yet, he cannot. Stones bounce off the men without doing any harm; the whips that were meant to flog them are dashed to the ground. Seeing these miracles, one of the emperor’s other commanders, Theodorus, switches sides and joins Achatius, bringing with him a thousand of his own men, bolstering the Christian army to ten thousand men. The Christians are then crowned with thorns, in mockery of Christ’s own passion, and baptized in their own blood before being led to Mt. Ararat and crucified.

Pontormo’s scene is a synthesis of the two most famous battle scenes known to Renaissance artists: Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, neither of which were actually completed.

D5 – Sebastiano del Piombo and the Influence of Michelangelo in Rome

Sebastiano del Piombo worked in close contact with Michelangelo, who went as far as securing patrons and commissions for him. His name is derived from his position as keeper of the Papal Seals, which were made of lead (“piombo” in Italian is translated as lead). Del Piombo’s Death of Adonis (c. 1515) was commissioned by Agostino Chigi, a wealthy papal banker. It was damaged in the 1993 bombing of the Uffizi, but its immediate restoration was a symbol of the Uffizi’s own rebirth after the bombing.

Death of Adonis

The work depicts the moment that Adonis, a figure from Greek mythology and a favorite of the Greek goddess Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology), dies from his wounds inflicted by a boar, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

The youth, in fear of his own life, runs hard,
but he is caught: the boar sinks his long tusks
into Adonis’ groin; he fells him—and
the boy lies prone along the yellow sands.
 
On her light chariot, Venus, who was drawn
across the middle air by her winged swans,
had not reached Cyprus yet; she heard, far off,
the dying boy—his moans. She turned around
her white swans and rode back. When, from the heights,
she saw him lifeless there, a bleeding corpse,
she leaped down to the ground. And Venus tore
her hair, and—much unlike a goddess—beat
her hands against her breast. She challenged fate:
‘But destiny does not rule all. Adonis,
your memory will live eternally:
each year they will repeat this final scene—
your day of death, my day of grief, will be
enacted in a feast that bears your name.

“The Metamorphoses of Ovid.” Trans. Allen Mandelbaum.

In the work, Venus (the central figure) is shown distressed, in the posture inspired by the Hellenistic bronze Lo Spinario (now located in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome). While the background depicts Venice (identified with Venus).

Also in this room is Giulio Romano’s Virgin and Child (c. 1520-1530).

Giulio was born in Rome (hence, Romano) and worked under the tutelage of Raphael, whose stylistic influence can be discerned in the tenderness Romano treats his Madonna.

Next to Giulio Romano’s Virgin and Child is Perin del Vaga’s rendition of the same theme. Perin del Vaga worked alongside Giulio Romano in Raphael’s workshop, and the similarities of their styles are immediately apparent.

Perin del Vaga, Virgin and Child

Another artist showcased in this room is Battista Franco, known as Il Semolei). His work, Battle of Montemurlo (1537-1541) depicts its eponymous battle fought between exiled Florentines under command of Filippo Strozzi and the supporters of Cosimo de’Medici led by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s commander Alessandro Vitelli August of 1537. Two months after this battle, the Emperor bestowed on Cosimo his ducal title. The battle marked the end of the illusion that the Medici family worked within Florence’s Republican government to rule. Now, the Medici no longer hid their power behind the facade of Republican institutions, demonstrating to the city’s elite that the Medici no longer needed their support either.

In a glass case separating this room from the next is Allori Alessandro’s Allegory of Human Life.

D6 – Daniele da Volterra and Francesco Salviati

Daniele Ricciarelli, known as Daniele da Volterra, painted The Prophet Elias between 1543 and 1547.

The Prophet Elias

The work was highly influenced by Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, as evidenced in the Prophet’s musculature. The scene depicts the moment where ravens bring bread to the Prophet Elias (Elijah), as recounted in Kings Chapter 17 in the King James Version of the Bible:

3. Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.

4. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.

5. So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan.

6. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. 

(King James Version)

This moment prefigures the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Also here is Volterra’s Massacre of the Innocents.

Francesco Salviati’s work is also displayed in this room, including Charity (1545), which Salviati painted during a stay in Florence while he was working on public works for the city.

Detail of Charity

Salviati’s composition, especially of the figures, was informed by Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo.

Charity, as the key cardinal virtue, was a common theme depicted in Renaissance art, typically through the motif of a breast-feeding mother. The contemporary 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.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Charity’s common attributes is a flame, demonstrating God’s love. Salviati grapples with how love is expressed in his Charity, depicting his figures with an air of sensuality not seen in earlier variations on the theme. Compare Salviati’s work with the earlier Charity painted by Piero del Pollaiuolo in c. 1469.

Confluence of the Greats: Raphael, Michelangelo, and Fra Bartolomeo. Room 38

Room 38 is intended to celebrate the fortuitous moment where three of the greatest artists of the age converged together in Florence. When the present configuration of Room 38 was unveiled in 2018, Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt stated, “the new installation replaces the display of isolated masterpieces side by side with the principle of dialogue among works, artists and their patrons, urging visitors to discover and to explore the artistic interaction among the great masters of the past. That is why a third figure has entered the scene, a painter whom dialogue with Raphael has restored to his proper place as a major artist in his own right. Fra Bartolomeo (1473–1517) was a Dominican friar in San Marco and a very close friend of Raphael with whom, from the moment the latter arrived in Florence in 1504, he forged an intense and extremely fruitful relationship that visitors will now be able to explore further through the paintings on display.”

The centerpiece of Room 38 is clearly Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Doni Tondo (c. 1506-1508), to which an entire wall is dedicated. It is the only known finished panel painting done by Michelangelo and is considered by some art scholars to be the most important work created in the 16th century.

Based on the timing of the work, scholars believe that it was commissioned by the Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni to celebrate either his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi or the birth of the couple’s daughter Maria. Doni is the only patron aside from the Pope to obtain works by both Michelangelo and Raphael. (Doni’s commission from Raphael, discussed below, also appears in Room 38).

Michelangelo began work on the Doni Tondo after the unearthing of the celebrated Greek sculpture known as the Laocoön in January 1506 (now displayed in the Vatican Museums).

Laocoön and His Sons

The influence this statue had on Michelangelo’s style cannot be overstated. After Michelangelo saw Laocoön and His Sons, the body-heroic permeated throughout his works, including the Doni Tondo. For instance, compare the pose of the nude behind the Holy Family in Michelangelo’s Tondo with the son to Laocoön’s right:

The influence can also be deduced in the posture of the Holy Family itself, which wraps around itself in an eerily serpentine manner reminiscent of the Laocoön. Moreover, the Holy Family is depicted as though they themselves were Greek statues, which, at this time, was highly unorthodox. (I would be remiss if I did not mention that Michelangelo hated painting as an art form and believed himself to be a student of the – in his opinion – higher art of sculpture. In fact, Leonardo famously criticized Michelangelo’s painting, stating, “You should not make all the muscles of the body too conspicuous … otherwise you will produce a sack of walnuts [un sacco di noce] rather than a human figure.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017)).

Doni Tondo

Michelangelo takes his unorthodox depiction of the Holy Family even further by: omitting their typical halos from the picture; allowing Joseph, as opposed to Mary, to hold baby Jesus; and discarding the traditional contemplative, diminutive pose in favor of a dynamic scene, i.e. a story that has been captured in motion. Indeed, Michelangelo is playing with traditional themes and tropes, but twisting – both literally and figuratively – them into his own unconventional style.

Although much debate has occurred over the purpose of the nudes in the background of the Doni Tondo, the general scholarly consensus is that they represent the pagan ages, when men were naked in their ignorance. With the nudes behind the wall is a small boy who can be identified as St. John the Baptist based on his dress. (St. John is typically depicted dressed in furs, symbolizing his sojourn into the wild). St. John is known as the Harbinger of Christ, and therefore, because he was born into the pagan world (before Christ), he remains behind the wall. Another interpretation that has been put forward is that the ignudi are disrobing in order to be baptized, which also would explain John the Baptist’s presence, although not his depiction as a small child. Finally, I would like to note that the frame of the Tondo was likely designed by Michelangelo himself. It depicts Jesus and the four evangelists.

In addition to the Doni Tondo, Agnolo Doni also commissioned portraits of himself and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi Doni. These portraits, however, were commissioned from Raphael, who was working in Florence at the same time as Michelangelo. (In fact, Michelangelo felt an intense rivalry with Raphael, who he saw as the new “up and comer.”)

Raphael’s early work, like these portraits, owes much to Leonardo da Vinci. You can see Leonardo’s influence in the posture of the sitters, the setting of the portraits, as well as the depiction of the subject’s psychological state through his/her movements.

Raphael mimics Leonardo’s treatment of his sitter’s hands, using the hands to tell the story. Indeed, Maddalena’s hands are decked out in jewels, demonstrating her wealth and social status. Moreover, Raphael depicts his sitters at half-length in front of a balustrade and against a landscape, just as Leonardo places Mona Lisa. Rather than adopt Leonardo’s style in toto, however, Raphael departs from Leonardo’s teachings to enhance the brilliance of his patron’s jewels. He achieves his effect by eschewing Leonardo’s techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumatura. The jewels depicted on both of these portraits convey separate meanings, which would have been well recognized by contemporaries. For instance, rubies alluded to vitality; sapphires to wealth; pearls to purity; emeralds to fertility. The emerald jewel is actually set in a unicorn, which alluded to chastity. Thus, by placing the emerald in the belly of unicorn, Raphael symbolized that Maddalena, as a chaste and faithful wife, will provide her husband with a legitimate heir.

The portraits were once a diptych, and thus each has a drawing on its reverse side. Both drawings are based on episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem that proved popular among the so-called Renaissance men. The episode depicted on the reserve of Agnolo’s Portrait is known as “The Flood,” which tells the story of Jove’s destruction of most of humankind via a flood (very similar to the Judeo-Christian story of Noah). This episode corresponds to the one depicted on the reserve of Maddalena’s portrait, which tells the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who is allowed to survive the flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha, who were unable to have children, were allowed to survive the Flood by the Gods, and then they restored life to humanity. These episodes are believed to be the work of Raphael’s colleague, whose identity remains unknown.

Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch (Madonna del Cardelino), painted in 1506, also shows traces of Leonardo’s influence, whose own depictions of the Madonna and Child were typified by their simple yet intimate settings. This work was allegedly a wedding gift for Raphael’s friend, a merchant named Lorenzo Nasi. It is known as the Madonna of the Goldfinch because the scene depicts the Christ Child stroking a goldfinch, a symbol of his passion. According to legend, while Christ was carrying the cross upon which he was to be crucified, a goldfinch plucked a thorn from Christ’s head, splashing Christ’s blood on its chest, and from that time onwards, goldfinches have had red spots on their chest to commemorate the Goldfinch’s mercy. Interestingly, goldfinches have since ancient times been used to depict a person’s soul, which many ancient peoples believed would fly away after death.

Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch (middle)

Like Leonardo’s Madonnas, Raphael’s Virgin does not sit atop a throne as was typical up until this time, but atop a rock, creating the conceit that nature is her throne. Through this allusion, Raphael makes the radical statement that divinity is in nature and surrounds us all. Like in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, the viewer is meant to recognize St. John the Baptist based on his fur loincloth while the Christ child is depicted naked, emphasizing his human nature. St. John, Christ, and the Virgin are grouped together in a pyramid, as though they are one form, yet each figure retains his/her individuality and purpose (St. John as the Harbinger, Christ as the Savior, and Mary as the Mother). Raphael pirated this formula from Leonardo, who likewise depicted the Holy Family as separate pieces of a single unit, creating depth and balance within the work.

Raphael also chose to depict Jesus contrapposto, a posture that a child would never naturally take, thereby alerting the viewers of his innate wisdom. In the past, artists would indicate Christ’s wisdom by depicting the infant as a small man, as the Maestro del Bigallo did in his Madonna Enthroned, supra.

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, Maestro del Bigallo.

Fra Bartolommeo is the final of the three artists showcased in Room 38. As his title implies, Fra Bartolommeo was a Dominican Friar and lived and worked in the monastery of San Marco, in the manner of his direct predecessor Fra Angelico. Like many other Florentines of his time, Fra Bartolommeo was capitative Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand preacher who took Florence by storm and gained enough power and influence to send Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, into exile. Fra Savonarola had such a hold on Fra Bartolommeo that Bartolommeo retired from painting for a time based on Savonarola’s teachings against much of the artistic world. Yet, to many’s surprise, Bartolommeo once again took up the brush six years after Savonarola’s execution to paint The Vision of St. Bernard (c. 1504), which Bernardo del Bianco commissioned for the Bianco Chapel in the Badia Fiorentina.

Vision of St. Bernard, Fra Bartolommeo

The scene depicts the moment recalled by St. Bernard, who was too weak to perform a homily when the Virgin appeared and gave him the strength to write it. Behind St. Bernard stand Saints Barnabas and Benedict, whose presence is likely due to St. Bernard’s adherence to the Benedictine Rule.

Like Raphael, Fra Bartolommeo was clearly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci. Each of the figures interact with one another and respond through their expressions and hand gestures, thereby conveying to the viewer their inner emotions. Fra Bartolommeo has also employed Leonardo’s techniques of sfumato (the blurring of contours and edges of figures because the eye does not see hard lines when it processes the real world) and contrapposto. Absorbing Leonardo’s innovative style, Fra Bartolommeo added his own radical take on painting religious scenes as regards his portrayal of the Virgin Mary. Prior to this work, the Virgin Mary was typically portrayed as a passive figure that was usually seated, whether that be enthroned as before the High Renaissance or seated in nature as Leonardo and Raphael chose to place her, and disinterested. Here, however, Fra Bartolommeo depicts the Virgin as an active participant in the scene. This change may be explained by the theory of the Immaculate Conception, which was gaining traction at this time due to the Church synods at the Councils of Basel and Trent. A common misconception is that the Immaculate Conception related to Mary’s conception of Christ via the Holy Spirit, but it actually is a reference to St. Anne’s conception of Mary, who, according to the Immaculate Conception doctrine, was without sin since the moment of her conception and was therefore a worthy vessel for Christ. (Although starting to be generally accepted at this time, the doctrine did not become official church doctrine until Pope Pius IX issued the bull known as the Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854).

Green Rooms. Rooms 33 and 34 of the Uffizi.

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.

Processional Scene From Ara Pacis

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).

Ara Pacis Augustae

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.

Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone

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).

Detail of the Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone

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).

Detail of Sarcophagus Depicting the Labours of Hercules

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).

Rooms 16, 17, and 18 of the Uffizi

Room 16. Hall of Geographic Maps

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.

Santucci’s Armillary Sphere (the original, located in the Galileo Museum)

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).

Sleeping Hermaphrodite

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.

The Mathematics Room

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 Tribune, Uffizi

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, Uffizi

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.

Compare The Tribune to The Medici Chapel (also designed by Buontalenti)

The star of the Tribune is undoubtedly the statue known as the Medici Venus (Cleomenes, son of Apollodorus), which entered the Tribune in 1677.

Medici Venus

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.

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.

Image
Detail of the Portinari Altarpiece,, Courtesy of @UffiziGalleries Twitter Page

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 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.

Madonna della loggia, Botticelli

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.

Painting in museum Uffizi, Florence

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 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.