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The Dark Side of Art: Botticelli, Lorenzo and Savonarola

This article was published in November, 2006 under the following title:

Botticelli: From the Birth of Venus to a Bonfire of the Vanities

The Birth of Venus, Sandro BotticelliMost of the Western world is familiar with the image of Venus as she rises from the sea on a clamshell in the famous Italian Renaissance painting by Sandro Botticelli. With its lyrical, graceful beauty, the work we know so well is properly named The Birth of Venus and sometimes affectionately known in contemporary culture as 'Venus on the Half Shell.' Botticelli's mythological work continues to inspire contemporary art, literature, film, and a myriad of other things.

Botticelli's Venus and its sister painting, Primavera, were commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierofrancesco de' Medici  for his villa in Castello in 1485. More probable though is that the paintings were commissioned by Lorenzo for his teenaged sons, Piero and Giovanni.

After the death of his father, Lorenzo de' Medici now twenty years old;with his brother Giuliano assumed power in Florence in 1469. Giuliano died in 1478, but Lorenzo went on to become known to posterity as 'Il Magnifico' or 'The Magnificent' during the twenty-three years that he ruled Florence. Lorenzo's patronage of Botticelli continued where his father's left off.

Despite Lorenzo's magnanimous patronage, however, Botticelli's bright star was soon to fade. As the High Renaissance was ushered in at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Botticelli had already fallen into disfavor, at times barely surviving on the brink of starvation. Highly successful at the height of his career, Botticelli's life ended with more of a whimper than a bang, as he died in quite a tragic manner in relative obscurity.

How did the high fall so low? Botticelli fell under the spell of a Dominican monk, a fanatical, religious reformer named Girolamo Savonarola, and one of the primary targets of Savonarola's sermons was Lorenzo the Magnificent himself. Lorenzo de' Medici was the de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, although officially it was ruled by the Signoria, a council comprised of qualified guild members.

Lorenzo was a consummate diplomat and politician who surrounded himself with men of excellence and learning, poets, humanist scholars, and artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo. The lifestyle of Lorenzo the Magnificent with his elite gatherings made him a large target for Savonarola.

Medieval and Early Renaissance authorities in Europe had passed a number of laws designed to curb the ostentatious display of the aristocracy. No where was this more evident than in Italy with its wealthy merchant class. Medicean money and thus patronage stemmed from the family banking business, and Lorenzo, like his predecessors, used his money to enjoy life.

Lorenzo was generous, lavishing money and gifts on both friends and the clergy. He was a man equally at ease writing hymns and licentious poetry. From his artists, he commissioned both altarpieces and pagan-inspired nudes.

It was a time of turmoil, both political and religious, so Lorenzo provided elaborate entertainments for the masses. It has been suggested that such activities were perhaps intended to divert attention from Lorenzo's own extravagant lifestyle. Pageants and festivals were a favorite Florentine custom, and Lorenzo wrote poems to be sung during the festivities extolling the pursuit of pleasure and encouraging female promiscuity. One such vocal performance penned by Lorenzo was delivered to the people in front of the cathedral during his pageant 'The Triumph of Bacchus.'

Florence prospered economically under Lorenzo's rule and his political machinations provided a peaceful interlude from war during his reign for most of the Italian city-states. It appears that Lorenzo was a benevolent tyrant, but there was still the issue of Savonarola with which to deal, a thorn in his side, no doubt, but in truth, one which hindered his lifestyle very little.

Savonarola developed quite a following in Florence preaching fire and brimstone against the immorality of the people, the general corruption of the Catholic Church and wealthy aristocrats, Lorenzo de' Medici in particular. His sermons played to packed audiences from the pulpit of San Marco itself, a Medici-sponsored church. Botticelli was summoned to Rome in 1481 to work on three Sistine Chapel frescoes for Pope Sixtus IV. When Botticelli returned to Florence in 1485, he attended the sermons of Savonarola. Michelangelo read them as well through the new invention of mass publication with the printing press. Savonarola had a profound affect on both artists as evidenced in the religious content of their art works.

Botticelli turned his mind back to religious themes, but his Medicean patronage dried up with the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492. Surprisingly, it was Savonarola from whom Lorenzo sought absolution for his sins in his final hours. Two years after Lorenzo's death, the Medici family was expelled from Florence. The Medici palace was sacked and countless valuable items and works of fine art were stolen.

Savonarola was summoned to Rome in 1495 by the pope to defend his religious preaching, but he unwisely declined the pope's invitation. Times were hard for Botticelli at this time, but caught up in his religious fervor, he followed the lead of Savonarola who organized what has come to be known to history as 'The Bonfire of the Vanities.' Prior to the festival at the Lenten season in 1497, Savonarola ordered his followers to gather up 'vanities' going from house to house.

These vanities were objects Savonarola deemed immoral, such as costumes, masks, wigs, amorous songs, festival paraphernalia, musical instruments, cosmetics, and many others things. On the last day of Carnival, he ordered the 'vanities' to be stacked on top of a great pile of incendiary material and set afire. Tossed on the bonfire were also precious manuscripts and works of art. Botticelli willingly participated in the bonfire, consigning many of his own paintings to the flames.

A year later in 1498, Savonarola suffered a fate similar to the vanities he so proudly immolated. He was officially excommunicated, arrested, tortured, hanged, then burned at the stake for heresy, having offended the Florentines and the pope one too many times. Devastated by the loss of his spiritual leader, Botticelli ceased to paint after 1500 and lived in poverty until his death in 1510. Botticelli was sustained in his final years by the charity of the Medici who were then back in Florence waiting to resume the reins of power which happened in 1512.

Botticelli's final work of 1500 is The Nativity, now in The National Gallery in London. Much to the delight of the art world, an interest in the life and work of Sandro Botticelli was resurrected in the 19th century by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. This was a British group of Victorian painters who rejected the High Renaissance, reverting to a hard-edged style evidenced in the works of Early Renaissance artists like Botticelli. If not for their efforts, the works of Botticelli might have forever remained obscure. Because of them, Botticelli and his Venus have once again risen from beneath the waves to the prominent place they so richly deserve in the world of art.

Brenda Harness, Art Historian


Brenda Harness is a practicing artist, art historian, and former university teacher writing about a variety of topics pertaining to art and art history. Visit her at Fine Art Touch.

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