Saturday, April 21, 2018



One Botticelli painting that may be overlooked when visiting the Uffizi Gallery was made for a minor church in Florence, San Barnaba, in 1488.

Easy to imagine it lighting up this space, his altarpiece of a Madonna and Child Enthroned with Four Angels and Six Saints. The painting is not just full of color, it is astonishlingly compact! Twelve figures with attributes and symbols of the Passion within an altarpiece fashioned for this small altar in this small church in Florence on the corner of Via Guelfa and Via Panicale. Commissioned by the Guild for Doctors and Apothecaries (and also painters) (Arte dei Medici e Speziali,) the altarpiece is a magnificent performance by Botticelli to show what he did best:  graceful, elegant figures in a sacred conversation with harmonious symmetry and bright colors! Was he showing off for his fellow Guild members, the other painters and artists who would have belonged to the Guild and attended services in this church? His use of contrasting greens and reds certainly reflects well, literally, on the pigments the Guild was responsible for grinding as part of its industry.  Before examining the themes at work, however, let us first identify all the figures.

St. Catherine - She was tortured on a spiked wheel which you see as her attribute right behind her.

Saint Augustine - writing in a book, presumably his Confessions, with a quill pen. He wears a bishop's mitre and cope since he was Bishop of Hippo in North Africa.

Next St. Barnabas, the name saint of the church. Who on earth is Saint Barnabas? and why is a church built to him in the city of Florence? Saint Barnabas was a Jew from Cyprus who converted to Christianity and then joined St. Paul in spreading the Christian message in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea in the first century A.D. But he shows up in this altarpiece in a church named for him not in order to celebrate his martyrdom or his beneficial works, but because the Florentine Guelf Party won a victory over the Florentine Ghibellines in Camaldoli on St. Barnabas' FEAST DAY, June 11, 1289.

He is the saint whose intercession was believed to have caused the victory, so he is important enough, then, to be placed to the right of the Madonna. He is shown here with a long, dark beard and appears next to her with a book for his writings and an olive branch to symbolize the ensuing peace between the parties after the victory. But he is really only there because he is the patron saint of the church built for a battle won on his saint's day, no other connection. He doesn't even look at the Enthroned Child, he turns to regard Saint Augustine writing his Confessions, and perhaps surreptitiously, St. Catherine.
And he gives a back-handed (left handed) blessing to anyone in general, pointing to the Child for the sake of the spectator.
ON THE RIGHT from the viewer's perspective:
St. John the Baptist - he wears animal skins and red mantle and holds a cross staff, but he is there because the altarpiece was made for a Florentine church and he is the patron saint of Florence:
With his right hand he gestures towards an inscription at the base of the Madonna's throne which we will mention later.

Next to him is another Bishop who holds a heart, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, whose heart was ripped
from his body after martyrdom:

Then comes an armored saint, presumably St. Michael, with wings, since he was an archangel. He
holds a very thin-blade sword in one hand, an orb with an image of the countries around the Mediterranean in the other.

What a glorious young soldier, defender of the world is he!

We understand why Barnabas and John are chosen for the painting but what about the others? The
Madonna is there because she was the protector of the Guild and they dedicated themselves to her.
But the four other saints and the four angels? Often the saints will stand in for the names of specific patrons, Catherine for the Abbess of a nunnery, for instance, associated with the church, Augustine, Ignatius, and Michael for the names of  prominent members of the Guild, but I do not know for this
Two next to the Madonna hold, on the left, a crown of thorns of the type worn by Christ when he was mocked in Pilate's court, on the right, nails with arrow-pointed heads to remind us of the nailing of
Christ to the cross. (In reality he was probably roped to the cross, but in the 15th-century they believed he was nailed.)

The other two angels pull back the ermine-lined curtain (ermine being the most expensive fur so worthy of a holy throne) to reveal the Madonna and Child and the shell-shape niche above them, with roundels of the Annunciation in bas-relief to either side of the shell.

The viewer has a joyful sense here of a young child with his mother at the beginning of his life,
with the Annunciation story above, and a sense that he is royalty, hence the ermine curtain. In sharp contrast with that joy are the angels with the symbols associated with Christ's death and make the viewer think about the ALPHA and OMEGA we so often see juxtaposed in Christian images from this period, the beginning and the end of his life.
         Two other elements in the painting contribute to the meditation on death that underlies this
joyous altarpiece. The inscription in Italian written on the step of the Madonna's throne
 is a description of Mary found in Dante's Paradiso in his Divine Comedy, Chapter 33, line 1:
          VERGINE MADRE                               in English:     Virgin Mother
          FIGLIA DEL TUO FIGLIO                                         Daughter of your Son
These lines from Dante underscore the paradox of the Mother of Christ who was the protector
of the Guild and to whom the Guild members were dedicated: Mary was a virgin and yet became
pregnant by God and had Jesus as a child. Because Jesus is also God, Mary, being the daughter of God, is also the daughter of her own Son. The mystery of the Virgin Birth as well as the mystery of Christ being the Son of God and also God are both included in these Italian phrases. What makes the words even more poignant in the setting is that Dante himself was a member of the Guild of the Medici and Speziali, so Botticelli is just painting into the throne of the Madonna and Child familiar concepts known to the Guild members because one of their previous alumni had written them.
Secrets known to the ones who know, the ones who attended church in that place, but also now
known to all who see the painting in the Uffizi.
         While most of the altarpiece radiates the lively joy of textures and touch, the underlying message "BEWARE the FUTURE" hangs over it all. Girolamo Savonarola had come to Florence twice by the time this altarpiece was painted, but his "doom and gloom" preaching began in earnest when he arrived back in the city in 1490 at the Church of San Marco, right down the street from the
Church of San Barnaba.
The peril to come is emphasized in the predella panels made for the bottom section of the altarpiece.
When complete, each saint would have had a panel below with a miniature scene depicting an episode from his/her life.

Only four of these are extant, the rest are lost:
Under St. Augustine the story is from the Golden Legend where Augustine is walking on a beach thinking about the concept of the Trinity (3-godheads in one - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and he comes upon a young boy who, with a shell,  is scooping water from the ocean into a hole he has dug with a spoon. When Augustine points out to him the futility of trying to fill his hole with the the vast ocean, the boy replies, "Just as futile it is to think we can ever comprehend the deep mystery of the Trinity."
Under Jesus is a predella image of Christ after death with eyes closed and his wounds on display; on the tomb we see the nails and crown of thorns, but the Resurrection is intimated by the new plants springing from the tomb:
Under John the Baptist the image is of Salome carrying the platter with the head of the saint on it; she seems to be rushing to the right as if to bring a piece of meat to be carved at table:

And, under St. Ignatius, the predella shows two men examining Ignatius' heart after his death - legend had it that, after he died, they cut open his heart and found Christ's name written in gold letters on it.

The deaths of Christ, Ignatius, and John the Baptist are what figure in the predella panels that have
remained. The Augustine predella is about contemplation and part of his contemplation is about death. As viewers the predella panels remind us of our own mortality but also of the suffering that Christ, John the Baptist, and Ignatius endured for their deep faith. Would the predella panels under Catherine, Barnabas, and Michael have represented similar themes of suffering, martyrdom, and death? We can only hope they turn up some day so we can tell.

But the overriding sense of this altarpiece is that if you suffer for your faith, the Madonna and Child will be revealed to you. Catherine looks up at the nails because she knows that kind of sharp torture.

Augustine writes down his thoughts of the problems of the life of the flesh.
Barnabas points to the Christ Child as the only way he has found peace,
Ignatius knows the suffering written on his heart. And Michael will judge everyone's soul after death; he is the weigher of souls in the afterlife, and here he holds the orb of the known world as a way of suggesting that every human being will be judged to determine where they will reside in the world to come.

Only John the Baptist is showing the suffering on his face, with mouth open as if to gasp and eyes narrowing from pain, but he, too, points to the inscription
in which Dante tried to describe the great Christian mystery of faith.

All the saints know that life is not easy, but they insist in this nativity play with the beauty of their bodies and serious glances that the innocent child who is revealed by the angels helped them find a way to survive. Botticelli wants that beauty for himself, for his Guild, and for the viewers he knows will come after his own death.

Sunday, April 15, 2018



This portrait of Ginevra de' Benci in the National Gallery in Washington was painted by Leonardo da Vinci probably in 1474, the year in which Ginevra was married to Luigi Niccolini, 32, a Florentine merchant who was a widower. According to Alessandro Cecchi, Leonardo was a friend of Ginevra's brother, Giovanni, and Giovanni may have recommended him as the artist to do the portrait. (See the excellent catalogue essay in Leonardo Master Craftsman, Yale University Press, 2003.)

Ginevra is identified as Ginevra in the painting by a plant on the front and back of the portrait, the GINEPRO plant, the plant of the Juniper Tree, whose name resembles hers.
On the front of the portrait the Juniper plant encircles her head:

On the back side of the portrait the juniper plant is encircled, embraced itself by two other plants: a palm leaf and a laurel branch:
(The red seal in the upper right corner of this view is a 1773 stamp of a royal collection in Lichtenstein and should be ignored for our purposes.) Original to the Leonardo portrait is the scroll with a Latin inscription that entwines all three plant forms. It reads:  VIRTUTEM FORMA DECORAT and means literally FORM DECORATES VIRTUE, or as some scholars would interpret it, BEAUTY DECORATES VIRTUE. The letters of FORMA are the ones that are closest to and the ones that are winding around the juniper branch, enjoining the viewer to associate the woman GINEVRA with BEAUTIFUL and BELOVED FORM. The palm frond and the laurel both protect and enshrine the juniper plant, as if revering it.

Several oddities stand out about this portrait:
1) It is a 3/4 view portrait in a period when profile and frontal portraits were the norm. In fact, it may be the VERY FIRST 3/4 view Italian Renaissance female portrait, 1474 being much before Mona Lisa's in 1503.
2)The portrait, as well as the back painting of the plants and Latin inscription, have both been cut down from a longer size that might have included the hands and arms of the woman and the ends of the sprigs of the plants. (more on this point later)
3) The woman in question, Ginevra de' Benci, daughter of a wealthy Florentine banking family,
is so very sad in this portrait. Other female portraits from this period are serious but not sad. She seems doubly sad if you think of this as a wedding portrait.

4) The last curious thing about this portrait is that the plants surrounding the juniper sprig on the back of the painting are not the plants associated with her husband but rather are plants that symbolize
honor and virtue (Laurel and Palm) and are the plants of the Venetian Ambassador to Florence
during this period, a man named Bernardo Bembo, the father of the poet Pietro Bembo. Bernardo
Bembo's motto of HONOR and VIRTUE, was found underneath the painting on the back of Ginevra's image, in an x-ray examination, which rather suggests that Leonardo's portrait was not commissioned for her husband but rather for this admirer, Bernardo Bembo. That Lorenzo the Magnificent is thought to have teased Bernardo Bembo for his Platonic love for Ginevra adds to the frisson of this work. Bernardo (1433-1519) would have been 41 in 1474, considerably older than Ginevra and a married man with his own children.
5) Given what we know about Bernardo Bembo, the background scene in the painting of Ginevra takes on new meaning. Bernardo Bembo was ambassador for Venice in several places, and in 1473 he had been in Bruges, where he had his own portrait painted by a Flemish artist named Hans Memling.
His portrait still exists in the National Museum of Art in Antwerp:

As he was an avid coin collector, he holds an ancient Roman coin of Nero in this portrait. Two laurel leaves appear on the ledge in front of him and a palm tree in the landscape behind him. These two plants are his insignia. The landscape includes two swans, a white horse and rider, and castles up on hills. In Leonardo's portrait of Ginevra we find a very similar landscape with a river and trees and
hills behind the sitter to the right from the viewer's viewpoint. No swans or white horse, but

the reflection of trees in the water in both paintings as well as the placement of the landscape suggest that Leonardo knew about the earlier painting, maybe even had looked at it in a desire to fashion a companion painting for Bembo's own portrait.
How unusual is that? To have a commissioner of a woman's portrait ask to have the work resemble his own portrait, if he is not the person marrying the lady? From the scant knowledge we have of
Bembo's affection for Ginevra, he was smitten with deep love for this intelligent girl of 17 and wrote her letters and poems. Is it not possible he wanted to have a portrait of her to set next to his own to contemplate his pure, undefiled feelings for her? If he paid for the work, how unusual is it that he might have commissioned it for her wedding to someone else? and then kept it for himself?
No wonder she is sad; she is taken as an object of young beauty, but she is not given a chance to
express her own desires for either man. She is merely a pawn in the mercantile games played
in the 15th-century where women were considered bounties to be used to cement alliances and
to ensure a contract between families. She knows her real affections must not be shown or known.

 It is commendable that Leonardo is sensitive enough to her situation to reveal something of the
real under the ideal. Ginevra's brother, Giovanni, is one year older than she, four years younger than Leonardo in 1474. Was he a close and protective brother who wanted the best for his sister? Did Giovanni disapprove of her future husband? Perhaps the brother liked the homage Bembo paid to his sister and couldn't stand Niccolini. This portrait captures a romantic view of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, set in a landscape slightly reminiscent of the Arno valley and its environs. She is not put in a domestic setting but given a life pulsing outside in the countryside with all the freedom that implies. Even so, she is hemmed in by the plant around her head and by familial duty. She wears a black scarf as if in mourning for herself.

Cristoforo Landino wrote poetry to Ginevra as did Lorenzo the Magnificent, too, and they both acknowledge the relationship she had with Bembo, who seems to have adored her as a medieval knight would his Lady. The plant symbols entwined are another measure of the chivalric nature of this painting and speak of the natural affinities that Ginevra and Bernardo shared in correspondence and in conversation. She does not appear in the portrait to have beautiful features of the sort we
can see in other portraits of the period, but the radiance of her interior life may have warranted all the
male attention.

There is one other plant that was probably in the original painting of Ginevra: a primrose bouquet
or a forget-me-not bouquet held in her hands, both of which are now missing. Other scholars have tried to reconstruct how the portrait might have looked when it was not cut down. Here is a version
created for the National Gallery in Washington.D.C. by Susan Dorothea White:
 For this version she used an actual drawing of hands that appears in Leonardo's sketches in the Royal Collection in Windsor:
as well as adding the finishing stems to the plants on the reverse image. Since the right hand in the drawing holds the stems of several flowers, the addition of the small bouquet seems reasonable.

Appropriate, then, to look at what I think to be another portrait of Ginevra de Benci, this time
in marble, carried out by Leonardo's teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio, probably in 1475, of a woman holding a bouquet of flowers:
This portrait of the same lady is now in the Bargello, where she is not identified, just given the
title, Lady with Bouquet (in Italian - Dama Col Mazzolino.)
If you compare the two heads, the identification of the sitter is clear as Ginevra. Her hairstyle is the same, with tight curls bunched up around the ears and a split straight part in the center of the top of her head. No portrait of any other woman from this time has the same hairstyle.

At the back of her head the hair is bundled into a wrapped bun in both cases. Her eyes are heavily lidded both in the upper and lower lids, the nose slopes into a large protrusion at the nostril end, and her mouth is small in relation to her chin and nose, with a deep
furrow between her mouth and nose in both portraits.

Even the bulging pupils are apparent in both. The lady in both portraits also wears a see-through voile
undergarment tied with a button. To be sure, the shape of the face differs; Leonardo's Ginevra is more oval and Verrocchio's is squarer, but the other features that are common to both seem to link them as
the same person.

Verrocchio's lady has graceful hands

and those hands hold a bouquet of flowers that look like
either primroses, a sign of Ginevra's young age, 17,

or forget-me-nots:
Was this marble portrait also commissioned by Bembo? If these are forget-me-nots in her hand, is
it not reasonable to suppose that one year after her marriage, he wants a reminder that she still has
affection for him and always will? Forget-me-nots are called "Nontiscordardime" in Italian, which is
roughly, "Do not forget about me."
        If we can try technology to combine the portraits, the result would look something like this view below. The hand gesture of the Verrocchio sculpture appears much more self-protective then here:
The documents that exist are the poems to her, the notes in Leonardo's notebooks that connect him to Giovanni, and the catasto (tax) records that say the Benci family owned two large palazzi in the street in Florence now known as Via dei Benci, at number 16. We also know that when Leonardo left for France in 1517, he left his unfinished painting, now in the Uffizi, of the Adoration of the Magi, with this Benci family. We presume much since we have none of the documents yet that link Bembo to the money paid for either painting or sculpture. But the similarity of the portrait of Bembo to that of Ginevra, not to mention the hidden x-ray image of Bembo's insignia on the back of her portrait, both tell us these two people had a deep connection. The symbolism of plants speaks still through both portraits words that were private and intended for intimate consumption.
Her beauty certainly adorns her virtue, but in both portraits of Ginevra we feel the cost of that virtue.
Verrocchio's lady is not as sad as Leonardo's, but her flowers give her away.