When most people think of Botticelli, they think of one famous painting—Venus standing on a clamshell, emerging from the depths.
We see that image so often, in dorm rooms, in advertising, and even in social media memes, that it’s lost much of its freshness and power. The good news is that if you want to understand the real Botticelli, and grasp his role in Renaissance art far beyond that one work, you can do so at an outstanding exhibition of his work at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” is the largest-ever display of paintings by the Renaissance master. It might be especially apropos to visit the exhibition with Mother’s Day approaching, because many of the key pieces depict the extraordinary tenderness that Botticelli and his contemporaries captured in the relationship between the Madonna and the Christ child.
First, let’s take a step back and define our terms.
The Renaissance is a period when Western Europe, shaking off the doldrums of the Dark Ages, offered a rebirth (hence the name “Renaissance”) of ancient Greek and Roman imagery and thought.
Books and art from ancient times have been carefully preserved by, among others, Arab scholars living in Spain. The late 15th century was Italy’s time to rediscover the grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome. Their mission: to combine Christian belief with ancient imagery. That’s what Botticelli and his peers were all about.
For this exhibition, the Museum of Fine Arts benefits from its special relationship with Italy. The MFA voluntarily returned to Italy various artistic treasures in 2006 and signed an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture, in which the Italian government would lend significant works from Italy to the MFA .
One of the most eye-popping pieces in the show is a fresco of Saint Augustine in His Study. This perfectly preserved fresco depicts the great Christian thinker lost in thought and perhaps suddenly realizing that St. Jerome, the recipient of a letter he was writing, had passed away that very moment.
There’s also a larger than life painting of Venus wearing—it is Italy, after all—the most revealing negligee this side of Victoria’s Secret.
The theme of the exhibition is that Botticelli initially shaped art history and then he himself was shaped by historical events beyond his control. His patron was Lorenzo the Great, part of the venerable Medici Clan, who encouraged the artist to develop his gorgeous paintings, whether the themes were Christian or secular.
When Lorenzo suddenly died, the religiously severe Savonarola took over. Savonarola had no regard for the sort of sensual art that Botticelli created. In fact, he ordered the original bonfires of the vanities – the destruction by fire of any secular objects that led to pleasure. He actually had gangs of teenagers going from house to house and removing artwork, game boards, clothing, books, and even makeup, anything that didn’t fit Savonarola’s more austere approach.
The Florentines, a fun-loving lot, could only stand so much of Savonarola’s hectoring and eventually put him to death. Some art historians believe that Botticelli never found his footing after that, despite his commission to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel, then under construction in Rome. The exhibition concludes with Botticelli’s later works, from the period after Savonarola’s death.
The exhibition was co-curated with the Muscarelle Museum; this is the only opportunity American audiences have to view these all of extraordinary works in one place.
The exhibition may well lead to a renaissance in appreciation for the work of Botticelli. Fortunately, no modern Savonarola stands in his, or our, way.