In his memoir Unforgotten Years (1938), the expatriate writer and aesthete Logan Pearsall Smith relates with exquisite irony how the name “Botticelli” first laid its enchantment upon a Boston audience:

While we were at Harvard, Edmund Gosse came to Boston [in 1884] to deliver the Lowell Lectures; my sister [later Mrs. Bernard Berenson] and many of the Harvard intellectuals went religiously to listen to the utterance of this English writer, whose name was familiar to us all. Of these lectures I have forgotten everything except one pregnant sentence, in which the name of Botticelli first echoed in our ears. “Botticelli,” the lecturer said, in that cultivated “English accent” which was music to us, “Botticelli,”—and with what unction he slowly reiterated those syllables!—“Botticelli, that name which is an open sesame to the most select, the most distinguished, the most exclusive circles of European culture.” The effect of these words upon us was magical. What longings it aroused in us, what delicious provincial aspirations for a world fairer than the world we lived in—for exquisite, remote, European things! It was the song the Syrens sang, it was the voice of the Muses that Thamyris heard among the Theban mountains, it was almost the voice that summoned St. Paul to a higher life as he journeyed to Damascus. . . . Among that audience, although my sister and I did not know him at the time, was the future critic, Bernard Berenson, who, he has told us since, went out at once and bought himself a reproduction of Botticelli’s “Primavera.”

To judge by the surprisingly large crowds at the new Botticelli show at the mfa, the old Botticelli magic still inspirits the rarified air of Boston.1 Boston is the obvious place for such an exhibition, giving shelter as it does to more works by that master than any city apart from Florence and London. America’s first Botticelli (now prudently retitled The Tragedy of Lucretia to avoid triggering the sensitive with the word “rape”) was purchased by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her Venetian palace, Fenway Court, in 1894. It was the first painting she acquired through the advice of Berenson, who was just beginning his career as an historian, connoisseur, and dealer in Renaissance art. In the following years other Botticellis continued to waft over from Europe to Boston, eventually settling in the collections of the Gardner Museum, the mfa, and Harvard’s Fogg Museum.

The old Botticelli magic still inspirits the rarified air of Boston.

Boston’s resources alone were enough to mount a sizeable exhibition twenty years ago at the Gardner Museum (“Botticelli’s Witness: Changing Style in a Changing Florence,” 1997). The current exhibition is far more ambitious. It bills itself, justly, as “the largest, most important display of Botticelli’s work in the United States.” In a major feat of cultural diplomacy, its organizers have assembled twenty-eight works, fifteen by Botticelli himself, from the Uffizi, Pitti, Accademia, Bargello, and San Marco museums in Florence as well as from less-well-known collections in Tuscany, Venice, Turin, and Milan. It puts on display a number of rarely seen works, including a remarkable crucifix, perhaps meant for use in processions, that was only identified as a work of the master in 2005. The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue published in Florence by Centro Di under the auspices of the mfa and William and Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art.

An exhibition on this scale allowed its curators, John T. Spike and Alessandro Cecchi, to explore Botticelli’s career from his early Madonnas in the manner of Filippo Lippi through his glorious mythological works of the 1480s, made for the Medici family, to his mannered late works on religious themes. Context is explored along two paths: the history of Florence, especially the political and religious crises of 1494–98, and Botticelli’s relations with other artists. The path of Florentine history is well worn. The principal milestones in Botticelli’s artistic itinerary have long been established: his entrée into the Medici’s patronage network in the 1470s; his short period in Rome (1481/82) as the lead painter among those decorating the walls of the Sistine Chapel; and finally his late period, after the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, when according to his biographer Giorgio Vasari he came under the influence of the fanatical Dominican preacher Savonarola. Botticelli’s works are expertly related to this history in wall-mounted commentaries, object labels, and related pieces such as the mesmerizing death-mask of Lorenzo il Magnifico. The exploration of Botticelli’s relations with his contemporaries is less satisfactory. The comparisons are restricted to artists whose relations with Botticelli can be documented: those with his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi; his contemporaries, Filippo’s son Filippino and Antonio del Pollaiuolo; and artists influenced by him such as Jacopo del Sellaio and (more speculatively) Michelangelo. A more wide-angle, connoisseurial approach might have situated him in relation to Benozzo Gozzoli and Andrea del Castagno, obvious influences from the previous generation, and to his contemporaries and rivals Verrocchio and Ghirlandaio. But mounting an exhibition, like politics, is the art of the possible, and the visitor to this show already will have plenty to delight the eyes and the mind.

If there is any weakness in the exhibition, it lies in the curators’ too ready acceptance, indeed celebration, of what might be called the Botticelli myth. It is admittedly a myth of enormous power: among other things, it brings almost half a million visitors a year to the Uffizi to gawk dutifully at the Primavera and the Birth of Venus. Visitors are told by their audioguides that they are looking at the purest expression of humanism in art, the essence of the Age of Lorenzo in painted form, the greatest works of the greatest Italian artist before Michelangelo. Art historians and museum curators who need to raise funds for exhibitions and to generate foot traffic can be forgiven for exploiting the collective delusions passed on through this sort of puffery. But a major exhibition such as this should provide visitors with a way to inspect cultural icons in the light of scholarship, not glimpse them through clouds of incense. To understand a painter like Botticelli, whose myth vastly inflates his historical importance, the visitor to an exhibition deserves to know something about the fashioning of his modern reputation.

In his early years Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) had been a reliable manufacturer of Madonna-and-Childs in the manner of his master, Fra Filippo Lippi, another Medici client. For a decade Sandro made a living from this popular Florentine product, gradually expanding his range to include other scenes of the Holy Family in action, some Old Testament subjects, the odd saint, and a few portraits. For about three years, from 1482 to 1485, he broke from his previous patterns and became a painter of non-Christian subjects illustrating literary texts from antiquity and modern Italian literature. The few works that survive from this period were all painted for the private delectation of the Medici, probably in consultation with Poliziano or other literary hangers-on of the family. These paintings became the chief sources of Botticelli’s later fame. Around 1485 he went back to his staple products, the Holy Family, saints, angels, and the occasional portrait, though on a somewhat more ambitious scale. He returned briefly to non-Christian, literary subjects again around 1495, after which his production was exclusively religious. In all, at least four-fifths of his surviving works are of biblical subjects. He was certainly one of the leading artists in the Florentine pantheon of the 1480s, but to place him on a higher peak, soaring above Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, and Pollaiuolo, is hard to justify; to rate him ahead of greater contemporaries such as Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino, or Giovanni Bellini is sheer Florentine campanilismo.

In the last decade of his life, Botticelli became increasingly irrelevant, and it is obvious why.

In the last decade of his life, Botticelli became increasingly irrelevant, and it is obvious why. A new generation of artists had come to the fore, led by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The expressive aims of these artists, especially Leonardo, might almost be read as point-by-point rejections of Botticelli’s artistic values, especially those of his late paintings with their flat, affectless, almost mannered style. Botticelli’s severely linear style had never been very well adapted to conveying movement and the inner life of his subjects, but these were exactly what the new generation aimed to show. Like other artists descended from the International Gothic, Botticelli courted the eye with elegance of pose, rich ornament, and crowded, busy compositions; the High Renaissance, however, cultivated an aesthetic of weight, power, and ordered simplicity. The artists of the sixteenth century went to school not with Botticelli but with Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, whose technical accomplishments had set a new standard. Botticelli was soon forgotten, and remained so for three and a half centuries. Even Vasari, that tireless promoter of the Medicis’ artistic protégés, did not propose his works either as models or collector’s items.

It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that Botticelli’s stock rose again, but then it did so dramatically. The Botticelli boom was set off by an essay written in 1870 by Walter Pater, leader of the Aesthetic Movement, and later republished in his famous collection The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873). The latter was the Bible of the aesthetes and probably the source of Edmund Gosse’s remarks at Harvard in 1884.

Pater’s essay was a masterpiece of projection. It made Botticelli into the embodiment of all that the aesthetes wished to elevate in art. It took Dante as its foil. For the preceding generation of educated Englishmen and Americans, an admiration for Dante had signalled that one’s Christianity was morally serious yet not limited by narrow Protestant piety; on Pater’s generation Christianity had lost its hold entirely. In Botticelli Pater caught the first whispers of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of dying faith: Botticelli had rejected the “conventional orthodoxy of Dante”; his Virgins were strangely unmoved by the baby Jesus on their laps, waving his little cross, demanding obedience along with his breast-milk. Botticelli’s art is “undisturbed by any moral ambition”; “his morality is all sympathy.” Pater slyly linked the artist to the humanist Matteo Palmieri, known to be tempted by delicious heresies, but Pater’s Botticelli himself is no more committed to heresy than to orthodoxy. Like a true artist his only creed is found in his art. His sacred paintings related “religious incidents” to be sure, but their “original sentiments” communicate only “ineffable melancholy.” Dante’s world existed only as a construct of dogma; Dante’s contemporary Giotto was lost in childlike faith; but Botticelli occupied the real world of adults who understood the mutability of all things and sought relief in beauty. This insight had come from the ancient Greeks, to whom the humanists had given the men of the Renaissance fresh access. As Pater wrote in his famous conclusion to The Renaissance, the only thing left to men of the post-Christian world was to withdraw from spiritual illusions, to live fully in our doomed world, and “to burn always with a hard, gem-like flame,” seeking out “some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement,” moods that could be induced above all by contemplating exquisite, visionary works of art such as Botticelli’s.

In our world, where the most highly praised art doubles as political messaging, such an attitude may appear refreshing. But, sadly, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the cultural ideals of the Renaissance as they are understood today, as reconstructed by a century and a half of careful, patient scholarship. Scholarship today sees humanism as a movement of moral reform, holding up classical antiquity as a mirror of virtue to corrupted times; it was not until the nineteenth century that humanism was turned into a substitute for religion. Modern scholars understand the religious art of the quattrocento, including Botticelli’s, as a technology serving the wider late-medieval movement to reform Christendom spiritually from within, a movement that culminated in the reformations of the sixteenth century. Visitors to Boston’s Botticelli exhibition can hardly help entering it attended by the ghosts of nineteenth-century aestheticism, but once they are inside, they deserve to be guided to deeper insight into the moral and spiritual phenomenon of the Renaissance.

1 “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on April 15 and remains on view through July 9, 2017.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 46
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