Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin Germany – 15th Century Florentine Paintings Part 2

Continuing our study of the paintings we pass over the balcony of the Basilica and enter the large gallery 38, which is called the Botticelli Gallery, because of the number of works of this great Florentine shown here. The principal Quattrocento Florentines are also represented.

Sandro di Mariano Filipepi, called Botticelli (1444-1510), combines to a remarkable degree the results of training and individual genius. Through his teacher, Fra Filippo, he was imbued with the religious feeling of Dante and Savonarola, and he had acquired great knowledge of the antique, and followed nature arduously. Therewith he joined an individual conception of the value of line to simulate movement, and no one, outside of Japan, has been more competent to create in his decorative compositions a lineal symphony. But the religious tendency of his early influences hampers somewhat the full expression of his intentions. Thus his figures often seem warped by melancholy, the types become ill-favoured, the faces are scarcely ever charming, or even attractive. And yet, there is an irresistible swing to his. line, with graceful curves, almost pagan abandon, which makes all his work, from beginning to end, intensely fascinating.

One of his most characteristic Madonnas is a full-length figure, standing before a niched throne (102. Plate II). The Child stands on one of the heavily carved arms of the chair, half leaning against the mother, and lifting its right hand in benediction, while angels, wreathed with roses and holding long ornamental candles entwined with flowers; are grouped in a row on both sides. It is the tondo which Vasari called, ” cosa bellissima,” and the most expressive example of his graceful, moving line, only surpassed in his ” Spring,” in the Uffzi.

Fully. as beautiful, and somewhat more simple in °composition, is another tondo (102A), where the Madonna is seated, holding the Child pressed against her breast. The four angels on each side hold tall lillies in their hands. Their curly heads form a straight line above which the head of the Madonna slightly projects. These angel heads are not beautiful, yet have they peculiar, attractive types an oval with sharply demarked cheekbones, hooked chins, high-drawn eyebrows, and ‘rather voluptuous, full lips. Still Sandro is able to put into these features a dreamy expression, an undefined longing, a naive ingenuousness. The Madonna’s face is more beautiful, but with a sad look in the eyes and somewhat drooping mouth.

In the St. John altarpiece (106), which was painted in 1485 for the Bardi Capella in Santo Spirito, Sandro has shown his skill in adding plants, flowers, fruits, and trees to the decorative display of an ornate marble dais with benches and vases. Before branches of cypress, palms and myrtle, that arch like niches over their heads, stand the two Johns, the Baptist and the Evangelist. Between them, elevated on the dais, is the Madonna seated, making ready to give the Child the breast, for which it greedily stretches ont both hands. This is perhaps the most youthful looking Madonna ever painted with its sweet, girlish face, a white veil resting lightly on the long, blond hair.

An early work is the ” St. Sebastian ” (1128), painted for the Medici in 1473, which plainly shows Sandro’s plastic studies with Pollaiuolo, at the same time revealing the graceful bearing of his figures. We have ample opportunity here to compare different examples of the St. Sebastian-motif — by Cosimo Tura, Liberale da Verona, Basaiti, Lorenzo Lotto, Paris Bordone, and also by Rubens. The one by Botticelli presents an ideal youth, in no wise surpassed in its fine proportions, nude painting, and attractive appearance by any of the other examples. The loosely wound loin-cloth shines brilliantly upon the naked limbs.

Another nude is a replica of the single figure of ” Venus ” (1124), slightly altered from the ” Birth of Venus ” which Sandro painted for the Villa Cosimo de’ Medici at Costello. One of the guests of Lorenzo Magnifico was so impressed with the beauty of the central figure that he requested of the artist a copy, which we have now before us. The arrangement of the hair is different from the Florentine Venus, and being taken out of the composition she is standing, and not half-floating. The black background is very original and enhances greatly the sculpturesque appearance.

Also in portraiture, which was then becoming popular, Botticelli distinguished himself by the simplicity and expressiveness of his human counterfeits. His ” Giuliano de’ Medici ” (106B) is one of the finest Quattrocento portraits in existence. This brother of Lorenzo, and younger son of Cosimo, was murdered in a riot, when but twenty-five, in 1478, and Botticelli painted his portrait, the eyelids closed to indicate his decease, with the aid of an existing bust-portrait. The sharply cut, beardless face, ringed about with the raven-black curly locks, comes out strongly against the green background.

The pendant to this portrait is that of a young woman (106A), which was originally supposed to represent Simonetta Vespucci, the young mistress of Giuliano, but the features bear too close resemblance to the ideal-heads in Sandro’s compositions. It is more likely the portrait of the artist’s most favourite model, his Fornarina.

The man who with Verrocchio had exercised most influence upon Botticelli was Antonio Pollaiuolo. We have already seen works of both these men. Antonio Pollaiuolo, however, had an alter ego in his brother, Piero. The two constantly collaborated, and scarcely is it possible to distinguish their independent works.

Piero Pollaiuolo (1443-1496), like his brother, was a goldsmith and a sculptor as well as a painter. He had the same plastic feeling for form which through Donatello had been impressed upon the Florentine school. We find in him, however, an-other Florentine peculiarity more strikingly demonstrated than in any other of his contemporaries. This is the feeling for space — a consequence of the life in the southern city. In the trans-alpine north, with its cold climate, the house is a shelter, which becomes homelike and cozy a word unknown in Italian. In the south the people live more out of doors, and even in the house they want largeness and freedom and no narrow rooms, alcoves, and stuff-hangings. Such a typical Florentine interior we find in the beautiful ” Annunciation ” (73. Plate III) by Piero, which has an astounding architectural perspective. From the anteroom with its two figures the long vista of the two halls, separated by the marble wall, ends in a delightful view of the Arno valley on the one side, and at the end of the other hail through a door into another room with three angels making music. The varicoloured marbles and onyx slabs, the richly decorated tapestried walls, the jewels flashing in the costumes, give a most sumptuous appearance. Mary, with hands crossed over her bosom, sits on the right, her long body bent for-ward, with a blue mantle over her brown dress. The angel, holding a lily-stalk, kneels before the Virgin while bringing the unusual tidings. The colours are exceptionally brilliant through the use of transparent glazes allowing the undertones to shine through.

We have already seen the work of Lorenzo di Credi. A panel which follows closest the style of his master Verrocchio is called ” Mary of Egypt ” (103), a Magdalene doing penance in the wilderness and comforted by an angel flying in the air. The penitent is nude but entirely hidden by her long black hair that falls profusely from her head down to the ground. Her elderly, haggard face still bears signs of erstwhile beauty.

Francesco Botticini (1446-1498), also of the Verrocchio school, the master of the ” Vièrge Glorieuse ” of the Louvre, is the author of a “Crucifixion” (70A) and a “Coronation of the Virgin ” (72). In the Crucifixion is noticeable the anatomical exactness of the crucified body, the tension of the muscles, the sagging of the trunk and thighs so that the legs are bent outward. The five figures surrounding the cross are most incongruously dressed in gorgeous Florentine costumes; even the archangel Raphael, one of these, is swathed about with voluminous robes as he leads by the hand the little Tobith, dressed as a page in the height of fashion. Petrus Martyr is dressed in a long black cloak over a heavy white undergarment, with an ornamental dagger sticking in his left shoulder. St. Lawrence, well groomed, his hair hanging in curly locks on his shoulders, with the tonsure on the top of his head, wears the heavily embroidered gold and silk gown of a noble; while St. Anthony, with long, curly white beard, is wrapped in the toga of a senator. Two angels floating under the arms of the cross, also in swirling raiment, complete the composition which, despite its incongruity, has a great sense of dignity and is brilliant in colouring.

Towards the end of the century the Florentine painters became much weaker, more colourful, and more picturesque, which is always an inferior, slightly vulgar, and even an artificial form of art. The exquisite line-work of Botticelli was hard to learn, and did not quite suit the taste of the time. Added thereto was the influence of the magnificent Portinari altarpiece of the Fleming van der Goes, that had come to Florence in 1475. The deep glow and constructive unity of this masterpiece seemed to the Florentines to make their own work flat, cold, and depressing. The eccentric Piero di

Cosimo (1462-1521) was most deeply impressed by this new style, and he reveals this in the ” Adoration of the Shepherds ” (204) which has deep, warm colours. An earlier work, ” Venus, Mars and Amour” (107) bears still evidence of his poetic interest in the antique. The panel is in the shape of a casone front, but much larger, and therefore was likely a sopraporta. The subject is founded on a poem by Polizianos, ” La Giostra,” where Venus has just awakened and enjoys herself with the deep sleep of the war-god. The same theme was treated by Botticelli in a picture now in the National Gallery. Our picture shows us Venus lying stretched upon the ground before a myrtle bush. Her transparent veil slightly covers her, and Cupid, a charming boy, nestles at her side. Mars lies in the opposite direction fast asleep, while putti are carrying away his armour piece-meal. Rabbits and pigeons enliven the scene which lies in a landscape that is far ahead of the landscapes painted by Masaccio, Baldovinetti, or Pollaiuolo. It has more truth of nature and less of the stage-setting of Masaccio, or the bird’s eye view of Pollaiuolo. The Florentines were not in the habit of painting figures lying down, they always stand or sit, and the figures here are far from perfect. The body of Venus especially is not ideally beautiful, the abdomen sags down ungracefully. But the charm of the whole, illuminated by the light of the rising sun, is undeniable.

A design of the ” Resurrection ” (75), by Domenico Ghirlandajo, was executed by his two brothers, Davide (1452-1525) and Benedetto (1458-1497). Together with the side-wings (74 and 76) it formed the reverse of Domenico’s altar-piece of the Choir of S. Maria Novella in Florence, which is now in the Pinakothek in Munich. The work is scarcely interesting but characteristic of the imitative methods of Domenico, and of his tendency to descend through excessive detail to bad taste.

Two paintings by Filippino Lippi, an early and a late one, complete our survey of this Botticelli period. We have already seen his “Allegory of Music,” in which we noted the combination of antique elements with new allegorical motives. The earlier work is a ” Madonna ” (101), rather too gay in colour. The later work is a ” Crucifixion ” (96) which with its gold background and the waxy, ascetic form on the cross has a truly archaic appearance. It was painted under the influence of the Savonarola period and is far re-moved from the humanistic ideals of the time. Still the St. Francis and Mary, who kneel at the foot of the cross, are well painted and have all the purity in type and graceful sentiment in pose and feature of his earlier work.

( Originally Published 1912 )

The Art of The Berlin Galleries:The Kaiser Friedrich Museum – History Of The CollectionThe Italian PaintingsRoom 29 – Italian Paintings Of The 14th, And The First Half Of The 15th CenturyRoom 30 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturySculpture In Marble Of Donatello And Desiderio, And Old Florentine PaintingsRooms 34 — Ferrarese And Bolognese Paintings Of The 15th And 16th CenturiesRoom 35 – Lombard PaintingsRoom 64 – The Carpets After Raphael’s CartoonsRoom 38 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRoom 37 – Umbrian And Paduan Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRead More Articles About: The Art of The Berlin Galleries