Giorgio Vasari was until recent times the last critic who prized the exquisite art of Sandro Botticelli. To have been great and so long forgotten is a pledge of sensational rediscovery. But in a day of rehabilitations, that of Botticelli has been singularly complete and durable. Upon the discreet imitations of the English Preraphaelites, followed the guarded apologia of Crowe and Cavalcaselle, only to give way, in turn, to the sentimental inferences of Walter Pater, to the fervid championship of Ruskin, and to Mr. Maurice Hewlett’s graceful and penetrative musings. I pass the dozen or more works in erudition, or semi-erudition, that have illuminated or obscured the theme. Mr. Berenson has carried the matter into the field of general ideas. Mr. Herbert P. Horne, Botticelli’s most thorough biographer, shows a prudent predilection for facts.
We first meet Sandro Filipepi, the fourth son of Mariano the Tanner, in a tax return of 1457, which tells that the boy was thirteen years old, still at his books, and in poor health.
Vasari assures us that Sandro had the usual schooling, and specifies the “three R’s,” but in the main we must suppose that he was self-educated, and, like a true Florentine, largely through the reading of that compendium of all grave doctrine, the Divine Comedy. At a later time we know that Sandro denied the possession of a soul to a rash ‘prentice, who, without letters, ventured to hold opinions upon Dante. Through association with such humanists as Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, for whom Botticelli began to work in his thirty-third year, and Poliziano, who inspired the composition of the “Birth of Venus,” the aspirations of the classical revival were communicated to the young master. The year in Rome, his thirty-seventh, left an enduring impression in certain grandiose forms of architecture. No master of the time except Mantegna was better versed in antiquity, and the Florentine kept the advantage of loving his Rome naively. Loving it too well to archaeologize, he glimpsed it fervidly through a genuinely Tuscan pair of eyes. Indeed, it is worth noting that the idiomatic quality is equally strong in his work, whether he treats a stock subject of the Middle Ages, or a mythological fantasy of the newest humanistic coinage. His mature inventions bespeak poise and self-mastery. His latest work indicates an unwholesome detachment-perhaps that sudden reckoning with mortality which makes many a perfected craftsman seek fanatically new and strange perfections. It is a phenomenon that we may study in so well-ordered a genius as that of Titian. Botticelli began a course that should have conducted him parallel with his younger contemporary Leonardo, only to finish as the most reactionary spirit that lived on into the so-called Golden Age. “The Calumny” was painted while the “Last Supper” was being designed. Thus Botticelli must be classed with those who have made some “great refusal,” not, like the Dantesque shade, “from cowardice,” but from inner stress that dashes them athwart the easy grooves of their age.
No sign of this, however, in Sandro’s beginnings. He was articled with the most popular painter of the time, Fra Filippo, and actually learned his trade from the most progressive, Antonio Pollaiuolo.
The painter’s life, let us recall, had then none of the Bohemian glamour with which it has since been invested. To keep a shop, to calculate justly cost of materials and day’s works, to undertake obligingly the humblest commissions was a virtue of an artist as of a green-grocer. Botticelli’s contemporaries valued him for reasons which seem trivial or erroneous today. And while we may flatter ourselves that we judge more truly, they at least were without sentimental prepossessions. We, for example, praise particularly his delicately fantastic vein. This was lauded by Vasari, who remarked Sandro’s stravaganzie, but the few thoughtful critics reckoned him as a sturdy realist. His immediate associates regarded him chiefly as a wag. The early biographers collected assiduously anecdotes of his practical jokes upon his pupils, neighbors, and even the Priorate of Florence. In his own family his capacity must have been primarily that of an uncle. In the tanner’s house behind Ognissanti, where Sandro lived out his life, there were two sets of nephews and nieces, ten in all, between the ages of five and nineteen. The grandfather, according to the tax returns of 1481, was eighty-six years old, his sister-in-law, seventy. The eldest son, Giovanni, was sixty years old, a broker, and we may judge unprosperous, for his young daughters are all entered as “without dowry.” The second brother, Antonio, aged fifty-one, had drifted from a gold-smith’s bench into the more uncertain trade of book agency. His daughters, too, were portionless. The third brother, Simone, Sandro’s senior by a year, was seeking employment in Naples. When the family was complete there were twenty mouths. Doubtless the cramped establishment was very neat after the Florentine fashion, but it surely would have been listed by a modern district visitor. One maid was the only servant, and she was more favored than her small mistresses, for in three years her marriage portion, in expectancy of which she had engaged for a term of years, would be paid. In short we have to do with a typical bourgeois family of old or, for that matter, of new Florence, sticking together through all vicissitudes, and each contributing, according to his ability, to the common pot. To all appearances, Sandro, now nearly forty, had been the steadiest money-getter, and in the needs of this big and growing household, rather than in his own irregularities, we may find the ground of his little worldly success. In any case there is no evidence that he saved anything until his fifty-second year, and then the investment, shared with Simone, was merely a life interest in a small farm. In themselves such details are nugatory. An extraordinary life usually proceeds from such ordinary conditions. But in the straitened home conditions of Sandro Botticelli, in the severe early studies that won him a paradoxical fame as a realist, in the broad jests with which he sought relief for a growing bitterness against the times, we do find, I think, valuable side-lights upon that hidden artistic life which it is our ambition to revive in out-line.
Working with Fra Filippo Lippi, by this time for reasons released from the religious life, the young Sandro really studied Antonio Pollaiuolo. Had not Vasari preserved the tradition, Botticelli’s early work would tell us plainly enough that the erratic Frate had been his master. No painter in Florence was better known or more popular than Fra Filippo. Had he not put the neighbors plainly into his pictures-the shy grace of their young mothers, the roguishness of their urchins, the genial poise of their men and matrons ? If the innovations of Fra Filippo commended him to such Florentines as Mariano the Tanner, his conservatism was equally popular. Beyond his study of the moods of the human face, which with the crowd always counts for pretty much the whole of art, he took no forward step. Regardless of the new painting in oil mediums, he practised the old beautiful manner of working in tempera. This, with the abundant use of gold, Botticelli took over from his master, applying the method handed down by the Middle Ages to the new subjects and emotions of the Renaissance. To many it will seem that he put new wine into old bottles by thus persisting in an obsolescent technic. But the charm of his painting is largely in the sense that a new life, wistful and passionate by turns, has swept into an experience where the old lights still burn serenely.
Technically, then, Botticelli owed everything to Fra Filippo. Beyond this, I feel, he owed very little, for the good reason that master and pupil were of diverse temperaments. From the first, in vitality of contour, cunningly devised and controlled motion, concentration of interest, we find Botticelli precociously strong, precisely where his master was weak. Moreover, where these more serious qualities do appear in the Frate, it is in work executed at a time when Sandro was old enough to be an active assistant and counsellor. Take, for example, those remarkable frescoes of 1463-5, the “Funeral of St. Stephen” and “Herod’s Feast,” painted in the choir of the Collegiata at Prato years after its decoration had been begun. They do not betray the hand of any of Fra Filippo’s known assistants, but one at least does inevitably recall the manner of Botticelli. “Herod’s Feast” shows a fluidity of composition that we find just this once in the work of Fra Filippo. In dancing Herodias, the draperies flutter, obeying the toss of the legs, with unwonted spirit. Herod is the mate of the captains of Holophernes in the little picture painted some years later by Botticelli, and the type is not Filippo’s. In many such particulars “Herod’s Feast” displays the familiar manner of the Frate with a curious difference-as it were, unstiffened and carried to higher grace and mobility. If we add to the internal evidence of “Herod’s Feast” the well-known fact that Fra Filippo, who hated to be hurried, was painting under forfeit on the elaborate composition of the “Funeral of St. Stephen,” it will seem but natural that the companion piece should be assigned to a trusted assistant. In candor it should be said that this view is not countenanced by the authorities, and that no strict division of the design or of actual painting between master and pupil is to be thought of.
However that may be, soon after the Prato frescoes we meet Botticelli as a painter in his own right. In the oblong “Adoration of the Magi,” of the National Gallery, in the “Judith, the “Slain Holophernes,” and the “Fortitude,” of the Uffizi-all painted before his twenty-sixth year-we may trace indubitably the real influence under which he was developing. In these, as indeed in most of the paintings done before his thirty-sixth year, the example of Antonio Pollaiuolo is authoritative. Equally competent as goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, and painter, Antonio’s designs reveal a passion for truth of form and the higher truth of energy. For a kind of daemonic force, they are still counted among the most remarkable works of all time, displaying through their superficial ugliness a beauty of action, that only an artist can appreciate. In perspective and anatomy he was the most searching spirit of the age. When Botticelli began to paint, Antonio was in his early prime, and his drawings were passed about as unapproachable models. Botticelli, while acknowledging the Frate as master, was really studying with Antonio.
In the oblong “Adoration of the Magi” at London we may see the lesser yielding to the major influence. It is a furniture panel, painted conceivably before Botticelli had left Fra Filippo. This small work boasts two compositions. To the right the Kings from the East and their train, in the familiar oblong arrangement invented by Don Lorenzo Monaco, worship the Child. Here we are very near Fra Filippo, in the hint of ledgy landscape, in the bits of ruined architecture, in the somewhat detached effect of the figures, more especially in the facial types and draperies. Botticelli’s contribution is a greater concentration, and a less formal disposition of the many figures, but this improvement is only half realized. In the main the courtiers are paired off like awkward guests at a dinner-table. To the left of the panel are thrown in, for good measure, the men-at-arms of the Magi in the stir of a brief halt. Here the arrangement is compact, the variety of _expression and gesture remarkable. We note the strongly accented, almost distorted masks of Antonio Pollaiuolo, horses in all manner of foreshortening, brusque contrasts of light and shade; in short, all the earmarks of the realistic school. We shall soon find the theme repeated in more effective, because simplified form, in the group of captains and horsemen who loom in the opening of the tent, where lies headless Holophernes.
When Fra Filippo went to Spoleto in 1468, where he died the following year, all business connection between him and his best pupil probably ceased. The affection persisting between them may be judged by the fact that Sandro was to defend the son Filippino in his hereditary rights, besides undertaking his artistic education. Meanwhile Sandro’s devotion to the realistic movement was unswerving, and it is not surprising to find him, as it were, rewarded by a commission from the great Antonio. That painter, in 1470, engaged to paint the seven theological and moral virtues as mural panels for the commercial court held in the Mercanzia. Most of these allegorical figures he turned over, as was his wont, to his brother Piero; one, the “Fortitude,” was as-signed to Sandro Botticelli. John Ruskin has expressed so much that one would like to feel about the “Fortezza,” that I much regret owning how little of it I see. The moody face, which does indeed contrast with the expressionless masks of the six sister virtues, is a reproduction of one of Verrocchio’s mannerisms, and (pace Ruskin) has nothing to do with nervous courage. One notes a figure most solidly modelled and ornately decked out, which shares the ungainly proportions of the series. In brilliancy of color and fantastic preciousness of ornament we may presume that Botticelli was trying to outdo the Pollaiuoli on their own ground.
The ease with which Botticelli adopted the ornate manner of these goldsmith-paintersraises the question whether he, too, was not trained in metal-work. Vasari declares that he had such training, but this is denied. In any event, whether through his own practice with the tracer or mediately through Antonio Pollaiuolo, Botticelli commands from the first the peculiarly terse and energetic line which is al-most a prerogative of the goldsmith-painters of Florence. The feigned sculpture with which he adorned so many of his later works may be a kind of reversion to youthful exercises with the tracer. Much of the architectural screen of the “Calumny,” for example, would furnish the most suggestive and appropriate themes for a sculptor-goldsmith.
From such tentative efforts as we have briefly noted, the advance toward independent mastery was swift. For years yet the dynamic forms of Antonio Pollaiuolo are used, but in applications undreamed of by the inventor. In the little panel, “Judith Returning to Bethulia,” we detect Antonio’s leading in the large figures, completely filling the composition and profiled against a deeply receding champaign with low horizon; but in the swift yet suave motion of the figures, in the calligraphic yet expressive flutter of the draperies, in the keen flash of a yellow robe against the blue, in the curiously immobile yet sensitive face of Judith, in the dog-like attentiveness of the handmaiden, in a delicacy that pervades this strongly conceived design, we have traits that are Sandro’s own. This very famous picture, the subject of many rhapsodies and of innumerable reproductions, has unfairly cast in the shade its less at-tractive companion piece, ” Holophernes Found Dead in His Tent.” Nothing could be more tragically inventive, or more truly pictorial, than that astounded group of mail-clad captains and horsemen towering in the opening of a rich pavilion, while the pale light falls pitilessly on the headless body that lies delicately amid the disordered bedclothes, as if merely forespent with wine and lust.
In times of experiment and restless endeavor there come moments when we seem to be projected into the harmony that is our distant, perhaps our wholly unconscious, goal. Such a moment must have smiled upon Botticelli when he painted the so-called “Chigi Madonna,” now in the Gardner collection, Boston. As if to for-get the ardors of Pollaiuolo, and with them the sweat of the workshop, Sandro adapts a composition of his old master, Fra Filippo, and essays the gently lyrical mood of Verrocchio. An angel, a strange androgynous figure, offers grapes and ears of wheat to the Christ Child-the symbols of his future passion. The Infant draws back in dubious curiosity. As if to reassure him, the Virgin takes an ear. It is his destiny which she is about to offer. Both figures seem sunk in revery upon a mystery and tragedy sensed rather than perceived. The angel has the grave affability of a visitant in a dream, but shares, too, the inner perturbation of those whom he serves. A bit of placid river landscape completes this most sympathetic composition. There is a complete absence of the conscious effort that marks most of Botticelli’s early work. We find anticipated, by more than ten years, the sentiment of those rounds of Madonnas wreathed with angels which constitute the best known, if not the best, achievement of the master. And I am not sure that, for its simplicity and reticence, the youthful picture is not to be preferred.
In 1477, his thirty-third year, Botticelli painted two very famous pictures, the “Adoration of the Magi,” in the Uffizi, and the “Allegory of Spring.” Their mood is so widely different, their implications as to the temperament of the artist so contradictory, that we must think of them as painted in a time of hesitation. The “Adoration” is the work we might have predicted, being the mature product of some ten years of realistic studies. He had only to go on to be one of the leaders of the new movement. The “Allegory of Spring” is almost the first hint of that strange beauty in pursuit of which Botticelli was increasingly to avoid the main current in favor of radiant or darkling by waters. It is the first intimation of the solitary trend of his genius.
The “Adoration of the Kings,” let me repeat, sums up the realistic studies of his young man-hood in an elaborate composition abounding in incidental portraits, and fairly outdoing Ghirlandaio on his own ground. It was Sandro’s most normal triumph, and naturally his most popular picture. For two centuries the diarists and critics united in its praise, and it was still honorably exhibited when the “Allegory of Spring” was deemed fit only for the junk-room. From the time when the “Adoration” was placed in Santa Maria Novella, commissions came readily to the bottega, and Sandro’s way might have been a smooth one had he chosen to let it be so. In the twenty-three years since I first saw this famous picture I have outgrown, not my admiration, but much of my affection for it. It strikes me as an extraordinary academic exercise, more valuable for the perfection of the parts than for the charm of the whole. The regal cortege, ostensibly on parade below, jars a little with the devotionalism of the Holy Family. Something of this apprehension must have been in Sandro’s mind, for when, about five years later, he painted another “Adoration,” now in the Hermitage Gallery, he achieved a greater unity of mood and arrangement, wreathing the worshipping courtiers about the Child in converging groups, all most devoutly attentive. And in another repetition of the theme, the ruinously repainted canvas in the Uffizi, he inspired a multitude of figures with a pious vivacity that fairly rivalled, in spirit if not in dignity, Leonardo’s unfinished masterpiece. The “Adoration of the Kings” and the “Primavera” were in all probability for some time in the shop together. Possibly visit-ors, who must have been rather frequent at this period, were as baffled by the “Spring” as the earnest tourist is today. But the Florentines, we may guess, at least were not worried by this first appearance of a strange and ambiguous beauty. They seem to have taken it for an odd yet lovely bit of decoration, and the “Allegory” never bit them deeply. It was left for our times to deck out the “Spring” with the legendary embroidery which it certainly invites, yet possibly does not need.
Legend has it that the picture was painted for Lorenzo the Magnificent, that Mercury is the unfortunate Giuliano, and Venus the fair Simonetta. This lady, his lady-love, is said to have sat for many of Botticelli’s pictures, and her fragile beauty is said to have haunted Botticelli for many years after her death. Her apparition when Sandro painted her as the sea-born Venus has inspired one of Mr. Maurice Hewlett’s most winning pages. All this is delightful matter of poetry, for which the facts give no warrant. The “Spring” contains no portraits, but merely Sandro’s characteristic ideal masks. As for Giuliano and Simonetta Vespucci, their relations may have been merely ceremonious. All we know is that Giuliano, wearing her colors-a usual compliment-won the midsummer joust of 1475. As the poets were laboriously filing their eulogies of the champion, she died, affording excellent elegiac material wherewith to eke out chivalric stanzas. The assassination of Giuliano himself, in the flower of his youth, gave pathetic credence to such rhetoric. So far the tradition; now the facts.
The “Spring” was painted, like the “Birth of Venus,” and “Pallas and the Centaur,” a few years later, for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s newly bought villa at Castello. For him Botticelli also executed the Dante illustrations, now preserved at Berlin. This relation of patron and artist lasted some twenty years, evoking Sandro’s most precious and characteristic work. Compared with this, his relations with the ruling Medici, and especially with Lorenzo the Magnificent, are of an insignificant sort. No commissions, except those for the Sistine Chapel, approach in importance those under-taken for Castello and its master. Mr. Horne has made the case plain for the first time, and it is among the most interesting of his numerous discoveries. Returning to the “Spring,” its basis is purely literary and classical. As Doctor Theodor Warburg first showed, Cupid, Venus, Flora, Spring, and Zephyr-in fine, all the right-hand side of the picture-are borrowed from Lucretius. We read in the fifth book of De Natura Rerum a splendid passage in which Venus is represented as she who re-news all life through recurring springs:
It ver et Venus et Veneris praeuntius ante Pennatus graditur, zephyri vestigia propter Flora quibus mater praespargens ante vial Cuncta coloribus egregiis et odoribus opplet.
Which Mr. Horne translates: “Spring and Venus go their way, and the winged harbingerof Venus, Cupid, steps on before; and close upon Zephyr’s footsteps, Flora, their mother, strewing all the way before them, covers it with rarest colors and odors.” Here we have all the characters except Mercury and the Graces, who are added for good measure, being for that matter frequently named in Latin poetry as part of Venus’s train. Here we have, too, the explanation of the pregnancy of Venus, and of Spring, the goddess and minister of all fruitfulness. I cannot forbear to add a few lines from the first book of the De Natura Rerum, in which much of the incidental imagery of the picture is suggested-Venus’s power over clouds and winds-in the picture delegated to Mercury, and the votive nature of the carpet of flowers and greenery:
Te, dea, fugiunt venti, to nubila caeli Adventum tuum, tibi suavis daedala tellus Summittit flores
The “Spring” of Sandro Botticelli, in short, is only less literary than the “Calumny.” Its strange beauty is individual. Neither Lucretius nor a pair of ill-starred young folks explains it. We may regard it as a bit of passionate make-believe, a sheer nympholepsy of Sandro’s. He mused until the Tuscan spring about him dissolved, resolving itself into a distant garden of Venus-an antique paradise, but composed, after all, of the dear, homely Tuscan materials, and peopled by the lithe girls and bonny youths of Florence, raised to a momentary divinity.
We shall return to this fantastically graceful work. It is in all respects quintessential, and to understand it truly would be to read the secret of Botticelli’s art. But, for the moment, let us rather consider certain technical points which are not without aesthetic instructiveness. And first, note that the shut-in composition-the orange thicket seems merely a colored and elaborated development of the tooled background of a metal basrelief-is unusual in Florentine art of the period. Mr. Horne thinks that we may look to a late Gothic arras for this decorative motive. But I feel sure that we need go no further afield than the famous print of the “Ten Nudes” by Antonio Pollaiuolo. There we find the half-conventionalized thicket, and a similar group of agitated forms. In fact, this stern realist curiously pervades the “Spring.” The pointed feet with heels raised high, the knotted joints and wiry attachments-all that suggests the actual strain of muscle and sinew, derives from him. From the dancing Salome on the silver altar-front made by him for St. Mary of the Flower is derived the figure of Flora. Yet how individual remains Botticelli’s adaptation of the forms of Pollaiuolo ! What had served for rather sterile technical display, or at best for realizing certain effects of ferocity, here becomes the vocabulary of a new and gracious style. It is Florence in her most sensitive genius, seeking a new dialect in which to revive the myths of antiquity. Here is still pure Tuscan idiom, a little raucous, as it should be, but of a pensive and pagan beauty, only essayed before and never afterward repeated. When we reflect that this new loveliness is rooted after all in the asperities of Antonio Pollaiuolo, we are reminded of the Scriptural enigma: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”
In passing immediately to the companion piece, the “Birth of Venus,” we anticipate by a few years. Adepts of Botticelli may be roughly classified as they prefer one or the other picture, neophytes being as readily stamped by their enthusiasm for the rose-like “Magnificat.” Into this amicable strife it would be fruitless to enter. Lovers of the fantastic-I think of the essential-Botticelli will hold by the “Primavera” for the richness of its contents, the raciness of the varied impressions it affords, the general romantic strangeness of the treatment. Those more classically disposed will find a higher satisfaction in the simpler and more unified impression of the “Birth of Venus,” in the more advanced and purposeful conventionalization of the landscape, in its sombre harmony of gray, olive, pale blue, and rose, with mellow tracery of gold; in the wistfulness of the virgin goddess unmindful of the cool dawn, of the earnest wind-gods that waft her ashore, of the rose-colored vestment of passion fluttering in the hands of an expectant nymph. Compared with the “Spring,” it is less mediaeval and hieratic, and perhaps more intimate and appealing. It has the Virgilian sense that recurs in all sensitive modern portraiture of the ancient gods.
Somewhere between the “Spring” and the “Venus “-aesthetically I mean, for it is considerably later than either-belongs “Pallas and the Centaur.” It partakes of both the serene and the bizarre beauty and, though summary in execution, has a delicate elaborateness of design inferior to nothing of the master’s.. The room at Castello that included these three mythologies among its decorations was truly a hall of halls. Would that they might once more be united under a Tuscan roof, not in the bleak light of a gallery, but in a ‘kind of reverent seclusion !
The paintings at Castello belonged to one who was both a kinsman and a political opponent of the ruling Medici. It is possible that they were little known. The mention of them by early writers is of the vaguest, as if on hear-say. In any case, despite Vasari’s declaration that Sandro painted “plenty of nude women,” some of which must have helped feed Savonarola’s famous bonfire, we must suppose that his mythologies were little in demand. The “Mars and Venus,” of the National Gallery, a furniture panel and of minor importance, though charmingly conceived, completes the list. Numerous school pieces and remoter imitations suggest that others reaped where he had sown.
Lorenzo de’ Medici and his circle, the natural patrons for such subjects, gave Botticelli few and trifling commissions. This neglect perhaps drove him back to deeper study of the religious subjects one might suppose he was outgrowing. At all events, we shall find him deliberately retracing his steps, deserting the progressive school, and cultivating a revived and more poignant mediaevalism. Of course this change did not take place abruptly. It was preceded by a number of experiments, of which the most interesting is the “St. Augustine” at Ognissanti. It was painted in 148o, in competition with Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “St. Jerome.” Here Botticelli undertakes no less a theme than the portraiture of a soul that through the agony of the mind has obtained an arduous peace. As if the agile formulas of Pollaiuolo were inadequate to express the weight of intellectual melancholy, Sandro reverts to the ponderous, almost metallic, modelling of Andrea del Castagno. Outside the Bargello were Andrea’s effigies of early traitors, beside which, in 1478, Botticelli had depicted the Pazzi plotters hanging ignominiously by neck or heel. Of the “St. Augustine,” a figure truly of Faust-like significance, Vasari justly remarks that the head “reveals that profound thoughtfulness and acute subtility which is wont to be in persons intellectual and continually abstracted in the investigation of lofty and difficult subjects.” And the whole figure, especially the knotted hand pressed to the swelling breast, is quite as expressive as the face. In most of Botticelli’s later work we shall find this attempt to realize highly rarefied yet powerful emotions. The recourse to the sculptural methods of Castagno is merely symptomatic. Botticelli’s problem of expressive draftsmanship was to be solved along quite other lines.
The year 1481 was a turning-point in Sandro’s career. It was then that his first designs for the Inferno of Dante were published, and it was then he went to Rome, where he appears to have had general charge of the preliminary decoration of the Sistine Chapel, with Ghirlandaio as his associate. Probably not one visitor in a hundred to-day notices the twenty-eight figures of popes between the windows, so completely has Michelangelo’s ceiling crushed all else; but most of these effigies, which are admirable as decoration, seem to have been designed by Botticelli, and executed by various disciples of Ghirlandaio. Sandro himself painted three frescoes, comprising the “Temptation of Christ,” the “Destruction of Korah,” and “Moses in Midian,” in many incidents. For the first time his peculiar fervor, the rustle of tense emotion that pervades his later pictures, was displayed.
A suitable analysis of these frescoes would be matter for an entire essay. Here I may note only their extraordinary range of sentiment and invention. The stories of Moses in the land of Midian are pure pastoralism, abounding in graceful forms set in a delectable hill country. In the “Destruction of Korah” we have drama, if not grandiose melodrama-violent gesture, exaggerated expressions, stately Roman monuments in the background. All these elements unite in a kind of ornate impressiveness. Yet the effect is not quite single; some harmonizing ingredient seems lacking. Possibly, when the Sistine Choir intones one of the great vengeful psalms, the fresco actually achieves the operatic effect toward which it seems to be striving. The forms are still those of Antonio Pollaiuolo, but grown less harsh. Abounding in lovely detail, as a whole these compositions convey to me a sense of effort, as if the great task found Sandro unprepared. The fact suggests the limitations of Sandro’s gift. He had nothing of the epic sense that goes to make a great mural painter. His art tended almost invariably to complication, and away from simple and broad effects. The kind of cunning sparseness of design that Giotto, and some quite inferior contemporaries of Botticelli, practised habitually was alien to his mood. Where it is found it is usually due to exiguity of space, and one may say paradoxically that nothing of Sandro’s is more monumental than three tiny predella panels in the Florence Academy, unless it be certain of the pen sketches for the “Paradiso.”
From Rome Sandro must have brought back something like fame. For a matter of ten years his brush was busy with important commissions. To this time belong the “Coronation of the Virgin,” with its lovely wreath of dancing angels; the “Madonna,” formerly in Sto. Spirito, and now at Berlin, the most perfectly preserved of his works; the two rounds of the “Virgin with Angels,” and the “Annunciation,” in the Uffizi; the allegorical frescoes in the Louvre, celebrating the marriage of Lorenzo Tornabuoni to Giovanna degli Albizzi, and finally the “Birth of Venus,” and “Pallas and the Centaur,” in continuation of the decoration of Castello. In short, these years from his thirty-fifth to his forty-fifth saw the creation of practically all the pictures by which Botticelli is popularly known to-day. At the same time began the circulation of those bottega pictures, exaggerating all his mannerisms but lacking his vigor, which have made him seem chiefly a pensive, if not a lackadaisical, temperament. The error is the more pardonable that there was in this time a distinct drift toward a more effusive mood. The landscapes, earlier complicated and smiling, become rigid, conventional, and sombre, or give place to architectural and sculptural backgrounds. The line serves less to model than to communicate an emotional flutter. Positive contrasts begin to disappear from the color in behalf of a general dusky tonality. His pictures cease to associate them-selves with the Pollaiuoli and the realists; it seems as if a more tragic and powerful Lorenzo Monaco had reappeared.
The “Calumny,” which Mr. Horne dates in 1494, epitomizes the early and the late Botticelli. It shows all his perfection of line and contour; it outdoes, in the variety and expressiveness of its storied background, even his exuberance of invention; finally it communicates that especial thrill which became his chief aim, to attain which in after years he readily sacrificed all verisimilitude of draftsmanship. One feels this quality in the tilted heads and figures of Ignorance and Suspicion, who fairly encompass the foolish Judge with their draperies; in the rigid accusing hand of Envy, and the sinister fall of the bristling rags he wears-everywhere the most strange and yet appropriate graphic symbols for the passion possessing each figure. Thus Botticelli reconstructed out of the hints of Lucian, the famous masterpiece. of Apelles. What in many other hands became a frigid exercise, in his grew into a spectacle of absorbing interest. And we may suppose that he intended the contrast of a little whirlwind of envy, hatred, and malice contained within a solemn forum, adorned with the figures of saints and heroes, and looking out through stately arches to a quiet sea. Such effects Sandro rarely got so legitimately. In the later pictures the figures begin to lose all stability, becoming so many ciphers for emotion.
Naturally we who know the whole work in its relations see the change more keenly than his contemporaries, but they too seem to have resented the mature Sandro. His vogue waned rapidly. His woebegone saints could hardly hold their own with the complacent, cheerful folk of Ghirlandaio; Piero di Cosimo was soon to compete seriously in both the religious and the fantastic vein. Before 1490 the bottega had apparently ceased to produce big altar-pieces, and was kept going by furniture panels and small devotional pictures, in which the hand of his assistants is predominant. The master meanwhile was chiefly occupied with the great illustrated Dante which he had under-taken for that model patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco.
To study the Dante illustrations in detail would involve much repetition. They display,in concentrated form, qualities which are constant in Botticelli’s work after the first years. The line, whether in the silver-point sketches or the drawings carried forward with the quill, has an extraordinary vivacity and vitality. Many passages show the flame-like ardor of workmanship that we hardly look for outside such draftsmen as Pollaiuolo, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. And this is the more remarkable since the compositions, retaining the fresh-of sketches, are in reality most laboriOUS. Each sheet is a true chart of its canto, comprising often many incidents with a fidelitythat quite justified Vasari in reckoning Botticelli as a commentator. Nothing could be more sensitive in the way of a pictorial transcript, and perhaps the insubstantiality of the work, considered as illustration, was inevitable. In any case, the illustrations, highly imaginative as they frequently are, of fairly celestial gracefulness in the last cantos of the Purgatorio, are as a whole singularly un-Dantesque. It is as if the sonorous tercets of the Divine Comedy were being recited by a thin and almost a foreign, if an exquisite, voice. As in all masterly workmanship, there is an attraction that lies quite apart from the subject-matter, and in a certain speed and rhythmical progression of line these drawings may be enjoyed beside the finest designs of old China and Japan. What distinguishes them from the greater European examples just cited, is a certain feverishness and disequilibrium which are constant in Sandro’s later years.
Following a rather vague implication of Vasari, most critics have regarded the Dante drawings and the adherence to Savonarola’s cause as phases of one and the same mood. Sandro, we are told, became a malcontent, not to say a religious fanatic. Mr. Horne has done much to set this matter straight. The excessive preoccupation with the Dante drawings was doubtless due to the relative slackness of other work. Before 1481 Botticelli was already occupied with the Inferno; it was natural that the Divine Comedy should become his chief personal resource in a middle life becoming ever more introspective. As for Savonarola’s ill-omened attempt to found a theocracy in Lorenzo the Magnificent’s Florence, much of the illustrated Dante must antedate that agitation. We learn indeed of no active participation by Sandro in the movement until the martyrdom of its leader. His brother Simone, however, was a bitter Savonarolist, for he was bound over to keep the peace shortly after the Frate’s arrest, and had to flee after the auto da fe. Thus Botticelli was brought into daily and intense contact with that whole strange politico-religious revival. That he ever took a militant part in it is very doubtful.
After Fra Girolamo’s death, he brooded over his work and fate, let the piagnoni gather in the shop to bewail the might of anti-Christ, and painted that mystical “Nativity,” of the National Gallery, which is a pictorial echo of Savonarola’s apocalyptic studies. The date was 1500, “in the troubles of Italy,” as the Greek inscription attests. Heaven and earth unite in joy at the mystic birth, only the fiends are discomfited. A pale twilight floods the scene; the line is restless yet restrained and reverent; each human or angelic form, each fold of drapery, is a symbol for ecstasy. No picture in the world gives such an impression of a tenderness, redoubled because alertly self-conscious. All the old Botticelli is in this little canvas.
We hardly need to recall the two stories of Virginia and Lucretia, painted a little earlier: and the four still finer of S. Zenobio’s legend, painted a little after 1500. These show the same agitation confined within a beautiful calligraphy, the same muted colors, the same disregard of realistic draftsmanship. The S. Zenobio panels reveal a morbid tension. In the color there is something hieratic. One thinks of the pre-scribed schemes of Buddhist painting. In sheer emotional content nothing of Sandro’s compares with these pictures, except the Munich “Pieta,” which Mr. Horne, with others, relegates shortly to the school. But what scholar could create this tremendous composition and then utterly disappear ? Surely not Raffaelino del Garbo, who has been suggested. Moreover, the defects of this picture are as characteristic of Botticelli as its merits-the drawing wilfully distorted to become a hieroglyph of anguish, the compositional lines abruptly cut-as it were, extinguished-by the rigid halos, the cavern pressing down upon the group as if forbidding to grief all its physical outlets and alleviations. Whether or not much of the actual paint was applied by a scholar is another affair; it remains, for me, one of the greatest and most authentic creations of the master. Its date should obviously be not much before 1500.
As Sandro’s favor dwindled, memory must have supplied him certain consolations. Hispictures, and those of his imitators, had gone far and wide through Italy, engravings had scattered his compositions beyond the Alps. This great diffusion of Botticelli’s manner has somewhat obscured his very personal contribution to the art of the Renaissance. Opinions about him differ widely. One need not be surprised at finding a Ruskin emphasizing Sandro’s religious sincerity, while Mr. Maurice Hewlett amends by insisting that to get at the soul of the fact before him was Botticelli’s ideal. Both these judgments come to saying that he is a consummate illustrator, a view which seems to us misleading. Everywhere he adds to narration an abstract beauty of handling, which is really the important thing. One cannot say that his manner grows humbly out of his matter, as it does with great illustrators-Diirer, for example. Nor shall we learn his secret from the critic of yesterday who finds him an amateur of the pathos of phthisical decline, nor yet from Walter Pater’s famous description of the “Virgin Mother” moodily resentful of her arduous election. Such appreciations generally are rooted, not in the study of the master himself, but in vague revery upon the product of the school.
Against all sentimental and pseudoscientific interpretations, Mr. Horne sets his face firmly. Like Mr. Berenson, with whom he agrees in the main, he believes the problem of Botticelli to be really a technical one. Mr. Berenson has ascribed the charm of this master to his peculiar use of the line. It serves, he says, not merely to bound or indicate form, but rather to symbolize significant motion.
Mr. Horne qualifies this opinion: “Botticelli has been called `a supreme master of the single line’; but a subtler criticism would, I think, prefer to say that, among the moderns, he is an unique master of contour-that he invariably uses his line to express a definite contour, not only in the outline of the figure, but of some feature, hand, or fold within its mass, and always with a rhythm and beauty of intention which is unparalleled in Florentine art.”
In citing “rhythm,” Mr. Horne concedes half the case to those who emphasize the vivacity of Botticelli’s line as against its plastic suggestiveness. Mr. Horne quotes felicitously the younger Pliny’s praise of an outline “that may give assurance of other parts behind itself, and even suggest those which it hides.” This view represents Mr. Horne’s aversion from sentimental criticism, his insistence in Bothcelli’s affinity with Giotto, his belief that a virile manner is the fundamentally characteristic quality. Another fine critic, Mr. William Rankin, stresses rather the affinity with the dynamic vehemence of Cimabue, and it seems to me more rightly. Motion seems to me, after all, the main impression one gets from Botticelli’s finest pictures, as the “Spring,” the “Birth of Venus,” the Tornabuoni frescoes, the “Calumny,” indeed from the seemingly static altar-pieces of the middle and later years-a motion cunningly reinforced by a symmetry of the color masses, and by consummate skill in arranging and rendering diaphanous draperies. In fact, what seems to distinguish him from men like Antonio Pollaiuolo, who share his linear quality, is not merely a profound difference of sentiment, but a far finer use of the brush in masses-something quite other than its expressive employment in line. Take the “Spring,” that quintessential masterpiece : there is indeed an amazing arrangement of line, billowing into the frame, with Zephyr and Ver, rippling through the limbs and drapery of Flora, arrested but not stopped in the large ease of gravid Venus, shimmering rapidly once more in the swaying forms of the Graces, and taken up finally in the firmly poised contours of Mercury. All this may be said to be a linear quality; but how this movement is rein-forced by such contrasts as the shivering drapery of Flora, the heavy folds of Venus’s robes, the twinkling fall of the Coan veils caught against the dancing forms of the Graces ! To find a passage like this last, one must go to the religious painters of China or old Japan-to those seers to whom cloud wrack and swirling water had yielded up their secrets.
When one studies the quality of these vestments of the Graces, as compared with the linear framework of this great and lovely picture, one seems to glimpse a cascade in a mountainous vale. The form of that gossamer thing is determined by the geology of the whole complex of ravines. It echoes and must echo the gaunt folds of the mountain, merely converting their austerity into its own fluid formulas. Study any of Botticelli’s mature works, particularly the Vatican frescoes, and you will not fail to note a magic of the brush that powerfully enhances the value both of the expressive contour and of the dynamic line.
A few years before his death, Sandro Botticelli was visited by Francesco Malatesta, confidential agent of Isabella, Marchioness of Mantua. She was anxious to find artists to complete the decoration of that famous little room which Mantegna had begun so splendidly. Malatesta made a round in Florence, and found Perugino both too busy and too indolent, and Filippino Lippi, whose fame had overtaken that of his master, much preoccupied. Botticelli, who had been much praised as “an excellent painter, and one who serves willingly,” was less deeply involved than the others, and would gladly undertake the work. In spite of this recommendation, Isabella, whose preferences were all for notorieties or mediocrities who followed her “poesies” obediently, would have none of Sandro. Had she taken her agent’s hint, we might have found the old Botticelli renewing in the Palace at Mantua his early triumphs at Castello. A late Botticelli painted upon a poesy of Isabella d’Este -the fancy likes to play with such a theme. We do better perhaps to note how typical of those later years was this frustrated hope.
Botticelli, who, with the Roman commission of 1481, seemed to be on the way to Italian fame, had become the taste of a few Florentines. That he worked at Volterra we know, and there is record also of an unsuccessful competition at Pisa. But in the main his story is purely Florentine. I can hardly think of a contemporary of similar repute who was so little besought from outside. He had deliberately withdrawn himself from the popular current, he had invented a baffling and disquieting sort of beauty, all his own, and he paid the penalty in the neglect of those who like their beauty new and fashionable.
When, in the middle of May, 1510, his body was taken round the corner from the house he had occupied from childhood, and laid in the cloister of Ognissanti, Fra Bartolommeo was the acknowledged master of the new manner, Andrea del Sarto was just rising into popularity, and the portentous young Raphael, grown too great for Florence, had already gone on to Rome. A discontented old figure that used to hobble along the sunny side of the Arno on two sticks, disappeared, a shop that had been a centre of mild sedition was closed. That is probably about all that the average Florentine made of the death of Sandro Botticelli.
It is easy to berate a city that had small zeal for lost causes, yet it may be doubted if our enthusiasm for Botticelli is much more intelligent than was the neglect of his immediate followers. We constantly speak and write of his genius, so personal in its quality, so detached from the normality of the greatest painting, in terms that befit a Giotto, a Masaccio, or a Titian.
Artists may roughly be divided into two classes, as their faith in natural appearances is large or small. The first class is in a constant expectancy of finding the needful beautiful forms in nature, as in a kind of great reservoir. One thinks of Rodin letting his models rove freely about the studio until the expected accident reveals the expressive pose. In art of this sort the strangeness of individual fancy is constantly tempered-as it were, normalized-by reference to daily experience, receiving a kind of objective confirmation. The greatest genius will, I think, always show this hopefulness. It is perhaps the supreme value of Greek art to have proved how the vision of the artist and that of the common man need vary but by hair’s breadths, and yet give sufficient play to genius. So convinced were the ancients of this community of vision that their critics regarded the artist as merely a capable imitator of what all men saw. Such a view does scant justice to the creative nature of Genius. It does express the large element of golden mediocrity in the greatest art, whether it be Greek sculpture or the painting of Titian, Raphael, and Rubens. The heirs royal of art are at home in their world. But we find also a type of artists whose attitude toward the phenomenal world is one of distrust. It does not afford them precisely, or even approximately, the materials of _expression which they crave. They glimpse a remote beauty, a sort of Platonic model, which is never realized in daily experience, indeed seems rather blunted or destroyed in the forms that strike the eye. These lovers of a recondite beauty must set themselves to inventing a world-a whole repertory of visible forms, which may have little relation to those constituting the world of the average man. In fact, as the mystagogue withdraws more privately within the sanctuary of his own emotions and surmises, his concern for the witness of the outer eye necessarily diminishes. His world becomes difficult to verify, and explicable only as the emotions it shadows forth are shared by the beholder.
Thus we find a Botticelli and a Turner quitting the sober studies of their youth, giving rein to dreams and framing a world as poignant or as gorgeous as it is insubstantial, being in fact a bold symbol and not a transcript of any reality seen by other eyes. Of such devotees of occult beauty, we may only say that their quest always grazes the abnormal. The greatest geniuses manage to find their symbols near the average experience.
But we do well not to urge such differences, rather to take the pilgrim geniuses for what they are. It is no more profitable to inquire whether Botticelli is greater than, say, Masaccio or Giorgione, than it is to hold Poe and Byron in the same critical balance. The question to ask of these luminaries of the cavern is: Do they create their world and is it a delightful one to visit ? The further question, Could one live in it ? may graciously be asked only of those greater geniuses who dare be ordinary. No, I do not think anybody, unless it were a very young person for a very short time, could live in Botticelli’s world, and yet to visit it from time to time is one of the highest pleasures. It is pervaded by a wistful twilight, in which muse the frail figures of the gods recalled to a world that knows them not. Saints released for a moment from the stress of their divine meditations stand like soldiers at ease. Before winding rivers or the faint blue of morning skies the Madonna, attended by solicitous angels, sits gravely. An apprehension of the future of her Son has shorn motherhood of its joy. Then there are glimpses of her glorified, the great price having been paid, and there lithe angel forms dance and pelt each other with roses in a measured ecstasy. With the angels we are always nearest the artist. They dance above the penthouse, beneath which kicks the Baby Christ, moving with a solemn joy. Or on earth they welcome the souls of pilgrims, martyrs perhaps, with ineffable tenderness. Then there are sterner and stranger ranges in this twilight world. A ghostly lover mail-clad harries the soul of a merciless, fair dame with horse and hounds. Korah’s impious body-guard stagger in terror as the ground quakes and hell opens beneath their feet. In the dark mouth of a low cavern an anguished group press close together to grasp the fainting Mother of Sorrows, and the slender, godlike form rigidly bent back which threatens to slip from her unconscious arms. Such are some of the people that inhabit this gray world. All have great cares and concerns, their bodies, limbs, and draperies sway obedient to some master emotion as flame fanned by a wind. Among them all there is none who smiles, except Flora, and she with the malice of one who offers, as sufficient homage to Venus,
“The frail duration of a flower.”
Florence gave scant hints for the creation of such a world. It was as sheer an invention in fifteenth-century Tuscany as the landscape of the Faery Queene in sixteenth-century Ireland.
Botticelli’s realm, however, is familiar enough to all persons in all lands who seek a direct _expression of highly intellectualized emotion with a minimum of means. All artists who regard the visible world as consisting mostly of superfluities are akin to him. Thus his real artistic affinities, particularly in his mature phase, are not among the painters of Italy, but among those Buddhist painters who invented concise, abstract symbols for all stages of spiritual self-perfection; or, better, among those Japanese interpreters of sea and sky who dissected the appearance down to its ultimate pattern.
Such artists do nothing to endear our everyday world to us; they lend no glory to common wholesome things. But they enlarge our perceptions, refine our emotions, and increase our imaginative expectancy. If they do little to make our universe seem splendid, and in fact reck too little themselves of its freely offered splendors, they make it more mysterious, more varied, and more inexhaustible. They do good service, somewhat at the sacrifice of wide and durable fame, in kindling the naturally stolid texture of the human spirit.