Anne Maria Clarke @ the V&A
When I saw the V&A were putting on this exhibition I knew straightaway I had to come. Featuring over 50 original works by Botticelli it looks at how his work has influenced subsequent generations of artists like William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites' through to Andy Warhol, Elisa Schiaparelli and countless others. The story however begins a long time before even Botticelli was born, many hundreds of years ago in the classical world of Ancient Rome and Greece, when the mythological figures which were to feature so prominently in the early Renaissance, were actual gods and goddesses and where the humanist values that so influenced the renaissance, were thought to have been first conceived.
Birth of Aphrodite
Fresco created for Alexander the Great by Apelles; ancient Greece’s most celebrated painter.
These ideals had been quietly preserved throughout the middle ages but it was not until after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 - when many Greek scholars fled to Italy, bringing with them important philosophical works such as Plato’s Symposium and the older Corpus Hermeticum and Aasclipius – that they became available to Florentine scholars.
Under the patronage of the powerful Medici family, Marsilio Ficino translated these manuscripts and later established the Florentine Academy, based upon Plato’s ancient Greek Academy - and here the ideas, now known as Neo – Platonism were revived – and it was these ideas – very different from those of the dominant paradigm of the day – that underpinned and informed the artistic expression of renaissance art in all its forms.
The Birth of Venus – Goddess of Love & Beauty
Sandro Botticelli 1482 -85
In stark contrast to the harsh Christian dogma of original sin, the ancient Greeks and their philosophical predecessors had believed there to be a divine spark of love within each individual. Nakedness had been celebrated in both gods and mortals alike and the contemplation of physical beauty was believed – in accordance with Plato’s theory of forms – to be able to facilitate rather than inhibit the experience of the sublime. The nakedness of Botticelli’s Venus therefore - seen through this platonic lens of love...is altogether different from that of the shamed Eve, expelled from Paradise or the Virgin mother, innocent of all perceived taint of the flesh.
Botticelli however, together with his teachers and patrons sought not only to introduce these new ideals but to gently harmonize and reconcile them with Christianity.
Brunellesco the Florentine architect/engineer responsible for the erection of the famous Cathedral Dome had around 1415 discovered the system for linear perspective which had radically altered the way in which paintings were created. The illusion of depth, unknown in Europe until this time was becoming increasingly popular along with other new techniques that allowed the creation of more sophisticated, life like figures and scenes, yet Botticelli consciously retained both the flat, medieval mode of presentation and a simplicity of form and posture associated with familiar depictions of the Madonna.
The way Venus’s head is tilted, her tender, reflective and introspective expression through to the modesty revealed in her gesture – it is as if – even in her nakedness and obvious sensuality, she retains her innocence and her divinity in a way that could very well be compatible with that of the Virgin Mary - and maybe there was even the intention to hint at their ultimate indivisibility.
Sandro Botticelli 1482
With these re- animated gods and goddesses came the stories associated with them and the immense psychological insight into the mysteries of the human psyche that had been hidden alongside them.
The two paintings, taken together are said to represent the two stages or incarnations of the goddess.
’Here again we come upon the twin Venuses: one clearly the ability of the soul to know divinity; the other, the ability of the soul to propagate lower forms.’
Therefore let there be two Venuses in the soul, the one heavenly, the other earthly. Let them both have a love, the heavenly for the reflection upon divine beauty, the earthly for generating divine beauty in the earthly.”
From Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium
Botticelli's fall from grace
Those brief years of the early renaissance, when Botticelli was at his peak were precious indeed, for in both the Birth of Venus and La Primavera we see a very pure rendering of the high ideals that inspired the Florentine school and – in spite of their innocent simplicity or more likely because of it – they have achieved iconic status as two of the most well known and well loved paintings in the world.
It’s difficult to imagine knowing what we do now, that just 10 years after they were created – they fell so thoroughly from grace - and that Botticelli was forgotten for nearly three centuries - but as Carl Jung reminds us, nothing of the psyche is ever lost – we may loose contact with its content, it may fall from our grasp into the vastness of our collective unconscious, emerging for a time only in dreams that desert us the moment we open our eyes. Yet sooner or later it will return, re-kindled by a new generation - as it did again in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Pre –Raphaelites – return to innocence
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was originally composed of John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and their expressed intent was to return to a style of art that re-dated Raphael. They felt the production of art had become overly mechanistic and they rejected the principals of the Mannerist style that had dominanted after Raphael. For the first few years they were openly ridiculed in the press for their break away realism and lack of prescripted form – until the respected and trusted art critic John Ruskin, who had been observing their progress from afar, publically endorsed them in an article he wrote for the Times newspaper. From then on the P.R.B. could do no wrong and soon enthralled the general public.
They were later joined by other artists and two distinct streams developed – one focused on realism, the other, of more interest to us here was led by Rossetti with William Morris and Edward Burne–Jones, all unabashed Romantics with interests in Medieval romance, spirituality, mysticism and even altered states of consciousness and who greatly admired the writings of Homer, Dante Alighieri and poets like Keats, Shelley and Tennyson.
The Renaissance of Venus
1877 Walter Crain
William Morris was a professed socialist and had created Morris & Co, a company creating hand-crafted fabrics and furniture that were sold for what he called a ‘just price’, reflecting his dismay at the increasing mechanisation and mass production of goods he observed around him.
In Oxford he and Burne – Jones are said to have read aloud the Legends of the Holy Grail and saw in the depictions of The Wasteland, the terrible polluted squalor of the industrial cities that surrounded them. Burne – Jones, who had grown up in Birmingham, amidst the some of the ugliest industrial landscapes in Britain is said to have despaired at the relentless march of science without regard to the quality of life.
“The more materialistic science becomes" he wrote somewhat defiantly, “the more angels I shall paint.”
The movement has often been referred to as the cult or religion of Beauty and certainly .... in its uninhibited celebration the feminine principle, it clearly took up the thread of Botticelli and the ideals of neo-Platonism that had unravelled centuries earlier and fallen into the realms of the unconscious.
Edward Burne-Jones’s depiction of the Sleeping Beauty is a perfect image and metaphor of lost beauty, sleeping behind a hedge a thorn for one hundred years – and the young pre-Raphaelites' – to continue the metaphor – can very well been seen as the chivalrous knights who discover and rescue her from her bower, breaking the sleep-spell with a tender kiss and in so doing usher in a new Victorian style renaissance in which the archetype of beauty, once goddess in the form of Venus and the Greek Aphrodite – is re-awakened like the Sleeping princess in the fairy tale.
The Rose Bower
Edward Burne-Jones 1885/1890
The Fall of the Pre-Raphaelites
Botticelli's Venus in the Modern Era
Two decades later in 1984 Andy Warhol created his garish version of the Botticelli Venus, Dolce & Gabbana showed a dress featuring the image on their Milan catwalk in 1993 - a dress recently worn by Lady Gaga when she performed her hit song Venus, in 2015 - completing the Botticelli beauties absorption into Pop Art and Culture. The French Artist Alain Jacquet has also represented her as a petrol pump – revealing and perhaps warning like Wahol and William Morris before, of the dangers inherent in the commoditization and objectification of the feminine without reference to the soul.
Andy Warhol 1984
Venus - after Botticelli
Yin Xin 2008
The myths, legends and archetypes; the artists and their wondrous creations - are the treasures, each reflecting as aspect of the mystery, that maybe strung upon Ariadne's golden thread like translucent pearls upon a priceless necklace.
It seems that those artists, thinkers and even their patrons like the Medici, throughout the many centuries of this story – have somehow resonated with this quest. They have championed the theme of divine love and beauty and have attempted in their various ways to express – to re -imagine for us – what this illusive mystery may be or may not be.
The high renaissance artist Raphael once said of the archetype of the goddess, Venus and the Madonna alike...and this seems like as good as any place to end...
“She is divine serenity made human flesh.”
Anne Maria Clarke
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