No painter embodies the golden age of Renaissance Florence better than Sandro Botticelli, born in 1445. His “whimsical mind” – in the words of the 16th-century biographer Vasari – embraced the classical humanism that transformed the Medici court into a hub of culture to rival 5th-century BC Athens. After being apprenticed to a goldsmith, where he learnt to work in miniature, then to Filippo Lippi, a delicate draughtsman, Botticelli’s sinuous, graceful contours were the ideal expression for the new neo-Platonic art that presented earthly beauty as a conduit to celestial perfection.
It is hard to blame curators, then, for brandishing his name even when their exhibitions centre on other concerns. Both Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities, currently at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, and Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi in Quattrocento Florence, at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, are guilty of such entrapment. Most perversely, the painting by Botticelli that cries out to be included in the Florence show has ended up in Rome.
That masterpiece alone would be worth a pilgrimage. Painted in 1475-76, it shows the Adoration of the Magi, a popular subject because the sight of those submissive kings – royal philosophers who epitomised learned paganism – sustained neo-Platonism’s belief in Christian superiority. Yet this painting is about money as much as metaphysics. It is thought that the Magi are portraits of the Medici (Cosimo the Elder, Piero the Gouty and Cosimo’s son Giovanni) while the painting’s commissioner, stockbroker Guasparre del Lama, is the watchful, white-haired gentleman staring out from the crowd.
Palazzo Strozzi deserved this Adoration because their exhibition is devoted to unravelling the relationship between art and finance in 15th-century Florence. By the middle of that century, Florence was the financial centre of Europe, a position it owed to the creative way it in which it exploited its trade networks. Through mechanisms that ranged from the invention of the florin, a euro-like currency, to the ways in which usury laws were deftly sidestepped, the city’s rulers spun a web of commerce and credit that stretched from London to Constantinople.
The financial boom was mirrored by an efflorescence of culture. Although this show should have credited the genuine humanist inquiry that motivated patrons, it is diverting to be reminded that those high ideals were intensified by guilt. The Bible championed honest poverty yet Florence’s nouveaux riches hoped to win God’s favour by commissioning art that grew more sumptuous with every decade. “Never shall I be able to give God enough to set him down as a debtor,” lamented Cosimo de’ Medici, the paymaster behind such glories as the exquisite frescoes with which Fra Angelico decorated the monastery of San Marco.
This show brims with such testimonies to the fear of sin that burdened the wealthy; a 14th-century fresco by Orcagna of damned souls whipped by purse-wielding devils that was inspired by Dante’s Inferno; a predella by Pesellino that includes an image of St Anthony discovering the heart of a money-lender in his strongbox; and a clutch of Flemish paintings depicting moneylenders as rapacious grotesques.
The tension between humility and arrogance is embodied in the donor portrait, whereby the patron had his own image inserted into the sacred story. The masterpieces here are two paintings by Flemish master Hans Memling that flanked a Virgin and Child. One shows the youthful commissioner, Benedetto Portinari, whose uncle worked at the Medici bank in Flanders. From his fur collar to his signet ring, Portinari’s wealth is signalled, yet his position of prayer shows his obedience. The other portrait depicts his namesake, the parchment-skinned St Benedict, as the epitome of piety. Most exquisite is the landscape backdrop: an autumnal medley of trees where each wilting, tawny leaf is contour-clear under an evening-blue sky. Paintings like these, which influenced Florentine artists enormously, would never have arrived in Italy without the international reach of the Medici banks.
As for Botticelli, his strange, sad story unfolds piecemeal through a handful of works. Tender, meditative, yet fashionably dressed, his early Madonna (in “Madonna and Child with Two Angels and the Young St John”, 1468) would have satisfied a client’s desire for both religiosity and riches. Painted 15 years later, a Venus (from his workshop) was a riskier proposition. With her tresses coiling around her fluid nudity, she is the sister of the goddess in Botticelli’s legendary allegory, “The Birth of Venus”. Patrons steeped in neo-Platonism, even as they enjoyed her flesh, would have defended this coy seductress as the embodiment of pure, divine beauty.
Such images were grist to the mill of the devout and influential friar Savonarola, and Botticelli’s sensitive nature succumbed to Savonarola’s severe diktats. An exquisite “Christ Crucified” (post 1496) strips away all worldly glories to leave Christ’s body pinned butterfly-like against a pitch-black void, his naked, suffering perfection fulfilling Savonarola’s demand that he be portrayed so “that any tiny wound was most painful to him”.
Botticelli died in 1510 – “sick and decrepit”, according to Vasari – having abandoned painting. His most important pupil, Filippino Lippi, the main subject of the Scuderie exhibition, remained free of the moral qualms that plagued his master. The Rome exhibition, although light on cultural analysis, is captivating: the opening gambit, the breathtaking tondo of “The Madonna and Child with Stories of the Life of St Anne” (1452-53) by Filippo Lippi (father of Filippino, maestro to Botticelli), reveals the prototypes of those retroussé profiles, fluttering fabrics and nervous mannerisms that would become signatures of his followers.
The impeccable, white-lit contours of drawings such as “Study of a Female Head with Cap” (c1470) reveal that Filippino Lippi possessed a graphic talent to rival his teacher. Yet he never quite matched him for Christian imagination. His late altarpieces, such as “The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine with Saints” (1501), are static and soulless. Even his most magical painting here, the “Madonna Adoring the Child” (c1478), takes its defining feature – the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) – from Botticelli. Yet few could lament Lippi’s Paradise, conjured in lapidary blues and greens, china white and tender pinks as the Madonna kneels over her babe in a flower-strewn meadow, with the Florentine hills unrolling beyond. (Botticelli never rendered the countryside in such detail; indeed, Leonardo da Vinci accused him of painting “miserable landscapes”.)
It was the low, devilish and grotesque that triggered Lippi’s fantasy. The malevolent owl and demon lurking under the crags lend a Bosch-like horror to the apparition of the Madonna to St Bernard. Delicious drawings of winged monsters and centaurs testify to the pre-Mannerist whimsy that defines the chapels he frescoed for the Strozzi family in Florence and the Carafas in Rome.
Given the tumult of his time, Lippi’s disinclination to ponder spiritual matters too deeply did him no harm. As Florence see-sawed between rulers and ideologies, his popularity never wavered. In 1498 he was commissioned to fresco the hall of the grand council for the new republic that had risen from Savonarola’s ashes. The Medici banks may have failed but Florence’s art factory rolled on.
‘Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities’, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, to January 22. www.palazzostrozzi.org
‘Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi in Quattrocento Florence’, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, to January 15. www.scuderiequirinale.it