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Botticelli Exhibit (Part 1 of 2)

The Guide officiel de l'exposition for the Botticelli exhibit (Botticelli, de Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole) at the Musée du Luxembourg, published by sponsor Paris Match, has an introduction by Christian Poncelet, President of the French Senate. When I get that exhibition installed in the U.S. Capitol (see my post on October 1, Botticelli at the Palais du Luxembourg), perhaps Bill Frist will agree to write the introduction. The Botticelli introduction presents a historical review of the Musée du Luxembourg, one of the first European museums of painting. From its establishment in 1750, the public could view great works of art, especially of the Renaissance. It may also be considered the first modern art museum, since it hosted the work of artists like David, Gros, Ingres, and Delacroix in the 19th century. This year the work to improve public access to the museum was completed, and a series of excellent exhibitions has celebrated its rebirth.

No matter how many times I go to France, I am always surprised by how cool the weather can be, even in the summer. When going to Paris in the fall, one should expect rain, which I did, but I did not pack a warm enough jacket. Many of the coats and sweaters that I left home in my closet I purchased while on trips to France because I was so cold. In spite of the chilly, rainy weather, there was a fairly long line for the Botticelli exhibit. After about a half hour in that line, I was able to enter the museum's new main exhibition hall, which is in a pavilion separate from the area of the palace used by the Senate. It is not an extremely large space, so it has been divided up into smaller areas by temporary walls.

You enter first a sort of long hallway where several of the Madonnas are displayed: Virgin with Child and Angel (Musée Fesch in Ajaccio, 1465), Virgin with Child and St. John ("Madonna of the Rosary," Louvre, 1470; on this painting, see also Botticelli's Madonna in the Louvre, a poem by Edith Wharton), Virgin with Child and Two Angels (Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, 1468-69), and Virgin and St. John in Adoration of the Child (Musei civici di Palazzo Farnese in Piacenza, 1480-81). The woman and child figures in these paintings have a striking similarity in many cases that made me go from painting to painting to try to determine if they were in some cases based on the same models. Four later Madonnas are in the final, smaller room of the exhibit: Flight into Egypt (Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, 1495-1500), Virgin and Child Adored by St. John (private collection in New York, 1491-93), Virgin with Child and St. John (Galleria Palatina in Florence, 1495-1500), and Virgin and Child with Three Angels ("Madonna del Padiglione," Pinacotheca Ambrosiana in Milan, 1493). One sketch of the Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (Vatican Library, 1480-1490) is displayed in the third room, where the light is at a lower level.

The Botticelli Madonnas are the subject of the first essay ("Ses jeunes filles florentines rendent la Bible voluptueuse" [His young Florentine girls make the Bible sexy]) in the Guide officiel. The early examples date from the period of Botticelli's apprenticeship with Filippo Lippi, where he was a student from the age of 19. After Lippi's death in 1469, he started his own workshop in 1470, and his style became more his own. While these Madonnas are certainly beautiful, their distant serenity and, what I had never noticed until today, their sometimes shocking pallor, even in some cases nauseated complexion, give them a sense of separation. I would not apply the word voluptueuse, which has the connotation of sexual attraction in French more than curviness, to them. To conclude as the Guide does that "graceful and pained, the Botticelli Madonna keeps, behind her sublime reserve, all the sensuous melancholy of the eternal Eve" seems to me wide of the mark. In Proust's novel, Swann's connection of his despicable wife, Odette, with one of the Botticelli Madonnas (see my post on October 7, Your Weekly Proust 2) seems also to speak to this paradox. In a way Swann baptizes a real woman, who is manifestly impure, with the image of purity itself. I see the Botticelli Madonna more as Edith Wharton wrote of the example in the Louvre (see above) as the "Sad Lady," in whom we see "On thy waste brow and sadly-folded lips, / Forefeeling the Light's terrible eclipse / On Calvary, as if love made thee wise."

Botticelli, Saint Augustine, 1480The authors of the Guide officiel also point out the changes in the later Madonnas, painted in the period dominated by the zealous Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, a time when Botticelli certainly no longer had to paint Madonnas but did. They do seem weightier and darker in tone. This is also the period of Botticelli's last secular painting, Calumny (Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, 1497), done in the same year that Savonarola ordered the burning of jewelry, fine clothing, secular art and books, which hangs in the large second room of the exhibition. In this period of informants and denouncements, Botticelli himself was accused of sodomy, so he probably identified himself with the young man accused by Calumny in the painting, with the assistance of Ignorance, Suspicion, Rancor, Envy, and Deceit, while Truth and Penitence look on helpless. The exhibit also includes a painting depicting Savonarola's violent end, Execution of Savonarola, attributed to Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli (from the Museo di San Marco in Florence, 1498), showing the pyre in front of the Palazzo Vecchio where he was killed. The two portraits of Saint Augustine seem to show the two contrasting characters of the Medici and Savonarola periods. The first (a fresco removed from the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence, 1480, image at left) shows Augustine as a typical man of the Renaissance, a secular bishop surrounded by books and scientific instruments, his miter laid down on his desk. The second (a wood panel from the Uffizi, 1494) presents Augustine as a tonsured monk in an austere cell, working with a quill on a small book. This is not, I emphasize, to repeat the now discredited claim that Botticelli became one of Savonarola's followers, only to underscore the exhibition's main point, that Botticelli seems to reflect in his work the different tones of the two periods in Florence's history.

—» Go to Part 2.