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Botticelli Exhibit (Part 2 of 2)

Here is the conclusion of my remarks on the Botticelli exhibit (Botticelli, de Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole) at the Musée du Luxembourg, which I saw in Paris on October 8. (Part 1 was posted on October 8.)

The concept of framing was out there in the blogosphere a while back (for example, see Modern Art Notes on August 11), and a number of visitors around me questioned the presentation of some of these works. At the end of the first hallway is the pair of Judith paintings (Discovery of the Cadaver of Holofernes and Judith Returns to Bethulia, both from the Galleria degli Uffizi, 1470), behind glass in a case made of plain weathered wood that almost looks like it was taken from an old barn. In spite of the weird framing, these are remarkable miniature wood panels, the second of which shows the other side of that distant serenity of the Madonnas, the cold cruelty of woman. Here Judith, light as a feather, carries an olive branch in one hand and the bloody murder weapon in the other, while her lady-in-waiting bears the severed head of her enemy on her head like a trophy. Judith is a heroine, bringing peace to her people through her courageous seduction and murder of Holofernes, but her face reveals no trace of human emotion. In the first panel, the Assyrian soldiers recoil in darkened horror at the discovery of the naked body of their general, decapitated and bloody in his bed. The dark tone and tortuous composition of this panel make a striking contrast with its counterpart.

Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482In the middle part of his career, Botticelli worked mainly on secular themes for his greatest patron, Lorenzo de Medici. This is the period of the Primavera and the Birth of Venus, neither of which is at the Luxembourg. There are three portraits in the main room of the exhibit, one of a man holding a medal of Cosimo the Elder (Uffizi, 1475) and two of young women, one quite homely (sometimes known as La bella Simonetta, from the Galleria Palatina in Florence, c. 1485) and the other elegant and pleasing (Portrait of a Young Woman, from a private collection in New York, 1481-82) which offers a plain view of one of the Florentine women who could have been a model for one of the Madonnas. It is also the period for the mythological paintings like Pallas and the Centaur (Uffizi, c. 1482, shown at right), which shows another of the cruel Botticelli women, Athena this time holding an enormous halberd and wearing dominatrix-like vines that wrap bindingly around her breasts, and the Judgment of Paris (Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice, 1485-88). A fascinating sketch of Pallas (Uffizi, 1491) shows the goddess with two different facial expressions.

In the darkened room with the drawings is one of Botticelli's illustrations of Dante's Inferno, the so-called Map of Hell on parchment (Vatican Library, 1480-90). I wanted to have a magnifying glass to examine the tiny details of each circle and bolgia of hell, depicted faithfully, including the legs of the simonists in Canto 19, protruding from the burning rock. Other high points of the show for me include the enormous and extensively restored fresco of the Annunciation (from the church of San Martino della Scala, now removed to the Uffizi, 1481) which measures about 8 feet high by 16 feet wide. I don't want to think about the dangers of having transported it to Paris from Florence, but I was blown away by the choice of colors and the daring composition. The angel and Mary do not even seem to meet each other's gaze across the empty space, but otherworldly rays sweep Gabriel through the arch at the left and connect him to the Virgin. Finally, a group of older, conservatively dressed French ladies spent a lot of time looking at the sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, The Incarnate Angel (private collection in Los Angeles, 1513-15), in which an angel's apparent delight in being given a body includes displaying his erect penis. As Daniel Arasse writes in the Guide officiel, "This is a private drawing which was never meant to be shown. It is the painter's image of the desirable androgyne, his fantasy. This disturbing image crosses a forbidden border, descending past the era's limit, the navel."

If you can get to Paris before February 22, I encourage you to see this exhibit. It brings together a number of works that create a thought-provoking assessment of Botticelli's work and includes several pieces from private collections that are almost impossible to view any other way.

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