Episode 32: Botticelli and Raphael

Stream audio

Allesandro (Sandro) Botticelli (nee Filipepi) (1445-1510) was born in Florence twelve years after Marsilio Ficino, and while there doesn’t seem to be any proof (or disproof) that he “belonged” to Ficino’s Academy, it is obvious that he was influenced by the Neoplatonism that Academy promulgated.  He knew and painted many members of the Medici family, as well as the student of Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and other humanists who were part of it.

Sandro Botticelli, "The Adoration of the Magi,"c. 1475

Sandro Botticelli, “The Adoration of the Magi,”c. 1475. Cosimo de Medici kneels before Mary and the Child, while Lorenzo and other family and friends look on. Botticelli is the self-portrait in the right front.

Perhaps more than any other artist of the time, Botticelli chose as his his subjects themes from ancient Greek and Roman mythologies.  He also painted many pictures of strictly Christian iconography, and apparently–at least in the early part of his career–did not see any conflict between them.  In his later life he became a disciple of the austere monk Savonarola, essentially stopped painting, and and is said to have burned some of his own earlier works in the “bonfires of the vanities.”

While debate still goes on about the meanings of these Greek-inspired works to us today, it is evident that they speak a language with which the Florentines of the 15th century were more familiar.  An example is the famous “Birth of Venus,” which now hangs in the Ufizzi Gallery.  It seems to be derived from the Greek myth of the birth of Aphrodite (Ἀφροδίτη), in which she was born when the severed genitals of the sky-god Uranus (or Ouranos, Οὐρανός) were thrown into the sea by his son Cronos.  Without getting too graphic, Aphrodite was born from that fertilization, if you will.  But whereas the Greek Aphrodite was pretty strictly associated with sexual passion, the Roman Venus was more complex, and also had associations with beauty and love.

Sandro Botticelli, "The Birth of Venus," 1486

Sandro Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus,” 1486

In the painting, Venus is naked, but is making something of an attempt to cover her nakedness.  She is born out of the sea, carried on a seashell, and is being propelled toward land by a winged wind-blowing god and nymph, perhaps.¹  On the right, a clothed woman stands ready to cover Venus as she moves to the land.  This can be seen as an Ideal of Beauty at the moment of crossing the border, as in the Divided Line, from the Intelligible to the Sensible, from the divine to the mundane, from the universal to the particular.  Around the wind-spirits, flowers swirl freely, while on the right, they have become static images, woven into the cloth and worn as part of the clothed woman’s belt.  So I believe this painting is representative of that transitional moment with which we humans are always faced: are we creatures of the intellect or of the senses?  Can we be spiritually naked, like Adam and Eve also, or must we always be covered with the cloth, however beautiful, of our own limited identities?

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), one of Michelangelo’s rivals, was born in the wrong place (Urbino) and came to Florence too late (probably 1504) to participate in the Platonic Academy.  By the time he came, it and the Medici and Michelangelo were gone.  But he did absorb the influence of the art that was everywhere, and especially came under the influence of Leonardo, who had returned to Florence around this time.  This influence can be seen in his use of landscapes in portraits, which of course is a hallmark of Leonardo’s–Michelangelo had no use for them, putting all the attention on the person, which even in his paintings look like sculptures.  Raphael, wisely did not attempt sculpture, leaving that turf to Michelangelo alone.

But Raphael’s talent was obvious, and soon he headed to Rome where he was also employed by Pope Julian II in decorating his quarters at the Vatican.  Michelangelo was at work nearby on the Sistine Chapel under great secrecy, but it is said that sometimes at night Raphael would be let in so he could view the dynamic, muscular figures that populated Michelangelo’s vision.  Raphael, more generous in his evaluation of other artists, included Michelangelo in his famous work, the “School of Athens,” which also shows his intimate knowledge of the Ideal tradition.  Michelangelo is cast as Heraclitus in the front, while Plato has the face of Leonardo.  (If the figure of Socrates was based on another artist, no one seems to know now who it was.)

Raphael Sanzio, "The School of Athens," 1505

Raphael Sanzio, “The School of Athens,” 1505. The figure of Plato is said to be based on Leonardo, and Raphael has included a self-portrait in the lower right hand.

The tradition is here recognized and validated in a way it never had been before.  Pre-Socratic philosophers are included, as well as Plotinus (the brown-robed figure on the right) and some non-Western writers such as Averroes who had also contributed to the tradition.  Raphael’s knowledge of the tradition is astonishingly complete, and could only have been acquired based on the translations of Plato, Plotinus and others by Ficino.  It is also remarkable for having only “pagan” figures of the tradition, where one might reasonably expect to see Christian Platonists such as St. Augustine included, especially in the private chambers of the pope.  Of this painting, Sir Kenneth Clark says, in Civilisation: A Personal View:

The Stanza della Segnature was to be the Pope’s private library.  Raphael knew the library at Urbino where paintings of poets, philosophers and theologians were placed above the shelves containing their books, and he determined to carry out the same idea much further.  He would not only portray the figures whose books were in the shelves below, but would relate them to each other and the whole discipline of which they formed a part.  He must have had advice from the learned and cultivated men who made up about a third of the papal curia.  But this sublime work wasn’t assembled by a committee.  Everything in the group is thought out.  For example, of the two central figures in the School of Athens, Plato the idealist is on the left, and he points upwards to divine inspiration.  Beyond him to the left are the philosophers who appealed to intuition and the emotions.  They are nearer the figure of Apollo–and they lead on to the wall of the Parnassus.  To the right is Aristotle, the man of good sense, holding out a moderating hand; and beyond him are the representatives of rational activities–logic, grammar and geometry. ²

As Clark mentions, not content to stop there, on the wall to the left Raphael painted another mural based on a Greek theme, that of the great names of poetry gathering on Mount Parnassus.  At the center is Apollo (Ἀπόλλων, “not many”), along with Calliope (or Kalliope, Καλλιόπη, “beautiful-voiced),  inspirers of music and poetry, surrounded by other muses and great poets from Greece and Italy.  It must have been a relief to sit in the presence of these serene and happy paintings, given the often grim and joyless subject matter found in Bible stories.

Raphael, "Parnassus," 1511

Raphael, “Parnassus,” 1511

Speaking of which, I’ve already spoken (Episode 23) of the disparity between the representations of the biblical Day of Judgment as usually depicted in paintings of this period, and another work by Raphael in these same rooms, The Liberation of St. Peter.  I believe it also shows the influence of Plato on his work.

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), The Liberation of St. Peter, The Vatican

If I may quote myself:

“The parallels between this and the Cave Allegory are striking.  Like the prisoners in the cave, Peter is bound by chains.  Unconsciousness prevails–the guards are asleep, their faces hidden, and so is Peter in the cell.  The only light in the scene is firelight, as in the cave, or the reflected light of the moon–until, that is, the angel arrives, being its own source of light.  Then the angel leads Peter by the hand out of the cell past the sleeping guards.

So unlike the image of judgment and punishment, this can serve as an analogy for how the Good works to bring about our “salvation.”  As Plato sums it up in speaking of the cave:

This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows.  But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.”

This Ideal of Absolute Beauty permeated the world of Renaissance art, and raised it to a level far beyond the static depictions of Bible stories and saints that had gone before.  Its effect was to bring back to Man the knowledge of the Good, and to remind us that at each moment we stand at the intersection with the eternal.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License   Other graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹The cat-tails in the lower left of the picture are obviously phallic symbols.  Kidding!

²Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Harper and Row, 1969, p. 181.
(I’m not entirely sure I buy this, given that Plotinus is also in this group.  Also, I believe he had access to learned men other than those in the papal curia.)