Botticelli, Florence and the Medici
Updated: May 17
Missing Europe? I’m missing absolutely everywhere to be honest, so a definite ‘me too’ to Europe. That is why I took myself off to see ‘Botticelli, Florence and the Medici’'.
Could any thing be more quintessentially European. A film about Florence when it was the uncrowned political, financial and cultural hub of Europe. A film about Lorenzo de Medici, nicknamed ‘the Magnificent’, who was not only from one of the most politically influential families the world has seen but who was also one of its most significant cultural patrons (and a critically acclaimed poet, no less!). And let’s not forget the artist himself. Botticelli, the ‘little barrel’ who rose from his father’s tannery business under the patronage of the influential Medici to become one of Europe’s most significant artists and human tools of influence; a brilliant young creator of images with seemingly eternal prestige …. his images appropriated by everyone from Mussolini to Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga. Now, that is cultural reach!
‘Botticelli, Florence and the Medici’ covers so much ground and has so many insights into this historic period. Notable and telling is the film's coverage of the daring assassination attempt by the Pazzi family on Lorenzo Medici and his brother Giuliano, illustrating how intrigue, politics, money and religion were so inextricably merged in Florence at this time. The fact that this attempted (and successful, in regards to Giuliano) murder took place when the brothers were attending a high mass at the Duomo was proof of its audacity. The assassination plot was informally supported by Pope Sixtus IV and the Salviati (the Papal bankers in Florence at the time) – in a church, during a high mass, in front of 10,000 worshippers – the politics quite obviously trumping the religious significance of the location to these perpetrators. In response, the surviving Lorenzo essentially decimated the Pazzi clan and members of the Salviati, hanging their bodies conspicuously for all the inhabitants of Florence to see. The optics were obvious and left no Florentine in doubt regarding who was boss.
Yet, while the furious Lorenzo sort retribution he was still the consummate diplomat and politician. Instead of annihilating Pope Sixtus and destabilising Italy – which he could easily have done as he quickly moved to secure support in other powerful places – he offered the Pope his most valuable possessions to augment the beauty of Rome; the artists Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli. Total triumph. The obviously worried Pope was not even named and shamed for his part in the assassination attempt and, in turn, with the Pope’s newly acquired deference and loyalty, Lorenzo became close to invincible. Those in the know must have thought 'shrewd dude', or whatever was the fifteenth century equivalent of that sentiment. Lorenzo was a strategist beyond compare.
‘Botticelli, Florence and the Medici’ is such a treasure trove. I haven’t even started to explore Botticelli and I don’t have the blog inches to do this great artist justice. Suffice to say, before Botticelli went to Rome he was a brilliantly effective propaganda machine for Lorenzo, inserting the images of Lorenzo, his brother and other favoured members of Lorenzo’s inner circle into the biblical imagery he produced (ie the viewer could see these great gentlemen were themselves in God’s inner circle) and also putting the Medici family insignia (logo/brand) onto the fabric which adorned various haloed figures he depicted, of both the religious and the secular variety.
Botticelli did eventually return from the Papal City to Florence after assisting in the ongoing decoration the Sistine Chapel, yearning for the creative freedom this his Roman relocation had short-circuited. Once back in his cherished Florence, he completed both ‘Primavera’ and ‘Birth of Venus’, arguably his most important and definitely his most famous works. Having already well and truly broken the tradition of female profile portraiture where his sitters were so easy to objectify (side-on and viewed rather than face-to-face), Botticelli was first to have his various ‘her(s)’ boldly looking into her viewers’ eyes. And then? Well, he objectified ‘her’ all over again as Goddess and canon of European female beauty in ‘Birth of Venus’. Yet, is there an image of a Roman God that has in any way, shape or form colonised our collective minds as has this ethereal Goddess perched on her shell with her golden locks strategically wrapping her luminous form!
History books are out on whether Botticelli became pious in his old age. Close to Lorenzo de Medici’s death, a Dominican monk – Girolamo Savonarola – preached fire, brimstone repentance to the worldly Florentines and Botticelli would seem to leave his more sensual imagery behind - a shift that was also politically savvy at this time. Gone from his works were the beautiful maidens and Goddesses to be replaced by pious old men in religious garb looking serious and disapproving.
Botticelli died in poverty, his patron Lorenzo having departed and Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo now positioned as the most influential artists of the Italian court. Rediscovered by Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite cohort four centuries later, Botticelli was re-crowned and repositioned as the cultural megastar his obvious brilliance deserves, with the dubious honour of his 'Venus' and other of his imagery adorning everything from coffee cups to hair care products. Thankfully, the originals still grace church, gallery and museum walls.
The above is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the fascinating insights given in ‘Botticelli, Florence and the Medici’.