- the new art history

Thursday, 14 January 2016

A New Analysis: History and The Outstanding Iconographical Concerns.

Fig. 1. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c.1484-86)Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence

Sandro Botticelli's (1445-1510) Birth of Venus (fig.1) was painted for the Florentine Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici (1463-1503) a younger second cousin to Lorenzo di Piero di Cosimo de' Medici (1449-1492) known as il Magnifico (the Magnificent).

Because the younger Lorenzo was orphaned at the age of 13 years, il Magnifico had his cousin schooled in the ways of the court and tutored by (among others) Angelo (Agnolo) Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino. Extracted from the Media Library of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (advisory editor Elena Capretti), the early life of Lorenzo runs thus:
"When his father Pierfrancesco died prematurely (1476), Lorenzo was left an orphan at the age of 13. Consequently he and his brother came under the tutelage of Lorenzo il Magnifico, who raised his protegés along with his own children, ensuring that they were given an education of refined culture. In fact, the tutors of Lorenzo junior included the poet Naldo Naldi, the humanist Giorgio Antonio di Amerigo Vespucci, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino and the erudite intellectual Agnolo Poliziano.Between 1476 and 1490 Ficino addressed to his pupil, whom he called Laurentius minor, a number of letters laden with advice, ethical admonitions, religious exhortations and eulogies, which reflect the founding principles of Lorenzo’s education. Moreover the philosopher was in the habit of presenting his pupil with books designed to mould his character, including his own Liber Vita and a manuscript containing Plato’s DialoguesPoliziano - the principal tutor of the Medici progeny, in whom he infused a love of classical antiquity - dedicated to Lorenzo the Manto of his Silvae, published in 1482, two epigrams in 1484 and an elegy entitled Ad Laurentium Medicem juniorem. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco therefore grew up in the heart of the cultural and philosophical ambit of the Magnifico’s entourage, sharing its frequentations, interests and ideals.

It was believed by Professor E. Gombrich that Ficino was the 'spiritual mentor' of the young Lorenzo during the period when both the Primavera (c.1482) and the Birth of Venus (c.1484-86) were produced. Where Poliziano may have assisted with the Primavera (there is no proof that he did not) the Birth of Venus may well bear the stamp of Ficino's influence. Gombrich believed in the possibility that the influential proximity of Ficino at the court of the Medici may have allowed Ficino to assert his Neo-Platonic influence on either or both the Primavera and the Birth of Venus. Gombrich states:
What can be argued from the proximity of Botticelli's patron to Ficino and from the circumstances which may have accompanied the first commission of this kind of mythology is that these images were seen as something more than decorations. [Gombrich, 1972, p. 35].
Considering the argument for that claim and the evidence presented by Gombrich - and under the popular acceptance of the paintings as yet unidentified Neo-Platonic meaning, those possibilities must remain theoretical until proved otherwise. However of the Birth of Venus Gombrich is not simply in the ball park - he is already at second base.

According to the Uffizi web site ( the theme of the Birth of Venus is described by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, however the brief reference there refers to the goddess recalling, in the first person as it were, the reference to the Greek word for 'sea foam' which is called Aphrodite:
"I, too, have some influence with the sea, for I was once fashioned from foam, in its divine depths, and my Greek name recalls that origin." Metamorphoses Book IV, p.108

Further, the Uffizi also claims that the Birth of Venus is a Neo-Platonic allegory:
'We can find clear references to the “Stanzas”, a famous poetic work by Agnolo Poliziano, a contemporary of Botticelli and the greatest Neo-Platonic poet of the Medici court. Neoplatonism was a current of thought that tried to connect the Greek and Roman cultural heritage with Christianity.

The painting will need to bear the stamp of Neo-Platonic influence and contain a certain robustness of debate. But because the Birth of Venus and the Primavera differ enormously in subject matter neither painting is at all like the other beyond Botticelli's stylistic virtuosity. It is the Primavera which lacks the Neo-Platonic content, and the fact that these two paintings share nothing in conceptual intent is reflected in the interpretative methods that shall be employed to extract their different meanings.

In most interpretations of the Birth of Venus the description of the arrival of Venus near the shore of Cyprus is widely accepted to have been located in Poliziano's 'Stanze per la Giostra', an epic poem which itself is believed to have been sourced  from several ancient authors (Gombrich, Botticelli's Mythologies, p.74.) 

Poliziano's writing describes the goddess Aphrodite/Venus as 'carried across waves on a conch shell and wafted to shore by playful zephyrs. He writes of the Hours (Horaeand of Venus receiving her celestial raiment by the three sisters (Horae). The three relevant stanzas presented below - XCIX 99, C 100, &  CI 101, describe the Birth of Venus according to Poliziano's pen:
In the stormy Aegean, the genital member is
 seen to be received in the lap of Tethys to drift
 across the waves, wrapped in white foam, be-
 neath the various turnings of the planets; and
 within, both with lovely and happy gestures, a
 young woman with nonhuman countenance, is
 carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by
 playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven re-
 joices in her birth.
Explanation: XCIX 99: The genital member were the testicles of Uranus which  were 'received in the lap of Tethys (poetically, the sea) now fertilised by the sea foam (the Greek word for sea-foam = Aphrodite). The 'non-human countenance' describes a goddess who is carried along by the conch shell and wafted to shore by the playful zephyrs (breezes). In this stanza there is a cultural conflict because the translation claims conch shell and not a cockle or scallop as portrayed by Botticelli.
C 100
You would call the foam real, the sea real, real
 the conch shell and real the blowing wind; you
 would see the lightning in the goddess’s eyes,
 the sky and the elements laughing about her; the
 Hours treading the beach in white garments, the
 breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair;
 their faces not one, not different, as befits sisters.
Explanation: C 100: Emphasis is seemingly placed on the realism [but is in fact laying down the iconology of] the foamthe sea, the conch shell and the blowing wind.
CI 101
You could swear that the goddess had emerged
 from the waves, pressing her hair with her right
 hand, covering with the other her sweet mound
 of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted by
 her sacred and divine step, it had clothed itself
 in flowers and grass; then with happy, more than
 mortal features, she was received in the bosom
 of the three nymphs and cloaked in a starry gar-
Explanation: CI 101: Reference is made to her hand covering her 'sweet mound' (a reference to the pudica pose)Venus is received  by the (threeHorae and is cloaked in a starry garment.

Surprisingly the three Horae (hours or seasons) are only very briefly referred to in Ovid's fourth book of the Metamorphoses, and although endorsed in the Uffizi interpretation the Ovidian reference is of little value. In fact the reference quoted of Ovid by the Uffizi is of the sea-born goddess reiterating the origin of her identity through the Greek name for 'sea-foam' (Aphrodite). It is a rather loose cultural association and seems hardly worth the gravitas awarded it by the official Uffizi web site.

That there is only one attendant Hora in Botticelli's painting and not three is extremely problematic.  For example we are expecting the Supremes and what we get is Diana Ross. It is still an excellent performance so the public is not complaining - but the image on the poster does not coincide with the reality. Similarly, in iconographic terms, one female attendant does not equate to the motif of the three - therefore the singular female attendant's identification as a Hora remains questionable. Botticelli may well have had another persona in mind for a critical reason.

Fig. 2. Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (Detail)

The second problem is the pinkish garment which is held near to the figure of Venus by the single 'nymph'.Botticelli's Venus is about to receive her garment from the lone female figure standing on the shore, but that robe looks decidedly earthly. The issue here is that the garment presented by Botticelli is not a 'starry robe', as described by Poliziano in in the 'Stanze per la Giostra': it is on the contrary most definitely 'earthly' and to emphasise this point the garment is covered with flowers and vegetation - distinctly marking an iconographic departure from Poliziano's original description in stanza CI 101: 
"...cloaked in a starry garment."
Botticelli has not simply creatively deviated from the iconography established in Poliziano's verse, he has completely reversed the cloaks iconographic meaning which now destroys adherence to the literalism of the supposed source. By not honouring the cloak as being celestial in nature completely changes the iconographical import of the action and is an extremely powerful comment that has been iconographically underestimated. If - as Gombrich had suggested - the iconography for both the poem and the painting sourced ancient references which were then composed as a new 'mosaic', these stones, convenient as they are, simply do not fit. 

As starry garments and robes go, the first that springs to mind is the cloak of Mithras, and where that robe is portrayed the iconography is of course integral to the image.

Fig. 3.  Fresco from the mithraeum at Marino, Italy (third century)

The iconographic rule there must be no less important here in understanding the meaning of the Birth of Venus. What we actually see in the Birth of Venus - in direct contrast to the paintings supposed literal source - are two missing nymphs and a substitute for what should have been a specifically 'starry' robe. 

Writers of art history have accommodated this fracture in reason, perhaps in the name of art, which is to conclude that an artist may have flights of fancy or that it is within the imaginative power of the artist to alter at will in the cause of whimsy or pictorial balance etc., and so at first this does not appear to diminish the speculated symbolism. After all, Venus does emerge from a shell near to shore blown by the breezes and there you are; all else is apparently inconsequential - but this is wrong. 
Iconographically, sensible rules make common sense and the iconographic rule will still make sense across all time and across all disciplines because it needs understanding not compensating. 

We are in the privileged position of being able to, at the click of a mouse, consider the cloak of Mithras in direct comparison to the cloak of Botticelli's Venus. As an interdisciplinary exercise we can see that the methodological approach of a fourteenth century Franciscan friar is not incompatible with twentieth century physics. Physicist Stephen Hawking in the popular book 'A Brief History of Time' quotes his variation of the method of William of Ockham:

'It seems better to employ the principle of economy known as Occam's razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed." Hawking. p. 59. 
It is this very frugality in regard to iconographical interpretation that is required here; two of the three nymphs cannot be observed because they are not there and neither can the starry robe be observed because it is not there either. So according to the populist meaning of the Birth of Venus there are two missing nymphs and a substitute for what should have been a starry robe and unfortunately to compensate for these anomalies the Birth of Venus has become over time an 'ad hoc hypothesis'.

Why and how, when iconography and iconology are taken as serious pursuits by historians, has this extraordinary lack of critical judgement perpetuated? After much emphasis by historians on the painting as the product of that noble and erudite environment - the Court of the Medici, one begins to sense now the ego of the scholar as the erudite performer. No longer merely the academic, but now a hybrid creature half scholar and half artist, the art historian desires to be seen (by proxy) as an artist in his own right, in a sense pursuing a careerist agenda developed as a corollary of academic inflation. 

The association with Poliziano's poem has been wheeled out time and again uncritically, as though that original hypothesis had been held between two mirrors where it is reflected through time and academia ad infinitumJan Assman stated in his book 'Moses the Egyptian':

"Disciplines develop questions of their own and by doing so function as a mnemotechnique of forgetting with regard to concerns of a more general and fundamental character." Assman, p.6
And this is precisely what has occurred in 'acceptable' interpretations of the Birth of VenusPerhaps institutionally, it is actually easier to create ad hoc propositions and seen to be producing than it is to find the time in very busy schedules to go it alone. Support can only be forthcoming from those who have the time and the creative intelligence to see the vision; to bother to tread outside a well beaten path, and university culture (certainly in the arts) seems to have created an almost hostile environment towards innovation and enthusiasm. 

Because the Birth of Venus is missing a starry robe and two Horae, the conclusion can only be that Poliziano's verse is more of a stage prop which has critically very little to do with the more meaningful iconography of Botticelli's painting. These points represent two major iconographic issues in the painting as regards interpretation and we must now become more sensitive and open to any further insights that might be gleaned from the culture that spawned this icon of art history. But to expand upon and elucidate further possibilities there are some rather intense cultural issues to consider.

Next post: The true meaning of the Birth of Venus.


Ovid, Metamorphoses.
Trans. M.M. Innes 1955. Penguin Books Australia.

E. H Gombrich, Symbolic Images (enter details)

Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi. (Advisory editor Elena Capretti),iLorenzo il Popolano.

Hawking, Stephen. 1988. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Press, Great Britain.

Assman. J. 1998. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press.

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