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A book on Botticelli produced in conjunction with an exhibition, but still of general interest and relevance.

Botticelli is probably currently the most famous painter from Renaissance Florence-- I mean the most famous who did not also do other things, such as sculpting or goldsmithing-- but it's amazing how little is generally known about him. He lived between 1445 and 1510, and painted several things which are ridiculously famous such as the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, etc., and several things which aren't (I had not known he illustrated an edition of Dante).

The essays included provide a very good biographical overview of Botticelli: what we do know (that he apprenticed with Fra Lippo Lippi, that his father was a tanner), what we don't know (why he is called Botticelli, a nickname which means 'little pot' and which was apparently originally his brother's nickname and spread or something else confusing like that), and what has been debunked (Vasari's biography, which as most contemporary was taken as gospel for generations, is apparently factually inaccurate about the last years of Botticelli's life).

It also gives a good overview of Florentine politics of the time, the reign of Lorenzo de Medici and his attempts to make Florence into the next Athens or Rome fading into the brief reign of the monk Savonarola, who held the famous Bonfire of the Vanities and wished to make Florence the New Jerusalem. Many famous artists and scholars, including Botticelli, followed Savonarola, which has confused later academics; this book argues convincingly that there is not that much difference, in some ways, between one scheme to reform humanity along utopian ideals and another. It also argues convincingly that many of Botticelli's later-period works, due to the changes in his style because of his association with Savonarola, have been inaccurately seen as lesser, and that it's quite possible many of them have not even been properly attributed to him yet.

The plates give a good overview of early Botticelli, with his master Lippi's influence clearly visible; mid-period, the ones everyone has memorized; the few that are known to be late-period, which certainly do look different and are clearly full of even more obscure academic and theological symbolism than the previous (if you think the Primavera is confusing, try the Mystical Crucifixion, yeesh); and the drawings from Dante, which fascinate me by conforming almost perfectly to the not-yet-evolved narrative conventions of the comic strip.

In short, ignore that this is exhibit-related, and find it if you can, if you need a good resource about this painter, his milieu, and how they related to each other, because there is a lot of very useful data packed into a very brief space here, including even rankings of the relative usefulness and accuracy of other books on the subject. This is one of the periods in history I know something about, both from natural inclination and from research for setting fiction in it, and there were things here I had not heard, which was not something I really expected.


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March 2017

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