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Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Renaissance, the Reformer, and the Painter

Sandro Botticelli has always fascinated me, less as a seminal painter (which he is), than as a unique example of a great artist who fell under the sway of a particularly powerful form of religious fundamentalism. My understanding is limited because, honestly, I don’t know much about Savonarola and even Botticelli.

I’m aware that Fra Girolamo Savonarola had been disciplined by the Pope for aligning with the French and prophesying the invasion of Florence to Charles, King of France. Apparently, Florence was to be a new Jerusalem and I get the impression that if Savonarola was a reformist of the harshest order (he was as antisecular as I think you can get), he may possibly been driven by his own sense of realpolitik. I wish I did know more because it fascinates me that he was charismatic enough to draw a significant number of followers and be perceived as a threat by both Rome and the Medici.

Additionally, his is an object lesson that regardless of the advances made in education, technology, science and the arts, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for spiritual malaise or even fear (on the part of the faithful) of persecution. Both can be fuel for what we see currently in the so-called "culture wars" between fundamentalism of various stripes and the secular structures in place in education, technology, the sciences and the arts and how these differences have profound effect on politics and policy.

I would argue that despite their primitive rhetoric and appeal to millenarian/apocalyptic visions, many of these charismatic leaders aren’t necessarily stupid. Certainly, they seem remarkably uneducated, uninterested in, if not outright hostile to science and technological advances, but they know how to play politics and have carved out extremely dug-in positions among the conservative right. The reasons are numerous and this isn’t what I’m interested in addressing right here.

What I am interested in looking at are two paintings at the Fogg on display at the Harvard Art Museums. One is a Madonna and Child from 1490, if memory serves. The other is a crucifixion from 1500 or 1510. The one predates his involvement with Savonarola (but not his brother’s who was more under the reformer’s influence than Sandro); the other was painted afterward and there’s a note that Botticelli may have painted the crucifixion for his own use. I find them both amazing works and I think I may be one of the few who find Botticelli’s post-conversion work as compelling in its own way as his earlier, more sensuous oeuvre.

In the Madonna and Child, we see this handling of the brush and vision of one of those pristine Botticellian faces on par with his Venus or La Primavera. It’s a tour de force of surface, color and movement.

The crucifixion, by contrast, is raw and expressionist in a way not often seen from someone whose work was typically much more studied and composed.

It’s a sketch, to be sure, but it’s almost Germanic in composition and attack. The angel in the lower right looks almost as tortured as Christ on the cross and the city in the background (Florence as the New Jerusalem) shimmers like a fever dream.What intrigues me is the idea that he might have painted this for his own use. Perhaps as his own reminder of the End Times? Was there something in Savonarola’s teachings that privileged or prioritized the smokey, burning of this vision of a dawn of a new age? Whatever it might be doctrinally, the very fact this exists shows its precedence in Botticelli’s life.

But the first reaction I had to it was that this vision didn’t bring him peace.It’s an agitated, disturbing counterpoint to his Madonna, serene in her place as the Mother of God, but not necessarily divorced from the world. The natural world in Sandro’s pre-Savonarolan work is thriving and alive and embraced and embracing. The flip side is a work like the crucifixion, which admittedly comes with the territory, but there’s a darkness that shocks in the composition. It begs contemplation; you can feel the despair the artist feels at the end of all he’s known up to this point.

Botticelli didn’t live much longer. It’s said that he burned a number of his works in a bonfire along with others who were heeding Savonarola’s call to turn their backs on the vanity of the world.

They are remarkable works and show a studied poeticism that remains with the artist in his later years.I wonder, though: what would the younger Botticelli’s interpretation of Dante look like? Or would it take an artist of his caliber to have his soul forged by reformer’s fire and brought to the depths to begin to essay the Alighierian depths (and heights)? And at the end of this contemplation, I’m reminded me that Savonarola was eventually excommunicated, hung and burned.

I want to be sure that I’m not dismissing him or writing him off. Pico della Mirandola thought pretty highly of Savonarola’s intellect and debates skills (Machiavelli didn’t think much of him, at all), and in any event, he remains a figure of influence in the Renaissance. It would be a whole other area of pursuit to examine the impact of these movements on the sociopolitical dimensions of the time. I believe we could learn much from them.

Postscript, December 7. After having spent a little more time reviewing the period and poring over a few papers, I want to return to the principals and question my own assumptions about the time, the intersection of faith and politics, and look a little more deeply about how we are danced with similar challenges as beset early sixteenth century Florence.


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