It’s difficult to know how 15th century Italians experienced the paintings of Sandro Botticelli.
What did they see, for instance, when they looked at La Primavera, the artist’s giant 70-square-foot canvas with a bunch of male and female figures, one of which has a vine coming out of her mouth?
What was the message or messages that Botticelli was sending? What was the message or messages that his patrons were paying him to convey?
Those are the sort of questions that German art historian Frank Zollner sets out to answer in the 1998 book Botticelli: Images of Love and Spring.
(This is one of nearly 50 titles in the Pegasus Series of sumptuously illustrated volumes issued between 1994 and 2007 by Prestel. Others include Arabian Nights: Four Tales from A Thousand and One Nights, art by Marc Chagall, text by Richard Francis Burton, and Titian: Nymph and Shepherd by John Berger and Katya Berger Andreadakis.)
Zollner parses La Primavera as well as The Birth of Venus, Mars and Venus, Minerva and the Centaur and two of the Villa Lemmi frescoes: Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented to the Liberal Arts and Giovanna Albizzi, Venus and the Three Graces. And it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job.
The faces of the women
But I was bored.
That wasn’t Zollner’s fault. I was reading his book to luxuriate in the beautifully reproduced images of the paintings and details of the paintings.
I didn’t care how Botticelli’s contemporaries experienced his work (although, I know, that, at other times, I would want to learn all these details). I was very much attuned to my own reactions. How I, as a 21st-century man, was responding.
Particularly, to the images of the women. Specifically, the faces of the women.
Consider those long necks, for instance, in the images of Venus above — the one on the left from Venus and Mars and the one on the right from La Primavera.
What are they thinking?
And what’s going on above in the mind of one of the dancing Graces (left) and behind the eyes of Flora, both from La Primavera?
What does the image of Venus from The Birth of Venus, with her ropes of hair and her inward gaze, tell us?
What the eyes say
These two Graces from Giovanna Albizzi, Venus and the Three Graces — are they overly sentimental, even simpering? Or does Botticelli’s eyes save them from that?
There is a mournful, pensive quality to the faces of Grammar from Lorenzo Tornabuoni Presented to the Liberal Arts (above left) and Minerva from Minerva and the Centaur.
Odd and unsettling
For me, the history behind a piece of art — and the biography of the artist — is much less important than what I see in the work and feel from it.
Those background things are important, I know — why the work was created, what message it was sending to the patron and viewers, how the work fit into the life of the artist.
But when I stand in front of a work, I want to experience it without preconceptions and without distractions. All of the information that Zollner has gathered and analyzed so well are, for me, simply footnotes to the paintings themselves.
There is much that is odd and unsettling in these six paintings. I want to see the oddity, such as the two figures to the left of Venus in The Birth of Venus. It’s pretty obvious that they’re winds of some sort, but I find their faces and bodies captivating in a poetic way.
Women, not girls
Even more, it’s the odd and unsettling faces of Botticelli’s women that enthrall me.
They are, first of all, women. Not girls. Not flirts. Not otherworldly creatures, even though they are supposed to be mythological figures.
To me, they look as modern as the women I see on the el or walking down the sidewalk.
Which is to say that they have a universal quality to them that make them seem as human as any human.
Their necks are too long and too elegant. Yet, in some weird way, the out-of-proportion necks are right. Maybe it’s because they point the viewer to the faces which hold deep emotion, complicated and rich.
These are self-contained women who see the world and see life with its essential sorrow.
Even as they seem preoccupied, they’re present, here and not here, thinking and feeling, especially feeling.
So, to Frank Zollner, I say: Thank you for the book.
I’m not in a mood for your words. But the images you’ve brought here — they are an abundant treasure.
Patrick T. Reardon