Saturday, 15 October 2011

Botticelli's - Cestello Annunciation

During our recent visit to Italy we went to  the Uffizi in Florence.  Their collection of Italian art is unsurpassed and definitely not to be missed.  As a result of the visit I have begun to understand more about the Renaissance.

In the 14th century, when Simone Martini painted “The Annunciation” (1333) the International Gothic style of the early renaissance was in full flower. The art that has been preserved usually concerns religious subjects. It uses little perspective; is painted in low relief and is often highly stylized.  There is lavish use of gold leaf and bright colours.
(You can click on any of the images in this post and they will open at their original size in a new window.  Click the back button to return to the post).

The Annunciation – by Simone Martini 1333 

By  the 16th century the Late Renaissance painters, like the mature Titian, were painting both religious and profane subjects. Their paintings use fully developed perspective, colours are naturalistic; faces and figures are modelled with startling and often seductive realism.  His “Venus of Urbino” 1538, is a striking example.

Venus of Urbino - by Tiziano Vecelli 1538

Between 1470, when Sandro Botticelli  first had his own workshop, and his death in 1510, he was painting at a pivotal point in this transition between the stylized and the naturalistic.  In the Birth of Venus, for example, the background uses some perspective but his faces and figures are in low relief and the plane of visual interest is relatively flat.  His work can't be called naturalistic, neither is it completely stylized but I am fascinated by it.  For me it combines grace and beauty with sophistication.

The Birth of Venus - by Sandro Botticelli 1485

In Botticelli’s paintings the face of Simonetta Vespucci recurs frequently.

Simonetta Vespucci

She was married to a neighbour of Botticelli and within a short time after her arrival in the city, at the age of fifteen, she was celebrated for her beauty. You can find her face everywhere in his work. It was said that by the early 1470’s every nobleman in the city was besotted with her. 

Simonetta Vespucci in Primavera -1482

She died in 1476, but he continued to paint her likeness in posthumous portraits and major works for more than a decade. If this sounds morbid, think about our present day reverence for long dead iconic celebrities like Marilyn Monroe or more recently Princess Diana.  There again, perhaps he was just in love with her!

I can understand his obsession.  Ever since I first saw some of these paintings in Florence in my early twenties, his work and the face of Simonetta Vespucci has stayed with me.  These days some of his paintings, like "the Birth of Venus"  or "Primavera", are so well known that they are becoming almost too familiar, so on this visit I was not expecting to be bowled over yet again!

Cestello Annunciation 1489-90

But my reaction to Botticelli’s “Cestello Annunciation" 1489-90 took me by surprise.  In a busy room I stood for several minutes, unaware of my surroundings, captivated by both the beauty of the composition and its humanity. The moment in which Mary is told that she will bear a child is caught to perfection. The angel Gabriel kneels respectfully before her, whilst she makes a gesture as if to push away the news. The room is drawn in perspective, the figures are partly stylized but fully modelled, especially the robes of Gabriel and Mary.  The position of the arms and the angel’s wings form a diagonal line which bisects the square composition and almost cuts across the view through the window of an idealised Tuscan landscape. A river leads your eyes to a bridge in the distance and the tree in the upper part of the sky acts as a full stop at the top of the composition. 

Of all the works of art that I saw in the Uffizi on this trip, this one was special.


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