Botticelli’s New Uffizi Home

Birth by Venus by Botticelli

Along with other masterpieces, Botticelli0s Allegory of Spring has returned to a completely refurbished home at the Uffizi Gallery this fall.

The October inauguration closely follows the re-opening of Room 8, which hosts paintings by immediate predecessors Masaccio, Paolo Uccello and Filippo Lippi. It is the result of collaboration between the Uffizi and the “Friends of Florence.”

Botticelli is known to have used patrician Florentine beauty Simonetta Vespucci, Giuliano de’ Medici’s love, as a model for some of his works.  Centuries later, it is her namesake, American-born and Florence resident Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda who established and heads the “Friends of Florence.”

This U.S. non-profit organization with 501 (c) (3) status financed the innovative layout and high tech additions of Rooms 9 to 15 that span works by early Renaissance masters and which, in this highly original context, includes contemporary Northern Europeans painters such as Hugo van der Goes.

The immediate impression that the renovated area gives is one of spaciousness and light, the latter thanks to a modernized illumination system.  Placed discreetly in corners are climate control columns monitoring temperature and humidity.

There is big news regarding the two “stars:” Botticelli’s Primavera (“Allegory of Spring”) and the The Nascita di Venere (“The Birth of Venus”).  The former, in Room 10, is flanked by the addition of a rarely seen Botticelli Annunciation.

The famous pair were commissioned by a cousin of the Medici rulers, Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici, most probably at the time of his wedding. These iconic paintings, utterly different from anything ever painted before, symbolize Renaissance humanistic ideals.

Each is the sole work on an entire wall, respectively in Rooms 10 and 11; the spaciousness is designed to facilitate group visits.  Now sheltered in non-reflective glass, their gold frames are reframed by surrounding white panels, giving a sense of depth and at the same time arm’s length viewing.

Much has been written about the meaning of Botticelli’s panel Allegory of Spring, one of the highlights of Italian Renaissance art. Set against a dreamlike wooded backdrop of orange trees and laurel bushes the figures move through the scene as if on a stage. The central figure is Venus, Goddess of Love and also of Marriage, here shown chastely dressed almost like one of the Botticelli’s Madonnas, and gesturing towards the three Graces, whose supple and thinly veiled bodies form a circle as they dance hand in hand.

Blindfolded Cupid hovers above Venus, about to pierce the heart of one of the three Graces with his arrow. Earthly love, sanctified by marriage and divine will, is the happy ending, and perhaps one of the main messages of the painting as well.

Room 10 also now features a stupendous, little-known detached Annunciation fresco by Botticelli formerly located in San Pier Scheraggio after being moved from its original site in San Martino alla Scala.  To the left, golden rays shoot from an angel in flight epitomizing the motor of divine intervention, past a big double bed in the background, to Mary on the right, who is leaning forward to receive the message.  Since the Florentine New Year traditionally began on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation this is a subject dear to Florentine iconography.

Room 11 is where the Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is found.  As Greek mythology relates, Venus was born fully-grown from the sea near the island of Cyprus. The painting shows the goddess floating towards land on a large scallop shell, semi-covered by her long strawberry blonde tresses, which the painter highlighted with brushstrokes of 24 carat gold powder.

She is wafted to shore by the breath of winged god Zephyr and a nymph on her right, while on her left her handmaiden Hour waits to dress her in a pink flowered embroidered robe. More flowers fill the air, and the whole effect is one of lyrical beauty, emphasized by the grace and delicacy of Botticelli’s draftsmanship; his curving lines seem to create a dance on canvas.

These are but three of 16 Botticelli works exhibited, but the new itinerary offers so much more to see.

His artistic precursors – Masaccio, Paolo Uccello as well as Filippo Lippi, Botticelli’s mentor – are showcased in Room 8, where in an Incoronation of the Virgin, Lippi’s great love, Lucrezia Buti, seemingly engages in eye contact with the Uffizi visitor.  Also displayed are transitional early Renaissance/late Gothic pieces comprising Masaccio’s Madonna del Cardinale Casini (also known as the Madonna del Solletico) and Beato Angelico’s version of the Incoronation of the Virgin, portraying realistic figures enhanced by backgrounds of pure gold.

Room 9 features Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo.  An excellent draftsman like Botticelli, his contemporary, Antonio’s sinuous although more muscular figures resonate his style.  His brother, Piero, painted six of the seven Virtues originally destined for Florence’s courthouse; Botticelli completed the seventh, Fortitude.

Originally destined for the church of Sant’Edigio within the Santa Maria Nuova hospital complex, the Hugo van der Goes Portinari Altarpiece, is also known as the Adoration of the Shepherds.  Folco Portinari endowed Santa Maria Nuova and his son Tommaso, who worked in Bruges, awarded the commission to the Flemish artist.

When the triptych arrived in Florence, despite High Gothic echoes – protagonists and characters not depicted to scale, but large or smaller according to their importance – its bold naturalism caused a stir in the artistic community, ultimately proving to be a source of inspiration.  In the same room is Hans Memling’s Portrait of Benedetto Portinari. The work of this German painter, who moved to Flanders, was to influence Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints is found directly across the Room 15 from the Memling exhibit.

Apart from a carefully thought out stroll through early Renaissance art history, the refurbished rooms offer, in the words of their benefactor, Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, “a firsthand experience of divine beauty.”  (rosanna cirigliano & elizabeth wicks)