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March 28 2012

Botticelli's Birth of Venus breathes new life into an ancient religion

The enduring power of Botticelli's masterpiece is rooted in its profoundly sensual evocation of the eponymous Roman deity

Sandro Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in about 1484. More than 500 years later, it is still an icon of beauty. But what makes it so compelling?

It does not portray the birth so much as the magical influence of this pagan deity. Botticelli had been reading a prayer to Venus by the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, who tells the goddess of love in his book On the Nature of Things: "For you the ocean levels laugh, the sky is calmed and glows with diffused radiance."

Botticelli's work recreates that image of the sea and sky soothed by the soft power of Venus. The sea in his painting is lulled and luxuriant. It is a marvellous artistic creation, this sea: up close, the painterly freedom is a surprise (try zooming on the Google Art Project link, above). To create the delicate ripples that animate the sea's green surface, Botticelli flicked little wisps of white in quick twists of his brush.

The magic somehow lies in the relationship between the smooth paleness of Venus and the sea's green. Even though Botticelli paints a sea of deep calm, the little wavelets are necessary because they recede from the eye, so making us see the water as a plane reaching back towards the depths of the canvas, across which Venus approaches. She comes forward, on the edge of the onlooker's reality. The picture glories in the sense of uncanny movement, of Venus gliding out of the distance, as pink flowers float down, their slow descent implying that around Venus the air itself has warmed and stilled – as Lucretius has it, "the sky is calmed".

Zephyrus and Aura, the airborne characters wafting her forward with their breath, float in a motionless, weightless sky, locked in an embrace. Venus enacts her influence, and her followers make love in the air, free of all fetters, all restrictions, even that of gravity. Meanwhile, Venus poses in a graceful curve, her knee-length hair held in front of her, a hand covering one breast. She tilts her head and there is an indefinable look in her eyes: they are at once focused and looking past us.

Her nakedness is genuinely divine. She preserves a portion of modesty not because this is a prudish painting, but because the totally revealed nudity of a god might blind or madden the beholder. There is an almost tangible sense of divine power when you look at this image. It is no disguised Christian allegory. It is Venus and Venus alone we are seeing. She approaches, she is near. Her beauty seems to perfume the air around us. Her form sinks into the deep mind. She is to be worshipped as a pagan deity reborn.

The power of Botticelli's painting is that it brings an ancient religion back to life. To love this image is to worship the ancient Roman gods. Hail Venus!


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December 23 2011

A wise man's painting: Sandro Botticelli's The Adoration of the Kings

In the last in his series of favourite wintry artworks, Jonathan Jones marvels at the towering majesty of Botticelli's The Adoration of the Kings, which won the artist 'gifts' from the Medici family



October 12 2011

Museum of masterpieces

From Kristin Scott Thomas's Parisian scene to Philip Pullman's much-loved Monet, celebrities and big names in the art world talk us through their favourite works



May 28 2010

Botticelli's love drug

A new discovery suggests that Botticelli's masterpiece Venus and Mars shows the effects of a hallucinogenic plant – but is the real drug the painting itself?

The Florentine Renaissance weaver of floral fantasies Sandro Botticelli is a magical artist. Just to look at his masterpiece the Primavera is to have your spirits lifted, as if he knows how to release pleasure-giving chemicals in the human brain by particular combinations of colour and form.

The question is, how literal is the magic in Botticelli's art? Are his paintings allegories, or entertainments, or something more – how shall we say this – practical? A fascinating new idea about Botticelli's alluring idyll Venus and Mars in London's National Gallery gives an old debate a contemporary twist. According to art historian David Bellingham, a strange plant pawed by a young satyr who plays about, clad in the discarded cuirass of Mars, at the bottom right of the panel, is a specimen of the hallucinogenic Datura stramonium, also known as "poor man's acid". According to this latest theory the pacified and disarmed war god Mars has actually been drugged by Venus, deity of love, who reclines wide awake and clothed beside his slumberous nude form.

This is not the first attempt to interpret Venus and Mars as something more tangible and efficacious than just a visualisation of Greek myth. In the past, the hermetic magical thought of the Florentine intellectual Marsilio Ficino was adduced by the Warburg Institute scholars EH Gombrich and Frances Yates to see Botticelli's paintings as "talismans": magical artefacts designed to actually exert benevolent effects on the beholder.

Personally I think both theories are very plausible. Botticelli's paintings do suggest real magic, real eroticism – they have an occult quality. Nor would it be surprising if the Medici court circles who supported his art at this time (Venus and Mars was painted about 1485) were taking love drugs. Such potions were well-known and were taken seriously in the Renaissance – you can see an aphrodisiac bottle decorated with snogging lovers in the Renaissance galleries at the V&A. Those same galleries boast a Florentine mirror from this period that has a Medici emblem and is emblazoned with Venus and Mars – associating the theme with actual bedrooms, not just classicist studies.

Love is a drug, and Botticelli painted its effects with rare conviction. It would hardly be surprising to find a hallucinogenic on the shelves of his art's life-giving pharmacy.


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April 04 2010

The Italian Renaissance drawings at the British Museum show what lies beneath

The British Museum's big new spring show features drawings by Renaissance masters. But can sketches rival paintings for power? You bet, writes Jonathan Jones

Somehow, Alessandra Griffo is finding a way to concentrate. Standing at a brightly lit table with the sound of drilling, lifting and thumping in her ears, Griffo is checking works that have just arrived from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where she works. She's on the lookout for any abrasions, tears or stains her fragile cargo might have sustained in transit.

Above us is the Renaissance-style dome of the Reading Room of the British Museum. Around us is a labyrinth of red and green walls specially built for the museum's imminent new exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings. And on the table before us rests a sketch of a dome made by the architect Giuliano da Sangallo in about 1485, a thrilling echo of the real one floating overhead.

This imposing Victorian chamber has been ingeniously adapted in the last few years. It is now the British Museum's most dramatic exhibition space, having housed, in recent years, terracotta warriors from China, lavish carpets from 17th-century Persia and scenes of bloody Aztec sacrifice. The new exhibition taking shape here contrasts sharply with its big, bold predecessors. But Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings features some of the most beguiling drawings ever made. Taken from the collections of the Uffizi and the British Museum, it features delicate masterpieces by the likes of Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Raphael.

While this show combines the two galleries' riches, it is nevertheless an exhibition of drawings – most of them small, on paper and never intended to be seen by large audiences. Many of these pieces were created as working sketches, ideas in progress, flurries of thought. Others, the completed works, were perhaps made to be contemplated by a prince in the calm of his study – not gawped at in galleries. Can the show work? Where is the thrill in looking at centuries-old drawings?

The answer is not far away. In an as-yet unlit alcove, I look at a drawing of a knight on a rearing horse, swinging his sword as he prepares to slice into a dragon. Monstrous-eyed, looking vacant yet predatory, with a snake-like body, the legs of a lion and the wings of a bat, this beast looks stupidly malign – an abomination. It needs killing.

All this – the mindless eye of the dragon, the shining armour of St George – was touched into life through lines and splodges of brown ink by the young Raphael. He was about 21 when he did this, in around 1504. It has the calm intensity unique to Italian art of this period: simultaneously acknowledging the darkest corners of the human imagination, where lurk violence, death and evil – yet praising the beauty and grace of nature. All this in just a few strokes.

The reality of death

In the exhibition, this will have beside it the painting for which it is a study: the Louvre is lending Raphael's oil painting St George and the Dragon. It will then be clear what is gained by using oil: colour and completeness; brightness and smoothness. But also what is lost: in the drawing, we are not looking at pigments retouched by restorers down the centuries, or at a work finished by an artist's assistants. We are seeing the very hand and eye of the 21-year-old at work.

There's a skull in the Raphael drawing: a grisly, perfectly delineated reminder of the reality of death. In the painting, though, it is replaced with a broken lance – more elegant, more decorative, but less disturbing. Artists could dare more, be more honest in drawings created as research than they could in the big public statements of painting and sculpture. Looking at their drawings is like listening to them think.

The British Museum is the ideal place for such an exhibition. Away from all this activity, in the study room of the museum's prints and drawings department, I see people sitting at wooden desks while an overseer looks on. Some of the most renowned scholars of the Renaissance, such as EH Gombrich, spent long hours here. But there's a twist: this secret room is not reserved for a hyperqualified elite. There are public hours every weekday. All you need is proof of your address. To test the system, I order up one of the finest works in the museum, if not on the planet: Michelangelo's red chalk drawing of Adam, his design for the most famous figure on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It arrives on the desk and I can lift it, touch it, with white-gloved hands. Magical. The conditions in this room are perfect for looking at drawings: quiet, spacious, with natural light. You can spend hours here asking for one box after another: prints by Albrecht Dürer, sketches by Rembrandt. If you ever want to know a great artist more closely, come here.

But this brings us back to those earlier questions. There is an argument to be made that exhibitions of drawings – hung like paintings or mounted in glass cases – simply do not work. Drawings are meant to be held, turned over, placed side by side for comparison, just as people are doing in the study room. So what's exciting about the Reading Room exhibition is that its drawings are being shown, it seems to me, in a way that overcomes such problems. The last thing you want, when looking at drawings, is to not have space to engage with them, to contemplate them, because there's no getting away from it: a drawing does not give the quick fix of a bigger work of art. It's something you need to concentrate on.

Here, paradoxically, the very grandeur of the setting facilitates this, since it allows plenty of space between masterpieces; there's room for drawings (and visitors) to breathe. Each work has its own territory. There are two-sided display cases, allowing you to look at front and back; and in side galleries, you can see designs for frescoes, such as those in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, alongside films of the paintings in situ.

Best of all, though, are the loans from the Uffizi, being installed under Griffo's watchful eye. She is right to be watchful. These drawings are sublime. They include one of an old man's face, drawn with black chalk in the early 1500s by Luca Signorelli. The man looks back at you from his paper world, Signorelli's chalk capturing each rumple in his aged face, each tinge of weariness in his eyes.

Centaurs and forest fires

One of the stories this exhibition will tell is how drawings became increasingly sensitive and softly toned throughout the 15th century in Italy, as artists made more use of chalk, both black and red, to suggest the ambiguities and flux of real life – although sharp drawings in ink, like Francesco di Giorgio Martini's image of a woman poised between a fairy tale sea and a wall of rock, also beguile.

The exhibition's curator, Hugo Chapman, who has been standing with a pile of screws in his hand as he oversees the installation of a piece by Lorenzo Monaco, pulls back a cover to reveal a charcoal landscape by Piero di Cosimo. This Florentine artist was scared of church bells and children's laughter; he loved the rain (always standing outside during a thunderstorm), lived on eggs, and painted intense scenes of half-horse centaurs and forest fires. This drawing is a trip into his wild imagination, its mountainous, richly shaded landscape providing a place for the mind to wander. It is like being in Piero's house, coming up behind him in the early hours as he draws by candlelight, creating his imaginary world, so much more to his taste than the real one. You can almost imagine him turning around to offer you an egg.

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings is at the British Museum, London, from 22 April to 25 July. Details: 020-7323 8299


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January 05 2010

Mona Lisa's health nothing to smile about

Medical inspection of Da Vinci's masterpiece reveals model's high cholesterol

The Mona Lisa may have an enigmatic smile. But she – or rather Leonardo's model – also had worryingly high levels of cholesterol. As for her triglycerides, well, they were simply off the dial.

The conclusions are those of an Italian academic who has been pioneering learning at the hitherto unsuspected point at which art history overlaps anatomical pathology. Studying Da Vinci's masterpiece with the eye of a medical scientist, Vito Franco of the University of Palermo noted a so-called xanthelasma – a subcutaneous accumulation of cholesterol – in the hollow of the Mona Lisa's left eye, and a tell-tale lipoma, a fatty tissue tumour, on one hand.

"The people depicted [in art] tell us about their vulnerable humanity, independently of the awareness of the artist", Franco told the Italian daily La Stampa.

Among his other findings are that two of the most iconic figures in Renaissance art had a rare condition that may also afflict Osama Bin Laden. One is the young man with a red cap and distinctly sardonic expression who is the subject of Botticelli's Portrait of a Youth, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The other is the sinuous and sinewy lady who modelled for Parmigianino in the 1530s when he painted his Madonna with Long Neck. The unfinished work, on which Parmigianino laboured for six years, is now in the Uffizi in Florence.

The subjects of both paintings have unnaturally long fingers and slender hands. Franco believes they had a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, named after the French paediatrician who first identified it in the 19th century. Al-Qaida's tall and bony founder is also suspected to suffer from Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissues.

Over the centuries, millions of words have been written about the enigmatic iconography of Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto: his rendering of a pregnant Mary. It has been argued that the tent in which she is standing is an allusion to the Ark of the Covenant and, five years ago, a Florentine author linked the painting to the suppression of the Knights Templar in the 14th century.

The contribution of what Franco calls "icono-diagnostics" is to point out that the swollen Madonna with one hand on her hip was probably a local peasant girl who would soon have looked a lot less attractive than the saintly mother-to-be in the painting. There are signs of an incipient goitre on her slender neck – typical of country-dwellers who contracted the ailment by drinking nothing but rain water.

The Spanish infanta, Margarita, in Velázquez's court masterpiece, Las Meninas, may also have been developing a goitre. But Franco puts that down to McCune-Albright syndrome, another genetic disorder associated with premature puberty.

In one celebrated painting, it is an artist who serves as both model and sufferer. Raphael's The School of Athens in the Vatican includes a depiction of a glum-looking Michelangelo in the left foreground. Well he might look dejected, said Franco.

His swollen knees "appear to indicate an excess of uric acid, typical of those afflicted by renal calculosis. There again, for months and months he had been living off nothing but bread and wine as he worked day and night on his masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel".

One of the most complete examples of the evolution of a medical condition traceable in art comes, not from the Renaissance of Spain's Golden Age, but from the 20th century.

The Dutch magical realist Dick Ket, who died in 1940 at the age of only 37, suffered from a congenital heart defect, thought to have been Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF).

An unusually high proportion of Ket's works – some 40 out of about 140 – were self-portraits, and they chronicle the evolution of the disorder. One, completed in the year before he died, shows him with the clubbing of the fingers that is typical of several heart and lung complaints.

"In a painting seven years before, his fingers are less deformed," said Professor Franco. "But it shows an abnormal swelling of the veins on his neck – a sign of the same syndrome, but in its initial phase."


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