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The revival of mythology in patronaged wooden painted panelsin the quattrocento

Abstract Commissioned for a variety of reasons for hundreds of years whereas in the Quattrocento of Italian Renaissance the most powerful families instructed artists to create paintings for their house‘s interiors that show mythological narratives of Classical antiquity. These art pieces were never only decoration for a person’s house but used as a tool to convey a certain message the patron desired for his social environment. In the cases under concern, we will see examples of private patronage from Sandro Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars”, “Birth of Venus”, “Primavera”, as well as “Camilla and the Centaur” through the Medici and Vespucci family. To better understand the meaning and importance of the double-sided art pieces we try to understand the social role and context of these on wood painted panels that would decorate the interior of powerful families. Furthermore, it is the aim to explore the tools and techniques of the artists used to convey the messages of these works and to highlight the power of art and how, especially at the time, it could control and influence people. Besides this context, it is important to be aware of the fact that artists of that time had no idea of how narratives of ancient mythology could look like, as they would only derive ideas from ancient sculptures and antiquities. Therefore, the new shown scenes would have an even greater impact on the viewer‘s eye as we would experience them today. 1. The social context of wooden panels & the interior of powerful families of the Renaissance When a couple celebrates their love by marrying or because two families decide to unify the master bedroom is going to be equipped completely new. For upcoming weddings, noblemen would commission wooden interior panels for their bedchamber (camere) or other rooms. The new fashionable subjects of interest for large-scale imagery had been narratives of ancient mythology occurring in the late 15th hundred and considered to be critical innovative. The innovative aspect was that in that time it did not exist any aesthetic vocabulary for ancient paintings and so artists learned from ancient sculptures and ceramic objects that have been decorated with paintings. It is considered that Florentine artists which had been trained in drawing, called ‚disegno‘, obtained their vocabulary for figural aesthetic from Roman and Etruscan vase paintings as they are two dimensional. 2. Sandro Botticelli‘s “Camilla and the Centaur” Sandro Botticelli was asked to paint subjects concerning mythological narratives which become fashionable among the Florentine patriciate, especially at the court of Lorenzo di Medici. His cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici probably commissioned for his Florentine palace in 1482 of his upcoming wedding. According to inventory lists it was located outside of the bedchamber of the noble couple. Camilla who represents the princess of Latium is shown in her olive branches patterned tunica which also references the three interlocked rings a symbol of the Medici family. The olive branches are a signification to Camilla‘s service as huntress dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Strengthening her representation as huntress she is holding a weapon in her right arm: a halberd. She grasps the centaur on her right which is regarded as the personification of lust and violence. Therefore Botticelli‘s centaur could also represent, considering the location of the art piece, the man or husband desiring sexual activity. Furthermore, the Centaurs was a symbol of the double-nature of human beings as they are a half human half animal. Dante accuses Centauren of the tortures of violent actions and also Shakespear tells of his daughters as Centaurs: Down from the waist they are Centaurs, Though women all above: But to the girdle do the gods inherit. Beneath is all the fiends. So Camilla in these depiction masters the Centaur with female power and wisdom as the ideal in contrast to violent and lust. As the wife of Lorenzo was also a princess from Latium and the art piece was positioned outside the bedchamber of the married couple it suggests being read as a message for marital chastity. 2. Sandro Botticelli‘s “Camilla and the Centaur” Sandro Botticelli was asked to paint subjects concerning mythological narratives which become fashionable among the Florentine patriciate, especially at the court of Lorenzo di Medici. His cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici probably commissioned for his Florentine palace in 1482 of his upcoming wedding. According to inventary lists it was located outside of the bedchamber of the noble couple. Camilla who represents the princess of Latium is shown in her olive branches patterned tunica which also references the three interlocked rings as symbol of the Medici family. The olive branches are a signifacation to Camillas service as huntress dedicated to Minerva, the godess of wisdom. Strengthening her representation as huntress she is holding a weapon in her right arm: a halberd. She grasps the centaur on her right which is regarded as personification of lust and violence. Therefore Botticellis centaur could also represent, considering the location of the art piece, the man or husband desiring sexual activity. Further more the Centaurs was a symbol of the double-nature of human beeings as they are half human half animal. Dante accuses Centauren of the tortures of violent actions and also Shakespear tells of his daughters as Centaurs: Down from the waist they are Centaurs, Though women all above: But to the girdle do the gods inherit. Beneath is all the fiends. So Camilla in this depiction masters the Centaur with female power and wisdom as the ideal in contrast to violent and lust. As the wife of Lorenzo was also a princess from Latium and the art piece was positioned outside the bedchamber of the married couple it suggests being read as a message for marital chastity. 3. Sandro Botticelli’s ”Venus and Mars” The art piece of concern was probably commissioned by a member of the Vespucci family in 1483 hence small wasps flying around Mars’ head and this could be a reference as ‚vespucci‘ in Italian means small wasps and therefore they embellish the family’s coat of arms. Due to the occasion of a wedding of a Vespucci family member, probably Simonetta Vespucci, this artwork should be drawn for the private premises of the married couple. The size and format evoke the presumption of a Spalliera painting which is traditionally located over a chest or bench in a Renaissance household. Concerning the provocative content of the art piece, it is even more evidence that this was not meant to be seen by all audience. Throughout the medieval times, the appearance of ancient Greek or Roman gods and goddesses survived but with Botticelli‘s „Venus and Mars“ the mythological subjects experience a rebirth in a large scale. We see the planets Venus and Mars as personifications and as a reference to the married couple but Botticelli‘s representation has less in common with ancient aesthetic vocabulary. Venus and Mars are shown as a young couple of the Renaissance, as Venus is clothed like a Florentine woman of that time and not like often seen as ‚Venus pudica‘ hiding her nudity. Maybe it can actually be considered as, for that times, modern Venus pudica as her clothes hide her nudity. Mars, in contrast, is shown half-naked only covered around the intimate parts only to show his muscular body and representing the strength itself. Four baby satyrs are playing with his spear and armor and trying to wake him up with no triumph. Considering the location of the painting regarding Mars’s sleeping representation could have been a reference to the ability of Venus – or any woman – to conquer men with untiring sexual activity. Furthermore, it is in a more literal sense an art piece that should generate procreation to have healthy sexual activity and, by implication, healthy descendants too to ensure the family preservation. Another interpretation tells that the astrological characterization of Mars for strengthening men but getting mastered by Venus represents the triumph of culture and intellect over war and violence. 4. Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera” Like Camilla and the Centaur, the art piece in concern here was probably located in the Florentine house of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici for the private rooms and probably has been a gift in occasion of his marriage. As Primavera means spring in Italian the subject shows the eternal spring that flourished in Venus’s garden. It shows Chloris transformed into Flora by Zephyrus, the god of wind. Furthermore, we see Mercury, who is also presented as a personification of the so-called planet and who tries to defeat the garden against the clouds in the left, the three Graces, Cupid as the son of Venus, and Venus herself in the middle as the goddess of Beauty and Love. According to a letter from Marsilio Ficino to Lorenzo, Venus represents a Florentine woman as ideal wife in this context as she represents the moral qualities a woman should have in this period. Considering the upcoming wedding of Lorenzo this could be the reference to his wedding with Semiramide d´Appiano and should be her idol for being the wife of Lorenzo. Strengthening this idea Venus is wearing a typical headdress for a Florentine married woman. Various associations to the family had been made over the years from comparing the glowing oranges to the red Medici balls (palle), to considering Mercury‘s responsibility as Greek god for doctors – hence Medici means literally doctors in Italian – an indication to the patrician family. 5. Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” The Birth of Venus was painted by Sandro Botticelli in the 1480s on canvas which is originally used for ceremonial banners at that time. Thus the fact of the unusual material for the interior it was seen together with the Primavera in the interior of the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco at Castello. As we look at the composition of the art piece it also shows us a simplified iconography. In the background, the sea is disproportionately stylized as the figures seem to float on the surface like on ancient vases. This strengthens the assumption that as previously mentioned Florentine painters learned from ancient paintings on vases. Additionally, the leg anatomy of Zephyr‘s wife on the left is impossible thus the image seems to be more surreal. Botticelli‘s obvious abandonment of realism feels appropriate for the mythological subjects as its impression looks almost like a dream. The goddess Venus is painted as so-called ‚Venus pudica‘, a depiction deriving from ancient sculptures that try to hide their nudity as she does here with her hands and in an elegant way also with her hair. Venus as the main figure here is shown in a seashell as she is in mythological terms born from the sea and the seashell signifies fertility. The waiting Hour to her right is awaiting her with a rose cloth and due to her decorative laurel covered neckline it is a reference to the Medici family. Despite that Venus was usually used as an allegoric figure for representing the wife in a Renaissance household the simplified subject, as well as the unusual use of the painting material, supports the presumptions of a different function. A banner for a tournament or a ceremony could have been possible. Conclusion The graceful lines of Sandro Botticelli‘s characteristic style suited the mythological subjects perfectly as they had been shown in a kind of dream world that was appropriate for the pieces of art. Botticelli must have obtained his ancient vocabulary from Greek or Etruscan ceramic vases or marble reliefs in Rome as far as it is known, and tried to convey what he might have seen to these wooden panels that would decorate the interior of his patron who was commissioning it, in this case, a Medici family member. With his characteristic style and technique, he showed his professionality of interpreting new fashionable content at that time. Furthermore, he transported allegorical meaning and social valuable content by using the mythological subjects as a transmitter for a specific audience: Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici and his entourage. As it was partial very scandalous content as we have experienced with „Venus and Mars“ it by implication argumentative that this art was only meant to be for the private rooms of the noble couple. There must have been immense pressure on the couple or at least on the bride to be to meet all the requirements of a Florentine wife with these certain expectations that of course are godlike miraculous. Like for example the wisdom of Camilla, who defeats the violent Centaur and Venus in her diverse allegorical representations of the perfection of a woman and the feminine ideal of divine Beauty and Love that conquers Mars – or her husband – with untiring sexuality and ensures the family‘s maintenance. Botticelli is a master of transforming an interior decoration panel to a mirror of modern society transporting numerous references to the patron family secretly and sometimes obviously woven into mythological details of their stories.

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