Tag Archives: A to Z Challenge

B: Botticelli…A-Z Challenge.

This year my theme for the A-Z Challenge is Letters to Dead Artists. Yesterday’s artist was A: Alexandros of Antioch who reputedly sculpted the famous Venus de Milo.

Today, I am writing to Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445 – May 17, 1510), an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

The piece of music I have chosen to represent Botticelli is: O Fortuna – Carmina Burana

I was introduced to Botticelli’s works in 1992 when I visited Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, as a 23 year old Australian backpacking through Europe. That was when I first saw The Birth of Venus. I was awestruck, and loved it enough to buy a print and cart it all the way back to Australia in my very overweight backpack. That says a lot!

In addition to admiring his achievements as an artist, this letter also addresses Botticelli’s role and possible participation in the Bonfire of the Vanities.  On the 7th February 1497, supporters of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy, on the Mardi Gras festival. It is believed that Botticelli may have added some of his works to the pyre. It is hard to comprehend what went up in those flames, but there’s no doubt that priceless works of art and other cultural treasures were destroyed.

Sandro_Botticelli_083

Probable self-portrait of Botticelli, in his Adoration of the Magi (1475)

Letter to Sandro Botticelli

Dear Botticelli,

How are you? I expect that’s a rather rhetorical question these days. I was only being polite, but if you feel like responding in some way, I’d only be too happy to hear from you. Sometimes, the walls between heaven and earth aren’t quite what they seem, and people might even wander in and out. I don’t know. They’ve never spoken to me.

Anyway, I am writing to you to ask you a question. While that might seem simple enough, it’s much easier to ask a lot of questions, than it is to narrow it down to one, especially when I’m writing to such a monumentally great artist like yourself.

Botticelli, I first came across your paintings in the Summer of 1992 when I spent three days in Florence. It was stinking hot and I still remember the relief of an icy cold, real Italian gelato. Although I’d already visited The Louvre in Paris which had blown my mind, going to the Uffizzi Gallery, also felt like all my senses were being energized at once. I still remember seeing The Birth of Venus on the wall with its fairytale beauty and Venus standing in the shell. It was mesmerizing. Yet, it didn’t end there. Like a glutton at a sumptuous feast, there was more, including Primavera (1470s or early 1480s) and Pallas and the Centaur (1482-1483). I had just had my heart broken and I knew that anguish screaming through the centaur’s eyes. I also remember being swept away by your more religious works, although I can’t remember them by name.I don’t know how to describe that enormity of feeling. The best I can do, is compare it to falling in love…all consuming, passionate, divine.

Primavera

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery.

I don’t know whether it’s right to pull apart those feelings, or to try to work out why. Or, whether I should be pulling apart and analysing the life out of such a masterpiece. Or, whether it is better to simply leave it be as pure, unadulterated  awe and wonder.

One thing’s for sure. I didn’t want to hear this magnificent reflection of something in my soul denigrated by my future boyfriend as: “the naked woman standing in a shell”. What? How could he? Philistine! Despite being a Christian, I didn’t denigrate it because it was “pagan” either. How could I let ideology or doctrine come between me and something of such beauty and spirit?

This brings me to the Bonfire of the Vanities and my question.

How did you allow yourself to be swept away by Girolama Savonarola? How could you even be a bystander to the Bonfire of the Vanities on February 7, 1497 in Piazza del Signoria, Florence? Indeed, it’s even been suggested that you even added some of your own works to the pyre. I’m sorry if I’m coming on a bit too strong, but I can’t understand how an artist like you could stand by and do nothing. Let it happen. Or, even worse, join in and be a part of it.

That’s not to judge you, Sir. I didn’t mean to get so fired up. However, it terrifies me that The Birth of Venus and your other so-called “pagan works” could have been, in effect, burned at the stake, and humanity robbed. Indeed, I shudder at all the artworks and treasures that were lost. No doubt, you do too.

Strangely, I only found out about the Bonfire of the Vanities last night. Of course, you can’t know every piece of history. Yet, as a writer, a photographer, a creative who fears the mighty forces of fire and flood, I should have known about that. Marked it on my calendar every year to remember how doctrine and politics can destroy the creative spirit and its progeny.

I wonder how you feel about all that now. Is there regret? Perhaps, but I hope you’re primarily proud of how your works have been revered and considered among the greatest paintings of all time. You’re a genius!

Indeed, I wish I could meet you and not just sit down for a coffee, but to see you paint. Hear you speak. What inspired you? How can a 21st century woman on the other side of the world, possibly tap into whatever that was?

I hope. I dream. I write.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Rowena in Florence

Photographed at a monastry near Florence in 1992.

Letter From Botticelli

Dear Rowena,

Thank you very much for your letter.

Now, what was your question? Please excuse me. I’m feeling a bit foggy today and haven’t had to bother myself with earthly matters for a very long time. Indeed, much of your memory gets deleted once you enter the pearly gates. After all, you’re not supposed to be spending eternity regretting things on Earth when you’re in heaven!

Yet, nothing could erase those flames, and seeing those precious masterpieces burning up. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, we followed him like lambs to the slaughter house. Florence was magnificent…the jewel of the Renaissance.  She wasn’t perfect but, it wasn’t Sodom and Gomorrah. It wasn’t hell on Earth. Well, that is until he stepped in.

In my defense, Rowena, I would like to suggest that you can’t always control of your own strings. Not that you’re a puppet, but even an artist has to eat and to some extent, each of us has had to sell our soul. Serve it up on a platter. That’s just the way it is…or how it was.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard that they now hide artworks away during times of war and keep the world’s great masterpieces away from the battlefield. Protect what is more than just a reflection of humanity, a mirror, but also radiates the human spirit. As you might appreciate, art crosses language and cultural barriers and draws humans closer together. Well, that’s if we allow ourselves to be moved.

Anyway, I haven’t asked you if you paint? I’ve always been a great teacher. If you feel like popping back, I’d be happy to teach you.

Best wishes,

Botticelli.

 

A- Alexandros of Antioch…A-Z Challenge.

As you may recall, I am taking part in the 2018 A-Z Challenge, and my theme is Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I am launching off with A: Alexandros of Antioch. Don’t despair if you’ve never heard of him. No doubt, you have heard of his famous sculpture, The Venus de Milo, which is conspicuously missing her arms. She can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The song I have chosen to accompany the Venus de Milo is “She” performed by Elvis Costello:

She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell…

Little is known about Alexandros of Antioch. It appears that he was a wandering artist working on commission. According to inscriptions in Thespiae, near Mount Helicon, in Greece dating back to around 80 BCE, his father was Menides and he’d won contests for composing and singing. It is not known when he was born or died.

Yet, perhaps Venus de Milo still speaks for him… a mirror reflecting something of the man who created her.

While I finally had the opportunity to see the Venus de Milo while I was in Paris in 1992, I first heard about her in a poem by Rachel Bradley: Venus Without Arms. It was International Women’s Day 1989, in Sydney University’s Manning Bar and I was performing my poetry at the launch of Rachel’s poetry anthology: Dragonshadow. So, you could say I was a supporting artist. Venus Without Arms addresses the objectification and sexualisation of a woman’s body, and the resulting loss of power. The concluding stanza reads:

Venus –

I can’t believe it was just

an accident

that broke only your arms

and rendered you a Work of Art[1].

This poem has stayed with me for the last 28 years, and has come back to me whenever I’ve felt disempowered and a modern day Venus without arms.

Much mystery surrounds the Venus de Milo. These mysteries extend way beyond what happened to her missing arms, and what they were doing before they disappeared. Indeed, there’s even been controversy and uncertainty over who sculpted Venus. Moreover, while she is known as “Venus”, her more correct Greek title would have been “Aphrodite”. However, when you consider that Venus was made between 130 and 100 BC and is at least 2, 117 years old, it’s hardly surprising that she has her secrets.

Indeed, we are lucky that Venus was even found. You see, she hasn’t always lived in splendour at The Louvre. Rather, she was discovered in 1820 on the Greek island of Milos, while local farmers were digging up stones to make their houses. A farmer called Theodoros Kentrotas tried to hide the statue in his stone house, but Turkish officials seized it. The French naval officer, Julius Dumont d’Urville realized its importance and purchased the statue. It was then taken to France, and offered to Louis the XVIII, who presented her to the Louvre.

When I considered putting together this series of Letters to Dead Artists, Alexandros of Antioch was understandably not at the top of the list of artists who’ve inspired me. However, that’s not how this challenge works. It’s an alphabetical challenge where you need to write a post for each letter of the alphabet during April. Nobody had come to mind for A and I was stoked to find Alexandros of Antioch and this personal connection. I didn’t have to stretch the truth.

Letter to Alexandros of Antioch

Dear Alexandros,

I am writing to you about a sculpture you created of Aphrodite many years ago, which has been found on the Greek island of Milos. By the way, I probably should tell you that the year is now 2018.

It must feel rather strange to receive a letter from so far into the future. A future, which is over two thousand years ahead of your time, and must look very strange indeed. There are cars, trains and planes and humans have even landed on the moon. Recently, a car was even launched into space. That even blew me away.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that I’m proud of everything we humans have done. We have destroyed so much and have enough weapons to blow up the planet many times over. We’ve destroyed entire species and now even the survival of our beautiful planet, is in doubt. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to be a human. However, then something wonderful happens and I am reminded of the good. Indeed, I am certain that there is even good in all of us.

Well, I’d like to ask you a very simple question…Could you please draw me a sketch of Aphrodite with her original arms just as you designed them.  What she was doing? What is she trying to say and what thoughts are stuck behind those marble lips? She really looks like she’s holding something back. Perhaps, it’s the secret of real beauty. I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could step down off the dais, and even speak… Goodness knows how many people she’s been watching and overhearing at the Louvre. I’d like to think she’s absorbed all their wisdom, but you never know. It could all just be drivel.

Anyway, please forgive me for asking so many questions, but my curiosity ran away from me. After all, it’s not every day you get to write a letter to the man who created Venus de Milo!

Best wishes,

Rowena

His Reply

Dear Rowena,

Thank you very much for your letter. It’s been awhile since I’ve received any mail.

I have to admit that I’m rather proud of Aphrodite and all that she’s become, just like any parent whose child becomes an icon, yet I’m pleased she’s still maintained her mystique.

However, I was devastated to read that her arms have been cut off. Why hasn’t anybody tried to fix her? Given her some new arms? Anything would do, although I’ve heard there are some wonderful prosthetics these days. She’d have much more fun waving and shaking hands with the crowds, rather than being so standoffish. She was never meant to be a victim. Why turn her into one?

Now, I will leave you with a piece of advice my new friend from the 21st century. You weren’t meant to turn over every stone and know what’s hiding underneath. We need unanswered questions, our mysteries, because if we have all the answers, then we’ll no longer need to search. If we stop searching, then we’ll forget to ask. We always need to wonder.

Give my love to Aphrodite and make sure you sort out those arms.

Yours in friendship,

Alexandros of Antioch

[1] Rachel Bradley, Dragonshadow, Women’s Redress Press, Sydney, 1989, p 4.