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.
Letter to Sandro 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.
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.
Letter From Botticelli
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.