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Boccaccio and Petrarch in Botticelli’s exemplary painting

Boccaccio and Petrarch in Botticelli’s exemplary painting

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Published by António M. Gomes
To bring to mind the fifth centenary of the death of the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), we hereby will seek to render one more tribute to the work of this outstanding artist of the Florentine Renaissance, through the relationship between some of his most renowned paintings – the Nastagio of the Onesti series and The Birth of Venus – and the texts of two time-honored models of Italian medieval literature: Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca.
To bring to mind the fifth centenary of the death of the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), we hereby will seek to render one more tribute to the work of this outstanding artist of the Florentine Renaissance, through the relationship between some of his most renowned paintings – the Nastagio of the Onesti series and The Birth of Venus – and the texts of two time-honored models of Italian medieval literature: Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca.

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Published by: António M. Gomes on Oct 23, 2011
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05/12/2014

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Boccaccio and Petrarch in Botticelli’s exemplary painting
 
 António Martins Gomes (Centro de História da Cultura / UNL - Portugal) I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Fernando Dias Antunes, my
brother-in-words
, for his voluntary help in the text revision process.
To bring to mind the fifth centenary of the death of the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), we hereby will seek to render one more tribute to the work of this outstanding artist of the Florentine Renaissance, through the relationship between some of his most renowned paintings
 –
 the
Nastagio of the Onesti 
 series and
The Birth of Venus
 
 –
 and the texts of two time-honored models of Italian medieval literature: Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca. Let us start by reviewing
“The terrible vision”, one of the hundred
medieval tales in prose that delineate the frame narrative
Decameron
, by the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Composed in the mid-14th century, and, for the first time in Portugal, translated by Alfredo de Amorim Pessoa in 1887, this extensive literary work deals with the adventures of seven maidens and three gentlemen who move to a far-off countryside estate in order to flee from the massive wave of bubonic plague that ravages Florence
 –
 and many other European cities
 –
 in the year of 1348. For their own entertainment, while they pass these ten days
1
 of self-imposed reclusion, they agree to choose amusing forms of art, such as music, dance and storytelling, as a perfect psychotherapy means to keep the deadly disease away, and each member of this group would alternately be the king or the queen for twenty-four hours and appoint someone to tell a story every day. Described by Philomena (a character whose Greek name stands for
“love devotion”)
during the fifth day, that is approximately in the middle of
Decameron
,
“The terrible vision” is an amazing love narrative
 with a happy ending: Nastagio, a gentleman descended from the Onesti family, falls in love with an exceptionally beautiful maiden from the Traversani family and lives in
1
 
“Decameron” is an ancient Greek word (
deca
 
 –
 
hameron
)
that means “ten days”.
 
 
2
permanent misery and economic ruin, as she keeps rejecting him and does not return her love. Persuaded by some of his kindred and friends in order to forget his beloved forever, the central character sets off for a long journey; while roaming on a path of a pine forest, he takes notice of a knight galloping on his horse with a drawn sword in his hand, followed by two hound dogs, relentlessly on the hunt of a naked young woman, running scared towards him and crying out loud for help. Nastagio tries to find a way to fight back her pursuers, though unsuccessfully, as the knight kills her quickly, slashes her from behind, plucks her heart off (just like, according to the legendary chronicle, the Portuguese king D. Pedro has made in 1361 to the executioners of D. Inês, the noble lady who was declared Queen after her death), and throws it away to be gulped down by his bloodhounds. Subsequently, as if nothing had happened, the young woman stands up and starts to flee through the forest. Before mounting on horseback to go after her again, the knight approaches Nastagio
 
and explains him the ghastly scene that had just taken place: he introduces himself as the late Guido Anastagio, his uncle, and that, in times, he had been in love with a woman and committed suicide for he could not put up with the pain of rejection from his beloved one (literally, the troubadour ecstatic expression of
death for love
). But she died too, and due to her sin of cruelty, she was condemned to be chased and killed by him every Friday. Therefore, as we can notice in the Greek myth of Sisyphus, both were sentenced to a recurring and everlasting torture: he is punished for having committed suicide, and she for having declined his
honest 
 (just like his family name) love. Then Nastagio
 
returns home and, touched by that
“terrible vision”, he
has the brilliant idea to set up a magnificent banquet in that same pine forest, invite the woman with whom he was so dearly in love and her family members, and choose the ceremonial dinner for a Friday, precisely at the same time and place in which the frightening scene he had witnessed would, once more, take place. Confronting the damsel with such a realistic moment, cunningly dramatized in the
life stage
 of all the guests, the young nobleman finally manages to persuade his beloved one to fulfill his greatest yearning: she accepts him to be her husband.
 
3
Thus, f 
rom this Boccaccio’s tale about the endless submission
 of
women and their total obedience before men’s authority
 in medieval society, we can see how the work of art becomes a especially persuasive pedagogical model: it tries to
tame
 the irrational behavior of women, so that they accept to satisfy all male needs, at the expense of their own freedom of choice. The tale
Nastagio of the Onesti
is also represented in a four-painting series (tempera on canvas), composed by Botticelli around 1483, shortly after his collaboration in the works for some of the Sistine Chapel frescoes; three of them are exhibited in the Prado Museum, since 1940, and the latter belongs to the Watney private collection and is currently at the Pucci Palace in Florence. Let us list them, along with a brief description:
The Damned at the Pine Forest
” (1.38 x 0.83
 cm)
1
 –
 
The Damned at the Pine Forest
is structured in two phases: the first one is on the left side, where a dejected Nastagio, dressed in blue and red, is wandering through the grove, mourning his hugely unhappy love affair, while his company is waiting for him near some colorful tents, erected in a glade; the rest of the painting depicts the next moment, when the noble hero is trying to help a young lady who runs naked towards him, waving her arms, while being chased by a galloping knight with a sword in his hand and bitten on the left buttock by a large bloodhound.

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