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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 days1 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
“Decameron” is an ancient Greek word (deca – hameron) that means “ten days”. 1
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.
Thus, from 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.
“The Infernal Chase” (1.38 x 0.83 cm)
2 – “The Infernal Chase” is mainly characterized by its shocking cruelty and divided into three sequential moments: in the center, the knight disembowels the gentlewoman, who lies dead on the ground, and plucks her heart off from her back, while, on the left side, the appalled Nastagio watches everything passively; in the lower right corner, a black dog and a white one dispute the lady’s heart, thrown away by the knight; in the background, the action returns to the beginning, where the knight is riding on his horseback, holding a sword in his hand and tailing once more the reborn naked lady.
“The Banquet in the Pine Forest” (1.42 x 0.83 cm)
3 – “The Banquet in the Pine Forest” represents the ladies separated from the male guests in their sitting, following the established rules of social etiquette (ladies to the left and gentlemen to the right), all lined along the huge banquet table prepared by Nastagio, for which he invited the noble members of her beloved’s family, characterized by their splendid and multicolored clothing. The merciless chase that had occurred in the previous painting, with tragic consequences for the gentlewoman, is repeated right in front of all, now with even greater cruelty, because the mournful lady's bare buttocks are now being bitten at the same time by both dogs, a double symbol par excellence of extreme loyalty or, to be more colloquial, of canine fidelity. Confronted with such a macabre scene, which breaks the established order and leaves the guests standing behind the tables, in a total state of distress and great concern, the central character raises his arms to calm them down and, already in full control of the situation, explains the scene they had just witnessed. Paolo Traversani’s daughter, fearing for her life, changed her wicked disdainfulness towards Nastagio into openhanded love, and accepts to be her devoted wife.
“The Wedding Banquet” (1.42 x 0.83 cm)
4 – Unlike the three previous frames, “The Wedding Banquet” already follows the geometric canon of the well-ordered classicist worldview, and presents a thorough symmetry, regarding all elements represented in it: the
Pucci and Bini families’ coats of arms are proportionately displayed across all pillars of the palace; the disposition of the guests abides by the social rules of time (therefore, similar to the previous painting); on each side of the two tables, wearing red costumes, four servants aligned in a row come closer carrying trays full of splendid dishes which they will serve in the banquet. Depicted on the left side, the groom is the only unbalancing element in this painting: he is sitting in front of the bride. But his dominance is entirely justified, for he is the hero of the tale, he is the central character who, by all his cunning and rationality, is well succeeded in his purposes. In short, the rational structure of this painting is fully in line with the emotional state experienced by all the wedding guests, and the balance of its components expresses a strong central idea: this intense love story has an jubilant ending, where we can witness a moment of great intimacy shared by two of the most ancient and noble families in the country, celebrating their own economic union and growth – so important for the strengthening of urban harmony, in such an oligarchic society as Florence is at this time – through the marriage bond between each of their representatives. Right in the Renaissance period, the celebration of marriage in this Boccaccio's tale has a great demand among painters, as is the case of the pictorial group Nastagio of the Onesti, commissioned by Antonio Pucci for the marriage of his son Giannozzo with Lucrezia Bini in 1483, and to decorate the couple’s nuptial bed headboard. Thus, this four-painting sequence can be understood as one more dogmatic tool, viewed as a utilitarian sort of art at the service of a male feudalism. This ideology prevails in the late 15th century in order to force the female “object” (“la belle dame sans merci” of Provencal lyric) to marry the male “subject”, thus keeping her as a mere hunting trophy conquered by the knight.
“The Birth of Venus” (tempera on canvas, 2.78 x 1.72 cm)
The Birth of Venus is, possibly, Sandro Botticelli’s most acknowledged and exhilarating painting. This masterpiece was composed at the height of this artist’s career (c. 1483), under commission of the statesman Lorenzo de Medici (Lorenzo il Magnifico), and hangs in a wall of the Galleria degli Uffizi (Gallery of Crafts), in Florence. The mythical narrative of Venus’s origin can be seen in a mixture of classic sources, like Homer, Horace, Ovid or Angelo Politian. In terms of aesthetic and literary authorities that give shape to this Botticellian masterpiece, we can find other examples: - in the poem Theogony, Hesiod explains the fabulous origins of the goddess of love through the bubbles formed in the ocean from the blood and semen spilled out by Uranus, after having been castrated by Saturn (the Grecian Chronos), his son; - in his Naturalis Historia, Pliny enlightens the starting point of the pearl, one of the most precious and cherished marine objects, or even how the mother-ofpearl gets pregnant from the celestial nectar; - in a superior use of the ekphrasis technique, the Greek poet Lucian of Samosata describes the goddess Anadyomene (a word that means “rising from the sea” and was, peculiarly enough, the original title of Botticelli's painting, only changed in the 19th century), painted by Apelles.
characterization of the goddess Venus seems to be withdrawn from Petrarch (1304-1374), the Italian poet who, throughout the pages of his Canzoniere – also titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta – depicts his most beloved Laura in his songs and sonnets, idealizing her as an unusual messenger mediating the supernatural space and the material world, an intermediary agent who, by her supreme and inaccessible beauty, elevates man and predisposes him to the pathway of bliss and contemplative asceticism. Under the aegis of the new decasyllabic measure, created by Provencal poets and practiced by the subsequent dolce stil nuovo, the sonnets CLIX (“In qual parte del ciel, in quale idea”) or CCXIII (“Grazie ch’a pochi il ciel largo destina”) – both chosen later by Luís de Camões as an imitatio vitae and imitatio stili of his Italian master – exemplify the new female beauty. In a masterly approach, Botticelli retrieves a classic theme in this magnum opus, and raises woman into a higher level. In terms of representation, this painting of Quattrocento is structured in a circular motion, and shows, in the orbital center of the composition, the goddess Venus being driven from sea to land by the couple Zephyr and Cloris, the west winds; on the right side stands the Spring, one of the Hours, already prepared to put a mantle covered with pink flowers on the same goddess who, in the next century, will be used by Camões as an aide of the Portuguese heroes in his epic poem. In the name of love! Indeed, following the spirit of the Latin expression ut pictura poesis, through which Horace matches up poetry to painting, the beauty of Botticellian Venus is also identified with the aesthetic stereotype of Petrarchan Laura, still following the Provencal canon in order to emphasize her physical attributes. As a converging point of this artistic composition, and mediating the secondary characters with all her formal balance, the protagonist of this classic recreation fits in a Neoplatonic and Petrarchan alla maniera, in this last period of the Italian Quattrocento, when she shows not only restraint in gesture and charming manners, but also an expressive elegance and embarrassment with her nakedness. In turn, long blond hair, white skin, quiet look, gentle hands, sweet and gentle smile, humbleness and shame, complete the masterful portrait of an idealized perfection.
This High Renaissance masterpiece can be seen as divided in three parts, corresponding to the Freudian topics, and being related to the Nature elements as well: 1 – On the left side, Paganism is characterized, in nearly all its completeness, through the two wind gods tightly embraced, in a most sensual communion of their half-naked bodies; this part of the painting is ruled by the id, the topic that lives in search of pleasure and wants nothing but release the repressed desires, the wildest instincts and praise the passionate celebration of carnal love; we are surrounded by Air, as the gods hover, helped by their wings, and create the wind (a breath of life, indeed) that brings Venus down to the ground; 2 – At the center, the shining star of this “mute poetry” stands in all its magnificence (and as graceful as the Medici’s Venus, sculptured in the 2nd century BC): a divine mediator that travels on a shell between two perfectly distinct worlds; here we find the balancing point of the whole picture, the punctum temporis in which the pagan divinity becomes aware of her tempting nakedness and surrenders to Christian humbleness and decorum; we are in the presence of Water, the natural source of Venus, and this scene is dominated by the ego, the inner structure that institutes the fundamental stability between the libidinal thrust of human senses and its sublimation, obtained through rational approach; 3 – On the right side, we see Flora wearing a light long dress, according to the prevailing rules of civilization, already prepared to receive Venus and convert her to Christianity, at the very moment when she will cover up her body with a widespread flowered gown; on this part, Earth prevails, due to all the surrounding tellurian space, living by the reality principle, and is led by the superego, the censorious court of the ethics conscience that represses carnal impulses and instills moral and religious norms on the Self.
As a matter of fact, Fire, the fourth Nature element, is not visible at a first glance; nevertheless, in a merely symbolic interpretation, we can find it “hidden” behind one of the most vital part of the painting: the smoothed nacre shell, a powerful symbol of the feminine genitals, owing to its concave outline, to its resemblance with a vulva, and also to the fruitfulness generated through the aquatic environment. Nowadays, more than five centuries past, even taking into account this unnatural anachronism, we still maintain the ironic idea of being between two dangerous heresies, consciously or unconsciously practiced by Sandro Botticelli by the time he made this painting: the first one, when, in strict compliance with the inquisitorial orders imposed to society, culture and art in this period by the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola’s harsh pronouncements, the artist covers Venus’s genitalia with her long hair, but “uncovers” it in a veiled message through the metaphor of the shell; the second one, in the sense that this central element refers to the Latin expression omni ex conchis, reminded by Darwin to sustain his theory. Actually, this theory holding that all life form is drawn from the shell (corresponding, by metonymic association, to the water) is one of the main arguments that will be used by the English naturalist Charles Darwin in the 19th century to confront the divine creationism, dogmatically supported throughout the centuries by the speculative speech of The Holy Bible. At the end of the 15th century, Florentine society is the specific target of the ferocious persecutor Savonarola, the Dominican reformer who condemns nudity in art and strives for the purification of life. Botticelli is, perhaps, one of Renaissance artists to be influenced by this compelling moralizing discourse, having the feeling of committing a serious sin every time his artistic work represents Classic aesthesia and the genuine ideals of pagan nudity. One reasonable explanation for the fact that The Birth of Venus was not put into fire by the Italian artist, unlike what he did to many of his other paintings, can be found if we understand that this work is depicted as a social exemplum, as a persuasive educational vehicle at the service of the firm restrictions imposed to the Renaissance art: this work, however maintaining the harmonious shapes of classicism, the precepts of the decorum and the obvious
marks of paganism, establishes a solid compromise between Greco-Latin Humanism and Renaissance Christianity.
In spite of having been shaped naked, this goddess, even before touching the soil, already illustrates strong signals of the feeling of losing her primeval innocence. Her blameless and childlike expression is certainly capable of conveying absence of guilt, but the convergent position of her hands suggests quite the opposite, because the Catholic shame compels all women to conceal the corporeal organs most associated with the pleasure principle: plenty of modesty and truly conscious of her natural-born seduction, she covers part of her white breasts with her right hand and hides the whole genitalia with her lengthy curly golden hair. Subsequently, Venus goes through a social training by the time of her (re)birth: in the ancient pagan world, from where she springs so smoothly, nudity is a natural component of the aesthetic standard, while in the new Christian civilization, this goddess tries to cover her fine-looking naked body when she becomes aware of her of sinful and disquieting condition. Her new virginal state will be accomplished when the goddess Spring will cover her with the flowered blanket, thus restraining all her pagan instincts and putting out the blazing flame of her carnal love. Highlighted in the concentric balance of this
circular contoured painting, Venus stands out as the traditional image of female submission, in accordance with the moral rules of those days: in a passive way, she accepts to be clothed, “baptized” by force in a strange new religion, and embezzled by the mainstream culture, fully based upon Christian and Neoplatonist values. Due to all its formal balance, this painting is one of the greatest examples of Renaissance art, strongly committed to a synchronicity between mimesis and innovation: - mimesis, by the significant conformity with the Classical models and in highest homage to the aesthetics of pagan naturalism, where the sin of nudity is always absent; - innovation, by the mark of superior difference from the Master and the original model, by the observance of Neoplatonic philosophy and the subjection to the dogmatic doctrines of the Catholic Institution, obsessed with the original sin. If we consider this Quattrocento work of art as a superior representation of Neoplatonism, the new medieval philosophy that joins together Paganism and Christianity, then Venus can be seen as its aesthetic counterbalance, thus reconciling the gentile sea of Plato and Venus with the Christian earth of Saint Augustine and the Holy Mary. Nastagio of the Onesti and The Birth of Venus, the paintings of Sandro Botticelli that have been intertextually confronted with its literary roots, contain two exemplary representations of female image, both converging in the submissive conduct naturally expected from a lady by the Renaissance society, and in the pursuit of an artistic balance between utile and dulce: the first image is endowed with a more ethical nature and fits in the Boccacian female character´s performance – as an easy prey of the knight, this woman must submit all her intimate desires to the highest oligarchic interests; the second one has a more aesthetic component and seeks to transpose Pagan Venus ’s canon of beauty into Christian Laura: woman, commonly identified with earthly passion, transforms herself into the highest spiritual love, an ethereal attitude that, in accordance with the last verse of Dante’s Paradise, “moves the sun and the other stars”!
- BOCCACCIO. 1930. The Decameron, trans. by Richard Aldington. New York: Garden City. - GOMBRICH, Ernst H.. 1945."Botticelli's Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of his circle", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 8, 7-60. - HAINSWORTH, Peter. 1988. Petrarch the Poet: An Introduction to the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. London and New York: Routledge. - KULSHRESTHA, Sujay. 2010. "Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron and the Roles of Men and Women", Student Pulse Academic Journal, 2.12. Retrieved from: <http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/344/giovanni-boccaccios-the-decameronand-the-roles-of-men-and-women-# >. - LONG, Jane C.. 2008. "Botticelli's Birth of Venus as Wedding Painting", Aurora. 9, 126. - PETRARCH. 1996. The Canzoniere, ed. and trans. by Mark Musa. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
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