16 – THE YOUNG MAN AND THE ANGEL – PART 1

In all likelihood, the creator of the Tarot of Marseille’s Lovers card used Feliciano’s miniature representing Hercules at the Crossroads as a model (see episode 15). However, its central figure, a smooth-faced and well-dressed young man, obviously was very different from Feliciano’s bearded and naked Hercules. On Feb. 28, 2010, while I was studying a painting, I stopped short in front of the figure of a young man, who seemed to be the  twin — both physically and psychologically — of the Lovers card man. The painting was one of Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi.

 

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1475-1476..

Housed at the Uffizi in Florence, the Adoration of the Magi was painted by Botticelli circa 1475-1476. Many art historians have recognized, in the procession of the Magi, the portraits of distinguished members of the Medici family. The Magus kneeling in front of the Christ is frequently identified as Cosimo the Elder, the founder of the dynasty, while the other two, seen from the back and lower, are said to represent his sons, Piero and Giovanni. Cosimo’s grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano, are supposedly the two young men standing off to the sides. However, an anonymous character will be our focus. At the extreme left, among the crowd watching the procession, stands an elegantly dressed young man.

Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1475-1476 (detail).

His clothing presents some striking similarities to those of the young man in the Lovers card: the blue sleeves with yellow borders, whose slashes reveal the white shirt worn underneath; the round-necked doublet adorned with a yellow belt and vertically pleated; and the short skirt with its lower trim. Also, the two stances resemble each other — in particular, the position of the legs and the gesture of the right arm. In the Adoration, the young man’s left hand holding the sword is the inverted image of Philebus’ right hand resting on the belt. Moreover, the two images present a similar pattern of interaction between the figures.

Like the young man on the card, the youth with the sword is approached in contrasting ways by two characters: one with a blue beret who cuddles him, the other with a red hat who tries to catch his glance. Like the woman with the headdress on the card, the young man with the blue beret lays his hands on the young man, one on the shoulder, the other along his right arm, a little higher than where Pleasure holds her man, and with the same gesture, the thumb separates from the other fingers. Like Wisdom, the man with the red hat tries to get the attention of the young man with a gesture of his hand that shows the act of devotion to which the Medici Magi are dedicated. The presence of the horse’s head along the youth’s right arm, without a doubt, signifies the other horn of the dilemma: the pleasure of a ride, a theme often full of erotic connotations in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The young man in the Adoration, like the one on the card, has been given a choice between Wisdom and Pleasure.

The skeptical reader might deem these comparisons hazardous, but the existence of a direct link between the two images is confirmed by a preparatory sketch drawn by Botticelli, housed in Lille’s Musée des Beaux-arts.

Botticelli, Young man (Musée des Beaux-arts, Lille).

The sketch corresponds, in almost all points, to the painting, except that the young man’s left shoe is of the same model not as the character in the painting, but as that of the Lovers card man. Thus, the sixth trump card of the Tarot of Marseille inherits the design of its main character not only from Botticelli’s painting, but also, in a direct line, from the original sketch of the same artist.

Comparison of the young man’s shoe in the sketch (left) with the shoe in the card (right).

How could the creator of the Lovers card have taken as a model both Botticelli’s painting and its preliminary sketch if he were not a close collaborator of the painter’s, or perhaps the great artist himself?

However, if the two bodies are quite similar, this is not so with respect to the heads. Yet, at the other end of the same painting, another character presents features that seem to reflect those of the Lovers card figure: the curly, medium-length blond hair, parted at the center; the design of the nose and lips; the dimple on the chin; the square jaw; and the lines of the eyes and eyebrows.

Comparison between the young man in the Lovers card (left) and a character in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (right).

Notably, the pupils have moved from looking in one direction to the other. Many art historians are of the opinion that the blond man in the painting is a self-portrait of Botticelli; this proposition seeks justification through the idea that the man’s gaze out to the viewer of the painting seems to claim his authorship of the work. If, indeed, this proposition is true, does it not create the basis for seeing the portrait’s reappearance in the card as the signature of the artist, furthermore accompanied by an ironic wink?

To be continued in part two.

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