7 – THE ART OF BOTTICELLI AND THE LAWS OF PHYSICS

The bold rebuttal of the attribution of the Esztergom Cardinal Virtues fresco to Botticelli had disconcerted me. Should I resolve to abandon the Botticelli track? At first, I left it out, but the publication, in 2011, of the acts of the Florence conference reawakened my interest. In the thick volume, I unsurprisingly found Zsuzsanna Wierdl and Mária Prokopp’s explanations for their proposed attribution, but there was also an article by Louis A. Waldman. Five of its 74 pages were dedicated to Waldman’s refutation of the Botticelli attribution. [1] Reading them would certainly let me know what Waldman meant by “absurd.”

According to Waldman, the Esztergom Cardinal Virtues fresco contains Florentine patterns of the 1490s, certainly “Botticellian or Filippinesque,” but he slams the door outright on the idea that either of these two painters could be the author of the fresco. His blunt reasoning hinges on two arguments: 1) A series of subjective judgments regarding the quality of the work and the talent of the artist: “awkward, slightly ponderous proportions; vacant facial expression and heavy-handed draftmanship”; “rather modest technique and invenzione”; “feebly drawn, rather awkward works”; “provincial imitation”; “modest examples of Italian Renaissance painting in Hungary”; and a “rather maladroit and inept draftsman.” However, Waldman provides no specific examples to justify these opinions. 2) A series of observations claiming a lack of naturalism in Temperance: “shaky grasp of anatomy and proportion”; “Her ear is impossibly small, her hands improbably large and lacking any sense of bone and musculature”; “It is not really clear how her right hand is actually meant to be holding the crudely foreshortened vessel she lifts, or why the artist made her turn her face as if staring at her upraised hand, whose mannered, elbow-in-air gesture ill-suits the action it performs”; “While the hair of Temperance blows to the right, her mantle whips out leftward”; “Flaps of decorative drapery cling implausibly to her protruding thighs […] in seeming defiance of gravity”; “The figure holds the two jugs so far apart that it would be impossible for liquid to flow from one into the other.”

Some of Waldman’s arguments clearly demonstrate that he worked from a photo of the fresco made before Zsuzsanna’s restoration, probably the one he uses to illustrate his article. He notes, for example, that Temperance’s facial expression is vacant. In reality, Zsuzsanna’s restoration revealed that the Virtue’s eyes had been destroyed during the Ottoman occupation in the 16th century, probably for religious reasons, and subsequently repainted. The original author of the fresco cannot, therefore, be held accountable for the vacant facial expression, for it is attributable to the repainter’s much later intervention. In Waldman’s photo, the eyes’ pupils are clearly visible. In Zsuzsanna’s close-up shot, on the contrary, there are holes in place of the eyes, corresponding to the mutilations made during the Ottoman occupation, for she cleaned the repaints away. We are therefore left to imagine what the expression may have been originally.

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Temperance’s facial expression after Zsuzsanna’s restoration.

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Temperance’s facial expression before Zsuzsanna’s restoration.

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Venus in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

In the absence of Waldman’s justifications for his critique on the quality of the work and the talent of its painter, the only remaining allegations in support of his refutation are those contending the work lacks naturalism and violates the laws of physics. With his criteria in mind, let us consider Botticelli’s most famous and emblematic masterpiece: The Birth of Venus. One does not need extensive knowledge in anatomy to realize that the point where Venus’ left arm attaches to her body is much too low and that the goddess’ shoulder is almost nonexistent. Furthermore, Venus’ body is so tilted to her left that it appears she’s about to fall. In the physical world, such a posture would be an obvious defiance of gravity.

 

Zephyr and Chloris in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

In the same painting, Chloris embraces Zephyr in such a manner that it seems impossible for her to hold onto him. Furthermore, the nymph’s left shoulder stretches abnormally downward to the point of making her body seem deformed.

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Zephyr’s foot in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Zephyr and Chloris’ toes appear to be made of rubber, as if they had no bones inside. Those of the Hour standing on the beach suffer from the same infirmity, while the slack fingers of her left hand seem incapable of holding the fabric of the coat, leaving the keen observer wondering how she can throw it over Venus.

 

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The Hour’s slack hand in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

According to Waldman’s criteria, thus, the Birth of Venus is not a work of Botticelli. If it is, nevertheless, as art historians unanimously admit, we must conclude that naturalism does not characterize Botticelli’s art. In reality, the Florentine painter was not much interested in representing the real world as the eye sees it. Considering Botticelli’s genius, derogations to the laws of physics and to human anatomy should not be regarded as defects. Botticelli’s painted world is not ruled by nature’s principles, but by the artist’s hand. The great art historian André Chastel rightly said about him:

It looks like the fear of losing a spiritual good, a delicious essential sensation, retains him on the verge of the world, of its curiosities, of its marvels. He restrains his possibilities more and more: what matters to him is just the quality and intensity of the relationships caused by the line in the service of emotion.[2]

What Chastel meant was that Botticelli had never feared to sacrifice realism for the grace of a moving line. Rather than refuting the attribution of the Cardinal Virtues to Botticelli, Waldman’s critics, nolens volens, are confirming it.

The Botticelli track was worth exploring.

[1] Louis A. Waldman, Commissioning Art in Florence for Matthias Corvinus: the painter and Agent Alexander Formoser and his Sons, Jacopo and Raffaelo del Tedesco, in Péter Farbaky, Louis A. Waldman (eds.), Italy & Hungary, cit., p. 292-342, especially p. 430-435.

[2] André Chastel, preface to Tout l’œuvre peint de Botticelli, Paris, Flammarion, 1968.

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