Slander by Botticelli

Consider this picture of Calumny (Slander) by Botticelli:

Calumny of Apelles by Sandro Botticelli (1494) Tempera on panel   62 cm × 91 cm (24 in × 36 in); in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy ( public domain photo)

A judge is hearing a case. Two advisors, Ignorance and Suspicion, fondle his donkey ears.

Detail 1  of Calumny of Apelles

Envy steps forth to make his case, leading the beautiful Calumny (Slander).

Detail 2 of Calumny of Apelles

Intrigue and Fraud retouch her exquisite coiffure.

She drags in the naked Victim (the Slandered Man) by his hair.  Frowning in misery and incomprehension, he turns to heaven for consolation.

Grim Penitence stalks before him and turns to give an annoyed look at Truth, who  stands at the end of the queue, hidden from the judge.

Detail 3 of Calumny of Apelles

You don’t need to be a Renaissance artist to commiserate with this victim. Everyone knows about these characters and has seen them perform.

Botticelli, the artist, was slandered. Perhaps he was a slanderer too. His biographer, Vasari, says he accused a friend of heresy “for a joke”. Vasari tells the mean story also just for fun—the fun of printing the friend’s reply to the tribunal. Botticelli had told people he believed the soul died with the body. “Oh, I can believe that as far as HE is concerned,” said the friend. “Because he’s not a human—he’s a brute.” And for further kicks, Vasari throws in the friend’s next dart: “And anyway, Botticelli barely knows how to read or write and he goes and does a commentary on Dante, which is taking [the great man’s] name in vain.”

Too little is known about Botticelli, which is a shame because he was one of the greatest artists.  Most of what we do know comes from Giorgio Vasari, who didn’t like him. He tells cattish stories like the one above and gives the impression when he does praise Botticelli’s work that he is struggling to be fair, no more.

“He was one of the followers of Savonarola [the Dominican friar who preached hellfire and brimstone],” says Vasari, “…and he remained an obstinate member of the sect, becoming one of the snivellers, as they were called then, and abandoning his work.” See how unstable he was? Unstable and irresponsible. Who was going to take care of him once he stopped working? “As an old man he found himself so poor that if Lorenzo de’ Medici…and then his friends and other worthy men who loved him for his talent had not come to his assistance, he would almost have died of hunger.”

As an artist, Botticelli was on the wrong side of history. He painted in a style that Michelangelo made obsolete even before Botticelli was old. The frescoes by both in the Sistine Chapel are the most graphic example. Botticelli’s look as though he had painted them with one foot in the Middle Ages, though in fact he finished them only twenty-five years before Michelangelo set to work there.

Sandro Botticelli, The Temptation of Christ, on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, Rome (public domain photo by Italiamoderna)

But he deserved better. When he was good he was very, very good.  His Birth of Venus is probably his best-known work.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1483-1485) 278.5 cm (109.65 in) by 172.5 cm (67.91 in); in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy (Wikicommons photo)

Venus resembles Truth in the Calumny painting because they both are take-offs on the Medici Venus, which Botticelli studied at his patron’s palace.

Venus Medici. A Roman copy of a Greek original (c. 350 BC); a cast in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by shakko)

Botticelli painted some of the most beautiful woman’s faces in painting history but their bodies look very odd.

Spring by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1482) Tempera on panel, 203 x 314 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (public domain photo)

Some people complain that Michelangelo made women look like men but most painters before his time studied only men’s bodies from live models. For women they relied on old paintings and statues. When they had to create a woman of their own they painted what they imagined was under those flowing dresses. Botticelli could never decide just where to place the breasts, and in his mind the concept of a woman’s womb seems to have made him see a permanently large chamber there.

He stuck to their dresses, of which he made beautiful graphic flourishes. His light, swirling,  three-segment gowns became standard angelwear for centuries.

The Mystical Nativity (detail) by Sandro Botticelli (1501) 108.5 cm × 74.9 cm (42.7 in × 29.5 in): in the National Gallery, London (public domain photo)


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12 Responses to Slander by Botticelli

  1. 100swallows says:

    Recovered from the SPAM folder:

    H Niyazi
    Submitted on 2011/03/15 at 4:49 pm

    Nice post! I saw ‘Calumny’ in person last year, it’s very interesting, and often overlooked because it is a smaller piece and situated right next the much larger Primavera. (You can now see this via the Google Art Project). Historically, it’s also interesting as the last of Botticelli’s works alluding to a classical theme before he fell under the sway of Girolamo Savonarola. Due to it having overlapping Christian themes, was likely how it survived the infamous period of destruction that is alleged to have occured during the Dominican monk’s grip on the city.

    With regards to the Venus de’ Medici, it is recorded to have arrived in Florence via Rome in 1677, where it was set up in the Uffizi Tribuna. This places this particular piece beyond Botticelli’s era – though he may have seen other variations of it during his time in Rome in 1481 on the Sistine project.

    Keep up the great work!
    H Niyazi
    Three Pipe Problem

    Quick Edit | Edit | History | Not Spam | Delete Permanently

    • 100swallows says:

      H Niyazi: Your comment came in as spam and I saw it just a second after pressing the “Empty Spam” button. I was able to copy it from the “Back” page. Sorry.
      Thanks for the correction about the Medici Venus. If the Medici Venus was in Rome, he couldn’t have seen it in Florence. But there must have been a copy or a painting of her at the Medici palace. The figure of Humanitas in Spring looks like a re-doing of the Venus, and the dates I see for that painting are 1477-1478, before Botticelli went to Rome.
      My source (La obra píctorica completa de Botticelli, Editorial Noguer, S. A., with notes by Gabriele Mandel) says somebody named Benvenuto Rambaldi mentioned a “classical marble figure” at the Medicis (until 1375[sic]). Maybe Botticelli saw a copy or a drawing or painting of that.

  2. justme22 says:

    It’s cute what you say about the women’s permanently large chambers for wombs in the Primavera. But isn’t it possible that it being spring, he intentionally made the graces, Venus and Flora all in different stages of pregnancy. i.e. pregnant with the promise of summer….

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi Justme22! That’s a fine idea about all the pregnancies, it being spring. But Botticelli made even his angels just as full of “promise”. There was an old style of dress that he liked and exploited, with plenty of room for expansion, front and back. Look at those angels in the Nativity Mystery, look at not only their backsides of so much promise but also their thighs. This is more a question of taste than of ignorance of anatomy.

      It occurred to me that his Venus could almost be seen as the female version of Michelangelo’s David: beautiful Woman, emerging (finally) naked and proud from the Dark Ages, which for so long had draped her in sin and ignorance. If it weren’t that Praxiteles, not Botticelli, invented her. But Botticelli finally faced the spooky thing under the pretty gowns and made it and not them his subject.

  3. revcarswell says:

    very helpful and interesting analysis of the Botticelli, I’m using the image and some of your comments for some teaching/preaching I’m doing.

    • 100swallows says:

      revcarswell: Thanks. I hope your sermon went well. I’d give a lot to have heard Savonarola preach. Vasari criticises Botticelli for becoming an ardent follower of his but Michelangelo himself went to hear him and, Vasari says, loved to read and re-read his writings throughout his life.

  4. April 26th will mark the 74th anniversary (1937) of the bombing of Guernica when Hitler’s Air Force dropped bombs on market day as hundreds of civilians were in town. This was done at the request of the Spanish government. Picasso immortalized this event in the painting of “Guernica” and requested this painting be returned to the Basq …ue Country after WWII which followed the Spanish Civil War. It had been safe in New York…and then sent to Madrid.
    There is an on-line petition to sign (pétition en ligne)…please help us get it back to the Basque Country in Guernica where it belongs.

  5. Eidren Gabriel says:

    I love the way you discuss art. It’s very entertaining.
    I can imagine it being said as script for a BBC Art Series…or I’ve been just watching too much of BBC. Nonetheless, your writing is elegant yet casual. I like it. Easily understood but it doesn’t lose the essential idea or philosophy.

    You almost remind me of Thomas Mann…but he was more extravagant.

    Keep it up. I’ll be reading more of you.

  6. Hello again, 100 swallows! Great to be able to read you again, I really enjoy it very much (and I missed it!) I have reduced my working program a bit (6 h/day). Hope to visit you more often. And I love Botticelli’s Birth of Venus…It has a very special filigranate ? quality, a finesse which I find it only to some Giorgione…

  7. Pingback: Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel | The Best Artists

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