Botticelli REVIEW

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IMOGEN TEDBURY // Botticelli Reimagined + Treasures from the Hamilton Collection

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Botticelli Reimagined The Victoria and Albert Museum, 5 March – 3 July 2016

Botticelli Reimagined Mark Evans 360pp, V&A Publications, 2016

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection The Courtauld Gallery, 18 February – 15 May 2016

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection Dagmar Korbacher 168pp, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2016

In 1945, E. H. Gombrich observed that ‘the history of Botticelli’s fame has still to be written’.1 Seventy years later, two landmark exhibitions and their scholarly catalogues have explored this ‘history of fame’. The V&A’s Botticelli Reimagined, a collaboration with Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, presented an ambitious and inventive appraisal of Sandro Botticelli’s work and working practises, reception and reproduction, appropriation and inspiration. Contemporaneously, Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection, a collaboration between The Courtauld Gallery and the Kupferstichkabinett, presented an intimate selection of Botticelli’s drawings for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1308–1321). Together, these ‘histories of fame’ interrogate Botticelli’s legendary status and investigate his role in the development of the art-historical discipline. 

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In Botticelli Reimagined, Botticelli remains elusive in an exhibition that is monographic only in title. In the first dimly-lit galleries, showcasing ‘The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: Botticelli as Brand’, we seek Botticelli in our own time. Absent heroines Primavera (1477–1482) and the Birth of Venus (1482–1485) star through allusion, quotation, and commentary, flitting between Uma Therman and Lady Gaga, Andy Warhol and Dolce & Gabbana. The second corridor of galleries, presenting ‘the Rediscovery of Botticelli in the Nineteenth Century’, disclose the parents of this progeny: meticulous reproductions document a Victorian obsession with learning through copying, while Venus and Flora float like half-remembered dreams through the work of Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William De Morgan and William Morris, as Pre-Raphaelites and Botticelli merge ‘without the viewer’s conscious volition’ (BR 79). An installation window between Rossetti’s two drawings La Donna della Finestra (cats. 75 and 76) theoretically gives a glimpse of the Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (cat. 162), once owned by Rossetti. To reach her we pass through a corridor in which excerpts from Vasari’s ‘Life’ of Botticelli (1550) are displayed as exhibits in themselves. In the clinically white galleries show­ing ‘Botticelli in his time’, labels refer back to previous artistic owners. A wall of Madonna and Child tondi of differing conditions and qualities, attributed variously to Botticelli, his assistants and his studio, suggests the extent to which Botticelli’s distinctive, peaceful linearity was a brand of sorts in his lifetime too. In this exhibition of quotations and copies, it is fitting, albeit anticlimactic, that the finale is shared between the ethereal, tragic, enigmatic Pallas and the Centaur (cat. 164, c.1485), and two ver­sions of Venus, from Turin and Berlin (cats. 169 and 170), who act as substitutes for their sisters in the Uffizi.

The weighty catalogue includes essays from twenty specialist contributors, who disclose a rigorous, chronological overview of cur­rent scholarship on Botticelli and his subsequent reception. Imitating the exhibition’s layout, 170 exhibit entries then retrace this chronol­ogy. Essays by Caroline Campbell on Botticelli’s workshop practice, Susanna Avery-Quash on the history of collecting Botticelli, Elizabeth Prettejohn on the long reach of the Pre-Raphaelites, and Stefan Weppelmann on the birth of Venus as poster girl for Botticelli’s globally recognized brand all elucidate the exhibition’s intentions. Some contri­butions, like Mark Evans on the Georgians, or Susan Owens on Aubrey Beardsley, dilute an otherwise slick argument, in which recurring names like Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Rossetti and Herbert Horne bring a coherence that transcends the sometimes-restrictive periodisation. The most significant contributions trace the history of Botticelli in scholar­ship, which Yukio Yashiro considered to operate like a ‘pendulum’ (BR 112) between imaginative and measured approaches. For some, Botticelli Reimagined may swing too far from Botticelli and too close to (re)imagi­nation. But if this voluminous exhibition occasionally loses focus, these instances keep our eyes critical. What does Botticelli look like? What looks like Botticelli? Botticelli Reimagined may ask more questions than it answers, but it represents a brave new frontier for monographic exhibi­tions told through reproduction, appropriation, and inspiration.

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection magnifies a facet of Botticelli Reimagined that could otherwise be overlooked. As a nod to Botticelli’s long association with Dante, Botticelli Reimagined included seven of Botticelli’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, probably executed for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici on 102 sheets of vellum in the 1480s and 1490s. 

At The Courtauld Gallery, thirty of these drawings take centre stage. Visitors are invited to follow Dante and Botticelli on a steady, trance-like journey through the inferno and purgatorio to paradiso, aided by the magnifying glasses provided to examine intricate and idiosyn­cratic detail. Before the infamous Hamilton Sale of 1882, Botticelli’s ‘Dante’ codex had received little attention beyond specialist circles, thanks to its preservation in the tenth Duke of Hamilton’s exquisite private library. When the profligate twelfth Duke announced his intention to auction his grandfather’s entire collection, this prompted a reassessment of the ‘national significance of cultural assets and heritage’ (BTHC 20). Though Prime Minister Sir William Gladstone thought Botticelli’s ‘Dante’ unsuitable for the British Library, the Kupferstichkabinett director Frederick Lippmann recognised the potential importance of such an acquisition for Berlin, and negotiated a loan of around one-and-a-half million marks to secure the Hamilton Collection before it reached the auction room. In Berlin, Botticelli’s drawings were removed from their codex and inserted into individual mounts, an equalising gesture intended to ease their public display. The Hamilton Sale therefore signified cultural exchange between Britain and Germany, between private and public ownership, but also between the intimate experience of turning a codex’s pages and the democratic experience of viewing mounted drawings. Such object histories are central to the closely-argued scholarly contributions by Dagmar Korbacher, Fraucke Steenbock, and Stephanie Buck in this sumptuously-illustrated catalogue.

The physicality of Botticelli’s drawings remains at the heart of The Courtauld Gallery’s display. Manuscripts like the astonishing Hamilton Bible (cat. 1) and Histoire du bon roi Alexandre (cat. 5), together with the drawings’ now-redundant late-eighteenth-century binding, remind us how Botticelli’s ‘Dante’ was intended to be experienced by princely owners like the Duke of Hamilton. As Buck argues, the ‘obviously unfinished state’ of Botticelli’s drawings has historically contributed to their reputation (BTHC 25): unerased metalpoint underdrawings, like Beatrice’s ethereal shadow in Paradiso 5 (cat. 40), or the sparsely populated Paradiso 32 (cat. 46), recall the decades of their creation at Botticelli’s hand. Nevertheless, certain drawings also remind us of their intended compilation as a codex. In the illustration to Inferno 34, 2 (cat. 25), unique in its composition across two joined sheets, Dante and Virgil climb down Lucifer’s tufted torso towards the fold in the vellum below the devil’s navel, a bodily epicentre of Hell. In a disorientating 180-degree rotation, Dante and Virgil then pull themselves up towards an opening near Lucifer’s feet on the other side of the fold, away from this infernal cleft in the vellum. When Lippmann released Botticelli’s ‘Dante’ from its binding he may have democratised our viewing, but these flat mounts nonetheless belie Botticelli’s play on the experience of viewing a codex, and the possibilities of a folded page. In The Courtauld Gallery’s select display we witness the singular imagination of the extraordinary artist who was so elusive in the V&A’s sprawling show. Together, these celebratory expositions on the ‘history of Botticelli’s fame’ herald a turning point for the theory and practice of the mono­graphic exhibition, to which they proffer two distinct approaches.

IMOGEN TEDBURY

  1. Ernst H. Gombrich, ‘Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in the Neo-Platonic Symbolism of his Cirlce’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 8 (1945), 7-60, 7.

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