"The Judgement of Paris" by master Renaissance artist Botticelli, now on exhibition at the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg (Image courtesy Muscarelle Museum of Art)
The boat, on the far left end of the busy part-landscape, part-tableaux of gamboling, robe-wrapped ancient divinities, “The Judgment of Paris,” (c. 1488) by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop: That’s what I found myself stopped to analyze in the present exhibit of “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting and the Bonfires of the Vanities.” This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg is worth the hour-long drive on a pleasant, sun-drenched early spring day, the kind a lover of beauty, like Botticelli, sought to capture upon wood panels and canvas. You should go soon — it ends April 5.
Besides 16 works of Botticelli, there are nine by his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi. In Lippi’s studios, the restless Botticelli learned not just about painting, but hooked into his master’s network of patrons, including the Medici family.
The boat, a sturdy hauler vessel reproduced down to its deckboards and coils of rope, in the progress of what appears to be dockside repairs, is heeled to one side and empty. The work crew is either off to lunch or on holiday. Well, with three goddesses to gawk at, maybe they’ve snuck off to hide in the bushes.
A closer look at the beached boat in Botticelli's "The Judgement of Paris" (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Meanwhile, the hapless Trojan prince Paris, surrounded by animals, is attempting to obey the command issued by Zeus to decide who is the fairest among Aphrodite (or, as the Romans called her, Venus), Athena and Hera. The myth tells of the goddess Discordia, who was excluded from the contest, a golden apple, and an eruption of confusion, but the picture shows the calm before the dispute. Traditional representations of these three lovelies gave license to the artist to depict a trio of nudes, but Botticelli possessed his own interior conflicts about the meanings of the sacred and the profane. His renderings of the Holy Mother and of Aphrodite are often interchangeable. Both are glorious to behold, and yet there is that divide that Botticelli tried to negotiate at a time when books and paintings were getting burned — including, probably, his own, a reference that should cause some nodding among “The Da Vinci Code” crowd.
His “Venus,” head canted at an angle both shy and inviting, stands at greater than life size and impossibly long-limbed, using her past-waist auburn hair to make a chaste gesture. Nude, yes, but wearing a fetching translucent top with puffy demi sleeves that looks like it might’ve come out of a recent Victoria’s Secret catalog. This work, probably completed by members of his studio under Boticelli’s direction, is one of only two solitary Botticelli Venuses known to exist. You recognize her: She’s the one taking in her first view of day upon the lip of a giant mollusk.
Botticelli's "Aphrodite" gazes through the ages as Richmond magazine Senior Writer Harry Kollatz Jr. tours Williamsburg's Muscarelle Museum of Art, where an exhibition of the painter's works are on display until April 5. (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Turns out, just as there’s a Venus in every woman, there is a woman in Botticelli’s Venus, most likely the married Simonetta Vespucci, of a patron family. Vespucci died at age 22 and couldn’t
have modeled for the artist, but he seems to have used her as a template and measure, for his day, of femininity. Botticelli, who didn’t marry and doesn’t seem to have thought much of such arrangements, was by request buried near her at the Church of the Ognissanti. Better, the artist might’ve thought, to keep an ideal rather than marry a real person.
The exhibition is haunted by what may be Botticelli’s own conflicted self. But two pieces, not made by him, create long shadows of memory. A cartoon, or drawing, of a man’s penitent face on the reverse of a Lippi piece survives to peer up and out of the gloom of several centuries of gloom.
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A drawing by Botticelli's teacher, Fra Lippi (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
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“Funeral Mask of Lorenzo the Magnificent,” by Botticelli (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Then there is the sharp-featured “Funeral Mask of Lorenzo the Magnificent,” the Florentine leader and Medici arts patron whose sudden death from gout in 1492 plunged the city into chaos and changed the lives of many, including Botticelli. The mask is enshrined here with gesso on wood, and attributed to artists O. Benintendi and G.A. Sogliani. The piece seems on the verge of awakening. But alas, for Florence, Lorenzo was gone.
Botticelli doesn’t seem to have met Savonarola, although his brother knew the monk. But following Savonarola’s brief reign and violent end (after he began calling himself a prophet, the Pope ordered him burned alive), the artist wasn’t ever the same. He gradually gave up painting. Two powerful examples of his later maturity are on view here, including “Madonna With the Child and the Young Saint John,” (c. 1495). Mary, bent over, eyes closed, in a form of melancholy resignation, holds the baby Jesus toward John. The Baptist grasps Jesus’ neck. He seems to be saying: "Don’t go." The Messiah's expression — eyes closed, mouth turned down — is more complicated and suggests, "I must go. This is the plan, which you foresaw. I love you, but this is how we save the world. It’s OK."
Botticelli's “Madonna with the Child and the Young Saint John” (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Also here is the big, marvelous “The Adoration of the Magi," (1500), in which those Three Wise Men have come to offer their gifts to the newborn Jesus. Great crowds swirl around the manger scene, though many individuals stand out in portrait stye. The the holy trio are almost lost in the clamor surrounding them. One thinks of what Botticelli must’ve seen: the tumult of the Bonfires and the mobs that turned to burn Savonarola. And beyond the fractious whims of man, the ideal of a vanished beauty and love above all.
By the way, while you’re there, and through May 14, you can duck into the small exhibit of correspondence of President James Monroe, who reached this capstone of his distinguished public career by serving as the nation’s fifth chief executive from 1817-25. “Written in Confidence: The Unpublished Letters of James Monroe” is a presentation of the Special Collections Research Center of the Earl Gregg Swem Library, William & Mary Libraries. Monroe sent General Andrew Jackson to Florida to restrain Seminole raiders and keep an eye on the Spanish, but Jackson overstepped his orders and carried out a program of forced and violent removal of the Indians, while also exploiting Spanish military weakness. The Jackson wrinkle is just one of several of the “yes, but” issues that arose during Monroe’s “Era of Good Feelings.”
The Muscarelle Museum of Art, 603 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg, is closed Mondays, open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. all other days. Admission is $15 (free for College of William & Mary students, faculty and staff and children under 12).