Misrepresenting Botticelli for the modern era

May 28, 2010

An interesting detail from Botticelli's Venus and Mars has been revealed, strengthening existing scholarship on the work, and its attribution to the Medici via an epic love poem.

I came across this article at The Times online, via a heads up from a tweet by the knowledgeable and inspiring David Packwood from Art History Today.  The Times reported Horticulturalists have identified the plant held by a figure in Botticelli's Mars and Venus, a  painting executed for the Medici, but with a secondary memorial theme owing to the figures depicted. The plant is described as Datura Stramonium, a weed with known hallucinogenic properties.

edit:  Information pertaining to the botanical identification of the fruit in the painting has been updated in this new post - An Update on Botticelli's Venus and Mars.

Symbols in Renaissance art are plentiful, but owing to some scholarship of Antiquity, the study of emblem books and modern works such as Edgar Wind's Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, the painting holds no true mystery, and is not a secret indicator of vice, as this article weakly insinuates.Whilst this painting was discussed in my recent piece on Simonetta Vespucci, I would like to assemble these facts as a supplement to the mischief being presented at The Times.

Pallas and The Centaur. c.1482. A Medici commission, with a wealth of meaning. The inspiration for the model may be more contemporary - In a 1475 Jousting Tournament, Giuliano de' Medici dedicated his Victory to Simonetta Vespucci, whom he rode under an image of - painted by Botticelli in the guise of Pallas Athena.

Whilst one of the beauteous aspects of art is mystery that lends itself  to a personal interpretation of a work, doing this at the expense of established scholarship is a dangerous way of proceeding. With literally centuries of study dedicated to Masters such as Botticelli, one would hope journalists would take the time to research the history of the work and present the 'revelation' in context. By informing the public, readers can at least make their personal interpretations based on a fuller picture of the factors that led to the creation of the painting.

Venus and Mars is now housed at the National Gallery in London. Whilst initially thought to be painted for the Vespucci Family, the commission is now attributed to the Medici, as a wedding present for the 1489 marriage of  Lucrezia di Lorenzo de' Medici (1470-1553) to Jacopo Salviati. As a result of this a revised date of 1487-8 is listed in some sources describing Venus and Mars.  However, as outlined by David Bellingham in this chapter from Brill's Companion to Aphrodite, the research claiming this is a wedding painting has been difficult to ratify.

Images depicting lovers and slumber are not an uncommon on for a bedroom artwork - even to this day. Scholars suggest the increasing popularity of this theme in the late 1400s due to the recent translation of Synesius of Cyrene's treatise On Dreams, which suggested the nature of dreams as a form of divine communication.

There are many wonderful sections in On Dreams. Pertinent to a discussion about interpreting symbols - in dreams as in art - examining the relationship between what is seen and relating this to its part in a greater organisation of persons and events is vital to determine its fullest meaning. This is something savoured by art historians, though perhaps not by newspaper journalists.

Just as men learn to read books - each in his own way, some only a phrase, others the whole story -so they learn to read signs in the universe, signals of the relationship between the parts of a great whole. What is called magic is actually the attraction of one thing through the agency of another.

Mars appears deep in slumber, and above his head buzz a couple of wasps. This is most significant - and has mistakenly led some believe this was a commission for the Vespucci family. The position of the wasps suggest the nature of the slumbering male's dreams, and reveals clues towards the identity of the figures.

In 1475-8, Humanist Scholar and Poet Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano (1454-1494) wrote the Stanze Cominciate per la Giostra del Magnifico Giuliano de' Medici ("Stanzas Begun for the Tournament of the Magnificent Giuliano de' Medici"). link

A page from a c.1495 publication of La Giostra 

It was written in celebration of Giuliano di Piero de' Medici's victory in the 1475 joust. It describes the love of "Julio" for "Simonetta" and is celebration of beauty and love according to Humanist ideals. We also know that for the 1475 joust, Giuliano rode with a banner of Pallas Athene, painted by Sandro Botticelli and supposedly modelled on the famed Florentine Beauty, Simonetta Vespucci. The poem was never completed due to Giuliano's death by assassination during the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478.

From La Giostra:

Now attentive to his response were all the little
putti about the golden couch, when Cupid, his
eyes laughing, his demeanor petulant and wan-
ton, embraced Mars and again pierced his breast
with burning arrows of his quiver, and kissed
him with lips tinged with venom
, planting his
fire in the other's breast

Hence, the poisonous plant identified as Datura Stramonium  is quite clearly a symbol for the 'fire of love', not an allusion to wild sex and drug taking as the Times article tried to dress it up as.

The little satyr, or putto appears quite intoxicated himself, having just delivered the poisonous kiss to Mars, aka Giuliano. In his left hand is what has been identified as Datura Stramonium, a poisonous weed with similar properties to Belladonna. In the top right, one of the wasps can be seen.

Datura Stramonium , aka Thorn-apple or Devil's Apple, a commonly known hallucinogen, also used as sedative since antiquity.

Cheers to Monica from amazing Art History Blog  Alberti's Window for the suggestion of looking into the Italian translation of this plant and seeing if it has any reference to the Biblical associations The Times article mentions.

Some googling in Italian will reveal that Datura Tromba Del Diavolo (Devil's Trumpet) is the common Italian name for this plant, and Thorn-apple is an English nomenclature. Poison apples instantly conjur an association with the Garden of Eden. In Renaissance Art at least, there does not seem to be any provenance for the Thorn-Apple being used in depictions of Adam and Eve and the original sin.  It is an interesting layer of interpretation, but Poliziano's succinct words about the behaviour of Cupid are simply too strong to ignore!

Botticelli's works contain many accurate Botanical images, which is particularly seen in La Primavera. How Botticelli was able to do this is not a mystery we discover the Medici cultivated fabulous gardens, containing a Botanical library of sorts. We also know that Cosimo de' Medici(1389-1464) had acquired Pedanius Dioscorides (c.40-90 CE) Materia Medica  which is believed to have been written between 64-77CE. The Materia Medica was a seminal work in the study of the medicinal effects of plants, and included a description of  Datura Stramonium

Even without the manuscripts acquired by the Medici, the volume was already  in common use by physicians, with manuscripts in different languages being produced at different times throughout the Middle Ages. Hence, between the Medici gardens and texts such as Materia Medica, there can be little doubt that knowledge of the appearance and effects of  Datura Stramonium was available in Botticelli's time.

 A 15th Century Manuscript version of Materia Medica, of Byzantine Origin.

In the late 15th Century a translation and commentary of Materia Medica was completed by the eminent scholar Ermolao Barbaro (c.1453-1493). The first printed version was published in 1499, with later reprints throughout Europe well into the 17th Century - the above image is of a 1530 reprint.

Despite the poor presentation in The Times, such information supplied by persons of Science are often welcome in adding to the existing array of evidence about the origins and content of an artwork. In this instance - the horticultural details of Datura Stramonium suggest a stronger link between the Medici wedding painting being a representation of Simonetta Vespucci and Giuliano de' Medici, both young and beautiful individuals, whom died untimely deaths. This link also adds to the existing parallels between the painting and  Poliziano's epic Love Poem La Giostra.


Alberti's Window said...

Greetings! It's nice to read more art historical information than what is merely stated in the Times article. I think that you bring up a really good point about the "fire of love" association with the plan.=t.

In your research, did you come across whether the "thorn apple" or "Devil's trumpet" nickname crosses over into the Italian language? The Times article suggests a possible connection with the Tree of Knowledge story, and I think that this nickname (if it is was used in 15th century Italy) might support such a connection.

I enjoy your blog very much.

Unknown said...

I recognise that avatar!! I love Alberti's Window. I am very pleased to hear you enjoy my blog. Thank you for the kind words!

It is interesting you mention 'The Devil's Trumpet' and The Tree of Knowledge Story. Apples are mischievous things! My favourite "bad apple" was Eris' Golden Apple - which I described in my November 2009 Article 'The Apple That Started a War'

The garden of Eden connection is an automatic one. Seeing the painting as a gift to a married couple, it is an apt theme - warning against infidelity.

It is wonderful to see these wonderful layers of meaning. My only wish was 'The Times' also made some mention of the connection to the romantic notions represented by references to Giuliano and Simonetta.

kinds regards
H Niyazi

Unknown said...

I've updated the post with info about Stramonium Datura in Italian. Thanks for the suggestion M!

Alberti's Window said...

Thanks for updating your post and including that link. How interesting!

I have to admit, there is one thing that puzzles me, however. The link you posted (I'll include it again here) mentions that the plant was introduced in Italy after 1500 (and Botticelli's Venus and Mars was painted c. 1483). That's a discrepancy of about 17 years. I wonder if the post-1500 introductory date for the plant is really a rough estimate? Or, perhaps humanists like Botticelli were aware of the plant before it was actually introduced into the country (since its hallucinogenic effects were recorded by Ancient Greeks). On the other hand, perhaps Venus and Mars could be seen as visual evidence that the plant existed in Italy before 1500?

Perhaps I'll need to contact David Bellingham to hear his opinion (and get more answers!)

Unknown said...

Hello M!

It would be interesting to see what Mr. Bellingham has to say.

I have looked into Botanical scholarship and its relationship to the 15th Century/The Medici. The results are very interesting!!

I have updated the post (again) to reflect this new research!

H Niyazi

Alberti's Window said...

I really enjoyed reading your updated post and the inclusions about the Dioscorides text. Fascinating! Cosimo de Medici's botanical library and Materia Medica seem like a perfect explanation for how Botticelli would have learned about this plant. Great research and sleuthing! Thanks for putting my mind at ease, too.

Anonymous said...

It's a great story, but too many problems:

1. Datura stramonium is native to Mexico. It spread into the Old World after Columbus's voyages to the Americas, from 1492 onwards. So this plant is unlikely to appear in an Italian painting dating to c. 1485.

2. The fruits of Datura are *very* spiny - there's no sign of this in the painting.

3. The fruits of Datura are smaller - walnut sized. They would be contained within the satyr's hand.

I think a better candidate is the fruit of the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium. It is a Mediterranean species and has fruits about the right size, with more inconspicuous prickles. There is a good picture at:

The symbolism of this fruit, which squirts out its seeds when touched, is obvious!


Unknown said...

Hello Mark - thanks for the info!

The 'Native to Mexico' doesn't seem to be set in stone. Nuttal's research favoured the Americas/Asia as place of origin, whereas Candolle preferred somewhere near the Caspian(Russia).

The origin of Datura Stramonium seems to be a matter that is still under debate so I don't think we can rule it out entirely yet. If there is some new evidence, please link us to it!

We are of course at the mercy of botanists for the actual name of the plant, though the allegory in the Botticelli and its link to 'La Giostra' is not reliant on our successful naming of the Plant - just that it is poisonous.

The Congressus Historiae Pharmaciae 2001 identified the Datura in an Arabic version of Materia Medica(linked in article) belonging to the Ottomans.

I am trying to get my hands on a high-res image from the Botticelli so readers can make a better comparison.

Kind regards

Unknown said...

I'm writing a supplemental post for this!

I got a great close up image of what the Putti is holding in the Botticelli - I don't think the Putti is holding Datura Stramonium at all!

Thank you Mark for the Ecballium suggestion - I think it is a much more likely candidate!

Keep your eye out for the new post!


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...