How to Reimagine Botticelli

Botticelli is an artist whose reputation has been in flux ever since his work was eclipsed by High Renaissance masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo rising to prominence. Born in 1445, he is often seen to have ushered in the concept of the new classical, was eulogised by Giorgio Vasari, who declared Botticelli’s “pictures merited the highest praise; he threw himself into his work with diligence and enthusiasm”. His work is constantly referenced in popular culture, with Birth of Venus being a particularly iconic image of femininity. I absolutely love Botticelli and was so excited to see that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London were putting on an exhibition called Botticelli Reimagined, and was lucky enough to go and see it recently. The aim of the exhibition is to discover how Botticelli’s work has been reinterpreted through numerous different media, making it a visual confection that mustn’t be missed. Told in three parts, the exhibition situates Botticelli in his own context with his contemporaries, his rehabilitation in the Victorian era and modern interpretations of his work.

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What I found absolutely amazing, and I’ve never been to an exhibition that has done this before, is that when you walk into the exhibition space, it begins with the modern following of Botticelli and works backwards, finishing with the man himself and works by his contemporaries. I was also really presently surprised by how many paintings the V&A had borrowed for the exhibition by Botticelli, so it really was a visual treat. In the modern section, the visitor is immediately confronted by film footage of Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No (Ian Fleming actually referenced Birth of Venus in the book) walking out of the sea holding a conch shell. This is followed by Uma Thurman playing the character of Rose/Venus in the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which she becomes a living embodiment of Venus looking ethereal in a humungous shell.  This just demonstrates how far Botticelli’s imagery has permeated cultural consciousness. Highlights in the modern collection included evening dresses by Elsa Schiaparelli inspired by Botticelli’s treatment of flowers, spring and nature (key in both Birth of Venus and Primavera), Yin Xin’s 2008 Venus, after Botticelli and Andy Warhol’s brightly coloured prints of Venus’ iconic face.

From here, the exhibition moves into the Victorian era, during which Botticelli’s reputation was revitalised, having been overshadowed by artists in the High Renaissance and pretty much forgotten about for over three centuries. John Ruskin began to write about him in the 1870s and works by Botticelli began to go on show in European museums and art galleries; for instance, in the 1860s alone, Mars and Venus was secured by the National Gallery in London whilst Birth of Venus and Primavera were unveiled in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. Other works went on show in Berlin, Paris and Madrid. A nineteenth-century interest in the political and literary culture during Lorenzo the Magnificent’s Florence gave birth to this, and key art historians of the late nineteenth century wrote essays, dissertations and monographs on this long-forgotten artist, such as Walter Pater in 1873 and Aby Warburg in 1893. Many drawings, paintings and even a tapestry are displayed in this part of the exhibition, with Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris being particularly notable. The beautiful pre-Raphaelite figures were stunning to look at, with the highlight for me being The Orchard Tapestry by William Morris, John Henry Dearle and Morris & Co of 1890. Clearly taking inspiration from the garden of myrtle trees in Primavera, it was Morris’ first attempt to complete a tapestry including figures. Four figures in medieval dress clutch a banner upon which a poem by Morris is displayed. The tapestry celebrates the seasons and is full of fruits, much like the bounteous garden Botticelli presented in his early Renaissance work.

Then comes the work of the early Renaissance, with over fifty original works by Botticelli surrounded by his contemporaries. Here his mastery becomes clear and you can see why his work is so heavily referenced in popular culture, particularly visually. I love the hard outlines of his figures – his c.1490 Venus is a highlight surrounded by his drawings. Here, isolated from her typical background of the sea and no shell underfoot, the classical prototypes Botticelli employed which were valued so highly in Medici Florence become more obvious. These can be seen in the contrapposto poses of the figures (the flattering, slightly twisted poses of the figures in which their upper bodies seem to marginally lean backwards) and the naturalistic proportions they exhibit. He shows a new Venus, inspired by the classical pose of the modest Venus Pudica, but simultaneously shaped by contemporary standards of beauty, described by contemporary humanist poets such as Petrarch and Politian. Moving on to his 1480-5 Portrait of a Young Man, here Botticelli shows a commanding, confident present, with a hand drawn up to his chest and his head tilted in a way that feels like the way somebody would naturally look at someone, almost as if the Young Man in the portrait is observing his audience.

This is the largest Botticelli exhibition in Britain since 1930 and the new way Botticelli’s work is represented and, as the name suggests, reimagined, is certainly thought-provoking and opens up different ways of seeing how images we now have ingrained in our cultural awareness became so. It was so interesting and a must for any fan of Botticelli.

Also, another great thing about the exhibition was the fact you could pretend to be in the Birth of Venus. Besides there being an actual shell you can sit in at the V&A, when you exit the exhibition into the themed gift shop, there is a wall mocked up as the painting with Venus missing. I obviously loved this and was straight in there to pretend to be part of one of my favourite paintings – not sure what Botticelli would have thought of my mustard-yellow skirt though…

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VISIT…

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