Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Botticelli Code

Pallas and the Centaur, Botticelli
photo courtesy of Google Art Project

The paintings of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) have been pondered over by art historians for centuries, due to the often abstruse subject matter and iconography riddled within them.  Botticelli was often commissioned – predominantly by the Medici family – to paint mythological subjects.  One particular painting that has been subject to much analysis is his 1482 oil on canvas, commonly accepted as Pallas (or Minerva) and the Centaur.  The painting depicts a woman draped in a shimmering white gown bearing the three interlocking rings of the Medici family, an emerald green fabric and adorned with olive branches, holding a lavish halberd in her right hand and grasping the hair of a forlorn looking centaur with her left.  She carries on her back a shield, while the centaur clings to a black and gold bo, the quiver draped from his back.  The pair stand in what appears to be a meadow with a lonely looking beach not far in the distance, a ship with no sails perched on the water.  To their right a ledge creeps its way into the frame, moss hanging from the ledge. 
Close up, Medici symbol, photo courtesy of Google
Art Project
Close up, photo courtesy of Google Art Project
Art historians have generally accepted this woman to represent Pallas Athena, the Roman Goddess of Wisdom, although there is no solid iconographical evidence pointing to it.  Regardless, according to a 1516 inventory of the Medici archives, the painting is entitled ja figura conuna Minerva e centauro in tela e asse dritto (roughly, the figure Minerva and centaur on canvas and straight board).  According to an article located in The Burlington Magazine, the most convincing interpretation relating the woman in Botticelli’s painting to Minerva is her relation to the centaur.  It appears to be a triumph of Wisdom over lust, which the centaur typically signifies.  In this case, the painting would appear to be a comment on chastity, a logical interpretation due to the fact that the painting was probably originally located in the bedroom of Lorenzo di Medici. 
Others believe her identity to be that of Camilla, a princess from Latium in Virgil’s epic Aeneid.  According to Freerick Hartt, Camilla was a chaste huntress dedicated to the service of Pallas Athena.  As with Minerva, there are no intrinsic symbols indicating this, only the title given it a 1498 inventory.  In this particular inventory, only a mere decade from when the painting was created, it is entitled Camila and a Satyr.  Though historians believe that the man who labeled it this title would not have been educated in the arts or history, they wonder who or what advised him to it – perhaps a title on the original frame.  Interestingly, Virgil writes of Camilla, “decus italae virgo”, or Splendor of Italy.  If this woman is in fact Camilla, then her personification exemplifies something particular about how the Medici family chose to be portrayed.  Moreover, she may symbolize the virtuous and civilizing nature of the family as portrayed to their city and country.
Close up, halberd, photo courtesy of
Google Art Project
            Perhaps the most intriguing argument over the identity of the characters and their meaning comes from A. I. Frothingham in an article for the American Journal of Archaeology.  Frothingham writes of the discovery of an image from the Roman calendar year 354, in which an Amazon woman represents the great Western city Trier – entitled Treberis.  The Amazon woman known as Treberis holds a spear in her left hand, while grasping the hair of a barbarian on her right, who has cast aside his bow and arrows.  The pair are surrounded by the riches of Rome and meant to symbolize the wealth of her great city.  Treberis herself represents the good government of Rome, which has granted the Germanic barbarian tribes with wealth and peace.  When viewed, the resemblance between the two pieces is shocking.  Though they are not exactly alike, they are similar in significant ways, such as the poses of the two characters, the weapons they carry, and most importantly the movement and personification of the women.  In Treberis, the Amazon woman represents the wealth and power of her country; but in Pallas and the Centaur she might be Florentia, representing ger great city, adorned in the olive branches symbolizing peace and under the watchful guidance of the Medici.  The halberd, also a symbol of guardians, furthers this argument.  She firmly grips the centaur, who may represent the chaotic and uncultured condition of Florence territory (according to Frothingham).
            Whoever the mysterious woman in Botticelli’s masterpiece really is, the symbols of the characters do lead historians in the right direction.  The Medici symbol provides evidence that the piece was commissioned for and representing the family, while the olive branch symbolizes peace, the halberd guardianship, and the centaur lust.  Art historians will unfortunately, only ever be able to guess at the true meaning, but so far they have provided students of art history a wealth of arguments and ideas from which to delve into.

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