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Botticelli: from the Sistine Chapel to the catwalk

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Botticelli: from the Sistine Chapel to the catwalk

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Renaissance exhibitions are having a blockbuster year, with shows on Leonardo, Giorgione, and Carlo Crivelli running in a host of major institutions across the globe. So the V&A’s newest exhibition, Botticelli Reimagined, is in august company. In fact, the Botticelli exhibition rather stands out: the focus is less on offering a comprehensive look at Sandro Botticelli’s work than an engagement with artistic responses to the great Florentine master through the centuries.

Sandro Botticelli is best-known for his sensual depictions of mythological female figures, most notably the Birth of Venus. But to his contemporaries, Botticelli was more significant as a portraitist and painter of monumental decorative schemes, such as the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Botticelli worked with and for the most significant patrons of his day, from the Florentine Medici to Pope Sixtus IV, and was highly regarded in particular for his ability to bring to life descriptions of lost paintings of classical antiquity, or to evoke the mythical world of Olympus.

Sandro Botticelli, Calumny of Apelles, c. 1496.

Botticelli was as adept at painting intimate furniture ensembles for bedrooms as he was at covering the walls of the Sistine Chapel, or creating hauntingly intense illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. He was always distinctive in the calligraphic beauty of his sinuous lines.

But the reputation of Botticelli as a scholar of antiquity and interpreter of texts declined after his death. Much of his work was in private hands, especially the Medici family, or within the confines of the Sistine Chapel. So it took until the 19th century, and especially an 1854 exhibition in Manchester, for Botticelli’s art to be rediscovered and become more accessible. Botticelli’s art also came to life again as it was reimagined, especially by the Pre-Raphaelites. What remains striking is how selective and restricted this process of reimagining was – and has remained.

One work not shown in the V&A exhibition is his famous Birth of Venus. This work was originally painted for Lorenzo di’Pierfrancesco de’Medici in the 1480s. It shows the arrival of the newborn Goddess Venus on the shores of Paphos, where she is greeted by a female attendant who is handing her a wonderfully embroidered robe. Venus herself, born from the sea, floats to land on a seashell propelled by the wind gods, while modestly covering herself with her abundant red-gold hair, her left hand covering her pudenda and her right arm laid across her breasts.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486.

Botticelli’s iconic image is another instance of him recreating an earlier painting by Apelles, that was lost but lived on in a description by the Roman author Pliny the Elder. The Venus is a bravura demonstration of Botticelli’s skills as a painter – one who can reimagine lost paintings and surpass them. The Birth of Venus is therefore an icon for competition and imaginative engagement with a great masterpiece.

So nothing seems more fitting than the V&A’s focus on how others have engaged with and reimagined Botticelli. Featured works include those by artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman and Walter Crane, William Morris and Dolce & Gabbana. Of course, this process of reimagining Botticelli tells us less about Botticelli’s original art work and rather more about the aesthetic priorities of the artists responding to him.

Walter Crane, The Renaissance of Venus, 1877. © Tate

Take, for example, Walter Crane’s 1877 Renaissance of Venus. While Botticelli’s Venus is welcomed and clothed by a female servant, Crane’s Venus, minus her seashell, stands in pale and unreachable isolation on the shore, arms raised, her nudity in full frontal focus. She is surrounded by a host of white doves. Venus is resplendent and without compare, with three further female nudes relegated to the right background. Each of the three women in the background is either shown from the back or the side, and all three glance covetously at the glorious nakedness of the beautiful Venus. Crane’s image elevates Venus to an unobtainable ideal of chaste beauty, which tallies with Victorian attitudes about women and sexuality.

Crane’s contemporary Evelyn de Morgan also reacts to Botticelli, but while Crane depicts a lofty and unobtainable Goddess, De Morgan sketched a copy of the Birth of Venus where the focus is on Venus’s vulnerability and her need for female companionship and support.

Among more contemporary reactions to Botticelli, Andy Warhol’s Venus becomes a pop icon that recalls his Marilyn Monroe images. Sherman, on the other hand, interprets Venus with hair bound and her breast exposed, very much in control of her own sexuality.

Rebirth of Venus, David LaChapelle, 2009. © David LaChapelle

David LaChapelle takes this further, focusing on the power relationships constructed through who is looking at whom. His Venus is lascivious rather than sensual, and Botticelli’s wind gods have become aggressively sexual voyeurs. Far from the seashell being a symbol of empowerment, in LaChapelle’s work it becomes titillating.

The V&A exhibition had a previous incarnation at Berlin’s Gemaeldegalerie. There, the public were asked to literally “reimagine” Botticelli’s image of the Birth of Venus, and were invited to take the place of Venus in a replica of her sea shell. There is also a very successful social media campaign, under the hashtag #venusofberlin, which brings together hundreds of responses from men, women, and even a dog, all taking centre stage as the iconic goddess of love and beauty. Botticelli has truly been reimagined, and the London show will continue this tradition of myth making and creation.