In order for us to understand why Sandro Botticelli’s influence is of such relevance that the Uffizi Galleries renovate the Florentine master’s display to accommodate the modern viewers’ experiences, we shall draw a brief overview on the impact his style had on a small group of British painters, who initiated a trend commonly known as the pre-Raphaelites.
So why, all of a sudden, would an old Italian master like Botticelli obtain such a huge impact on British painting as late as in the middle of the 19th century? To seek for an answer, we shall go back to the very starting point: London on a September day in the year of 1848.
As a protest against the prevailing conservative history painting at the Royal Academy, a group of young artists congregated in an intellectual as well as a spiritual comradeship and formed what they rather solemnly named the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Initially the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed by only three young men at the age of 19-21, that is, William Holman (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Soon, however, the sacred number of three was replaced by the equally magical seven, when two other painters, James Collinson (1825-1881) and Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907), together with the sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) and the writer William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), Dante’s younger brother, joined the group. In addition, a considerable amount of artists supported the ideas of the brotherhood without becoming permanent members themselves.
In line with the name of the group, the members of the brotherhood wanted to show society that, in contrast to the older generation of painters, they deliberately chose to embrace the style emblematic of art just before Raphael (1483-1520) and his seemingly immortal ideas of beauty that had been dominating the world of art for more than three centuries.
Looking back at the sources of art history, the pre-Raphaelites were stunned by the Italian art of early Renaissance and found their inspiration in old masters such as Giotto (c. 1267-1337), Frà Angelico (c. 1395-1455) and, above all, Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510). Flemish art of that era, especially Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), was also of great interest to the mid-19th century British artists.
Here, almost as a revelation, they found a passionate and well defined intensity, which formed a great contrast to the fashionable academic art of their own time, represented first and foremost by their pet aversion Sir Joshua Reynolds. As the painter most favored by the upper classes, he was a keen and zealous advocate for the elegant visual expression of the so-called Grand Style. What was technically a new thing, was the rejection of any kind of clair obscure and soft, atmospheric lightning that, according to the Pre-Raphaelites, only served a hollow idealization and, in the worst case, a repulsive mannerism.
Instead, the Pre-Raphaelites encouraged each other to go back to the initial source, as found especially in Botticelli and other painters of his time, and to perform a sincere and genuine study of God’s creation with the strong conviction though that color, composition and light should not be used to enhance reality. In fact, these artistic measures should be employed only to see, understand, acknowledge and depict the beauty of nature, exactly as it was perceived by the attentive viewer.
Strongly inspired by the art critic John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites soon developed an alternative artistic style characterized by the use of pure and clear colors and the emphasis on the pictorial surface where sophisticated perspective rules were banned in favor of an almost clinically sharp light with no intention of hiding some parts of the motif and accentuating others. In his principal work Modern Painters (1843), Ruskin had told the young artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction: rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good and rejoicing always in the truth.”
With such a religiously charged naturalism as a common ideological starting point, each member of the brotherhood was inclined to develop an individual expression over the following decades, and thereby the influence on the following generations of British artists soon proved to be widely diverse and ramified.
The most famous among younger disciples of the original Pre-Raphaelite group – at least on the continent – is perhaps Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), whose typically Botticellian style was to inspire a new a generation of symbolists by the turn of the century such as the French Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865-1953) and the Danish Harald Slott-Moeller (1864-1937).
In conclusion, Botticelli and the other early Renaissance artists’ influence on art history is explained at a closer look of the paintings presented in the new rooms at the Uffizi Galleries: the well defined lines between bodies and nature appear clearly.
But how today’s viewers will see Botticelli any how they will interpret the italian master’s legacy is a story to be told by generations that have yet to come.
Ingeborg Bugge is a Danish art historian. She curated the Ribe Art Museum and the Art Museum of the Faroes Islands in Denmark, lectured at the University of Aarhus, and after a research scholarship at Oxford University, she produced consistent literature in Danish, English and German. She is currently working as a free lancer and on a doctoral thesis on the female figure and nature as a double motif in European art.
Image: Sandro Botticelli, close up of the “Magnificat Madonna“, 1483 ca., Uffizi Galleries.
Note: The Early Renaissance rooms at the Uffizi Galleries (9-15) reopened on October 18th, 2016. The renovation has benefited from a generous donation from the Friends of Florence, a non for profit Association, that raised all necessary funding in only 6 weeks in the U.S.