Many years before I had a chance to go anywhere virtually, I spent some real life time in Bergamo, with Italian friends. This was my first experience of Italy, and I was lucky enough to be completely unprepared for the cultural shock. Bergamo has a beautiful historic centre with many astonishing buildings, and, unassumingly tucked away, one of the world’s great Art Galleries, the Academia Carrara.
I memorised some of my favourite portraits including Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear. But today I am going to share an image I actively disliked, but which drew me with the kind of magnetic quality which makes children keep creeping up to something nasty to see if it is still as horrible as it was the first time round. In fact, last week I visited it again: I was back in the Academia Carrara and it is hard to miss. So here it is.
The Medici family need no explanation – the fifteenth century was the time of their rise to power in Florence. Giuliano co-ruled with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent. In the picture, which is a very standard portrait bust, he is plainly but richly dressed. His profile is accentuated by the pale square behind it. He has fashionably curled very dark hair, which suggests youth and beauty, and here is a sign of immaculate grooming. Then we come to the face.
Male portraits of this period have a strong bias towards what we call branding – recognition and respect are more important than prettiness. Giuliano carries his chin high and looks, as he was, a distinguished man of about twenty-five. His distinctive family features are too narrow for the ancient Greek aesthetic; he has a thin face with regular features, a sharp nose, thin lips, and a strong cleft chin. His eyes are down cast, half-hidden under the lids, his lips are pressed lightly together. He is oblivious of the viewer, perhaps thinking of some serious subject with calm deliberation. He is also, as it happens, dead.
Giuliano was killed in 1478 in a botched conspiracy to dislodge the Medicis from power. This is one of several portraits made posthumously by Botticelli. Botticelli had painted him living, but some people think this set of portraits show characteristics which come from the use of a death mask – the half-closed eyes, the sunken colourless cheeks and prominence of the nose.
In fact Giuliano looks a good deal healthier in another image from not much earlier. Here there is a fullness in the face and an alertness about the eyes which balanced the sharp nose. The contrast is very striking. In fact we know he was a robust young man who enjoyed sports.
But whether the picture represents a death mask or not, we are also to understand that he is dead from another key feature of the picture – the empty window square. In North Italian painting of the period, it was common to place subjects in front of open doors or windows. The view in the background contributed to the meaning and atmosphere of the picture, and might contain local landscapes or significant scenes. Guiliano’s window contains nothing except strong central light, which illuminates each side of the window equally. He has no portion in this world anymore, so his lands and his aspirations cannot appear in the window. He is not, however in heaven. This is a human portrait not an imagined apotheosis. Giuliano, with his immaculate hair and rich modern clothing is suddenly and totally dispossessed. No wonder he looks pensive.
There is a version now in Berlin, which is very similar to the Bergamo one, but the memento mori aspect is even more marked in this version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Here Botticelli has added extra symbols of liminality and death. The window now has two shutters, one open and one closed. This marks a point of transition, as Giuliano, captured in paint, is poised everlastingly between life and death. We are now separated from Giuliano by a sill where a bird perches on a dead twig. The bird is often an emblem of mortality, and the flight of the soul. Here it is a dove, emblem of fidelity, perhaps to the widowed bride, or the family he represented. The dead twig, broken off its living tree, is an emblem of premature death. The sill itself makes no sense in real space. Similar sills often separate us from the divine in paintings of the period, as in Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear in the same gallery.
Here a highly artificial screen behind the Madonna and Child separates them from the scenes of Italian life, over which they nonetheless reign. Close in front of them a balustrade separates the viewer from the holy figures, like the altar rail which seals off the holiest ritual area of a liturgical church. The balustrade forms a sill where the symbolic object is a piece of fruit – emblem of swift decay. The painter has also stuck his tag in the centre of it.
The same principles are used in the Washington portrait is the same. The sill in this case separates the dead from the living and is ornamented with symbols of death. But Giuliano is not wholly gone or the frame would be empty. The viewer is holding Giuliano between the two worlds, between life and death. This isn’t eternal life through art, it is more like eternal non-death.
This is a truly secular Renaissance painting, rooted in Classical not Mediaeval culture, and in the Court not the Church. There is nothing Christian about this painting – no fears of Judgement or hopes of Heaven. We have a young and powerful man in the midst of a rich life, about to be married, in fact, suddenly and horribly expelled from his world and offered instead what appears to be nothingness. Botticelli uses these portraits to confront human questions about death, which go far beyond the mere fear of dying. How can our selves, our whole private universe, depend for existence on a body that gives in to 19 stab wounds in a church in Florence. How can a person suddenly not be? How does it feel to have your enemies force you out of life? Can there be justice for that? Is this all there is? How do you construct a life which is not dominated by the fear of losing it?
If you think this is a lot for Botticelli to infuse into this painting, then it is worth knowing that the conspirators had misjudged crowd feeling in Florence. With the encouragement of Lorenzo, the people hunted out and exterminated them and their associates Few made it to formal execution. Numerous people – maybe a hundred – met humiliating and agonising ends. Botticelli was commissioned to paint images of the condemned as hanging corpses on the outside of the Bargello, the public building concerned with administration of justice. He had a lot of time to reflect on the wreck of human lives.
As for the influence of Classical philosophy, this was central to the whole Medici Court. which patronised many artists and scholars, including the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino. The Platonic tradition fostered very different beliefs about the soul and its immortality than those of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy. For a start, Platonists thought reincarnation as a human or animal was a possibility. But, more importantly, the soul is on a journey. It is indeed immortal, and survives death, but its goal is to escape the imprisonment of matter. Our conduct in this life determines whether our next existence will be more or less bound by matter – whether we will be philosophers or pigs, or whether we will escape having a material body altogether. Christian orthodoxy is more sympathetic to the body – Christians hope for a new Resurrection body, without the defects of the old. This allows for the idea that the individual will continue as a recognisable individual into everlasting life. But Platonic after life, stripped of the body is more complicated. Souls which achieve the happiest outcome will return to the One, the source of all life, free from the taint of a material body. But in what sense will we still exist as individuals? The whole point of the One, is that it is whole, complete, and not divided. Will my soul take my individual consciousness there? Is this life even ‘my’ life – I may have been a cat, or Plato in a previous existence; after death ‘I’ may have more incarnations. Who am I, once the body is removed? Giuliano’s soul has clearly left his body. Where is he now?