WEBSERIES 8/9 – Le Figaro Special Edition devotes an exceptional issue to the painter of Spring. In The Mystical NativitySandro reveals the anguish caused to him by the execution of Savonarola.
“I, Alessandro, painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 during the troubles in Italy, when the eleventh chapter of Saint John was fulfilled in the second sorrow of the Apocalypse, during the three and a half years of the liberation of the devil which will then be chained in the XIIth chapter. Then we will see him thrown underground like in this painting.The Florentine year beginning on the day of the Annunciation, it is therefore shortly before March 25, 1501 that Botticelli inscribes these mysterious phrases in ancient Greek, at the top of his mystical nativity.
In Florence, it’s like history repeating itself. King Louis XII of France has just entered Italy on his march to Milan. It is also said that Caesar Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI, entered Romagna. That’s all it takes to terrorize the inhabitants of a city where Savonarola’s prophecies still resound. Sandro himself, this time, resists the anxiety badly. A radical change has taken place in the artist since the execution of the Prior of San Marco. He saw the persecutors become the persecuted. His brother Simone had to flee to Bologna to avoid torture. And then he spoke with Doffo Spini, one of those responsible for Savonarola’s hanging:Am I telling you the truth, Sandro? We did not find him the least mortal sin, nor even venial.»
The judges condemned him so as not to fall prey to an enraged mob themselves. While rummaging through his brother’s library, Sandro found a few pamphlets which he perused eagerly. This reading upset him:Do you believe that the Virgin went out dressed as you painted her? I tell you that she dressed poorly. And you dressed her in the finery of a whore! To what decadence has the veneration of God fallen!“Words that could not fail to impress the painter lastingly. He thinks of his Virgin of the Magnificat all adorned with gilding, of his Virgin of the pomegranate with her dreamy face similar to that of Venus emerging from the waves. He sees in all this the mark of sin.
His very style emerged modified from this crisis. The simple pressure of a hand on a piece of fabric, the pleating of a veil, the exquisite grace of a pose, all that which once occupied him suddenly no longer has a place. In his Mystical Nativity, the angels on the earth embracing the shepherds, the angels in the sky carried away in their rounds, the angels posed on the roof of the crib, give the work a bumpy rhythm. As if Sandro’s characters had suddenly awakened from their dreams and were nothing more than energy, tension, the intoxication of tall, elongated bodies with mannerist gestures.
The painter is now fifty-five years old. Like Donatello before him, or Michelangelo thereafter, he abandons the full and harmonious forms of his young age, to favor the expression of emotions, the pure play of lines on the canvas. In this hermetic work, Botticelli gives free rein to his sympathies for Savonarola. The inscription in Greek thus refers to the favorite book of the Dominican monk. In the 11th chapter of the Apocalypse, which Sandro thinks he is living, Saint John describes the death of the two prophets of God, their abduction into the clouds. In the twelfth chapter, which the painting is supposed to depict, a woman appears, crowned with twelve stars, and crushes the fallen Dragon under her feet. Sandro is quite clear: for him, the two witnesses are Savonarola and his disciple Domenico da Pescia, taken to heaven in the smoke of the stake.
As for the Woman, a long tradition sees in her the symbol of the Church. The Virgin adoring the Child is therefore also the Woman of the Apocalypse: this is why demons flee under the earth, this is why angels, in the empyrean, let twelve crowns hang above the crib. The end of Satan, for the painter, must go through a Nativity which is also a rebirth, that of a renovated Church. “ Me, Alessandro. For the only time in his life, Sandro signs one of his paintings. But it’s more than a signature. It sounds like an act of faith, the moving expression of an old man’s hopes on the twilight of existence.
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