Beauty and the paintings of Botticelli

by L. Seizani

The end of February 2010 marked the end of an important Botticelli exhibition at Frankfurt's Staedel Museum. The exhibit comprised a view into the world of beauty, as depicted by this famous Renaissance painter and his contemporaries, concentrating on a specific portrait belonging to the Museum's permanent collection.

Observing the face in the portrait we recognize the prototype of beauty; we can concur that the goddess Aphrodite personified would certainly resemble this figure. I begin to wonder about the elements that add up to a person's objective beauty, something that the Italian painter had managed to grasp.

Simonetta Vespucci, idealized as a Nymph according to the title of the painting which is the central figure of this exhibition, isn't perfect. Her profile upon the dark background shows a wide forehead, a curved nose, some signs of a double chin. Yet, 15th century Florence knew her as "Beautiful Simonetta" and apart from being the wife of nobleman Marco Vespucci, a distant cousin of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, she was also the love of Giuliano de Medici and Botticelli himself, who had asked to be buried near her when he would die.

She is indeed beautiful as she stands there with her serious expression, without a smile, inside this work of art. She isn't trying to lure us, to trick us or fascinate us. She has a faraway look and her expression doesn't betray any feeling. Hers is a neutral expression without joy, sadness or boredom. Yet she is without doubt very pretty and elegant. Is it the colour of her eyes, the lines of her lips, the small distance between her eyes, her nose, her mouth and her chin that make her beautiful, or could it be her complexion? Maybe it's her hairstyle which even today could be liked by all, those golden red wavy long hair. Maybe the thin arch of her eyebrows, the lack of wrinkles, or a combination of all of the above. And yet she doesn't look idealized as the name of the painting suggests. The lines are bold and the black background isn't particularly flattering. 500 years after, Botticelli's Simonetta remains beautiful, leaving us speechless despite the passing of time.

Simonetta was also the subject of a painting by another Renaissance artist, Piero di Cosimo. We can't reject this Simonetta as ugly but she doesn't inspire the same feelings as the one we see on the painting by Botticelli. This one's look is blunt; her complexion is pale, lacking intensity, lacking life. Although she is half nude she looks less intriguing than the Botticelli one. Is it fault of the colours, of the background maybe or of the chiaroscuro? I can't say. The only thing I can say is one simple thought: the fault is in the artist's soul. Botticelli has a way of bringing to the surface incredible feelings.

Leaving Simonetta reluctantly behind me, I continue on with the rest of the exhibition. There is one more Aphrodite from a museum in Berlin, the goddess Athena with a Centaur, a portrait of Giuliano dei Medici, a Virgin Mary with the infant Christ and an Annunciation. I remain in front of this painting admiring the Virgin Mary who bows as the Angel arrives, and she accepts without second thoughts, without fear, without hesitation or criticism, to become the Mother of God. It is an imposing work painted by the artist for the San Martino Hospital of Florence. One can see it today at the Uffizi Gallery.

25 years have gone by since I suffered from "Stendhal's disease" in the same place that Stendhal first suffered it, inside the Uffizi Gallery of Florence. I became dizzy by so much beauty, so much art and almost fainted as I was getting out of this labyrinth-like museum. If you ask me what I still remember from all those works of art today, I'll say Boticelli's "Coming of the Spring, his "Aphrodite," as well as a few works by his teacher Filippo Lippi and by the latter's son Filippino.

Here is a poem I wrote then:

The Spring by Botticelli
What does she want from me?
Her face, somewhat ironic
Pale on cheap reproductions
Somewhat coarse on copies
Still always Spring
Always by Botticelli

Perhaps these old verses of mine, these impressions from my first trips to the great museums of Europe, sum up in the best way (better than the analysis of today) the meaning of beauty as painted by the hand of Botticelli.

First published on http://www.peopleandideas.gr on 03.07.10