Before Hitting The New England Garden Tours…Check out Botticelli (Yes, Botticelli!)


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I live in Boston, but Historic Garden Week in Virginia (or, simply, “Garden Week”, as I call it--because, really, there is no other Garden Week that can even approach Virginia’s in terms of its magnificence) is my favorite week of the year. My flight is always booked months in advance, and I eagerly count down the days until I can leave the cold, gray, Boston “spring” behind for the beautiful blooms of my home state. Even if only for a short time.

This year, however, instead of waiting until late April, I made a “preview trip” down to Williamsburg in early March. I wanted to see the daffodils and the hyacinth and the flaming forsythia before they all disappeared for the season. But I also wanted to make sure I caught a very important exhibition at the College of William and Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art, one that has been lauded in the press since its Opening Day and one that I hope everyone interested in florals and botanicals will try to catch at the MFA in Boston. Not only because it's fantastic, but because it also happens to dovetail nicely into Garden Tour season here in New England.The exhibition, reviewed so eloquently by Judith Dobrzynski in the Wall Street Journal, is entitled “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting between the Medici and the Bonfires of the Vanities” and is the product of a collaboration between the Muscarelle Museum and Italy’s Associazione Culturale Metamorfosi. It spans Botticelli’s career and features 16 important works, including one of only two known paintings of an “isolated Venus” (wm news).

In addition, works by Botticelli’s master, Filippo Lippi, and his son, Filippino Lippi (himself one of Botticelli’s students) are also on display. The paintings come from Florence, Milan and Venice, among other cities, and include works that have never before left Italy. Most importantly for anyone who loves botanicals, almost all of the paintings on display contain definitive statements made through the use and placement of flowers and plants. So, while the Virginia flowers were in full bloom outside of the museum, Botticelli was making extraordinary history inside. (As I write, I believe that Botticelli is making his way up to Boston for installation!)

Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

Sandro Botticelli, “Primavera”. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

Although Botticelli is the first exhibition of its kind to come to the United States, it is not the first successful collaboration between the Muscarelle and the Associazione Culturale Metamorfosi. According to Amah-Rose Abrams’ January 24, 2017 piece for Artnet (, Renato Miracco, a well regarded art critic and the cultural attaché to the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC, spoke enthusiastically about several collaborations [to date] between the Italian Embassy in the US and the Muscarelle Museum. Prior to the Botticelli exhibition, Dr. Aaron De Groft, the director of the museum, and Dr. John Spike, the chief curator, had together arranged world class exhibitions of the works of Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci. The two worked together to leverage their combined years spent studying, teaching and living in Florence when seeking out Botticelli for their next look at Italian artists, painters and visionaries.

The final product--the exhibition--is the perfect example of how and where scholarship meets trust, reputation, mutual respect and even friendship in the art world. According to Miracco, “[The Botticelli exhibition at the Muscarelle] will be the largest and most important exhibition of its type ever organized in the United States…the exhibition catalogues by John Spike, a leading Italianist [sic], have been outstanding works of scholarship.” I can attest to that. They are incredible--they are, in and of themselves, works of scholarship and art.Botticelli, to brush off some of the rust that may have accumulated after your college ARTH courses ended, was an Italian artist of the Early Renaissance period. He is famous for several of his paintings, but a few of my favorites are Primavera (Allegory of Spring), 1482; the incredible Birth of Venus, 1485; and Madonna of the Book, of the same period.

In the interest of keeping this post (somewhat) brief, I will discuss only Primavera.I was fortunate enough to have been given my second private tour of Italian Renaissance Masters by world-renowned expert Dr. Aaron De Groft--and on a day when the Muscarelle was closed, no less! I had stopped by hoping to catch Dr. John Spike and ask him some questions about Botticelli’s use of botanicals in his works, but he was out of town. Dr. Spike had given me a fabulous tour of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition (my first expert-led private tour of Renaissance Masters) when a friend and I had happened to run into him at the MFA in Boston--once the exhibition had been moved from the Muscarelle --so I thought he’d be game to answer a few questions about Botticelli. I’d just missed him. But Dr. De Groft came to my rescue. He was kind enough to turn on the lights to the galleries and guide my father and me through this most incredible exhibition--just the three of us in the “closed on Mondays” museum--all the while answering my questions about floral elements in Botticelli’s works. He was really quite a lovely sport about the whole thing, and his time, scholarship and good humor truly made my trip. (And afterwards, he was kind enough to email me about an excellent source of new thinking on Botticelli and his use of botanicals.

Detail, “Primavera”. Sandro Botticelli. Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Detail, “Primavera”. Sandro Botticelli. Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

Here is the citation if you are so inclined….Rab A. Hatfield, ed. Sandro Botticelli and Herbert Horne: New Research. The Villa Rossa Series: Intellectual Perspectives on Italy and Europe 5. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009. xvi + 284 pp. index. illus. bibl. $24.95. ISBN: 978–88–95250–04–4. Barbara Deimling’s essay is in this book, which is cited in footnotes 2,3,7,10 in the Muscarelle catalogue, entry no. 17.) Throughout his life in art, Botticelli was extremely deliberate and precise when it came to his flora. According to Dr. De Groft, Botticelli used every flower, every botanical element for a specific purpose. He chose his elements and their placements very carefully, even down to which way they were blowing in the wind.  As we stopped at each painting, I imagined the works with planned, definite choices for florals, and it made sense to me. I’d never thought about it before. Of course Botticelli would want to highlight the favorites of his patron families, and he would also want to be sure to capture the flora native to the region in which he was painting.

Primavera’s delicate light pink and peach colored petals that have seemingly floated to the ground from the orange trees overhead, along with the oranges that remain on the mature trees with their deep green leaves serve as just one example of a nod to a patron family. According to Dr. De Groft, the orange tree was a symbol of the Medici family, many members of whom were patrons of Botticelli and who, themselves, were often included in Botticelli’s works.It is also very likely that Botticelli used botanicals to identify and enhance his “human” symbols--for example, Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and springtime, emerges from a figure who, when “caught” by one of the winds, transitions through what appears to be a single vine of various flowers, from wintry nymph clothed only in a diaphanous white sheath (with floral elements) into the fully formed Flora. And Flora’s gown of floral fabric, her skirt full of flowers and petals and the crowns of flowers she wears around her collar and atop her head are sheer perfection to a flower lover. To this day, she and other Botticelli figures and their floral themed gowns influence fashion more than we probably realize.

More generally, though, I feel sure that Botticelli had hoped to capture the beauty of these natural wonders of the botanical world as a way to enhance not only the main actors in his paintings, but the beauty of his paintings as whole. This is all fine and good, you may be thinking, but...How does Botticelli really tie into Garden Tour season? Is it a stretch? Would you ever think about an Italian Renaissance painter ushering in a “Garden Tour” anywhere? I certainly wouldn't--and didn’t. Until I took this very close look at Botticelli and his evolution and the “why” behind some of his pieces. It is through his use of nature in his paintings, particularly the hundreds of diverse botanicals--and especially those we find in unexpected places--that he serves as the perfect artist to herald the arrival of spring in Virginia and soon--once the exhibition opens at the MFA--in Boston. We never know what might pop up in the springtime, and we never know how fleeting its presence will be. It all depends on the weather and other outside forces that we can’t control. So we enjoy it while we have it. And I think that’s one thing that Botticelli is trying to impress upon us. The idea that flowers wilt or die; petals fall off of trees; the wind can blow tiny plants over. We must recognize, enjoy and study the beauty while it is all around us.

So there you have it. My (distinctly non-ARTH major) views about Botticelli and his use of florals or floral elements in his works. It’s fun to approach art, decorating or anything, really, with an eye towards looking for one particular point of interest. Even if you might be a bit off the mark in your assessment.

You’re no longer being graded--so theorize and analyze away!