Peter Ustinov once said that if Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) were alive today, he’d be working for “Vogue.” You can see what he was driving at. Around 1485, Botticelli painted “The Birth of Venus,” which famously shows the goddess drifting ashore on a scallop shell. Nearby “Venus,” in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, hangs an equally iconic work of art, “Primavera,” depicting a mythological figure (probably Venus again) being crowned by Flora, the personification of flowers and spring. As well as being two of the greatest works of the Italian Renaissance, they’re arguably the epitome of feminine beauty in Western culture.
The point is relentlessly driven home in the first part of this show. Again and again, you’re bombarded with references to these two paintings, “Venus” in particular, in 20th and 21st century visual art. As you come in, a clip plays the scene in “Dr. No” where Sean Connery watches Ursula Andress emerge from the sea with her conch shells. You move swiftly on from the sublime (Elsa Schiaparelli evening dresses with floral motifs), through camp (D & G trouser suits) to kitsch (David LaChapelle). In the gift shop, for that matter, you can buy a Venus bath towel or a Venus woven clamshell clutch. She’s on the Italian 10 cent coin as well. There’s some serious art dotted around these early rooms, too, of course – Dufy, Magritte, Warhol, Rauschenberg – all paying homage to the Florentine master.
After this extended introduction, the show reels back and there’s some pretty dry art history. Hugely famous and successful in his own day, Botticelli sank into obscurity for the next three centuries, only to be rediscovered by the Victorians, notably the critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Artists soon got on board: there are tributes from Evelyn de Morgan, Walter Crane and the members the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, even a truly terrible pastiche by Ruskin himself. Later, he was taken on by the Symbolists: I loved the variant on Venus by the very weird Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. By 1850 the Botticelli revival was in full swing. Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Ruskin all owned works by him, although poor old Ruskin’s turned out to be a copy. “It is so ugly,” he wailed, “that I have not dared show it to a human soul!”
Finally in this show, we get to the real Botticelli. Or do we, in fact? In his later years Botticelli, like so many great artists, was the victim of his own success. He began to parody himself; demand far outstripped supply and he resorted to an army of assistants. The last part of the exhibition consists largely of 57 varieties of Madonnas, goddesses and other fair ladies, some labelled “Botticelli and Workshop,” some “Workshop of Botticelli” (the distinction hardly matters), most of them fairly humdrum. It doesn’t help that there are only three documented works, although the evidence of your own eyes should tell you that his connection with much of the Saleoom junk in this show was meager. All this, of course, is rocket fuel for art historians: sorting the wheat from the chaff will keep them busy for a long while yet.
Out of this mix maybe a dozen pieces emerge in which Botticelli’s hand can be detected to a greater or lesser degree, and of these, three works of great quality stand out. First, the trance-like “Mystic Nativity” from the National Gallery in London, probably painted under the influence of the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Second, an exquisite drapery study, the “Allegory of Abundance or Autumn,” one of the jewels of the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings. Finally, a substantial canvas from the Uffizi, “Pallas and the Centaur,” a worthy stand-in for Venus or Flora. Spotted by a British dealer in 1898, this painting was said at the time to have “done more to win recognition of Botticelli’s merits than even the enthusiasm of Mr. Ruskin accomplished.” So there, Ruskin!