Old Master Paintings

Reflections of a World in Crisis: Art in Florence circa 1492-1512

By Bruce Edelstein

That very Quaresima or Lent of 1492 in which he died, still in his erect old age, he had listened in San Lorenzo, not without a mixture of satisfaction, to the preaching of a Dominican Friar, named Girolamo Savonarola, who denounced with a rare boldness the worldliness and vicious habits of the clergy, and insisted on the duty of Christian men not to live for their own ease when wrong was triumphing in high places, and not to spend their wealth in outward pomp even in the churches, when their fellow-citizens were suffering from want and sickness. The Frate carried his doctrine rather too far for elderly ears; yet it was a memorable thing to see a preacher move his audience to such a pitch that the women even took off their ornaments, and delivered them up to be sold for the benefit of the needy.[1]

In the “Proem” to her extraordinary historical novel Romola, George Eliot imagines the thoughts of the spirit of a recently deceased Florentine citizen as he looks down on the city from the hillside of San Miniato on the morning of April 9, 1492, the day after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The choice of this date was not arbitrary, as Eliot recognized that this was an epoch-making event, one that clearly demarcated the beginning of a new period in Florentine history. Many of the great protagonists of that moment are portrayed vividly in the novel, especially the charismatic Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (fig. 1), the political philosopher and historian Niccolò Machiavelli, and the painter Piero di Cosimo. Curiously, Eliot did not choose to include Botticelli, although the myth that the artist burned the paintings he still had in his studio depicting mythological subjects in the bonfire of the vanities that took place in Florence on Shrove Tuesday in 1497, under the inspiration of Savonarola, was already popular by her day.

Fig. 1. Fra Bartolomeo, Girolamo Savonarola, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Botticelli’s identity as a “Medici artist” has often been seen at odds with his reputed later embracing of Savonarolan spirituality. However, the social and political leanings of fifteenth-century Florentines are not so easily categorized. Savonarola himself, born in Ferrara in 1452, was first sent by the Dominican order to Florence in 1482, but was not particularly appreciated as a preacher and did not attract a significant following in his first five years in the city.[2] His return in 1490 was due to the direct intervention of Lorenzo the Magnificent, following the advice of the humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who was deeply impressed by Savonarola’s preaching and had become a devoted follower.[3] Over five centuries later, it may surprise us that Pico, the author of the “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” and his patron Lorenzo, with his aristocratic pretensions, should have sought to bring to Florence the man who would so actively contest the Medici regime. That was, however, a later development, unforeseeable at the time, and the interests of fifteenth-century humanists in classical culture were not considered to conflict with sincere religious devotion.

In late March 1492, at the age of forty-three, Lorenzo’s health was declining and he was carried from Florence to the Medici villa at Careggi, in the company of several members of his family and the poet Poliziano. The complexity of the moment is captured in a letter written by Poliziano to his friend, the humanist Jacopo Antiquari, at the court of the Sforza duke in Milan. Poliziano reports that the day before his death, Lorenzo called for his spiritual advisor, who heard his confession and administered the Sacraments around midnight. Other visitors followed, including Pico, whose presence was specifically requested by Lorenzo.

Pico had hardly left the room when Fra Girolamo [Savonarola] of Ferrara, a man celebrated for his doctrine and his sanctity and an excellent preacher, came in. To his exhortations to remain firm in his faith and to live in future, if God granted him life, free from crime, or if God so willed it to receive death willingly, Lorenzo answered that he was firm in his religion, that his life would always be guided by it, and that nothing could be sweeter to him than death, if such was the divine will. Fra Girolamo then turned to go when Lorenzo said: “Oh Father, before going deign to give me thy benediction.” Bowing his head, immersed in piety and religion he repeated the words and the prayers of the friar, without paying any attention to the grief now openly shown of his attendants.[4]

In spite of Poliziano’s eyewitness report, it was rumored later that it was Savonarola who had been called to hear Lorenzo’s confession and that he had refused to grant absolution or the sacraments to the dying man.[5] However, Lorenzo’s body was first carried to the Dominican friary of San Marco, where Savonarola was the prior, before being taken to the Medici basilica of San Lorenzo for his funeral and burial, suggesting that the later conflicting accounts are less reliable than Poliziano’s. Poliziano himself, who died just two years after Lorenzo in 1494, was buried as a penitent attired in a Dominican habit,[6] a choice that would seem unlikely if the poet had seen his patron and friend denied solace by Savonarola.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that an artist like Botticelli may have been drawn to the spirituality promoted by Savonarola. Botticelli’s younger contemporary Michelangelo must have been deeply affected by the friar’s preaching.[7] According to his biographer Ascanio Condivi, even late in life, when he was almost eighty years old, Michelangelo could still recall the sound of Savonarola’s voice.[8] Neither Botticelli nor Michelangelo appears to have become a full-fledged piagnone, one of the “weepers,” as the friar’s devoted followers were known, although Botticelli’s brother Simone did, and Michelangelo’s brother Leonardo was a Dominican friar.[9] The attraction of Savonarola’s preaching in his second Florentine period was surely augmented by millennial preoccupations as the year 1500 approached, and Savonarola himself claimed to have the gift of prophecy.[10] Dire warnings circulated throughout Italy and signs and portents were analyzed for what they might reveal about a possible coming apocalypse. On April 5, 1492, the Cathedral dome was struck by lightning, damaging the lantern and causing stonework to fall inside and outside of the Duomo. As the contemporary diarist Luca Landucci observed, “It was considered a thing of wonder and a sign of some great thing.” [11] When Lorenzo the Magnificent died just three days later, for many Florentines the meaning appeared to have been revealed.

Savonarola’s political authority reached its height a few years later. In late 1494, King of France Charles VIII swept through Italy en route to Naples, which he intended to reclaim from the Aragonese as part of his Angevin heritage. The head of the Medici family was now Lorenzo’s eldest son Piero, known as Piero the Fatuous or Piero the Unfortunate, who lacked his father’s intelligence and political savvy. Piero handled the arrival of the French army particularly badly, incurring the wrath of the Florentine government.[12] The male members of the main branch of the family were exiled from Florence in November 1494 and the Medici Palace was sacked.[13] The portraits of the Pazzi conspirators painted by Botticelli in 1478 over the Porta della Dogana, next to the Palazzo della Signoria, following the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempted assassination of Lorenzo the Magnificent, were destroyed at this time.[14] The following year, Donatello’s bronze sculptures of David and Judith were taken to Piazza della Signoria and placed, the former inside and the latter outside of the town hall, as warnings to future tyrants against undermining the democratic institutions of the city.[15] Under the inspiration of Savonarola, a new republic was declared with expanded representation of the citizenry and Jesus Christ as its only king.[16]

Fig. 2. Anonymous, 15th century, Auto de fe of Girolamo Savonarola, 23 May 1498, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Nicolo Orsi Battaglini / Art Resource, NY

On February 7, 1497, Savonarola ordered the infamous bonfire of the vanities in Florence, in which luxury items of all kinds – cosmetics, precious garments, jewelry, books, and artworks – were burned.[17] It is often claimed that Botticelli himself threw on the flames whatever paintings were in his studio depicting classically-inspired, pagan subjects, but no contemporary evidence supports this assertion. Savonarola’s power might seem to be at its apex at this moment but it was in fact already waning. The friar’s political authority had depended in no small part on the support of the French king, who he had seen, rightly or wrongly, as the embodiment of a purifying force in Italy and against the corruption of the church. However, Charles VIII returned quickly to France in 1495 after retaking Naples and the friar was left without military support, earning the enmity of the foreign powers who had joined forces against France: the papacy, the duchy of Milan, the Venetian Republic, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. As Machiavelli would later observe, he was an “unarmed prophet.”[18] In April 1498, he was arrested by the city government and accused of heresy. On May 23, together with two other close Dominican followers, he was burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria (fig. 2).[19]

Fig. 3. Salone dei Cinquecento, Palazzo Vecchio, Mondadori Portfolio/Archivio Antonio Quattrone/Antonio Quattrone / Bridgeman Images

Savonarola lived long enough, however, to see one of his dreams for the government of Florence realized. In December 1494, shortly after the Medici were exiled from the city, he had preached a sermon urging the Florentines to reform their government on the model of the Venetian one.[20] To house the expanded representative body of the Great Council, a new hall was required and in May 1495 work began on its construction (fig. 3). In less than a year, this was far enough along that the first meeting of the new council could be held in the hall.[21] No one in Florence at that time could have failed to understand that this new body had been formed by Savonarola: the friars of San Marco came to inaugurate the structure, with Savonarola himself presiding over the Mass and reciting a sermon for the occasion.[22]

Left: Fig. 4. Peter Paul Rubens, copy after Leonardo da Vinci, Battle of Anghiari, Paris, Louvre Museum

Right: Fig. 5. Michelangelo (copy after his cartoon), The Battle of Cascina, by Aristotle or Bastiano da Sangallo, Private Collection, © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

Work continued on the hall after Savonarola’s death, primarily furnishings and decorative woodwork were required to complete it. However, it is the subsequent history of the art commissioned to decorate the hall for which it is famous today. It would serve as the setting for one of the greatest artistic competitions ever: Leonardo and Michelangelo would both be commissioned to paint battle scenes in the hall (figs. 4 and 5).[23] Neither of these was ever painted, arriving solely at the stage of completed cartoons. These full-scale drawings caused a sensation, however, and are often considered the defining moment for the arrival of the high Renaissance. Not only local artists flocked to see these, but “foreign” artists, such as Raphael, were drawn to the city, hoping to study these innovative compositional ideas.[24] It is worth recalling, however, that neither of these two giants was the first artist hired by the city to execute a painting for the new hall: it was Botticelli’s most important student, Filippino Lippi, who was commissioned to paint the altarpiece no later than June 1500, when he received his first payment for work on it.[25] Left unfinished when Lippi died prematurely in 1504, the commission was eventually awarded to Fra Bartolomeo in 1510, a painter whose Savonarolan fervor had inspired him to abandon his art for several years while he became a Dominican friar (fig. 6).[26]

Fig. 6. Fra Bartolomeo, Pala del Gran Consiglio, Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist Surrounded by Saints, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Photo © Nicolò Orsi Battaglini / Bridgeman Images

Leonardo arrived in Florence in 1501, after seventeen years at the ducal court in Milan. When the French invaded the city in 1499, he fled, spending time in Venice and Rome before returning to Florence. Famous and successful, Leonardo was nonetheless seeking patronage when he returned. He began a series of works in 1501 and 1503 that were nothing short of revolutionary. The first of these was a cartoon for an altarpiece depicting the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. Artists were generally secretive about their inventions while developing compositional ideas, but Leonardo unusually allowed for the cartoon to be viewed. Vasari later claimed that people lined up for two days in order to be able to see this work.[27] At the same time, Leonardo also began painting his Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a smaller devotional panel intended for a private setting. Both of these works show Leonardo’s sensitivity to the changed atmosphere in Florence, still hostile to the Medici and inflamed by Savonarolan spirituality. Saint Anne was considered a protector of the Florentine republic because the despotic Duke of Athens, Walter VI of Brienne, was driven from the city on her feast day in 1343. With the exile of the Medici in 1494, the saint’s protection acquired renewed meaning as a safeguard against tyranny. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, on the other hand, was a commission for the French royal secretary Florimond Robertet. The support of the French crown, as we have seen, had been cultivated by Savonarola and remained the republic’s most important ally even after his death.

Shortly after he began work on the cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari in 1503, he also started a painting of an entirely different scale and subject: the Mona Lisa. Thus, Leonardo had begun epoch-making works in each of the principal types of commissions that painters generally received at this time: an altarpiece, a small-scale devotional work for the home, a monumental history painting, and a portrait. Each of these established a new standard for subsequent artists in the composition of figural groups, the use of naturalism, and the privileging of innovation over tradition. Although Leonardo did not finish any of these works while he remained in Florence, they were seen by numerous artists, who made copies of them in their unfinished states in a variety of media.

Fig. 7. Sandro Botticelli, The Story of Virginia, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

We may be certain that Botticelli took great interest in the works of his slightly younger contemporary. The overall composition and the clustered groups of figures and horses with riders in his Story of Virginia (fig. 7), probably executed around 1505, confirm that he knew and studied Leonardo’s cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari .[28] While stylistically their works appear very different to us, Botticelli had been one of the first artists in Florence to understand the message of Leonardo’s innovative art. He must have known the Adoration of the Magi, begun in 1481 and left unfinished when Leonardo left for Milan the following year (fig. 8). The commission was subsequently given to his former student, Filippino, whose magnificent altarpiece takes up some of Leonardo’s compositional ideas but is ultimately far more traditional in its handling of the subject, especially in its depiction of rich, luxury garments and objects. Botticelli’s own later Adoration of the Magi (fig. 9) demonstrates his deeper understanding of Leonardo’s innovative approach to complex figural groups and the expressive power of the human body to transmit both the drama of the subject and inspire an emotive response in the viewer. His austere approach to costume and almost monochrome handling of the landscape setting in this work reinterpret Leonardo’s message for a Florentine context dramatically transformed by Savonarola’s preaching. This work was probably executed shortly after 1500. It is possible, then, that it was begun by Botticelli after Leonardo’s return to the city and may have been intended to provide evidence to his patrons of his ability to assimilate and transform the latter’s ideas.

Left: Fig. 8. Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, unfinished, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

Right: Fig. 9. Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, unfinished, Uffizi Gallery, Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

Botticelli’s Man of Sorrows (fig. 10), a work that probably dates to the last decade of the artist’s life, when Leonardo had already returned to Florence, is intriguing to consider in relation to the latter’s Salvator Mundi (fig. 11). Both artists may have been working on their paintings around 1505 and it is unclear which of the two should be dated earlier. In both, a frontal image of Christ is shown in a half-length format frequently employed in icons that has been revised to allow for a more naturalistic presentation of the bent arms. While both works thus rely on long-standing traditions in devotional art, both are also highly innovative presentations of their subjects. Botticelli’s work is, however, much more evidently inspired by the preaching of Savonarola, who made frequent references in his sermons to Christ’s suffering and to the hosts of angels, who hold the symbols of the Passion in the remarkable grisaille halo.[29] This astonishing image suggests that Botticelli was receptive to the new attention given to innovative compositional ideas by his contemporaries in Florence during this decade. It also reflects the desire on the part of devout patrons in the city to own works that reflected Savonarola’s teachings even after his condemnation as a heretic.

Left: Fig. 10. Sandro Botticelli, Man of Sorrows

Right: Fig. 11. Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi

Botticelli’s sensitivity to Savonarola’s message is most evident in his Mystic Nativity, probably executed in the first months of 1501 (fig. 12). The painting reflects the apocalyptic preoccupations of Italians at the approach of the new millennium, that were felt especially strongly in Florence, where Savonarola had frequently preached sermons that drew from the Book of Revelations.[30] The work bears an inscription in Greek, associating its subject matter with Saint John the Evangelist’s prophecies and the current “troubles of Italy, at the end of the year 1500.” Botticelli claims his authorship of the painting here as well: “I, Alessandro, painted this picture.”[31] This use of the first person singular, combined with the fact that the work was executed on the less prestigious support of canvas, rather than wood, may suggest that it was executed by the artist for private devotion. However, by writing in Greek, Botticelli rendered the inscription intelligible only to a highly restricted group of elite, educated viewers. This cautious approach to the representation of potentially heretical devotional imagery would seem to suggest that it was intended for someone else, either as a gift or as a commissioned work.[32] The inscription nonetheless makes clear that Botticelli undoubtedly shared in contemporary fears about the imminent end of the world and the arrival of the Antichrist. The complexity of the work’s iconography confirms that, while his creativity was now primarily channeled into devotional subjects, he had lost none of his originality as an artist, and was capable of inventing new compositional ideas at precisely the same moment that his younger contemporaries were returning to Florence to demonstrate their own ability to design revolutionary artworks.

Fig. 12. Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, National Gallery, London, © Art Resource, NY

Botticelli must also have paid close attention to Michelangelo’s innovative works at this time. In 1504, he was called to serve on the committee assembled to decide where Michelangelo’s David should be placed.[33] His selection for this prestigious body confirms the continued respect that he enjoyed among his fellow Florentines as a discerning artist. Several sites were proposed for where to display the David, including the original location for which it was intended, on one of the buttresses surrounding the base of the cupola of the Duomo. Botticelli was among those who wished to keep the David near the Cathedral, although not hoisted up to the great height for which it had been carved. He favored a position in front of the façade and proposed that a Judith be created as a pendant.[34] The suggestion recalls the pairing of these two Old Testament and civic heroes effected by Donatello in the bronzes that had once adorned the Medici Palace, and now graced the main civic arena. This proposal surely reflects Botticelli’s own history as an artist closely associated with the Medici, even in the changed political climate of Florence of that moment.[35] It is likely that it was also stimulated by Botticelli’s perception of Michelangelo, whose education as a sculptor was sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who hosted him in his home and set him under the tutelage of Bertoldo di Giovanni, Donatello’s student and collaborator.

Left: Fig. 13. Michelangelo, Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs, marble, © NPL - DeA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

Right: Fig. 14. Sandro Botticelli, The Calumny of Apelles, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

If the artistic sensibilities of Botticelli and Michelangelo seem even further apart to us today than those of Botticelli and Leonardo, we should nonetheless recognize that both emerged from a shared culture that found its roots in ancient texts and Florentine vernacular poetry. We may be certain that the two artists knew each other since Michelangelo, writing from Rome in July 1496 to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, addressed his letter to Botticelli rather than to their shared patron.[36] Both Botticelli and Michelangelo depended on Poliziano for subject matter, as witnessed by the former’s famous mythological paintings and the latter’s early Battle of the Centaurs (fig. 13).[37] Botticelli would paint his last work devoted to pagan mythology after Michelangelo began his unfinished marble relief. Although the Calumny of Apelles (fig. 14) was probably painted after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494, when the artist was coming under the influence of Savonarola, its subject finds its origins in the literary culture promoted by Lorenzo the Magnificent. It relies on Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting, in which the subject is described at length, and even more directly on the ancient author Lucian, whose works were translated into the vernacular during the fifteenth century.[38] Lorenzo had been a particularly devoted reader of Alberti, and had visited the ruins in Rome with the humanist as his guide.[39]

Another point of contact between Botticelli and Michelangelo that emerged from the cultural milieu of Lorenzo and Poliziano was their shared interest in Dante, whose Divine Comedy was perceived at the time as both the monumental poem in the Florentine vernacular on the model of the great ancient epics, and as a work of theology. Condivi’s claim that Michelangelo could recite most of Dante from memory may well be true.[40] The Comedy provided inspiration for his works throughout his life, from his youthful triumph, the Vatican Pietà, to the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, and his later gift drawings for Vittoria Colonna. Botticelli similarly had a lifelong engagement with the Comedy, providing illustrations for the Inferno for Landino’s edition of Dante, as early as 1481.[41] In the 1490s, he began work on a fully illustrated edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, the younger cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent.[42] This was never completed and Botticelli appears to have continued to work on it long after the death of his patron in 1503, suggesting that his engagement with the project had a powerful, personal resonance for the artist.[43]

Opportunities for patronage and to learn from the example of the innovative artists working in Florence drew Raphael to the city in these same years. His studies of both the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo would influence his compositions and provide a range of figural motifs that he would exploit throughout his career. The gifted young painter had extraordinary access to important Florentine patrons and their collections during this period. He must have had the opportunity to study works by Botticelli at this time as well. After his departure for Rome, the memory of the latter’s Birth of Venus (fig. 15) remained particularly strong and provided inspiration for Raphael’s most important mythological subject, his Galatea (fig. 16).

Left: Fig. 15. Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, Uffizi Gallery, Florence / Bridgeman Images

Right: Fig. 16. Raphael, Triumph of Galatea, Villa Farnesina, Rome, © A. De Gregorio / © NPL - DeA Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

The young Raphael’s interest in Botticelli’s art provides further confirmation that he remained a figure of prestige during the last years of the older artist’s life, in spite of Vasari’s later claims that he died poor and forgotten.[44] By 1508, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had all abandoned Florence. Michelangelo began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in that year, a work that would eventually overshadow the fifteenth-century frescoes for later viewers, although Michelangelo himself studied them with great attention and designed his ceiling decorations to complement the original cycle.[45] Botticelli provided some of the most important contributions to that project and Michelangelo must have devoted particular attention to the study of his older friend’s frescoes. Before Botticelli died in 1510, enthusiastic reports may well have reached him of the extraordinary works that both Michelangelo and Raphael were executing for the papacy in Rome. He did not live long enough, however, to hear of their completion, nor to witness the return of the Medici to Florence two years after his death in 1512. He was thus spared reports of the sack of the nearby city of Prato by Spanish troops, who slaughtered thousands of its citizens, and the fall of the republic that had been so strongly desired by Savonarola.

[1] G. Eliot, Romola, D. Barrett (ed.), 2nd. ed., London 1996 (1st ed. London 1862-3), p. 6.

[2] L. Martines, Fire in the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for Renaissance Florence, Oxford 2006, p. 17-18.

[3] Martines 2006, p. 19; J.M. Najemy, A History of Florence: 1200-1575, Oxford 2006, p. 391.

[4] J. Ross, The Lives of the Early Medici as Told in Their Correspondence, Boston 1911, pp. 338-339.

[5] Martines 2006, p. 28; Najemy 2006, p. 391.

[6] D. Quint (trans.), in A. Poliziano, The Stanze of Angelo Poliziano, University Park 1993, p. viii.

[7] Martines 2006, p. 94.

[8] A. Condivi, in G. Bull (ed.), Michelangelo: Life, Letters, and Poetry, Oxford 1987, p. 68; Cf. also G. Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, G.du C.-de Vere (trans.) and D. Ekserdjian (ed.), New York 1996, vol. II, p. 739.

[9] Cf. H. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, London 1908, pp. 189, 292-293.

[10] Martines 2006, pp. 27, 127.

[11] L. Landucci, Diario fiorentino dal 1450 al 1516 continuato da un anonimo fino al 1542, I. del Badia (ed.), Florence 1883, pp. 63-64; Cf. also the diary of Botticelli’s brother, Simone, in P. Villari and E. Casanova, Scelta di prediche e scritti di fra Girolamo Savonarola con nuovi documenti intorno alla sua vita, Florence 1898, p. 453.

[12] Martines 2006, pp. 34-36.

[13] Landucci 1883, pp. 73-77.

[14] K. Frey (ed.), Il Codice Magliabechiano, cl. XVII. 17 contenente notizie sopra l’arte degli antichi e quella de’ fiorentini da Cimabue a Michelangelo Buonarroti, scritte da Anonimo Fiorentino, Berlin 1892, p. 105; Horne 1908, p. 185; R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work, New York 1989, pp. 72-73. On the Pazzi conspiracy, see L. Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medici, London 2003.

[15] Landucci 1883, pp. 119, 121.

[16] Martines 2006, pp. 140-141.

[17] P. Parenti, Storia fiorentina, Florence 1994-2005 and Pisa 2018, vol. II, p. 76; M. Plaisance, Florence in the Time of the Medici: Public Celebrations, Politics, and Literature in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, N. Carew-Reid (trans.) Toronto 2008, pp. 67-70. The 1497 bonfire of the vanities was not the only one held during Savonarola’s time. For a description of the one held the following year, see Landucci 1883, p. 163.

[18] N. Machiavelli, The Prince, N.H. Thomson (trans.), Mineola 1992 (1st ed., New York 1910), p. 14 (Book VI).

[19] Landucci 1883, pp. 169-176; Parenti 1994-2018, II, pp. 181-182; Simone Filipepi, in Villari and Casanova 1898, p. 467; Martines 2006, pp. 274-276; Najemy 2006, pp. 399-400.

[20] Villari and Casanova, 1898, p. 86-87; Simone Filipepi, in Villari and Casanova 1898, pp. 464, 476; J. Wilde, “The Hall of the Great Council of Florence,” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, VII, 1944, pp. 66-67; Najemy 2006, pp. 383-385.

[21] For the construction history of the Hall of the Great Council, see: Wilde 1944; N. Rubinstein, The Palazzo Vecchio 1298-1532: Government, Architecture, and Imagery in the Civic Palace of the Florentine Republic, Oxford 1995, pp. 40-42; E. Ferretti “Cronologia,” in La Sala Grande di Palazzo Vecchio e la Battaglia di Anghiari di Leonardo da Vinci. Dalla configurazione architettonica all’apparato decorativo, R. Barsanti, G. Belli, E. Ferretti and C. Frosinini (eds.), Florence 2019, esp. pp. 401-407.

[22] Landucci 1883, p. 129.

[23] Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. I, pp. 636-637, vol. II, pp. 656-658; Rubinstein 1995, pp. 73-75.

[24] Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. I, pp. 712-713.

[25] Ferretti 2019, p. 406.

[26] Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. I, pp. 671-674, 680.

[27] Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. I, p. 635.

[28] P. Zambrano, “Alcune osservazioni sulla Virginia e la Lucrezia di Sandro Botticelli,” in Le storie di Botticelli tra Boston e Bergamo, M. Cristina Rodeschini and P. Zambrano (eds.), exhibition catalogue, Milan 2018, p. 29. See also Lightbown 1989, p. 269.

[29] For some examples of Savonarola’s references to angels in his preaching, see Villari and Casanova 1898, pp. 65, 103-104, 118, 123-124, 133, 151-152, 186, 229, 282, 318, 324.

[30] R. Hatfield, “Botticelli's Mystic Nativity, Savonarola and the Millennium," in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, LVIII, 1995. See also Lightbown 1989, pp. 248-253.

[31] For the full inscription, see Horne 1908, p. 295; Hatfield 1995, p. 98.

[32] Vasari suggests that Botticelli may have painted heretical images; Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. I, p. 537.

[33] S. Levine, “The Location of Michelangelo’s David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504,” in The Art Bulletin, LVI, 1 March 1974, pp. 31-49.

[34] Horne 1908, p. 307.

[35] Botticelli himself paired representations of a statue of David inspired by Donatello’s with a relief depicting Judith leaving Holofernes’ camp in the background of the companion to the Story of Virginia, his Story of Lucretia in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Zambrano 2018, p. 34. As this was likely painted around 1505, it would appear to reflect the topicality of Donatello’s bronzes and Botticelli’s own proposal for a pendant to Michelangelo’s David.

[36] Horne 1908, 187; Michelangelo, in Bull 1987, p. 77.

[37] According to Vasari, the relief was executed “at the advice of Poliziano;” Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. II, p. 648.

[38] Horne 1908, pp. 257-258.

[39] R.A. Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, Baltimore 1993, p. 223. Botticelli himself was almost certainly aware of Alberti’s importance as an architectural innovator from a very young age, since by 1458 his family lived next door to the Rucellai and rented their house from them; Lightbown 1989, p. 18.

[40] Condivi, in Bull 1987, p. 68; Cf. also Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. II, pp. 694, 730.

[41] Horne 1908, pp. 75-77.

[42] Frey (ed.) 1892, p. 105.

[43] Horne 1908, pp. 189-255.

[44] Vasari-de Vere 1996, vol. I, p. 539. Horne 1908, p. 269, already questioned the veracity of Vasari’s account. For the 1505 contract to Botticelli for a massive altarpiece, see L. Waldman, “Botticelli and his Patrons: The Arte del Cambio, the Vespucci, and the Compagnia dello Spirito Santo in Montelupo,” in Sandro Botticelli and Herbert Horne: New Research, Rab Hatfield (ed.), Florence 2009, pp. 105-135.

[45] Cf. M. Levey, “Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England,” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIII, 3/4, July-December 1960, p. 294.

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.