Interview

with Dr. Andreas Schumacher

Dr. Andreas Schumacher

Dr. Andreas Schumacher
Curator of the Botticelli Exhibition

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Botticelli
Bildnis, Mythos, Andacht

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Kunst zum Hören: Botticelli

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The art critic Annette Lettau interviews Dr. Andreas Schumacher, Curator of the Botticelli Exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The show runs from November 13, 2009, to February 28, 2010.

Just two painters continue to influence our present-day idea of certain physical characteristics. The "Rubenesque figure" is as familiar a term as the clear "Botticelli face." The work of the Florentine Renaissance painter represents the epitome of beauty, grace, and a subtle sense of melancholy. Yet there are many more facets to the art of Sandro Botticelli. His picture cycle for Dante's Divine Comedy could be admired a few years ago, when it was on display in Berlin. But there has never been an extensive exhibition of his works in Germany, so it's a spectacular accomplishment for the Städel to be the first to produce a Botticelli show featuring a mix of genres. How has the museum managed to achieve this feat?

Of course, we used our contacts. Max Hollein, our director, and I had many conversations with potential lenders - in Florence, for instance, Washington, London, Paris, New York . . . We traveled a great deal, visited our colleagues, and presented our concept, which was ultimately convincing. It was crucial for others to see that we are setting new emphases, in terms of the science. This ultimately tipped the scales in our favor, so that other museums were willing to send valuable pictures, such as Florence's Minerva and the Centaur and Berlin's almost life-size Venus; we'll also be the first to unite the four St. Zenobius panels, which are usually at home in London, New York, and Dresden.

What was the reason behind this project?

Apart from the fact that 2010 is the five hundredth anniversary of the artist's death, the Städel also has an outstanding masterpiece, which spurred us on: Botticelli's painting of a mysterious beauty, said to be a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci. Frankfurt's idealized portrait became the starting point for the show. Simonetta was the "regina della belleza," or "queen of beauty" at a jousting tournament, selected by Giuliano de' Medici to be his platonic love. Celebrated in poetry as a nymph and a chaste goddess, she was a married woman, who died very young. For a long time, Botticelli experts tended to see Simonetta in every graceful beauty that resembled her type. At the very least, there is some reason to believe that there was a connection between Simonetta's and Giuliano's tournament and the allegory of female virtues in Minerva and the Centaur, which is on loan from the Uffizi.

The Städel will show a good forty paintings and drawings by the artist and others from his workshop. Considering the fragility and value of the exhibits, this an imposing array. There will also be about forty more works by Boticelli's contemporaries, including Donatello, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Filippino Lippi. What, exactly, is new about your concept? A modest number of comparable works was already shown in Paris and Florence in 2003 and 2004.

Of course, we can't show paintings such as the Uffizi's Birth of Venus or the Primavera . They are simply not loaned out. Our exhibition is divided into three thematic groups: the first deals with the portrait; the second is devoted to mythological allegories - a subject that especially distinguishes Botticelli's art from that of his colleagues. And the third complex consists of the religious works, especially the devotional images. But we are not setting new emphases merely by making comparisons. We are also going to be the first to show several of Botticelli's paintings from private collections, along with a number of unfamiliar drawings. All of the results of our research are presented in the catalogue.

Not much is known about Botticelli's life (1444/45 - 1510): apparently, he only once left his hometown of Florence for a longer period of time, in order to paint the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. His most important patrons were the Medici, who determined the course of politics in Florence for many years. If we are to believe Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, published between 1550 and 1568, the painter later became a follower of Savonarola, the priest who preached repentance, and researchers suspect that this had an effect on his work.

Research has long depended upon Vasari's tendentious biography, since there are so few original sources. Today, the book is read more critically. Botticelli was probably not an active follower of Savonarola. Likewise, the notion that he was a political artist is definitely misleading. Botticelli was a painter much in demand. Obviously, he was clever enough to create a network for himself, which enabled him to work for different patrons. This meant he could remain aloof from the blows that fate dealt the House of Medici.

But didn't Boticelli create propaganda pictures for the Medici?

His large, frequently over-interpreted, mythological allegories have definitely been read in political terms. However, researchers have failed to recognize that the circle of people who would have seen the works in those days was very limited. After all, most of the pictures hung in the private chambers of the Medici, and even though these rooms were stately, they were only accessible to selected visitors. That aside, Botticelli's works were, in their time, primarily considered moral allegories.

Wasn't there some sort of political background behind the portrait of Giuliano de' Medici, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington? After all, there are workshop copies and variations of the portrait. In your show, the first and second versions can be compared with each other.

These variations are a good example of how art could be manipulated for political purposes. And it could indeed be done, even if the picture in question was a private memorial, as it is in this case. Lorenzo il Magnifico probably commissioned the portrait after his brother was murdered by the Pazzi conspirators in 1478, and he almost certainly wanted to set a signal with it. The portrait encouraged the public to mourn. Still, if we consider all of the works commissioned by the head of the Medicis, then other aspects must come into play: for instance, the neo-platonic philosophy that characterized the Simonetta myth, or Lorenzo's desire to transform Florence into the new Athens.

Is it absolutely necessary to have this kind of background knowledge, in order to understand what makes Botticelli's art so special?

Naturally, one perceives the fascination of the works, even without the historical knowledge. In particular, the melancholy magic and mystery of Botticelli's pictures have never been obsolete. But the exhibition also tries to provide some insight into how the works fit into the political events and humanist discourses of their time. This pertains to the assessment of Botticelli's later style, of which theZenobius panels are an example: one could interpret the change to mean that a fundamentally apocalyptic atmosphere permeated Florence as the fifteenth century came to a close, and that this was expressed in Botticelli's earnestly religious works.

November 6, 2009

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