It is now time for decampment. The flight from the scene of the crime and on the road to Bethulia.
And the perfect place to start is with one of the originals of the Renaissance, Botticelli. Also known as Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (sure, that’s easy for you to say), the nickname “Botticelli” means “little barrel” and was originally bestowed on his older brother (who must have been rotund), and for some reason the name was passed on (1). I hate it when that happens.
In Florence as apprentice to Fra Filippo Lippi, he learned an intimate and detailed manner of painting. He was influenced also by Masaccio’s style – a naturalistic style that employed perspective (such as vanishing point in art for the first time) and chiaroscuro for a convincing sense of three-dimensionality. This combination gave Botticelli a very distinctive style: his portraits seemed to have a melancholy or sad characteristic to them. also distinctive was Botticelli’s combination of ideas that were both Christian and pagan in one painting.
By 1475, Botticelli had the Medici as patrons, and in 1481 he was commissioned to join Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli (the most celebrated painters of the day) to paint frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. His two most famous paintings – Primavera and Birth of Venus – were executed around this time, possibly for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.
In later life, Botticelli became a follower of Savonarola, a charismatic monk who often spoke of death and God’s wrath upon the people and stressed giving up all worldly things. It was rumored that Botticelli burned several of his mythological paintings in the great Florentine “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497, but the record is not clear. Art historian Vasari wrote that Botticelli “was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone* he abandoned his work.” (3)
Botticelli’s art fell into disfavor during the High Renaissance until the late 19th century; since then his work has been seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting.
One theme that Botticelli used over and over again was the idea of a very sad young girl that was detached from her surroundings (2). This Judith seems to be a prime example of that attitude – gazing without emotion at Holofernes’ grotesque head. However, this depiction of Judith is not considered to be one of his best endeavors. Coming towards the end of his career, it is disproportionate in many respects. The faceless maid is just plain creepy, sneaking around in the shadow of the tent like a wraith. But mainly, Holofernes’ head is way too small compared to Judith’s dimensions.
At least, that’s what she said.
* “Weeper” or “Mourner”, as the repentant followers of Savonarola were called.
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Book of Judith, Chapter 13
11 Then said Judith afar off, to the watchmen at the gate, Open, open now the gate: God, even our God, is with us, to shew his power yet in Jerusalem, and his forces against the enemy, as he hath even done this day.