V&A Magazine Spring 2016

Botticelli Reimagined
V&A Magazine, Spring 2016, Page 42.

When that book was reprinted posthumously as part of Ruskin’s complete works in 1913, his rendering of Zipporah was the fronsispiece to Volume 23. It is this that Proust has in mind when he describes Charles Swann’s projection of Zipporah on to the face of his beloved Odette, and vice versa: “The idea of her material existence, of her being alive, would sweep over him with so violent an intoxication that, with eyes starting from his head and jaw that parted as though to devour her, he would fling himself upon this Botticelli maiden and kiss and bite her cheeks.”

His reception was not only a matter of eroticised austerity and melancholia. Alongside the aesthetes’ version of Botticelli was the scholars’, pioneered by one Hervert Horne, an architect, collector, minor poet and follower of Pater. He was devoted to the Quattrocento, and set himself up in Florence, where his museum may still be visited today. In 1908 he published his lavish study, Alesandro Filipepi called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence. Horne was determined to set right what he saw as the Aesthetic movement’s overestimation of the strangeness and morbidity of Botticelli’s art: he pointed out, for example, that the “cadaverous” aspect of the painters’ Venus which Pater had admired was largely the result of deterioration of the pigment. More importantly, he sought to restore to Botticelli the “virility” that his Florentine contemporaries had most admired, and to root that aria virile in classical antiquity.

Horne is a transitional figure in the modern interpretation of Botticelli; he opened the way for the researchers of his friend Aby Warburg, the scholar who may be said to have given the figures and attitudes in the paintings their most suggestive and profound modern expression, preparing the ground in fact for our present understanding of the ways that images from Botticelli have proliferated in art, cinema, advertising, and fashion. Born in 1866, the son of a hamburg banker, Warburg devoted his career to the study of “the afterlife of antiquity” in Western art and beyond. Painterly or sculptural motifs, and especially bodily poses, could be tracked across the centuries they turned up time and again and in the most unlikely places. And the task of the art historian was to draw as it were, the constellation of these motifs- which Warburg famously did in his Mnemosyne Atlas: a series of screens on which he arranged reproductions and photographs of art and other imagery from classical times to the present day. The Atlas, he wrote, was an “observation post for cultural history”.

Botticelli’s paintings appear many times among the images in the Mnemosyne Atlas, and Warburg devoted on of the panels to The Birth of Venus and Primavera. The latter is flanked by details from the painting itself: the straining face of Zephyr, the half-turned figure of Chloris as she flees. In the Nymph, Warburg has discerned one of the key figures in Western painting; a creature only half human, whose body was typically depicted in motion, somewhere between dancing and running. (She is to be seen also in the Sistine frescoes.) It’s this condition of the body in motion that the nymph’s billowy, seething costume is meant to signify. Her ambiguity consists in the fact that we don’t quite know if this movement is purely physical or accords with some emotional state.

Which is perhaps also the ambiguity of the images fro Botticelli that have flourished in the art and popular culture of the past century. The nineteenth-century revival of the painter was supposedly about his style and spirit, but Warburg showed that images themselves have an afterlife and may reappear in guises quite unrelated to the ideas or atmospheres prized in the original artist. Botticelli’s Venus becomes an acid-hued cipher in Warhol’s Details of Renaissance Paintings. She is suddenly strander and tender again in Rineke Dijstra’s Beach Portraits, then rendered as extravagant camp or travesty in David LaChapelle’s Rebirth of Venus. Here she is again on screen, in the figure of Uma Thurman in Terry Gillam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)/ And the Graces too: most recently in a striking Botticellian arrangement of young women in a fleetingly calm sequence of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). In other words, the long rediscovery of re-evaluation of Botticelli is not only complete, but long ago turned into cultural ubiquity.


Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art. His most recent book is The Great Explosion (Penguin 2015)

Download PDF (401 K)