You know Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." It's only, like, the most famous painting in the world, after maybe Leonardo's "Mona Lisa." (Both men were Florentines, by the way, but that's not my point today.) Here it is, if you're not sure: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_Venus_(Botticelli). Well, the model for Venus (or Aphrodite, for all you Philhellenes) was Simonetta Vespucci, a cousin (by marriage) to Florentine explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, the man after whom two continents are named!
The painting and another of Botticelli's masterpieces, "Primavera" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primavera_(Painting) - are among the most popular attractions in Florence's amazing Uffizi Galleries. The Uffizi (Italian for "offices") did in fact serve as offices for the ruling Medici family, about whom I will have to devote a future post. (There's no understanding this city, or Renaissance Europe for that matter, without knowing something about that particular family. For brevity's sake, let's get back to Botticelli.) These two paintings, which are both very large and dominate two walls of the same room in the Uffizi, were painted for a Medici, who kept them in his villa outside Florence. They indicate trends characteristic of Renaissance art: the rediscovery of mythological subjects, and the use of allegory to communicate philosophical ideas to the initiated. "Venus" in particular represents a real and dramatic break with previous art. It has nothing to do with God or worship. It is about beauty for beauty's sake. It is also among the first paintings for which we can say with certainty that the artist used a model. Botticelli didn't paint an imaginary woman but a woman standing in front of him.
In my first post I mentioned the monk Savonarola, who virtually ruled Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. This was exactly the kind of art he targetted in his wildly popular sermons: art without religious purpose, art that stirred the passions rather than the soul, art that glorified the body rather than the Creator of the body. He directed an army of young supporters, many of them barely in their teens, to go from house to house, collecting luxury items that he deemed a threat to salvation, including overly ornate items of clothing, mirrors, playing cards, and paintings of this kind, for the purpose of burning them in the Piazza della Signoria. That event (or events; it's not clear whether there was more than one) came to be known as The Bonfire of the Vanities. I bring this up because Botticelli was one of those who were swept away by the power of Savonarola's preaching. In fact, he seems to have undergone a sort of crisis of faith through his association with him. In any case, his art after Savonarola is nothing like the art of his, you might say, pagan youth. It is art appropriate for worship, by contemporary Roman Catholic standards. (He continued to use Simonetta as his epitome of female beauty, but from then on fully clothed, as his Madonna.) In fact, so much was Botticelli moved by the preacher that he is said to have thrown several of his own paintings in the bonfire. He would almost certainly have thrown in "Venus" and "Primavera," too, were they not in the possession of someone else, and in a villa outside the city walls.
Because they were privately owned and never intended for display, as were commissions, say, for churches, these particular paintings remained little known until nearly 400 years after they were created. It was only in the 19th century that they came to acquire the fame and respect they now enjoy.
Would the world have been a poorer place without them? I leave it for you to decide.
Oh, I've posted some more photos on www.flickr.com/photos/bishopsavas