Italy Roundtable: A Room Full of Botticellis

On 9 April 2013 by Jessica

Before we dive into April’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic, I’ve a small housekeeping notice to make. We’ve been at this for nearly two years now, and we are pleased to welcome our first additional Roundtable member!

Please help me welcome Kate Bailward of Driving Like a Maniac, whose writing we all adore and who (we’re hoping) will help anchor us to more than just northern Italy – Kate lives in Sicily. You may remember Kate’s contributions to the Italy Roundtable when we invited others to throw their hats in the ring last year – she told us why she writes about Italy and about a special Easter gift she received from a student. We all look forward to read Kate’s contributions to the Roundtable on a regular basis from now on, and we think you will, too.

This month, we’ve chosen the topic of SPRING for, well, a pretty obvious reason. But as you’ll see, we didn’t all stick to the seasonal meaning of the word.

Do you have suggestions for a future Italy Roundtable topic? You can leave us a note on Facebook!

A Room Full of Botticellis

Art history classes had always been a bit of a snooze for me in high school and college. Slideshows of so-called masterpieces are no match for the real thing, after all, and academics have been known to drone on about metaphors without realizing their students are half-asleep in one of those “it’s after lunch and the room is dark” comas. Even during a month-long art history intensive course I took in Canterbury during the first part of my junior year in England, I was merely going through the good-student motions until we took a field trip to see London’s National Gallery.

The lingering effects of food poisoning meant that I moved from bench to bench in the gallery, constantly on the hunt for another place to rest. When (after collapsing onto yet another bench) I looked up to see what remains one of my favorite paintings of all time, I forgot my weakness and feverish forehead. I stared at Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” for what seemed like hours, struck by how much detail had been captured in such a small painting. It was putting dimensions on the painting that struck a chord – slides and images in books cannot repsresent size accurately, and seeing the actual painting shows you very clearly just how much (or how little) space the artist had to work with.

This, for me, was a turning point in my relationship to art – I would never again be content to look at slides or color plates in books. Seeing the artwork in person is the only way I can really pay attention to it.

As we waited in line at the Uffizi during my first Italy trip in 2001, we leafed through our copy of Rick Steves’ “Mona Winks,” trying to get a sense of precisely what everyone was waiting in line to see. Some important Giotto painting, a Raphael that sounded familiar, a Caravaggio, a da Vinci, and a few Botticellis. Fine. These are the kind of artistic names you can drop at a cocktail party and get a response, almost no matter the audience. This, then, would be a useful sightseeing stop.

And yet, despite knowing what an impact seeing artwork in person had on me in the past, I was wholly unprepared for the effect of walking into a room full of enormous Botticellis.

primavera_botticelli

Room 10-14 in the Uffizi is the “Botticelli Room,” and holds both “The Birth of Venus” and “The Spring,” both of which are more massive than can be conveyed by a high school art class slideshow. “The Birth of Venus” is 5.6 feet by 9 feet, and “The Spring” is 6.6 feet by 10.3 feet. These are paintings for grand rooms and even grander lives, the kind common to the Medici, but completely foreign to the tourists wandering through that family’s old offices. The figures in these paintings are idealized and life-size. It’s jarring to anyone more accustomed to small works of art that can be easily contained in mass-produced 18×20 frames and hung on dorm room walls.

While both of these huge paintings leave a lasting impression when seen at their true size, it has always been “The Spring” that I liked more. I liked the density of the forest background, the many characters on parade in the foreground, and – when it was finally explained to me – what they all (supposedly) meant. But the figure I’ve always loved most in that painting is the woman in the dress printed with flowers. The floral pattern on the dress makes it somehow seem like a real garment, as opposed to the sea of monochromatic draped material I felt like I was looking at in most portraits, and the woman’s face is somehow less idealistic and more realistic. This face looked like someone you might meet turning the corner in the museum, albeit wearing more modern clothing.

I’ve never been back inside the Uffizi to revisit the Botticellis. I doubt that initial shock would return, since I’m now at least a little prepared for just how large those canvases really are. This might be another case of “you can’t go home again,” but I’d be willing to take the chance to find out if my affection for “The Spring” and that floral figure remains as strong. Next time I’m in Florence…

As a side note, it was only years later that I realized the face on that foral figure reminded me of Cate Blanchett. (And I’m apparently not the only one who sees the resemblance.)

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What about SPRING are my fellow Italy Roundtable bloggers writing? Let’s find out. Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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6 Responses to “Italy Roundtable: A Room Full of Botticellis”

  • I had the same reaction seeing the room of Rothkos at the Tate when I was 15 or 16. I’d listened to my teachers talking on and on about them, but when I actually walked into the room – woah. It’s not just big paintings that have more effect ‘in the flesh’, but they certainly do it the most dramatically.

    Interestingly, I don’t remember the Botticellis at the Uffizi. Mind you, I was tired and hungover when I visited, which probably goes some way to explaining it. The David at the Accademia, on the other hand – wow. That woke me right up.

  • Growing up going to museums, I always seemed to have a sense of scale for most artworks. However, I have the same feeling you had when it comes to architecture. St. Peter’s, La Sagrada Familia, Newgrange, Hagia Sophia? Whoa.

    • Interesting. I know I’ve had my breath taken away by some buildings, but it hasn’t been about their overall scale. St. Peter’s? Lovely, but … nowhere near as impactful on me as St. Mark’s in Venice, or the teeeeny church on Torcello island.

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