7 Unmissable Paintings At The Hong Kong Museum Of Art's Botticelli Exhibition
The Uffizi––a historic art gallery in Florence, Tuscany––has lent the Hong Kong Museum of Art 42 paintings by Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and his contemporaries. Established in 1581, The Uffizi houses religiously and artistically valuable masterworks including The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, as well as paintings and statues by Michelangelo and Raphael. Open from October 23 until February 2021, this exhibition is the first large-scale collaboration between the two cities’ major galleries.
The Renaissance, which originated in Florence and later on spread all over Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, was marked by the rebirth of antiquity. People celebrated the achievements and classical cultures of Greeks and Romans and embraced humanist ideas. This led to a major influence on religion, philosophy, politics and art. Renaissance artists returned to focusing on the subject of “man”. “They explored the beauty of the human body and how mankind’s image was derived from gods,” Apo Wu, curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, explains.
One of the most significant Renaissance painters was Sandro Botticelli. Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Botticelli was a goldsmith and bookbinder before he rose to fame as a painter with Adoration of the Magi in 1474. His early careers forged his eye for details in his paintings, as can be observed from the actions of his subjects, patterns of marble, textures of drapes and robes as well as architectural decorations. He studied under Fra Filippo Lippi, another Renaissance artist, and later on became the art teacher of Lippi’s son.
In the first half of the 15th century, the House of Medici was a prominent banking family and political dynasty in Italy. The wealthy and powerful, including the Medici family, commissioned paintings from artists such as Botticelli. Adoration of the Magi propelled the young artist into the Medici circle. During the Renaissance period, Botticelli’s portraits and paintings of religious figures and powerful individuals served as tondos (amulets in the past), moral teachings (as they evoke religious sentiments), as well as works placed in rooms for religious devotion. Today, they have become valuable historical records of Renaissance life and culture.
Aside from Botticelli, his teacher Lippi and companions in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel including Cosimo Rosselli, Perugino, Luca Signorelli and Biagio d’Antonio are also presented in this Hong Kong exhibition, which introduces Florence’s role in the history of artistic civilisation. Unique to this exhibition is local designer and illustrator Thomas Siu’s illustrations and animations for the Renaissance art which offer an interactive exhibition experience.
Here are seven highlights of the show not to be missed:
1/7 Adoration of the Magi (Lami Adoration), 1474-1475, by Sandro Botticelli
Painted for the chapel patronised by the Lama family in Santa Maria Novella, this was the painting that propelled Botticelli to artistic prominence. The painting featured members from the Medici family and Botticelli himself. Botticelli was commissioned to paint at least seven versions of The Adoration of the Magi in his lifetime.
2/7 Adoration of the Child and Angels, ca. 1500, by Sandro Botticelli and workshop
A newborn was considered very precious when Europe suffered from the plague. A circular work of art, called a tondo which was usually painted with Madonna and Child images, was a birth amulet placed in a room as people prayed for successful childbirths. They originated from birth trays which were used to serve meat broth to mothers after childbirth. The iconic religious image helped calm the mother and was thought to offer protection to both the mother and child.
3/7 Portrait of a Young Woman (Simonetta Vespucci), ca. 1480-1485, by Sandro Botticelli
Rumoured to be Botticelli’s muse, this young Genoa noblewoman was an Italian model and the wife of Marco Vespucci, a distant cousin of the famous Florentine explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. Simonetta Vespucci’s beauty was considered by philosophers, artists and poets as the reincarnation of the Renaissance canon of beauty. By the time she died of lung diseases at 22, Botticelli had already accumulated numerous sketches of her, who used to pose frequently for the artist. Her face became the blueprint of many of Botticelli’s subsequent paintings, including Venus in The Birth of Venus.
4/7 Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1480, by Piero Benci
Most Renaissance portraits feature the profile of the subjects. This suggests that the artist intentionally avoided presenting the subjects’ emotions and highlighted their costumes, hairstyles, silhouettes instead. The side of the subjects also reminds viewers of the profile images on Renaissance coins.
5/7 Portrait of a Young Man with a Mazzocchio, ca. 1470, by Sandro Botticelli
A mazzocchio is a 15th-century Italian headwear. This portrait is unlike Botticelli’s usual style as it doesn’t idealise the subject's social status. Rather, it presents the young man in a way that is true to life to the extent that he even seems stern. Botticelli continued to include realistic characters in religious, mythical and fictional paintings. For instance, it is speculated that the wind spirits in The Birth of Venus must be based on real models due to their individual image.
6/7 St. Augustine in His Study, ca. 1494, by Sandro Botticelli
This painting is an epitome of Botticelli’s humanistic taste that matured during the years he moved into the circle of Lorenzo the Magnificent. St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and an eminent writer, was seen writing labourously in an elaborately portrayed marble vault with noble and classicising architecture that features emperors Arcadius and Honorius. A monochrome roundel of the Madonna and Child is seen in the background, which symbolises the passage from the pagan to the Christian era.
7/7 Annunciation, St Anthony Abbot and St John the Baptist, 1452-1453, by Filippo Lippi
Predellas, which are panels painted in several compartments along the base of an altarpiece, were decorated with episodic themes related to biographies of holy figures as teachings of Christian faith, targeting especially young people through religious stories. This painting is by Lippi, Boticelli’s first master, and features the Madonna holding the prayer book at the announcement of the birth of Christ from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. St Anthony Abbot is featured below. Archangel Gabriel holds the lily next to the Madonna painting. St John the Baptist carried his cross below Gabriel, which refers to his acetic life in the desert.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club Series: Botticelli and His Times – Masterworks from the Uffizi will be held from October 23, 2020 to February 24, 2021 at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Please refer to hk.art.museum for details.
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