Content Warning: This article mentions rape.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s (ISG) current exhibition “Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes” explores a side of the Renaissance master that viewers may not be as familiar with. The exhibition is based on the museum’s own painting “The Story of Lucretia” (circa 1500), which Gardner acquired in 1894. It was the first painting by Sandro Botticelli to ever be brought to the United States. The work was initially part of a pair alongside the “Story of Virginia” (about 1500), and because of a generous loan from the Accademia Carrara, the two works can be seen as they were initially intended to be viewed, side by side. All six paintings in the exhibition are spalliera, which are painted wall panels designed to be viewed at eye level and were found in homes above pieces of furniture. In their own time period, these works would have been incredibly inaccessible, and the stories they depicted would have mainly resonated with upper-class viewers who commissioned the works to display their wealth and cultural intelligence. These ancient stories are even more unknown today, so the ISG commissioned cartoonist Karl Stevens to create comics to illustrate the story of how Gardner acquired the work, as well as to recontextualize the works for the modern day, focusing the narratives on the women central to these stories.
Nathaniel Silver, the ISG’s William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, curated the show with a mind to showing a different side of Botticelli.
“When … [viewers] think of Botticelli, they think of his Madonnas and his Venuses,” Silver said. “The subjects in here are neither kind of conventionally beautiful and nor are they particularly upbeat, I guess you could say.”
Silver spoke more to the nature of the pieces.
“They’re violent, there’s a lot of death in them,” Silver noted. “I think it’s a part of Botticelli’s career and for other Renaissance artists too that’s otherwise overlooked because it doesn’t fit in with our notion of … [Renaissance artists], as the Renaissance as a moment of rebirth and flourishing of the arts. And you know some of those talents were devoted to very violent subjects. If you think about Florence around 1500 as recovering the arts of Ancient Rome and really trying to rebrand their city of Florence as the new Rome, they’re not just taking from Rome ancient techniques, as well as ancient stories, but part of that renewal is also focused on ancient literature, and many of those stories are very violent stories.”
The exhibition also addresses the gendered nature of these stories and how violence against women functions in these paintings (and the foundation of Western European civilization), measuring them against how viewers understand these narratives today in the age of #MeToo and feminism.
Silver elaborated more on the gendered aspects of the art.
“So if you think about like the rape of Europa, the rape of Lucretia, the murder of Virginia, Rhea Silvia, these are all stories that involve violence against women, in particular,” Silver said. “These are all generative stories in the sense that they are seen as essential to the history of Western European culture. They’re foundational stories in Western European art and culture, and yet we kind of never really think about them.”
The museum also partnered with Stevens to create companion works for Botticelli’s paintings. These were hung alongside the original works not only as a way to explain the narratives, but also to transform the women in these works into active agents.
“Botticelli’s painting them here and making them modern for his own day, and then we worked with an artist who’s looking at Botticelli’s interpretations and making them relevant for ours,” Silver said. “But I think there’s a lot of relevance in terms of the subject matter … particularly the way in which women are portrayed.
Silver elaborated further on artistic interpretations.
“In this case, [women are] celebrated for events that are somewhat out of their hands,” Silver noted. “So, [it was] not Lucretia’s choice to be attacked by the king’s son Tarquin, but it was her choice to commit suicide, and as a result this event led to outrage and a revolution that would overthrow the king and install the republican government, so effectively kind of a democracy. It isn’t Virginia’s choice to be lusted after by one of the ten men who came to rule Rome, but her murder, which was also not her choice, led to an outrage which propelled a revolution which overthrew this council and restored the republican government,” he continued. “So, if we think today about implicit bias … we have to go back not even just a couple years in our history or the #MeToo movement, but you kind of have to go all the way back to the foundations.”
This exhibition serves many different kinds of viewers, from history and classics buffs to graphic novel fans and just about anyone interested in feminist discourse and the origins of misogyny in the Western world. For those who are fans of Botticelli and his work, it is definitely worth taking a look as these pieces, some of the last he ever made, to see a side of him that is darker and more violent, but also rich in technical skill. It is hard to escape Botticelli’s pure talent, no matter the subject he chooses to paint. One might even leave the exhibit with a deeper understanding of his work, while still being able to look at the stories he portrayed and how he portrayed them with a critical eye.
“Botticelli: Heroines and Heroes” will be running until May 19 in the Hostetter Gallery. Tickets for students are $5 with a valid ID.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the title of the exhibition was “Botticeli: Heroes and Heroines.” The actual title of the exhibition is “Botticelli: Heroines and Heroes.” This article has also been updated to reflect Nathaniel Silver’s title as William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection. The Daily regrets these errors.