UK exhibition reimagines Italy Renaissance masterpiece

From Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a James Bond film to fashion by Dolce & Gabbana, Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" has been one of the most influential works in modern art history.

UK exhibition reimagines Italy Renaissance masterpiece
Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" has been one of the most influential works in modern art history. Photo: Wikimedia

An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London focuses on the legacy of the painting created in Renaissance Italy around 1485 through fashion, photography and the visual arts more broadly.

A grand tour organised by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the late 1930s helped to forge the global reputation of the work.
Co-curator Ana Debenedetti said part of its success is in the main subject: a woman with long blonde hair that fits the Western ideal of beauty.
“She fits the image of perfect beauty celebrated since the Middle Ages in poetry, literature and which was embedded in our imagination: the Western woman, blonde, with a pale complexion and a large forehead, blue eyes and a proud bearing,” she told AFP.
The Venus is found on everything from the 1993 spring summer collection of Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana, to a 2014 video game by Japan's Tomoko Nagao where she is seen floating over Italian pasta.
Brazil's Vik Muniz depicted her in 2007 surrounded by computer detritus, while China's Yin Xin reimagined her with typically Asian features.

Forgotten for four centuries

The exhibition traces how Botticelli, though held in high esteem during his lifetime, was forgotten after his death in 1510 as his fame was supplanted by Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Raphael.

His works are also likely to have fallen foul of a new taste for modesty advocated by the preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who rose to power in Florence.
“His art fell into oblivion and was considered archaic,” said Debenedetti, noting that the artistic hub of Italy also shifted from Florence to Rome.
It took four centuries for Botticelli's reputation to be restored.
In the 19th century “we rediscovered works that had remained for centuries in palaces, homes and convents, not accessible to the public,” Debenedetti said.
Before the “Birth of Venus” became more widely known, it was Botticelli's “Allegory of Spring” that won hearts and minds of that era.
The painting inspired among others French composer Claude Debussy's orchestral piece “Spring”, American dancer Isadora Duncan's performances and Italian artist Attilio Formilli for a famous poster for a flower festival in Florence in 1896.
On show from Saturday until July 3, the exhibition takes up three large rooms, with the final one reserved for around 50 of Botticelli's own works including several Virgin Marys and portraits of young men and women from Florence's bourgeoisie.
As for the “Allegory of Spring” and “Birth of Venus” themselves, art fans will have to travel to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to admire the originals.

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Technology sheds new light on master of shade

He is known as the master of shade, and now 21st Century technology is shedding new light on the creative process behind Caravaggio's groundbreaking painting.

Technology sheds new light on master of shade
"Inside Caravaggio" opens on Friday at Milan's Palazzo Reale. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

“Inside Caravaggio”, an exhibition that opens on Friday at Milan's Palazzo Reale, unites 20 of the Renaissance giant's most important works with X-ray and infrared images of them that offer visitors revealing insights into how he went about creating them.

The multimedia displays offer contemporary fans of the father of modern painting a glimpse into his idiosyncratic technique, the points at which he changed his mind and the modifications and adjustments he made to some of his most famous works.

Works have been loaned from a string of top Italian and international museums, including the Metropolitan in New York, which has released “Sacred Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1604-1605)” and “Salome with the head of John the Baptist (1607 or 1610)”.

Other highlights include “St. Francis of Assisi in ecstasy” (c.1597), borrowed from the National Gallery in London.

“It is a special exhibition,” said curator Rossella Vodret. “He was a fascinating figure who never ceases to surprise us.

“Apart from offering 20 Caravaggios, which is an exceptional figure for this artist, the displays allow you to get inside his head, to relive his creative process.”

In a portrait of St John the Baptist that is on loan from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome, the biblical figure is sitting and turning towards his right.

“It was not understood why he was in this position but with radiographic imaging we discovered that he was in fact turning towards a lamb, which is his iconic symbol but which the artist decided to paint over in the end,” Vodret said.

In “St Jerome in Meditation,” which usually resides in a museum at the Montserrat Monastery in Barcelona, the right leg of the elderly man was initially more exposed but finally covered up with a blanket.

The exhibition also offers a new perspective on Caravaggio's years in Rome, based on new research that dates the Milan-born artist's arrival in the city to 1596, four years later than previously thought.

“That means that the production of works thought to have taken eight years, were actually completed in four, and also that there is a a gap of four years, which he probably spent in prison after killing a man in Milan,” said Vodret.

Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome in 1610 after killing another man in a brawl and is thought to have died in Tuscany four years later, aged just 38.

By Céline Cornu