The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent
by Charles Dempsey
Princeton University Press, 173 pp., $39.50
Lorenzo il Magnifico died at Careggi on April 8, 1492. It was an uneasy, conscience-ridden deathbed, attended, as was appropriate, by the philosopher Pico della Mirandola and the poet Politian, and in the presence of his inveterate antagonist Savonarola. A hundred years ago, when the fourth centenary of his death was celebrated, Lorenzo was seen as a heroic figure, bold, beneficent, tyrannical, and the greatest Maecenas known to history, whose “crowning superiority [for the Encyclopaedia Britannica] lay in his active participation in the labors he promoted, especially the revival of the national literature in the mother tongue.” People looked up reverentially at Lorenzo’s modest statue outside the Uffizi and respectfully at his terracotta bust, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which became an emblem of culture and was copied repeatedly in marble for use in libraries. A century later all this has changed. Anatomized by historians, the national leader has become a shrewd provincial operator, about whose personality and motives and finances we know much more than we should, while the cocoon of culture in which his life was lived seems, of all humanist manifestations, the most artificial and least relevant to the present day.
In Italy centenaries are normally celebrated by exhibitions, but in 1992 no single exhibition was attempted. The reason was lack of a directing mind and the excuse shortage of funds. The surprising result was a series of nine uncoordinated exhibitions, organized by Florentine institutions mainly from their own resources. The pictures in the Uffizi associated with Lorenzo (and there are not very many of them) were marked so that they could be identified; in the Bargello the sculptures from his guardaroba were brought forward from the wall; his books remained in the Laurenziana; and his magnificent collection of Roman, Safavid, and Byzantine hardstone and crystal vases remained undisturbed in the Museo degli Argenti, the church of San Lorenzo, and the Museo della Mineralogia. No attempt was made to reproduce the great exhibition of the Medici treasury of 1971.
Four of the exhibitions were in a narrow sense historical. At the Archivio di Stato, under the title Consorterie e politiche a mutamenti istituzionali in età Laurenziana, was a series of documents, of great intrinsic interest to any visitor who had the time to read them. The historiography of Lorenzo was covered at the Biblioteca Nazionale in an exhibition called Lorenzo dopo Lorenzo, dealing with Florentine historiography and containing a good deal of semirelevant material. The third and best of the documentary displays was an anti-Lorenzo exhibition La chiesa e la città a Firenze nel XV secolo organized by the Curia Arcivescovile in the crypt of San Lorenzo, which dealt in fascinating detail with the history of the Church in Florence in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lorenzo’s view of the Church was unwaveringly political, and in this exhibition his rule was represented as what in fact it was, a void between the reformism of Sant’Antonino and the backlash of …