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 Savonarola. “You got what you deserved,” said the exhibition firmly to Lorenzo, and its contents brought the visitor into touch, for the first and only time in the centenary, with the critical issue of fifteenth-century morality.

Lorenzo in his true identity as a great poet and great patron of literature was the subject of a magnificent display, All’ombra del lauro (“In the Shade of the Laurel”), at the Biblioteca Laurenziana, showing manuscripts by Lorenzo himself, works dedicated to him, works by the poets and philosophers he supported, and finally the books in his possession in the last years of his life. Reading manuscripts in exhibitions is a frustrating task, but peering through the glass of the high vitrines one could observe Lorenzo in his most important role as intellectual and artist.

The remaining exhibitions consisted of misfires. In Il Disegno fiorentino del tempo di Lorenzo il Magnifico, some of the greatest drawings in the Uffizi’s collection, supplemented by foreign loans, were, for the first time in recent memory, shown side by side. The drawings were arranged by category—figure drawings after the antique, figure drawings after earlier prototypes (three of them by the young Michelangelo), architectural studies, landscapes, ideal heads, and so on. This was a clever, oversophisticated display, in which insufficient account was taken of the dates of the drawings (and indeed of where they were made). For the general public it was mystifying, but to the specialist a paradise. Its qualitative climax was reached, not as one might have expected, in Botticelli, but in the sublime Verrocchios.

The sculpture exhibition at the Bargello was modest in scale, but included works by Lorenzo’s favorite small-scale sculptor, Bertoldo, and the newly cleaned Verrocchio Resurrection made for Careggi, as well as the sculptures Lorenzo inherited. Lorenzo’s determination was to sponsor sculptural classicism through tuition in the Medici Garden. A year before he died, there emerged from the school of the Garden a boy genius—Michelangelo. At the Casa Buonarroti there was an exhibition on this theme, Il Giardino di San Marco maestri e compagni del giovane Michelangelo (“Teachers and Comrades of the young Michelangelo”). Inevitably it was built around Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs (which looked as though it were made of butter on an overlit white wall). Along with it was a number of misattributed earlier reliefs borrowed from abroad. Modern historians sometimes describe the Medici Garden as a dynastic myth, and the sole merit of the catalog of this shamefully amateurish exhibition was an appendix by Caroline Elam describing where the garden was and the function it fulfilled. Lorenzo’s most enduring contribution to the appearance of his native city was his patronage of architecture. His preferred architect was Giuliano da Sangallo, whose villa at Poggio a Caiano and whose churches at Prato and Pistoia (but not alas the Palazzo Scala-Gherardesca, with its splendid terracotta reliefs) can be regularly visited. A weak, dull exhibition in the Spedale degli Innocenti contained photographs of a number of these projects (and a number of earlier ones as well).


Finally there were two exhibitions which should never have been held. The first, intended as a sop to the ignorant tourist, took place incongruously in the Palazzo Medici under the title Le Temps Revient. Ostensibly devoted to feasts and spectacles in Florence under Lorenzo, it contained sections on the two Giostre, or jousting tournaments he organized, illustrated by helmets and saddles from almost anywhere, but especially from north of the Alps; prints, again from almost anywhere; and cassone panels with Florentines prancing about, as they seemingly did in the late fifteenth century. The second exhibition, Maestri e botteghe (“Teachers and workshops”), explored the copying of paintings and motifs in Tuscan provincial painting. Of one thing one could be confident, that the pictures in the exhibition would have earned the scorn of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

All the exhibitions, save that at the Laurenziana, were destitute of visitors. But each had its own very expensive catalog, published by Sylvana Editoriale. It is difficult to believe that any visitor can have bought all the catalogs, and it should be said at once that their quality is far from uniform. The four best are of the exhibitions at the Archivio di Stato, the Biblioteca Nazionale, the Laurenziana, and the Curia Arcivescovile. These contain a wealth of information, some of it new. The Laurenziana catalog included excellent essays by De Benedettis, Fubini, and Angela Dillon Bussi. The catalog of drawings at the Uffizi is weaker than it should have been; it contains a number of misattributions, and the color photographs, which seem not to have been checked, are travesties of the originals. The Bargello catalog breaks some fresh ground, and is accompanied by a new edition of the inventory of the contents of the Palazzo Medici made after Lorenzo’s death. The remaining catalogs can be ignored.

On one key issue, Lorenzo’s attitude to works of art, the exhibitions cast no light at all. His grandfather, Cosimo il Vecchio, was a patron of great seriousness and consistency, whose aspirations are summed up in the conciliar decorations of the Old Sacristy, the convent premises of the reforming orders, and the patriotic icons of the bronze David and Judith of Donatello. His father, Piero, was an ostentatious decorator who supervised and may have conceived the Gozzoli frescoes in the chapel of the Palazzo Medici, and collected elaborately illuminated books. When Lorenzo succeeded him in 1468 the pattern of patronage was thought out afresh. His first substantial commission, for the tomb by Verrocchio of his father and his uncle Giovanni in the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo, speaks the language of ideal form. Its green and porphyry sarcophagus, the bronze wreaths set into it, and bronze foliage on its cover and at its feet, makes a nobler, more decisive statement than any earlier monument. We know, from a poem of Naldo Naldi commemorating the tomb’s completion, that Lorenzo was responsible for it. “Iam nunc arte nova quod tibi constat,” reads the poem, and the key words “arte nova” define precisely what occurred. From the Giostra of 1469 till his death in 1488 Verrocchio was Lorenzo’s favorite artist. He was the inventor of the figura serpentinata in the Putto with a fish made for Careggi; he produced the lithe, tightly modeled David that is now in the Bargello; and he created that narrative masterpiece, the Christ and St. Thomas for Or San Michele.

From 1474 Verrocchio had a competitor on a small scale in the bronze sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. The last book on Bertoldo was published in 1925 by Wilhelm Bode under the forbidding title Bertoldo und Lorenzo de’Medici: Die Kunstpolitik des Lorenzo il Magnifico im Spiegel der Werke seines Lieblingskünstlers Bertoldo di Giovanni. It was a poor, overfanciful book which has survived for lack of an alternative, but has now been superseded by a businesslike book by James David Draper, which illustrates the whole of Bertoldo’s mature work.* Lorenzo said of Bertoldo that “there is not another in Tuscany or perhaps in Italy with such noble intelligence and art in such things.” What we see in Bertoldo today is skill in the modeling of small sculptures, but what Lorenzo saw, when he looked up at the Battle reliefs over a chimney piece in the Palazzo Medici was a work of gravity and passion in which a deep understanding of classical style was combined with the ability to transmute it into an expressive language of consummate sensibility. Lorenzo evidently knew him well. Bertoldo was a companion of hunting expeditions in the Val di Cecina; he was taken to amuse Lorenzo at the spa of Bagno da Morbo; late in life he had a room in the Palazzo Medici, and he died at Poggio a Caiano. This was, indeed, Lorenzo’s way with artists, even great artists like Botticelli, who is described at a hunting party in Lorenzo’s Symposium: “va Botticelli e torna botta piena.” (“Botticelli goes out and returns with his hunting bag filled.”)


The relation between Botticelli and Lorenzo is the subject (or part of the subject) of Charles Dempsey’s enthralling book The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s Primavera and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Botticelli’s Primavera has a colossal bibliography, but we know practically nothing about its origin. The first certain reference to it occurs in 1550 in the first edition of Vasari’s Lives. It was then, with the Birth of Venus, in the Medici villa at Castello. Vasari’s account led to two mistaken assumptions. One was that the pictures belonged together. “A kind of diptych,” André Chastel has called them, but a pair they cannot be. They are on different supports—the Birth of Venus on canvas, the Primavera on panel—they vary in size, and their styles are incompatible. The Primavera is related to dated pictures by Botticelli of the mid-1470s, whereas the bolder, more expansive Birth of Venus is in a style that he developed in Rome working in the Sistine Chapel in 1481.

The second inference followed from the first, that both paintings were commissioned by a second cousin of Lorenzo il Magnifico, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who took over the Medici villa at Castello in 1477. But when a 1498 inventory of the contents of Castello came to light, to the horror of scholars it contained no reference to either painting.

After his father died, Lorenzo was housed as a ward of Lorenzo il Magnifico in the Palazzo Medici, moving when he came of age to the old Medici palace in the same street. When his father died in 1476 his brother Giovanni was nine and he was thirteen, a precocious age at which to commission a large painting like the Primavera. The property of the two brothers was held jointly in the old Palazzo Medici till the extreme end of the fifteenth century when an inventory was again made, and in this there is mention of a picture that could be identical with the Primavera. It showed nine figures of men and women and hung over a daybed known as a lettuccio.

Not long ago the Primavera was cleaned, and today, hung low on the wall in the Uffizi, it makes a rather somber effect. The light areas responded to cleaning very well, but the tree trunks, orange trees, and myrtle in the background did not lighten proportionately and, covered as it now is by a sheet of greenish glass, its facture looks less delicate than it once did. Over a lettuccio its base would have been about six feet from the ground.

All but one of the eight figures occupy a shallow space at the extreme front of the scene. To the right—the action reads from right to left—is an almost naked girl gazing back reproachfully at a flying zephyr who propels her forward onto the stage. Her mouth breathes flowers, which are scattered by a fair-haired girl wearing a collar of flowers and a flowery shift. Opposite are the three Graces and on the left, with back turned, is Mercury in a crimson chlamys, or mantle, holding a caduceus in his raised right hand. At the back, in the center of the orange grove, the tree trunks part, forming an archway filled with myrtle that serves as a foil or background for the elaborately dressed figure of Venus genetrix, the goddess of spring.

The meaning of these figures was first analyzed a century ago in a celebrated article by Aby Warburg. For Warburg Venus was the presiding goddess of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, and four of the other figures were deities of spring. The crouching girl on the extreme right was Chloris, who is said in Ovid’s Fasti, his poetical calendar of the Roman year, to have been raped by Zephyr and then transmuted into Flora, the flower-clad maiden at her side. The source of the Mercury figure was an ode of Horace known to the poets at the Medici court, and the dance of the Graces derived from a passage in Seneca’s De Beneficiis, which was also known to Alberti. Moving from iconography to meaning. Warburg also recognized a connection between the shrinking Chloris and passages in Lorenzo’s Ambra and the Orfeo of Politian. The spirit of the painting, he concluded, had parallels in Lorenzo’s sonnets and Politian’s Rusticus.

Warburg’s study was widely accepted because it was, in the main, correct. But in 1945 a new reading was proposed by E.H. Gombrich, who ascribed the program to the philosopher Ficino and to two tutors of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci and Naldo Naldi. For Gombrich the purpose of the picture was pedagogical; it was intended to impose on the boy Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco the philosophical principles of Neo-Platonism. This theory was rejected by Erwin Panofsky, who returned to the view that the scenario came from Politian, as indeed did Edgar Wind, who, in an exceptionally clever essay, discussed the equation between the two triads of figures: on the right Chloris, nymph of the fields, transformed into Flora, the herald of spring; and on the left the Graces, at one of whom a blindfold Cupid above Venus’ head directs his fiery dart. Whereas earlier students discussed the individual figures of the Primavera in isolation, Wind regarded them as what the eye tells us they should constitute, an embryonic narrative.

The reconstruction of the narrative in Dempsey’s book falls into two parts, of which the first is totally, and the second peripherally, convincing. No one has doubted since the time of Warburg that the figure on the left represents Mercury; his accoutrements leave no other explanation possible. The problem is why Mercury is represented. Dempsey’s answer is that Mercury was the god of spring in the ancient Roman, pre-Giulian calendar. If this is so, the narrative content of the Primavera becomes not a simple Calendimaggio, or May Day festival, but a portrayal of the growth and development of spring, from its first intimation in the presence of Chloris to its climax in Mercury, who with raised hands dispels the wisps of cloud surviving from earlier months. The result is a “lyric invention cast in a vernacular mode,” whose theme is love.

But in what context? Before his father’s death Lorenzo il Magnifico revived the tradition of courtly love, which, in Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, had inspired the greatest Tuscan poetry. This concept found expression in Lorenzo’s poems and in the Giostre that he devised. The Giostra was a civic statement. A plan for a Giostra centering on Lorenzo is first mentioned in 1465, but was canceled by his father Piero on political grounds. In the event it took place after Lorenzo’s succession in 1469.

There are ample sources (handled by Dempsey with great vividness and imagination) for what occurred when the tournament took place. It was customary to name a heroine of a Giostra, and in this case she was Lucrezia Donati, who was depicted on Lorenzo’s banner by Verrocchio. Lorenzo’s attachment to her seems to have dated at least from 1465, and at the marriage of a close friend, Braccio Martelli, he swore lifelong allegiance to her. But the relationship was interrupted in 1466, when he was sent by his father to negotiate with Pope Paul II and was then dispatched officially to Milan. Her misery at his absence is described in a letter of the poet Luigi Pulci. Two days after Lorenzo left Florence, his close friends, or brigata, arranged a dance for Lucrezia in the papal apartment at Santa Maria Novella. She was married, but her husband had left Florence to do business in the Levant, and in Lorenzo’s absence she withdrew from society, living in solitude sustained by music. She was, as a cyphered letter sent to Lorenzo in Rome records, haunted by the shadow of a member of her family, the Blessed Piccarda Donati, who appears as a nun in an early Canto of Dante’s Paradiso.

A member of Lorenzo’s brigata wrote to him in Rome rebuking him for his neglect of “the person you promised to follow always.” “It is truly a pity,” declared another friend, Giovanfrancesco Ventura, “to leave such sweet terrain unplowed.” When the Giostra eventually took place, it was dedicated to Lucrezia.

A Giostra was a passing event, which could be prolonged by literary means. Our knowledge of Lorenzo’s Giostra comes from an account by Pulci. “All the most beautiful nymphs were there,” he writes, “and indeed every lover came and every lady, one of whom…is the sun among the brightest stars—Lucrezia, crowned with every grace beloved by her young Lauro.” This pattern recurs in the Giostra of Lorenzo’s ill-fated brother Giuliano, in 1475. The presiding donna on this occasion was Simonetta Vespucci. She was short-lived, dying a year after the Giostra, and she owes her place in history to Politian’s Stanze and the other poems she inspired. “Death,” wrote Lorenzo, in one of four sonnets on her death included in the Raccolta Aragona, “seemed beautiful in her lovely face.” She was also apotheosized by Pulci in a sonnet, La diva Simonetta a Julian de’ Medici, and by the minor poets who congregated at the Medici court. Warburg believed she was depicted as Flora in the Primavera, and though this view has been ridiculed by professional Neo-Platonists, it is restated with new, though not conclusive, evidence by Dempsey.

With an issue of this kind certainty is not attainable. The choice is between probabilities. The costumes in the Primavera, as Dempsey demonstrates, are near contemporary. The Graces wear “camicie del giorno,” or long dresses of white linen, cut in a style that was usual in the 1470s. The dress of Venus is contemporary as well. Politian, describing Simonetta at the Giostra, writes, “gleaming white and shining bright is her dress, though painted with roses and flowers and foliage; the unbound hair of her golden head falls over a brow that is humbly proud.” The Flora of the Primavera wears a loose dress precisely of this kind. The flowers that decorate it are not woven into the fabric but, as Politian describes, painted directly on it. The golden hair is painted with obsessive delicacy, with a slight impasto that communicates a sense of its reality. It is hypothetically quite conceivable that this is how Simonetta looked at the Giostra.

For Dempsey the Venus represents Lucrezia Donati, but this explanation is improbable, first because the head is not a portrait—it reads as a mythological Madonna—and second because Florence at this time was a hair-conscious society, and the hair of Venus has nothing in common with the hair styles shown in female portraits by Botticelli himself or by Ghirlandaio and Pollaiuolo.

But if the Flora represents Simonetta Vespucci and the painting springs from the Giostra of 1475, the Mercury should, as Warburg supposed, represent Giuliano de’ Medici. The iconography of Giuliano is confusing and in part posthumous. But in the Botticelli Adoration of the Magi that was done for Guasparre del Lama’s chapel in Santa Maria Novella and is now in the Uffizi, a figure standing on the left, with hands clasped on his sword hilt, has been widely accepted as a portrait of him made during the period of the Giostra. The position of the head differs from that of Mercury, but there is a reasonable possibility that the same youth is represented in both paintings. If this is so, the Primavera is an allegory of the relationship between Giuliano and his donna at the time the Giostra was held.

Dempsey takes a different view. For him the Flora, or Simonetta, is a figure “summarizing in herself the actual death of Giuliano,” and the theme of the painting is Lorenzo il Magnifico’s personal conception of love. The Primavera would therefore depict not one but two ideal relationships, Giuliano’s with Simonetta, who is portrayed as Flora, and Lorenzo’s with Lucrezia Donati, who is represented as Venus, mistress of the garden of love. Simonetta’s reign was brief, whereas Lucrezia outlived Lorenzo, and for this reason the two relationships are described not in their correct time sequence, but as though the second occurred first. Moving as Dempsey’s treatment of Lorenzo’s poems is, this is surely most improbable.

Dempsey’s last chapter, “Reading the Poem,” is lucid and articulate, but it is in places more positive than is warranted. There can be no contesting that Lorenzo’s poems illuminate the Primavera and that the painting illuminates the poems. But the picture was never, so far as we can tell, owned by Lorenzo and was not necessarily planned by him. It may well, for example, have been commissioned about 1476 by Giuliano to commemorate his Giostra of the preceding year and stored in the Palazzo Medici after he died. As Warburg recognized, its analogies with the poems of Politian are at least as strong as with the poetry of Lorenzo. In 1491, a year before Lorenzo died, Politian acted as adviser to the young Michelangelo, who was carving the Battle of the Centaurs in the Medici Garden. According to Michelangelo, Politian was responsible for the subject of the relief and for intimating how it should be represented and what it signified. A quarter of a century earlier he may well have been responsible for the rustic song of the Primavera and for explaining to Botticelli the synthesis of sources from which it was produced. Whichever explanation is correct, Dempsey deserves much credit for revitalizing a great painting.

This Issue

June 24, 1993