In 15th century Florence, a rebirth of arts and culture inspired by Greek and Roman antiquity resulted in a humanistic outlook.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art's exhibition "Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi," opening Oct. 16, brings that sensibility into the present. Visitors to the exhibit will be greeted by a mural of Renaissance Florence and drawings of the city surrounded by a stone wall.
The special project brings more than 45 loaned works from Renaissance Florence to Minneapolis. The exhibit includes paintings, drawings, prints and decorative arts by Sandro Botticelli, his teacher Fra Filippo Lippi, and colleagues Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and Pietro Perugino, as well as a selection of ancient Roman marble sculptures that inspired the artists.
"I love the idea that in the Renaissance there's this rebirth of naturalism that comes from seeing the antique, and then there is also this idea that there was this past that was previously unknowable," said Katie Luber, Mia's director and president. "And I think that's true for us still, right? We have a hard time thinking about what was it like to live in the 1470s, '80s and '90s Florence, when there's no indoor plumbing, electricity, or washing machines."
The collaboration began two years ago. Luber reached out to Eike Schmidt, former curator of sculpture, applied art and textiles at Mia from 2009-15, now director of the Uffizi Gallery.
"Thinking of COVID and the unrest that the city went through, I think it's something that we can very much relate to with the Renaissance where a new visual language was developed," Schmidt said. "It was a return to millennia-old scholarship that really helped rekindle the interest in learning, human values and social values, and I think that's something people nowadays can relate to."
The prospering of Renaissance Florence was due largely to the political ascendancy of the Medici family, an Italian banking family that came to power during the first half of the 15th century. Cosimo de' Medici became one of Italy's wealthiest individuals, and his lineage had four popes, including Pope Leo X. The Medici family is known as one of the great patrons of the Renaissance and in art history.
Intro to Renaissance Florence
Fifteen drawings are in the show, including three by painter Sandro Botticelli and those by 12 other artists in his circle. These drawings have a particularly short exposure window and can be on view for only three months every five years because of the light sensitivity of the works.
Mia's curator of European paintings, Rachel McGarry, directly pairs drawings with the sculptures that likely inspired them. Botticelli's drawing "Two Male Nude Figures," circa 1470-82, based on live models, portrays one man seated and pulling a thorn out of his foot and the other one standing up. Both figures offer a sense of movement despite depicting sedentary subjects, a concept that had not been seen before in Western European visual art. The Roman sculpture Spinario, late first century B.C. to early first century A.D., of a young boy pulling a thorn out of his foot, is displayed nearby.
"This is one of the most beloved sculptures of ancient Rome — it's a copy of a Greek sculpture," McGarry said, pointing to Spinario. "There's eight known copies of this boy, and ever since these copies were found artists love this composition."
Other popularly referenced ancient Roman marble sculptures such as Torso of a Dancing Faun, (first century), Centaur (circa 150 A.D.) and Crouching Venus (second century) on loan from the Uffizi, show the Roman influence. The first century Three Satyrs Fighting a Serpent, was loaned by a private collector in Chicago.
Painter and Carmelite priest Fra Filippo Lippi's panel paintings, "Virgin of the Annunciation" & "Saint Anthony Abbot" and "The Angel of the Annunciation" & "Saint John the Baptist," circa 1455-59, shine light on various religious figures that also feature heavily in the exhibition. Jacopo del Sellaio's painting "The Triumph of Mordecai" tells the story of biblical heroine Esther, who became the wife of Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes) and protected the Jewish people from a plot against them. Cosimo Rosselli and Botticelli both have paintings of the iconic scene "Adoration of the Magi," where the three magi find baby Jesus and offer him sparkling gifts and worship as he sits on the lap of the Virgin Mary. Throughout the exhibition there are various depictions of Jesus.
Botticelli was one of the first Western artists to feature nonreligious subjects. Through his knowledge of human forms, he was able to create movement in stillness, and his works departed from the medieval Gothic style's flattened figures. His Christian subjects had an emotional depth, another shift from iconographic religious art.
But really, it's all about perspective in drawing.
"The invention of perspective happened around 1430 in Florence," said University of Minnesota Prof. Steven F. Ostrow, who specializes in early-modern Italian visual culture. "That led to the transformation of painting as well because prior to that, artists attempted to create a sense of depth, even in ancient Roman frescoes, but they didn't have one-point linear perspective."
Although Botticelli is best known for the paintings "Primavera" and "The Birth of Venus," those works didn't make the journey because a 1940 Italian law prohibits them from leaving the country.
The exhibition winds through the twists and turns of Renaissance Florence that wouldn't have existed without the patronage of the Medici family.
"This enlightened city state under the rulership, or being of one family, could nevertheless sponsor the arts in such a way as to not only aggrandize themselves but to enrich the people of the city of Florence and beyond," Ostrow said. "If only we could do that now. I think that would be one lesson that contemporary audiences could take away that you know, that a concerted effort toward the arts can contribute to the broader culture."
Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi
When: Oct. 16-Jan. 8
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
Cost: $16-$20, free for 17 and under
Info: 612-870-3000 or new.artsmia.org