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  • Shawn Gilliam

IN CONVERSATION with the Curator: Botticelli and Renaissance Florence

With 46 works from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence exhibited alongside another dozen from Mia, Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi represents a rare experience for guides and visitors to see such a wealth of Florentine art in Minneapolis—and within a new and different context, as well.



“It’s the very first time that works by Botticelli—that is, paintings and drawings—are shown alongside the kinds of ancient sculpture that inspired the artist and his circle,” says Rachel McGarry, the Elizabeth MacMillan Chair of European Art and Curator of European Paintings and Works on Paper at Mia, who co-created the exhibition along with Florentine art scholar Cecilia Frosinini. “And we have works from other Florentine artists alongside these classical sculptures too—nine classical sculptures in the show, in almost every room except for the last one. It’s amazing to see the works side by side.”


Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445-1510), Portrait of a Young Man, 1470, probably

tempera and oil (tempera grassa) on panel, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence,

Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, inv. 1912, no. 372. Image source: Uffizi Galleries


To complement the exhibition, eighteen scholars contributed to the Mia-produced catalog. “Scholars were looking at these works afresh and asking new questions.” McGarry says. Adoption of technology such as Zoom, Skype, and WhatsApp helped with collaboration across continents.


Besides information shared in a lecture in early October [LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtpnMyJ8Jd0], McGarry shared a few additional insights she believed would be of particular interest to Mia Guides. Here are highlights from that chat:


The way you paired ancient and Renaissance art from Sandro Botticelli and others is stunning. Explain the significance.

The study of ancient Roman sculpture and the study of ancient Greek texts reinvigorated the art, culture, architecture, poetry, and learning of this period in the 15th century in Florence. So it’s exciting to see things side by side and see how the artists study them and then how they change. It’s imitation, but they’re riffing and adapting them to their current humanistic values, their interests, their Neo-Platonic philosophy that’s in the air at the court of Lorenzo de Medici, while also adapting these idealized sculptural forms for Christian themes. So that all comes through very clearly in the installation.


Ancient Roman, Three Satyrs Wrestling a Serpent, first century BCE, marble.

Private collection, Chicago. Image source: Courtesy of Sotheby's


How does that compare with how pieces are displayed at the Uffizi?

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, because these pieces were crowded into the Uffizi’s galleries. So it’s wonderful to pick a select group of works out of those galleries and place them within new relationships.


For instance, we borrowed a marble sculpture, Boy with Thorn (also known as Spinario) — a young adolescent boy who is seated with his foot thrust up in his lap, and he’s pulling a thorn from his foot. There are eight known replicas of the Spinario sculpture, and it’s one of the most beloved ancient sculptures and was frequently copied. In fact, the bronze version in Rome is thought to be the city’s most copied classical sculpture ever. So in the exhibition we have a marble Spinario exhibited side by side with Botticelli’s drawing inspired by that figure. But rather than an adolescent, Botticelli uses an older, more mature model—a young man who’s stronger. And his figure has this disheveled hair and this very pronounced nose, and he lives and breathes on the page. So Botticelli is thinking about this classical sculpture that’s beloved, but then he updates it and makes this incredible life study.


It’s a really special juxtaposition, and a juxtaposition that just can’t be made at the Uffizi because the marble is part of a historical installation. And in the beautiful light-filled gallery on the Arno where the sculpture normally resides, you would never be able to show drawings in that space. In fact, this drawing is only going to be shown in the exhibition for six weeks. After that it has to be put back in dark storage because it’s been requested for another exhibition at a different U.S. museum. Mia and the other museum both made really strong cases for the loan of this Botticelli drawing. So after six weeks at Mia, it will be replaced by a facsimile. As you can tell, the Uffizi follows very strict conservation rules; I think they have some 180,000 drawings in their collection. They only display works on paper for three months every five years.


Wow, so any time with one of these pieces is pretty rare. Do you have another favorite example of this?

We’ve borrowed one additional work from a Chicago private collection—an ancient Roman sculpture that’s being reunited at Mia with other works from the Medici collections for the first time in 500 years. It depicts three satyr beings wrestling with a serpent. All three are gasping, and drawing their last breath of life as this serpent suffocates them.


It’s clear the sculpture belonged to Lorenzo de Medici and was on display in his famous garden of San Marco, where he displayed his Roman marble antiquities collection and which served as an informal academy for artists. And there’s a good story here: We know the sculpture was clandestinely dug up in Rome in 1489 because Lorenzo’s agents wrote from Rome to Florence and said, “This incredible sculpture has come on the market. It’s very pricey. Are you interested?” They dug it up in the middle of the night because there was a cardinal who had forbidden any excavations there; he wanted to excavate for his own collection. And this marble sculpture was strapped to the back of a mule and sent up to Florence, and it was there in the garden of San Marco for artists to study for five years. But then Lorenzo il Magnifico died in 1492, and his son had a brief rule from 1492 to 1494, but he was expelled in 1494, and there never was an inventory of the Medici sculpture garden. But it’s quite clear that this piece was in Lorenzo’s collection, because you can see echoes of the imagery in Florentine art. This led us to borrow it from the private collection in Chicago, bringing it together once again with other works from the Medici collection.


How about one or two more highlights?

Roberta Bartoli, a really important art historian expert in cassone, or wedding chests, wrote an incredible entry for the catalog and discovered all of these things about Mia’s cassone, which appears as a masterpiece in the show. The Wedding Chest has been in our collection since 1916, and Roberta was doing archival research and found out it actually comes from the Italian town of Lucca, not Florence.


Unknown artist (Lucca), Wedding Chest (cassone), 1475-85, poplar wood with

gilt and painted gesso decoration. Minneapolis Institute of Art, The William Hood

Dunwoody Fund, 16.747. Image source: Minneapolis Institute of Art


Another highlight is at the end of the show: a gallery dedicated to portraits of Florentines. In this gallery are two paintings of the Adoration of the Magi, both of which include a lot of portraits of contemporary Florentines. Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, which includes members of the Medici family as well as the only known self-portrait of Botticelli himself, has never been shown in the United States, and we have it in this gallery. I almost didn’t believe it was going to come until we actually opened the crate. It’s such an important painting filled with so much interesting detail. I think I’ll go up and study it every day.

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