Muscarelle Museum announces unprecedented Botticelli exhibit

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

The Muscarelle Museum at the College of William and Mary, responsible for bringing works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to Williamsburg, announced Friday its latest major international loan exhibition.

"Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting between the Medici and the Bonfires of the Vanities" features 16 works, from six Italian cities, of famed Italian painter Sandro Botticelli.

Presented in partnership with Italy's Associazione Culturale Metamorfosi, the exhibit includes "Venus," replicating the nude figure from Botticelli's iconic "Birth of Venus" against a simple, dark background. It is one of only two known isolated Venuses by Botticelli in the world today. This painting will display for the first time in the United States at the Muscarelle.

"For our university, for our museum, to bring this world-class, groundbreaking exhibition to the United States, it's simply astounding," museum director Aaron De Groft said.

The exhibit opens in Williamsburg on Feb. 11, 2017, to display through April 5, before traveling to its only other U.S. venue at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Renato Miracco, cultural attache of the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C., stated in a news release that the exhibit "will be the largest and most important exhibition of its type ever organized in the United States."

An artist during the Italian Renaissance, Botticelli was a friend of both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

"They were literally some of the most famous artists in the history of the world, and that doesn't happen by chance," De Groft said.

While the genius and beauty of Botticelli's art speaks volumes, through this exhibition, the Muscarelle hopes to do more than just put the paintings on display.

"One of the reasons that we are able to obtain the loans is that we don't merely exhibit the works and leave it to the viewers to enjoy them as they pass by them," said chief curator John Spike. "We choose and select the works that are in our shows to tell you something about the thinking of this particular great artist."

In other words, the museum hopes to "demonstrate a narrative thread," De Groft said.

The narrative follows Botticelli through most of his career. From the height of success — painting lush, sensual mythologies influenced by the Medici dynasty in Florence — to the burning of some of his paintings in the Bonfires of the Vanities after the fall of the Medici family.

As the atmosphere in Florence changed, so did Botticelli's paintings.

"He doesn't do any more mythologies late in his life," said Spike, who has conducted significant research on the topic. "He concentrates on very serious and meditative and very touching. Very deliberately not fancy anymore, very simplified now."

"The question is, how do we explain this dramatic change in the art of Botticelli, who goes from painting perpetually sunny moments of beauty and spirituality, to his late works which don't use fancy pictorial effects anymore," Spike said.

The exhibition, seeking to answer that question, includes around 30 works in total.

Its narrative flows through three rooms. The first room, in essence, centers on Botticelli's formation, Spike said, including paintings by Botticelli's master Filippo Lippi.

The second room includes Botticelli's mythologically rooted "Judgement of Paris" and "Madonna of the Book," which Spike described as "one of the most beautiful Botticelli Madonnas."

The last room, much like Botticelli's later works, scales back in grandeur.

"I always save something very special for the last room," Spike said. "There will be a very meditative and deep atmosphere."

Other works to display include several paintings by Filippo's son and Botticelli's student Filippino Lippi, a painting and bronze statuette of Hercules by Antonio Pollaiuolo, the death mask of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and a portrait of Fra Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo.

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

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