Artibus et Historiae no. 36 (XVIII)

1997, ISSN 0391-9064

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CHARLES BURROUGHS - The Altar and the City: Botticelli's "Mannerism" and the Reform of Sacred Art

However defined, 'mannerist' stylistic tendencies variously renounce the conception of the painted image as a window on a fictive world seemingly continuous with the space of the beholder. Renaissance naturalism gives way to a sophisticated, reflexive concern with the protocols and practices of art making itself. An important early twentieth-century historiographical tendency associated art of this kind with periods of external crisis as well as with cultur­al, intellectual, and even mass psychological responses to these. This essay takes up the connection of 'mannerist' tendencies and crisis in relation to the late work of Botticelli, which is sometimes characterized as mannerist.

A distinct change in Botticelli's style evident after c. 1488 is especially marked in religious paintings, producing a divergence between sacred and secular imagery at a time of a resurgence of concern with issues of idolatry in Florentine intellectual circles. The assertive anti-naturalism and anti-perspectivism in Botticelli's sacred paintings betrays a fragmentation of the unified art of paint­ing as theorized by Alberti. Even within single works, Botticelli combines diverse levels of naturalism, subverting the Albertian conception of pictorial narrative.

On the basis of the discussion of the topographical and institu­tional contexts of certain of Botticelli's late religious paintings, the essay relates them to cultural and political shifts in Florence. In par­ticular, certain radical works are elucidated against the background of renewed emphasis on the city of Florence as a replication of the sacred topography of Rome. This climaxed in during Savonarola's ascendancy, in line with the friar's vision of Florence as purified counterpart to Rome-Babylon. After discussion of specific issues of patronage and iconography, the essay concludes with speculation about the significance of Botticelli's innovations for major early sixteenth-century artistic developments.

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