Never pretty, scarcely ever charming or even attractive; rarely correct in drawing, and seldom satisfactory in colour; in types ill favoured; in feeling acutely intense and even dolorous -- what is it then that makes Sandro Botticelli so irresistible that nowadays we may have no alternative but to worship or abhor him? The secret is this, that in European painting there has never again been an artist so indifferent to representation and so intent upon presentation.
Educated in a period of triumphant naturalism, he plunged at first into mere representation with almost self-obliterating earnestness; the pupil of Fra Filippo, he was trained to a love of spiritual genre; himself gifted with strong instincts for the significant, he was able to create such a type of the thinker as in his fresco of St. Augustine; yet in his best years he left everything, even spiritual significance, behind him, and abandoned himself to the presentation of those qualities alone which in a picture are directly life-communicating, and life-enhancing.
Those of us who care for nothing in the work of art but what it represents are either powerfully attracted or repelled by his unhackneyed types and quivering feeling; but if we are such as have an imagination of touch and of movement that it is easy to stimulate, we feel a pleasure in Botticelli that few, if any, other artists can give us. Long after we have exhausted both the intensest sympathies and the most violent antipathies with which the representative elements in his pictures may have inspired us, we are only on the verge of fully appreciating his real genius. This in its happiest moments is an unparalleled power of perfectly combining values of touch with values of movement.
Look, for instance, at Botticelli's 'Venus Rising from the Sea'. Throughout, the tactile imagination is roused to a keen activity, by itself almost as life-heightening as music. But the power of music is even surpassed where, as in the goddess's mane-like tresses of hair fluttering to the wind, not in disorderly rout but in masses yielding only after resistance, the movement is directly life-communicating. The entire picture presents us with the quintessence of all that is pleasurable to our imagination of touch and of movement. How we revel in the force and freshness of the wind, in the life of the waves!
And such an appeal he always makes. His subject may be fanciful, as in the 'Realms of Venus' (the ' Spring'); religious, as in the Sistine Chapel frescoes or in the ' Coronation of the Virgin'; political, as in the recently discovered 'Pallas Taming a Centaur'; or even crudely allegorical: as in the Louvre frescoes -- no matter how unpropitious, how abstract the idea, the vivid appeal to our tactile sense, the lifecommunicating movement is always there. Indeed, at times it seems that the less artistic the theme, the more artistic the fulfilment, the painter being impelled to give the utmost values of touch and movement to just those figures which are liable to be read off as mere empty symbols.
Thus, on the figure representing political disorder -- the Centaur -- in the 'Pallas', Botticelli has lavished his most intimate gifts. He constructs the torso and flanks in such a way that every line, every indentation, every boss appeals so vividly to the sense of touch that out fingers feel as if they had everywhere been in contact with his body, while his face gives to a still heightened degree this convincing sense of reality, every line functioning perfectly for the osseous structure of brow, nose, and cheeks. As to the hair -- imagine shapes having the supreme life of line you may see in the contours of licking flames, and yet possessed of all the plasticity of something which caresses the hand that models it to its own desire!
In fact, the mere subject, and even representation in general, was so indifferent to Botticelli, that he appears almost as if haunted by the idea of communicating the unembodied values of touch and movement. Now there is a way of rendering even tactile values with almost no body, and that is by translating them as faithfully as may be into values of movement. For instance -- we want to render the roundness of a wrist without the slightest touch of either light or shade; we simply give the movement of the wrist's outline and the movement of the drapery as it falls over it, and the roundness is communicated to us almost entirely in terms of movement. But let us go one step farther.
Take this line that renders the roundness of the wrist, or a more obvious example, the lines that render the movements of the tossing hair, the fluttering draperies, and the dancing waves in the 'Birth of Venus' -- take these lines alone with all their power of stimulating our imagination of movement, and what do we have? Pure values of movement abstracted, unconnected with any representation whatever. This kind of line, then, being the quintessence of movement, has, like the essential elements in all the arts, a power of stimulating our imagination and of directly communicating life. Well! imagine an art made up entirely of these quintessences of movement-values, and you will have something that holds the same relation to representation that music holds to speech -- and this art exists, and is called linear decoration.
In this art of arts Sandro Botticelli may have had rivals in Japan and elsewhere in the East, but in Europe never. To its demands he was ready to sacrifice everything that habits acquired under Filippo and -- and his employers! -- would permit. The representative element was for him a mere libretto: he was happiest when his subject lent itself to translation into what may be called a linear symphony. And to this symphony everything was made to yield; tactile values were translated into values of movement, and, for the same reason -- to prevent the drawing of the eye inward, to permit it to devote itself to the rhythm of the line -- the backgrounds were either entirely suppressed or kept as simple as possible. Colour also, with almost a contempt for its representative function, Botticelli entirely subordinated to his linear scheme, compelling it to draw attention to the line, rather than, as is usual, away from it.
This is the explanation of the value put upon Botticelli's masterpieces. In some of his later works, such as the Dresdenpredelle, we have, it is true, bacchanals rather than symphonies of line, and in many of his earlier paintings, in the 'Fortezza', for instance, the harness and trappings have so disguised Pegasus that we scarcely know him from a cart-horse. But the painter of the 'Venus Rising from the Sea', of the ' Spring', or of the Villa Lemmi frescoes is the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had.
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