Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 21, 2023
Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi
Target Gallery, Minneapolis Institute of Art; October 16, 2022–January 8, 2023
Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi, installation view, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Target Gallery, October 16, 2022–January 8, 2023

When Eike Schmidt left the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) in 2015 to become director of the Gallerie degli Uffizi in Florence, he did not forget his old institution. The connection paid off for the former’s audiences this fall and winter as forty-six treasures from the Uffizi came to Minneapolis. There, joining with a dozen objects from MIA’s own collection (and one from a Chicago private collection), they represented the flowering of the Renaissance in the quattrocento. The exhibition scored high marks for showmanship, with spaces and ideas unfolding in a thrilling, almost cinematic sequence. Though a feast for the eyes, however, the show had its limits. It neither intended to break nor succeeded in breaking much in the way of new ground. Nor was it as comprehensive a treatment of Botticelli’s work as the title suggests; some of the most iconic of the artist’s paintings stayed at home in Florence. But presenting a standard view of the Renaissance to a general audience, elegantly and with Botticelli as a unifying thread, was enough for the curators. Doubtless it was also enough for all but the most exacting visitors. 

The layout and design of the exhibition set a distinctly Florentine tone. Starting in an introductory room with a wall-sized reproduction of Petrini’s bird’s eye perspective of the 15th-century city, visitors then moved into a five-space sequence where each room mingled painting, the graphic arts, and sculpture. Custom-built arcades—a contemporary riff on Brunelleschi—separated the spaces, while a strong axis (terminating in Botticelli’s show-stopping Adoration of the Magi) united them. Even the wall colors (a creamy yellow, a dusty rose and a pietra serena gray) were perfectly Florentine.

In the introductory space, wall panels with headers like “Florence: Cradle of the Renaissance” oriented the visitor to the basics of the Florentine Renaissance, the power dynamics of the Medici family, and the nature of the collection at the Uffizi. A short film featured a welcoming message, some background on the Renaissance, and sumptuous footage of a sun-drenched Florence. There were also a few art objects in this outer space, drawn mainly from the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s collections and of varying relevance to the topic at hand.

Botticelli and the five-room core of the exhibition lay just beyond, and viewers crossing the threshold found themselves face to face with the towering Pallas and the Centaur. The theme of this room was “Art All’Antica: Virtue, Passion and Pleasure,” and the curators explored it brilliantly by pairing the Pallas with a second-century marble centaur and a first-century torso of a dancing faun. These are the sorts of visual sources the painter might have consulted as he developed his composition. The juxtaposition, at the opposite end of the room, of an ancient Roman marble Spinario with a delicate metalpoint drawing of a young man in the same thorn-plucking pose made a parallel point. Thematic unity broke down, however, in the non sequitur inclusion of two anonymous fifteenth-century engravings depicting The King of Goats: A Satire on Cuckolds, and the bawdy medieval legend of Virgil the Sorcerer, both from MIA’s own collection. Though highly amusing, they have little to do with Botticelli and his antique sources.

The next room continued the theme of the Renaissance revival of antiquity by focusing on the sculpture garden that Lorenzo de’Medici maintained near San Marco. The garden was a training ground for young artists, who would sketch after the ancients under the tutelage of sculptor Bertoldo da Giovanni. While the garden, the collection, and even the names of the artists who gathered there are poorly documented in the historical record, this section of the show evoked it by including (without insisting that any was present in the garden) works by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli, Filippino Lippi, and Raffaelino del Garbo alongside those of Botticelli. The standout object in this section was an ancient marble group of three satyrs wrestling a snake, a sort of “baby Laocöon” now in a private collection in Chicago. In his catalog entry on the piece Fabrizio Paolucci lays out a case for it having come from Lorenzo de’Medici’s garden or at least for being “very similar” to a sculpture from the garden.  Either way, it was a treat to see.

The next space, at the very center of the exhibition, was dedicated to the broadly encompassing theme of “Sacred Beauty.” In the middle of the gallery was a second-century sculpture of a sleeping Cupid, a type which the curators assert served as inspiration for quattrocento painters like Botticelli tasked with depicting the baby Jesus. Arranged around this fulcrum was a set of paintings and drawings of varying quality and condition.  Botticelli’s Madonna in Glory, long believed to be a commission of the banker’s guild, stood out with its sweet Lippi-esque faces and otherworldly nimbus of cherubim. His Madonna of the Roses, on the other hand, is a decidedly secondary work and his awkward Madonna and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist could benefit from a cleaning. Aside from Botticelli, the group included works by his contemporary Francesco Botticini, his master Fra Filippo Lippi, and Lippi’s son, Filippino Lippi.

The fourth space focused on “The Renaissance Interior: A Setting of Virtue and Magnificence,” a theme on which some excellent recent research has been done. The treatment of it in this exhibition was somewhat dispersive, though; if the “interior" includes (as it did here) not only domestic space but also the interiors of churches, monasteries, and guild offices, then the category excludes very little. And, as they had done in the earlier “Art All’Antica” section, the curators inserted several prints from the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s collection that have little or nothing to do with the room’s theme. Entirely on-theme, however, was the inclusion of MIA’s spectacular cassone, a six-foot luxury wooden wedding chest decorated with gilt gesso. At the other end of the size scale, but no less arresting, was Botticelli’s small panel of Saint Augustine in his Study. This served double duty; it is the kind of object that might have graced a domestic interior, but also depicts a handsome barrel-vaulted interior in a taste that was highly fashionable at the time.

The final section, called “From Life: Florentine Faces and People” centered on Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, with its plethora of identifiable portrait faces. The rest of the gallery was filled out with Adorations (a homely Cosimo Roselli painting and a drawing by Filippino Lippi) and eight single-sitter portraits. The black chalk drawing of the Head of an Elderly Man by Luca Signorelli stood out for its freshness and immediacy. Likewise, the breathtaking profile Portrait of a Young Woman by the Pollaiuolo brothers stunned with its combination of austere massing and exquisite details. The inclusion of a MIA portrait attributed to Benedetto Ghirlandaio raises more questions than it answers, and some Botticelli portraits from the Uffizi’s collection were conspicuous in their absence, but overall the array was a success in representing a range of types. Always, though, one wished to return to the Botticelli Adoration, which was in many ways the star of the show. The curators spent extra time and effort explaining this complex picture to their audience, enhancing their clear prose with helpful diagrams. And with the ancient Roman ruins in the picture’s background harking back to the initial theme of “Painting All’Antica,” this was a fitting end for the visitor’s itinerary.

The exhibition was accompanied by a sumptuous catalog with five essays and scholarly entries on specific artworks written by an international array of experts. In the essay section cocurator Rachel McGarry introduces Botticelli and his contexts, while cocurator Cecilia Frosinone sets the Adoration of the Magi in its political context in one essay and examines quattrocento workshop practice in another.  Rounding out the quintet, Fabrizio Paolucci presents the state of scholarship on the Medici sculpture garden at San Marco, while Carl Strehlke gives a fresh (at times even playful) treatment of “Botticelli’s Faces.” The individual catalog entries that follow are well-researched and serious.

In sum and despite certain shortcomings, Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi attained its goals. The exhibition introduced an American audience to the Florentine Renaissance while giving both that public and the experts the opportunity to revel in some important and beautiful paintings. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the show, though, was the juxtaposition throughout of Botticelli’s paintings with ancient Roman sculpture. It is not the first time this has been done, but it has never been done as substantially, thoughtfully, and consistently as it was in Minneapolis. 

James Harper
Director of Museum Studies and Research Professor of Art History
Pennsylvania State University