The large number of visitors permitted in the tight exhibition space at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris means that it’s hard, without pushing or being pushed, to view many of the Botticellis on show until 22 February. The artist’s most famous works (the Birth of Venus, the Primavera and the Madonna of the Magnificat) are not included and there isn’t a single altarpiece, but half a dozen of his greatest paintings are here. After pondering some early, damaged paintings of the Madonna and Child you meet the great Saint Augustine – a fresco from the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence – with his wonderfully expressive oversized hand below his half-perplexed, half-enraptured face with its boldly painted lights on the knotted brow and the exclamatory strokes of white in his grey beard. The whole figure seems to be locked perspectivally into his cell full of books, which we understand as the furniture of his mind.
You next encounter a queue in front of something resembling a garden shed made of rough wooden planks – the puzzling contribution of the exhibition designer. After a long wait, you may peer through a hole at the two great panels illustrating episodes in the story of Judith and Holofernes, which are painted with the same energy, the same incisive touch seen in the fresco, but on a miniature scale. In one scene the bleeding, nude body of Holofernes, wonderfully tangled in sheets, is discovered by the troops who crowd into his tent. In the other his head is carried across an open, airy landscape by an anxious maid who follows the lovely, serene and very slightly pensive assassin. These two episodes are completely contrasting in colour, composition and mood.
More great paintings are to be seen in the next room, including the great portrait of a youth holding a medallion, and, perhaps Botticelli’s greatest narrative painting, the reconstruction of a picture by Apelles, the Allegory of Calumny. Unfortunately most of the paintings are enclosed in perspex boxes and there are also massive barriers which keep you nearly five feet away from them. Matters are not helped by the exhausted elderly and the bored children trying to sit on these – no seating has been provided. Next comes a corridor where a miscellany of drawings, a small but exquisite textile and two engraved gems, one of Lorenzo the Magnificent and one of Savonarola, are displayed.
Then you reach the final room, which is devoted to the artist’s late work, with its austere, mannered and even archaic character, often thought to be influenced by Savonarola’s preaching. Half of what we see in this room is not by Botticelli and at least two of the six pictures which are labelled as by him are not his work. No serious scholar has ever claimed that the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (a painting on canvas, not a painting on panel transferred to canvas, as is stated), which has been lent by the Musée Jacquemart-André, is by Botticelli. The text of the catalogue entry admits as much, although in the heading to the entry, and on the exhibition label, it is simply identified as his work.This is a disservice to the artist, whose compositions could be deliberately awkward, but never as clumsy as this and whose handling was never so dull. To conceal from visitors the true status of a painting is to treat them with a contempt which would be unthinkable in an exhibition organised by a great French museum or by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux: this show is organised by the president of the French Senate.
Three paintings in this last room – perhaps the best ones there – are by Piero di Cosimo and in subject, style and technique are unrelated to anything by Botticelli. We can only suspect that the Italian institutions which felt unable to yield the Botticellis that had been requested offered these paintings instead to satisfy those who were frightened to disoblige the president of the French Senate. It is more difficult to explain the presence among the drawings of a smiling hermaphrodite with an erect penis, and a raised arm like that of the Angel Gabriel or the prophesying Baptist, executed in a faint, smudgy imitation of Leonardo’s late style. This drawing comes from a private collection, via a foundation established by Carlo Pedretti, the expert who has published the drawing as a work by Leonardo. No scholar planning a Botticelli exhibition would have asked for this drawing: it has nothing to do with Botticelli, nor is it representative of the sort of thing Savonarola had thrown on the bonfire. Moreover, it is not by Leonardo and is very unlikely to be by a follower of his: it is far more likely to be modern.
There are certainly reasons for staying away from this uncomfortable and disreputable exhibition, but if you have a keen interest in Botticelli’s art there are rewards. It includes the very abraded but still beautiful Virgin and Child with an Angel from the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio, plausibly considered one of Botticelli’s earliest independent works. It also features the unfamiliar Agony in the Garden from Granada in Spain, which is reminiscent, in its horizontal compositional divisions and disconcerting changes in scale, of the late Mystic Nativity in the National Gallery. Neither of these paintings hangs in illuminating company, but the juxtapositions in the main room do help us to understand something about Botticelli. His Allegory of Calumny (from the Uffizi) is placed near the Story of Lucretia (from the Palazzo Pitti) by his young associate Filippino Lippi, which is a much more gracious and less angular painting, less interested in sharp contrasts of colour, with more feeling for empty spaces and unadorned architecture. The contrast does a lot to underline what is most distinctive in the Allegory.
We may also compare the Allegory of Calumny with Botticelli’s own Story of Virginia (from Bergamo), which hangs beside it and may be only slightly later in date. The exciting fictive reliefs incorporated in the architecture in the Bergamo painting are not integrated into the composition as they were in the Allegory; the lines of the architecture do not relate in the same thrilling way with the movements of the figures; colours and poses are repeated; and the action depends on half-concealed gesticulating choral figures. There is a carelessness about the painting, for example, in the scale of ornament in the pilasters (this is also a problem in the very damaged fresco of the Annunciation which hangs in the same room). Botticelli’s work is puzzlingly varied in quality. Increasingly in his later work he was prepared to permit the participation of his large and undisciplined workshop. In the Story of Virginia it is also clear that he himself was seeking for a new and less carefully crafted style of narrative painting. The degree of Botticelli’s own participation in a work can be best assessed by the quality of the drawing – a subject very little explored here, but which will probably be treated more fully when a more extensive version of the exhibition opens at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in the spring.