Inspirational – Raphael and Botticelli

Just a passing thought on the similarity and differences when directly comparing a couple of famous Italian Renaissance paintings by two giants of the art world. What a difference 30 years makes? Then, add another five centuries to consider how we, now, respond to these images.

Firstly we have ‘The Birth of Venus’ by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and below it ‘The Triumph of Galatea’ by Raphael (1483-1520).

the birth of venus
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli c.1486
Tempera on canvas (172.5 cm × 278.9 cm)
Uffizi, Florence, Italy
The Triumph of Galatea
The Triumph of Galatea by Raphael c. 1514
Villa Farnesina, Rome, Italy

The two paintings depict different classical myths and yet each artist has devised interpretations that have a central female figure posed on an enormous shell. Initially I was looking at both pictures as inspiration for a beautiful palette as both paintings are worked with a very similar gentle, tonal range. Then it was the differences that struck me and made me ask why the Botticelli is so popular in our time (reproduced on all kinds of merchandise) compared to the Raphael. Yes, I know that generally Art Historians cite Raphael as more significant, but everyday contemporary taste leans towards the Botticelli. The flat, stylised, less naturalistic Venus appeals whereas the so-called advances made by Raphael in the ‘High Renaissance’ look more suited to a different era.

Is it how we actively ‘look’ at the world these days? With the advent of photography, the march of modernism and the subsequent development of pared back minimalism, are we so used to clean-lines, flat, screen-based imagery that overtly naturalistic art is not so appealing?

The Buzzard
Der Busant (The Buzzard)
Tapestry made in Strasbourg, Alsace, France c.1480-90
Made from wool, silk, linen, cotton, and metallic thread.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I have read that it is possible that at the time of commissioning ‘The Birth of Venus’ as a painting (tempera on canvas), was the cheaper solution to a decorative, wall covering than a tapestry of the same theme. It is suggested that the flat style and the figures appearing to float in a plane in front of the background is to mimic the appearance of a tapestry. A late-fifteenth-century tapestry of a similar size was far more expensive. Interestingly, Raphael’s ‘Galatea’ is also a ‘wall covering’ as it is part of a series of frescoes decorating the walls of the loggia of the Villa Farnesina.