As the largest loan exhibition of Botticelli in the United States to date, “Botticelli Drawings,” at the Legion of Honor, sounds at first like a celebration of a Renaissance talent on the order of the Metropolitan Museum’s celebration of Michelangelo’s drawings from a few years ago.
But this is not that kind of show — and Botticelli, as we come to see, is not that kind of artist, even if the auction houses would like us to think so. Resisting the pressure to blockbusterize Botticelli, this exhibition is true to the material (which is limited in quantity; fewer than three dozen of the artist’s drawings are known to survive) and to Botticelli’s quirks (which are manifold). In place of the genius polymath, it offers an undeniably gifted but erratic master of line — a figure not intimidating in his virtuosity, like a Leonardo or a Michelangelo, but certainly endearing.
Born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi in Florence around 1445, Botticelli rose from humble origins (he was the son of a leatherworker) to become one of the favored artists of the Medici scion Lorenzo the Magnificent. But his life and art took a pronounced and puzzling turn late in the century, as the center of Florentine power shifted from the Medicis to the friar and reformer Girolamo Savonarola; Botticelli became one of Savonarola’s dedicated followers, abandoning Renaissance perspective and proportion and, eventually, painting itself.
He died in poverty and relative obscurity in 1510, and the contents of his workshop were sold off and dispersed. We know his work today largely because it was rediscovered in the 19th century by British artists and writers who were looking closely at Florentine art, including the critic John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. The Botticelli paintings they championed are, for the most part, the same ones that draw crowds to the Uffizi today: allegorical and mythological scenes like “La Primavera” and “Birth of Venus,” with their balletic figures prancing through shallow, decorative landscapes.
For the show’s organizer, Furio Rinaldi, curator of drawings and prints at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, these little eruptions of dance are the essence of Botticelli — and the key to an appreciation of his drawings. “Operating like a choreographer,” Rinaldi writes in the catalog, “Botticelli elevated the line as the main attractive force behind his figures and their rhythmic movement, and he used drawing as a means of creating, arranging, and controlling the structure within which these figures operate.”
In “Botticelli Drawings,” Rinaldi has assembled nearly all of the extant drawings and a handful of related paintings, with loans from museums across Europe (including the Louvre, London’s National Gallery, and the Uffizi). Many viewers will naturally gravitate to the paintings, but the little triumphs of the preparatory drawings — the way Botticelli refined the precise angle of an angel’s arm for an Annunciation, or studied the fall of light on an upturned face, or turned a friezelike row of figures into an explosive chain reaction of expression — are what make the show worth visiting.
His astonishingly tender “Madonna of the Rose Garden” painting (showing the Virgin and child with the young Saint John the Baptist) is here from the Louvre, for instance, along with a drawing that captures the intimate center of the scene: the Virgin’s downturned head with its well-defined profile, which in the painting interlocks like a jigsaw puzzle piece with the Christ child’s forehead. Moments like this make it clear why the famed art historian Bernard Berenson called Botticelli “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had.”
Later we see multiple studies of standing male figures with hands on hips, which find an exquisite balance between athleticism and slouching. Botticelli drew them from life, having workshop assistants pose, but they were destined for mythological paintings. (One became a Saint Sebastian in an altarpiece, another the messenger Mercury in “La Primavera.”)
Psychological intensity is not the hallmark of Botticelli’s art, as we know it, but this show reminds us that at the pinnacle of his career (when he was ensconced in the plush Medici circle) he was a sought-after portrait painter. Three startlingly sensitive and individualized paintings of noblewomen, accompanied by related studies of heads made on tinted paper with softly drawn white highlights, show that Botticelli did not always default to an idealized notion of beauty.
From here the exhibition makes an awkward pivot to Botticelli’s late religious phase, which saw him abandoning Renaissance humanism and spatial principles to make exaggeratedly pious and medieval-looking works in support of Savonarola. (Leonardo, among others, was said to be irked by this retrograde shift in Botticelli’s style.) In one work from this period, a painting known as the “Mystic Nativity,” rows of figures are arranged as a kind of layer cake with a complete disregard for the rules of perspective.
A body of work exists that might have smoothed the transition: the fantastically imaginative, unfinished set of drawings Botticelli made to illustrate Dante’s “Divine Comedy” for his patron Lorenzo. These fragile works executed on sheepskin are held at the Staatliche Museum in Berlin and the Vatican, and they rarely travel. Had they been able to make the trip to San Francisco, though, they would have connected the elegant group choreography we see in Botticelli’s most famous paintings to his late stirrings of religious passion. (I recommend delving into them online, as well as in a 2021 webinar where Rinaldi links the series to later works by literary-visionary artists such as William Blake.)
As Botticelli’s devotional fervor took hold, he started to leave much of the business of art-making to the assistants and pupils in his studio. In most of the paintings and drawings attributed to the “Workshop of Sandro Botticelli” that close out the exhibition, something is missing; in the large and colorful tondo “Virgin and Child With Saint John the Baptist and Six Singing Angels,” for instance, the figures look oddly inanimate and disconnected from one another.
The problem of late Botticelli is one reason we have trouble seeing him as a Renaissance artist, even if he was one, by date and geography and association. But even in his earlier works, where his hand and spirit are very much present, he doesn’t seem to be living in the same time and playing by the same rules as Michelangelo and Leonardo. In this show, that’s actually refreshing; we are asked not to cling too tightly to our ideas of genius, but instead to follow Botticelli’s vigorous, sprightly line wherever it leads.
Through Feb. 11, Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park 100, 34th Avenue (at Clement Street), San Francisco, 415-750-3600, famsf.org.