Humanism

   The Annunciation, (1489) by Italian Renaissance master, Botticelli; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

The Annunciation, (1489) by Italian Renaissance master, Botticelli; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Before my family trip to Italy, I had greatly anticipated visiting the Uffizi in Florence, especially to see Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus . We all know the image from advertising rip-offs of it…the beautiful naked goddess rising from the clam shell. The Venus was as beautiful as I’d expected: part human—almost childlike—and part goddess, a bit risqué and completely pagan. Her hair and its motion are real and tactile and seductive. The colors are more subdued than I’d expected, but Venus is brighter and more real than all the older art and icons hung in the previous rooms…where all the paintings are hung chronologically.

On a side wall, I came to Botticelli’s The Annunciation. Never have I been so surprised by a painting…it is magnificent: a flourish of humility in the face of power and glory. I couldn’t believe how emotive it is or how emoto-genic it was for me…the image on this page doesn’t convey the glory of the actual painting. In the rooms previous to the Botticelli collection—where all the paintings predated his—the paintings are static and designed to be awe-inspiring…images of the Virgin or Christ without living dimension…not badly painted, but statically presented. They were meant to be “beheld” and knelt before and prayed before…they were made to be icons, awesome and inspirational. But Botticelli’s paintings tell a story: drama in a frame.

I’ve always loved standing in front of a painting in a museum, in the same relative place that the artist stood when painting it….in this case, 525 years ago! To me, Botticelli has painted a relationship between the angel and Mary…the painting is not about the message, not about the miracle; the painting is about the relationship and communication between the angel and Mary. The angel, even bent to his knee, is glorious and assertive but supplicating, softening his majesty and the glory of his message…“I do not want to overpower you…” he seems to say. “You were born for and lived for this moment.”

Mary is a picture of absolute humility, with her head tilted and bowed before the angel; “Why me?” she seems to be wondering. She offers no hint of rejection; her hands are not extended to ward off the angel, but to interrogate him and wonder, “Why me?” Botticelli has perfectly captured/created Mary’s humility as a living woman and has perfectly showed it. A living, breathing woman—not a holy thing or an icon—like my own mother or my wife. “I’m going to have the miracle of a child?” Botticelli has portrayed a human moment of moment!

My tour guide explained the use of perspective accentuated by the gridwork floor and how the landscape out the window was typically Italianate…and I wanted to interrupt and correct him. He talked about the bowing of Mary’s head as a sign of reverence, and I wanted to shout, “Shut up! This is about the angel and Mary communicating, a very personal and human moment!” Even though it was a divine moment, Botticelli represented it as a completely human moment.

I’d seen Giotto’s Madonna a few rooms earlier in the museum; he supposedly led the way to Humanism…giving Mary a realistic feel. But 180 years later, Botticelli beats him hands down. I’d read about the Renaissance’s Humanism, but it had never really meant anything to me before. Until the Botticelli…Humanism is there in blue and red and gold…humans in a human moment are there in blue and red and gold.