In 1480, Sandro Botticelli was at the peak of his fame and creative powers as a painter. A favorite of the powerful Medici family, Botticelli produced sensuous works that celebrated beauty, nature, and eroticism as appealed to his patrons. The Medici were thriving both as bankers and as political figures, dominating the Florentine electorate and the Vatican alike. A parallel can be made with our own time, in which the agents of capital control our democratic institutions and our public spaces of learning, faith, and transcendence, whether religious or secular.
The DIA’s painting The Resurrected Christ is unusual for its moment in that its somber palette and severe, tragic imagery contrasts with the pleasure and ease of Botticelli’s more famous Birth of Venus (c. 1482) and Primavera (c. 1478), completed around the same time for private patrons in the Medici family. Still, this work prefigures what would be the great tragedy of the artist’s life, as the rise of the fire-and-brimstone preacher Girolamo Savonarola would transform Botticelli’s consciousness and his circumstances. Savonarola rose to prominence as an itinerant preacher who challenged the Church’s complicity with acquisitive capitalistic values. His challenge to power was ultimately snuffed, but not before his call to repent was deeply internalized by Botticelli. Tormented by fears of divine retribution for his own cooperation with the Medici, Botticelli ceased to paint non-Christian subjects and found his wellspring of commissions soon run dry. He died in poverty and relative obscurity some 30 years after the DIA’s work was completed.
Today, many who turn away from religion find a different spiritual fulfillment in the contemplation of art. As Savonarola preached that Catholicism would be undone by its marriage to capitalism, many believe today that the undoing of art’s social value is its close relationship to a market based in speculation and asset-hoarding. Bound as we are to the religion of profit, the possibility that the DIA would liquidate its collection to please creditors appears as another kind of repentance, in which a city unable or unwilling to please the gods of capital behaves as though its citizens have waived their right to the spiritual nourishment that art provides. Perhaps it is time to bring back the itinerant preacher who travels the countryside speaking truth to power. Just be warned, it could all end in an auto-da-fé.