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The Birth of Venus is undoubtedly one of the world’s most famous and appreciated works of art. Painted by Sandro Botticelli between 1482 and 1485, it has become a landmark of XV century Italian painting, so rich in meaning and allegorical references to antiquity. Venus is portrayed naked on a shell on the seashore; on her left the winds blow gently caressing her hair with a shower of roses, on her right a handmaid (Ora) waits for the goddess to go closer to dress her shy body. The meadow is sprinkled with violets, symbol of modesty but often used for love potions.
In a canvas filled with half-naked, twisting bodies, the story of Bacchus's birth unfolds in a typically wry Mannerist comment on the perils of passion. On discovering that the chief god Jupiter had impregnated the young mortal Semele, his wife Juno hatched a plan to end their love affair. Disguised as Semele's nurse, and knowing that Jupiter's lightning and thunder were lethal, she persuaded Semele to ask Jupiter to visit "in all his glory." Here, as Semele gives birth to Bacchus, who is caught by nymphs, as she herself is consumed by flames. From the top of the clouds, Juno looks apprehensively at her thunderbolt-carrying husband. Giulio Romano and his workshop originally painted this scene as part of an erotic series of mythological love stories for Federico Gonzaga, duke of Mantua. Giulio probably did not execute the series by himself, though he probably designed them and painted selected parts.
The artist named in the inventory was Fra Angelico, but this work is usually thought to be a collaboration between him and a fellow Florentine, Fra Filippo Lippi. Very likely the painting remained in one of their studios (whose is still debated) for a number of years, receiving sporadic attention from several workshop painters. The sweetly angelic Virgin and Child, the throng of worshipers in the upper right, and the rich carpet of plants in the foreground were probably painted by Fra Angelico. Most of the work, however, bears the stamp of Filippo. His figures are more robust and sharply defined. Compare, for example, the broad face of Joseph at the right to the Virgin's more delicate features.
The Alba Madonna stands out as the most important painting in the United States from Raphael's time in Rome. There he continued to respond creatively to new artistic stimuli, combining old and new influences with his own inventive imagination. The round format of this painting, for example, was popular in Florence, yet this picture looks very different from his more intimate Florentine madonnas. Its grandeur suggests greater seriousness. The Virgin's pose resembles a work of classical sculpture. Also, she no longer wears contemporary dress but the robes of ancient Rome, and the landscape has become an idealized view of the Roman campagna. Addition of a third figure, the infant John the Baptist, creates a broad and stable group that is fully integrated into the setting yet dominates the space effortlessly. No longer part of an iconlike devotional schema, these full-length figures appear to be a natural part of the environment. The focus of their gestures and glances is centered on a slender reed cross that actually defines the work's meaning. Church doctrine holds that from birth Christ had an "understanding" of his fate. Here he accepts the cross of his future sacrifice, an action understood as well by his mother and cousin.
The semi-naked old man, crouching and lost in thought at the foot of the tree, can be interpreted as Job, the patient sufferer of the Old Covenant, humble before his God, and thus a familiar archetype for the suffering Christ. At the top left we can make out the crosses of Golgotha, and on the right Christ's mourning followers
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