BOSTON — Set aside your association of Botticelli with the “Birth of Venus” (ca. 1485) and its cool flame of female nudity, and turn your attention to another line in his oeuvre: multi-episodic, cast-of-multitudes history paintings that tell, in detail, intricate stories of faith and heroism. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, already in the possession of one such painting, has beckoned others like it from around the world and installed them in a small but engrossing show, Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes.
The Gardner’s painting, “The Tragedy of Lucretia” (1496–1504) normally hangs in the museum’s Raphael Room. Now set aside in the Gardner’s special exhibition space, it is joined by a multi-panel account of the life of St. Zenobius (ca. 1500), an “Adoration of the Magi” (ca. 1500), and most welcome, “The Story of Virginia” (ca. 1500), traveling in from Bergamo, Italy. A sense of intimate reunion is enhanced by the installation, with paintings mounted on crimson partition walls angled towards each other like settees at a tea party.
Seven paintings may sound like a slight offering, but these rich, complex works benefit from the sort of slow looking that the small setting enables. To boot, the curator, Nathaniel Silver, has chosen to augment the show through the unusual means of calling in a cartoonist: Karl Stevens, a painter and graphic novelist who has lately been publishing gag panels in the New Yorker, here provides interpretive material displayed alongside the more conventional wall text.
For instance, a large narrative panel at the entrance to the show recounts the story of Mrs. Gardner’s acquisition of her Botticelli in a more vivid manner than the wall text (am I the only one who has a hard time absorbing text writ large on a wall?). Another strip vividly demonstrates the way spalliere — the category of painting to which these works belong — were viewed at eye level in a domestic interior by imaginatively hanging Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” on a wall in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Birth of the Virgin” (1486–90).
Beyond harnessing the illustrative advantages of images, as demonstrated by Stevens’s work, the show is also making the point that Botticelli’s paintings are a lot like cartoons. His forms are wired into taut outlines, his characters’ gestures are theatrical and expository, his palette prefigures mid-century Disney, and his trick of containing different episodes of a story into architecture is just like the multiple panels of a strip. However, Stevens’s work, here entirely in black and white, and like all his pen-and-ink drawings, obsessively cross-hatched, offers instructive contrast rather than mere parallel to the Renaissance master’s paintings.
One difference is in narrative structure. Stevens — as he notes in the video introduction to the show — has the advantage not only of words, but also of a compositional structure unbound from the convention of a single, window-like frame. Botticelli, by contrast, relies on continuous narrative — deploying the same character multiple times within a single frame — to tell his stories. In the first moments of the first panel of St. Zenobius, for instance, the saint and his mother both appear twice, right next to themselves, first confronting each other over her desire for him to marry, and then on their own heels as he spurns her and the proffered fiancée to join the priesthood.
Another is in the rendering. In both there is simplification and abstraction, but for Stevens there is the triumph of discovering the most apt contour lines from a complex notion of reality informed by photography, while for Botticelli, there is a gleeful enthusiasm for maximizing detail within his abstracted aesthetic. Baptismal water falls like a cascade of silver tadpoles. Intelligent looking, googly-eyed horses raptly observe a resuscitation. Serpentine locks of hair float and calligraphic swathes of drapery furl and unfurl, all set aloft by the rush of events.
Another motivation for the cartoons is to help us manage the content of “The Tragedy of Lucretia” and “Story of Virginia,” both horrendous accounts of women who die to protect patriarchal honor in the Ancient Roman period. Lucretia was raped by one of her husband’s associates, who threatened to kill her and frame her slave for the crime if she did not succumb to him. She submits to the rape to save her slave, but then names her attacker and kills herself. Virginia was kidnapped by a rich man who then insisted that she was his slave. His claim was backed by a corrupt judge, so her father kills her to protect her honor.
Botticelli’s paintings of these topics, despite their grim contents, are the highlight of the show. Both take place in domineering architectural settings, columns and pilasters rhythmically carving out the illusionistic space where the ill-fated heroines appear again and again as their tragic stories unfold. In the “Story of Virginia” especially, the colors are opulently jewel-like and the composition exquisitely symmetrical. Succumbing to their magnetism means confrontation with their aestheticized but brutal subjects — Lucretia bristling with gleaming swords and Virginia with grasping hands.
The horror of these stories provokes an earnest curatorial note condemning violence against women and, more interesting, a pair of strips by Stevens that offer his takes on them. Stevens casts his beloved wife Alexis in the roles of both women, and in “Virginia,” he draws one of the scenes from the point of view of the rapacious rich man, by implication associating the viewer with the crime as his hands reach towards her.
In a predella of smaller panels beneath, the rest of the story plays out, ending with the father killing his daughter, the guilty hand again emanating from the viewer’s space. In “Lucretia,” Stevens depicts a scene not shown in Botticelli’s painting, when Lucretia actually stabs herself. In it, the viewer is positioned as if from the perspective of a child, endowing the image with the quality of a traumatic memory.
Despite the prominence granted to Stevens’s art in the exhibition, there is a certain unavoidable awkwardness to the endeavor. This is not a two-person show, like Bill Viola and Michelangelo at London’s Royal Academy, though the video featuring Stevens in the entry gallery, especially in the absence of one about Botticelli, makes it feel like one. The strips are enlarged and displayed alongside the works, but as facsimiles, on the same material register as the wall text. Here is where Botticelli and Stevens most fully converge – their artistry primarily serves the needs of the patron. The rich and powerful of the past treated women as tools of the patriarchy; the Gardner, to their credit, seeks an intervention into that tradition.
In the end, Stevens also helps make sense of his own contribution. A large panel hangs above the installation, conveniently placed to be viewed from one of the benches. It depicts a Florentine street in what at first appears to be the full spate of a Renaissance procession, with men on horseback in tights and doublets and women in overdresses and kirtles. A second glance reveals the crowd watching the procession to be modern, smart phone-wielding tourists. Like Renaissance patrons and artists imagining classical antiquity, we turn to the Renaissance in an endless regression of framing and looking.
Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes continues at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, Boston, Massachusetts) through May 19.