The Botticelli Revival and the Art of Edward Burne-Jones

Part One: The Botticelli Revival

Countless works of art that at one time excited public interest and attracted academic hyperbole currently languish and gather dust in gallery storerooms. Numerous critical studies and biographies of now-forgotten artists remain untouched in library basements. Conversely, many artists suffer centuries of neglect before their recognition as ‘geniuses’ by scholars, curators and, subsequently, the general public. They then become elevated to a status undreamed of during their lifetimes; Van Gogh being one of the more recent examples. Few reputations have lain as dormant as that of Allesandro di Mariano Filipepi (1441/5-1510), known as Botticelli, who vanished from the art historical record for over three hundred years. The gradual unfolding of the recognition of his achievement provides a fascinating art historical investigation into the artistic, social and literary climate of Victorian England, where by the end of the century he was considered to be the most important Early Renaissance painter.

Painting and sculpture are notoriously prone to the capricious whims of fashion and the creation, by art historians and critics, of movements and schools that subsume the talents of the individual. It is often the highly unusual and idiosyncratic artists who remain the most difficult to appreciate. At a later date their works harmonise perhaps with certain academic and artistic trends and are seen as a precedent for contemporary styles or ideas. This was certainly true in the case of Botticelli, when he became the main artistic touchstone of the Aesthetic Movement in Britain. His reassessment coincided with the rise of the Aesthetes and was informed by the taste of the earlier Pre- Raphaelite school. Although not confined entirely to this country, the Botticelli Revival was distinctly English and Victorian. His champions were such pillars of the critical and literary establishment as John Ruskin, Walter Pater and Algernon Swinburne. The Pre-Raphaelites and before them the Nazarenes in Germany had already directed artists to the beauty of Early Renaissance ‘primitive’ paintings and frescoes and encouraged connoisseurs and collectors to acquire examples. Two artists prominent in their appreciation of Botticelli were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. The latter especially developed a style clearly influenced by the Florentine master in its decorative linearity, portrayal of feminine beauty and imaginative breadth.

The most scholarly and detailed account of Botticelli’s rediscovery in the nineteenth century is an article by Michael Levey. 1 It is an excellent study of contemporary critical response and patterns of collecting and is essential to an understanding of the artist’s rehabilitation. The increasing respect for Botticelli was no doubt affected by the widespread interest, by the 1850s, in the Early Renaissance, the collecting of panel paintings and, most importantly, the circulation of reproductions and photographs. Aesthetic appreciation had moved from beneath the vast shadow of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ theories and encompassed a greater diversity of styles and periods. One factor to be considered is the growing influence of oriental art on contemporary artists, notably Whistler and Rossetti, who both greatly admired its complex patterns and designs. Improved transport facilities enabled the wealthy to visit Italy with comparative ease; for many of them Florence became a place of pilgrimage because of its wealth of artistic treasures. The popularity of the city amongst English travellers reached its peak in the middle of the nineteenth century and consequently purchases of Florentine art grew dramatically. The works of many obscure artists, Botticelli amongst them, joined the stream of artefacts that flowed from Florence into private collections in Britain. Many of the paintings were later bought by the National Gallery and, once they were exhibited, exerted an even greater influence.

Only one of Botticelli’s paintings, The Mystic Nativity (c1500, National Gallery, London) was signed and dated. The paucity of signed works therefore led to frequent confusion in attribution, often resulting in adverse criticism of ‘Botticelli’s’ that were, in fact, inferior copies or workshop productions. Identification and dating of pictures was further hindered by the fact that Botticelli had effectively vanished from history after his death. His reputation had already declined, owing to his unproductive final ten years - the extreme linearity of his work making it seem old-fashioned.

His finest paintings were in private palaces, notably the Villa at Castello formerly owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. This building contained both the Primavera (c1478, Uffizi, Florence) and the Birth of Venus (c1485, Uffizi, Florence), neither picture being on public display until the early nineteenth century. Botticelli’s most accessible works were the frescoes on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel, executed in 1481. These were often ignored, being overshadowed by the bravura of Michelangelo’s ceiling. Apart from the short biography in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists of 1550 and 1568 - which was not translated into English until 1857 – nearly all mention of Botticelli disappears, save a few brief accounts written by travellers to Rome.

One writer who appreciated and admired the Sistine Chapel wall frescoes, on a visit in 1830, was the Frenchman Alexis-François Rio. He was one of many French intellectuals who had acquired a deep knowledge of Italian art, not merely by extensive travel, but through Napoleon’s transfer of artistic treasures to Paris. Rio wrote his important study La Poesie Chretienne in 1836, an influential work that declared that the purity and grace of the Quattrocento was absent in later religious art. Although Botticelli is only briefly mentioned, Rio’s attention was attracted by the depiction of the daughters of Jethro in the brilliantly condensed narrative fresco The Life of Moses. This graceful, beautifully composed group later drew the admiration of Ruskin, who was influenced by Rio’s book. Interestingly, Burne-Jones owned a later translation of the work, a personal favourite that he read many times.

As an increasing number of critics, academics and connoisseurs began taking an interest in Botticelli, attention turned to paintings that were, by 1830, on public display. In Florence the Calumny of Apelles (1496-97, Uffizi, Florence) and the Birth of Venus were exhibited in the Uffizi and the Primavera in the Accademia. None of them were prominently displayed, however, being relegated to minor rooms. Paintings attributed to Botticelli were also on view in Berlin and Paris, but in Britain, the National Gallery owned nothing by the artist. A number of private collectors were, however, becoming interested in his art and wished to acquire examples for themselves. The first genuine purchase was the Mystic Nativity or Adoration of the Shpeherds as it was then called, bought from the Villa Aldobrandini in Rome in 1799. The buyer was the astute painter and art dealer William Young Ottley (1771-1836). One of the Florentine’s most enigmatic and joyous compositions, the painting was later auctioned in the 1830s, bought by William Fuller Maitland and entered the National Gallery collections in 1878. Another early purchase of a Botticelli was at the auction in 1804 of the collection owned by Colonel Matthew Smith, Governor of the Tower of London. The Portrait of a Young Man (1480-90) was thought to be by Masaccio and only attributed to Botticelli in 1881. This portrait was in Lord Northwick’s collection, until being acquired by the National Gallery in 1859. 2

The Victorian taste for Florentine art is exemplified in the invaluable description of British private collections entitled Treasures of Art in Great Britain produced by Dr G.F. Waagen and published in 1854. Whilst it contains many inaccuracies, this survey reliably lists seven Botticelli’s in private hands. Waagen was particularly impressed by the Mystic Nativity, then in the collection of William Fuller Maitland, although Waagen otherwise regarded Botticelli as a minor artist. 3 The 1850s certainly marked a turning-point in the rediscovery of the Florentine master. In 1854, Lady Eastlake wrote that, “Sandro Botticelli is worthy to stand in the Florentine genealogy between Giotto and Michelangelo”. 4 Her husband, Sir Charles Eastlake, shared her respect for the artist and was able to exercise considerable influence in his role as Director of the National Gallery, a position he held from 1855 to 1865. In 1857 a momentous event occurred in Manchester, where a huge exhibition was mounted displaying the nation’s art treasures. Over 1.5 million people attended this dazzling showcase of paintings, many of which had been lent from private collections. Amongst these were five by Botticelli, including the Mystic Nativity and Portrait of a Young Man; this must have been the first major public exposure of his work.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was probably the first British artist to appreciate the genius of Botticelli. Through his considerable influence he disseminated favourable opinions of the artist throughout Victorian society. Although, ironically, he never visited Italy, he first discovered paintings by the Florentine in the Louvre in 1849 in the company of Holman Hunt. He was greatly impressed. Later, in 1860 his more adventurous brother Michael visited Florence and enthused over the Botticeliis then on display, particularly the Birth of Venus. In 1867 Rossetti bought, for £20, the portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum and it became one of his most treasured possessions. This fine painting is now more generally accepted as a workshop production. No doubt Burne-Jones, who was a close companion and former pupil of Rossetti, had access to this portrait – his role in the Botticelli revival will be dealt with more comprehensively in the second section of this essay. According to Herbert Horne, Rossetti received a photograph of the Primavera in 1879 and a year later composed a sonnet based on that painting that appeared in his Ballads and Sonnets in 1881. 5

Despite conflicting claims from both Ruskin and Pater, the first important critical account of Botticelli was written by Joseph Archer Crowe (1825 -1896) and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle (1819 -1897). Their painstaking collaborative scholarship, in a new school of research, resulted in the major critical work A New History of Painting in Italy published in 1854. This study covered the history of Italian painting from the second to the sixteenth centuries and included many previously unknown artists. When dealing with Botticelli they concentrate on the Primavera, remarking upon, “the exaggeration of the slenderness and desinvolture…the realism and partiality to ornament” and praising, “a precision and finish of drawing in every part, whether principal or subordinate.” 6 These are the qualities that would have been admired by Victorian critics when displayed in a work by their contemporaries. Crowe and Cavalcaselle also single out another picture for praise, describing the aspects of his style that would appeal later to Burne-Jones. They wrote of, “his mastery of action in springing and dancing attitudes, his ability in rendering drapery in motion, and his comparative elegance and grace in female delineation.” 7

The artist John Everett Millais expressed admiration for the four panels depicting the story of Nastagio delle Onesti (c.1483, Prado Madrid and Private Collection) on a visit to the Pucci palace in November 1865. A.H. Layard the critic who accompanied Millais wrote from Florence, “The painter who has struck him most is Sandro Botticelli. He is delighted with the allegorical picture of Spring by that great Master in the Accademia.” 8 Millais encouraged Eastlake to buy them for the National Gallery, but the attempt foundered because of the unpleasant subject matter of this tale from Boccacio’s Decameron. The panels were later acquired by Frederick Leyland, a major patron of Burne-Jones and the owner of six works attributed to Botticelli. The Florentine was clearly popular amongst the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.

The first literary figure to recognise the achievement of Botticelli was the poet Algernon Swinburne, who recognised many qualities in the artist’s work with which he was totally attuned. Swinburne’s highly original critical language crystallised the manner in which the artist was interpreted by many aesthetes. In an article that first appeared in the Fortnightly Review in July 1868 he offered his opinions on drawings in the Uffizi, that included a number of Madonnas. These were probably the products of Botticell’s workshop, which often exaggerated the mannerisms in his art that Swinburne cherished. Despite the strangeness of many of the pictures he found a figure, “beautiful for all its quaintness, pallor and deformities.’ A “satyr-like head” he enthused, “suggests the suppressed leaning to grotesque invention and hunger liberty which break out whenever this artist is released from the millstone round of mythologic virginity and sacred childhood.” 10 This pagan aspect of Botticelli’s art was championed by Swinburne, fired by his own imaginative and perverse intelligence and confirming his yearning for “heathen liberty” and a hedonistic Dionysian life.

The stamp of respectability was finally put on the artist by the eminent critic and hyper - sensitive personality Walter Pater (1839-1894). In 1870 he published one of the most important commentaries on Botticelli, that brought him to prominence in the critical and public eye and led to his adoption by the Aesthetic Movement. Later reprinted in his major opus Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873, this seminal study showed Pater deeply attracted by an ineffable enigma. Pater’s highly subjective and idiosyncratic views seem most unusual today, but struck a responsive chord in the minds of many Victorians. The commentary is far more revealing about Pater’s crisis of faith in Christianity and morbid predilection for death and decay than it is about Botticelli. He states in his essay that although the Florentine is a “secondary painter” his name “is quietly becoming important”.11 One thinks of Burne-Jones when reading the lines, “He is before all things a poetical painter, blending the charm of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry with the charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting.” 12

Pater praises his naturalism, but also makes a claim for him as a visionary painter. The expressions of Botticelli’s Madonnas and mythological figures are described as, “The wistfulness of exiles, conscious of a passion and energy greater than any known issue of them explains, which runs through all his varied work with the sentiment of ineffable melancholy.” 13 He concentrates on two paintings: the Madonna of the Magnificat (1480-5, Uffizi, Florence) and the Birth of Venus. Pater sees the Madonna as reflecting his own religious doubts and Botticelli’s perplexed attitude towards Christianity. She is “one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies, and the choice is on her face”. 14 This highly original interpretation nevertheless highlighted one of Botticelli’s most delicate and touchingly beautiful paintings, rarely described in previous accounts. The Leonardo-like facial types and ambiguous atmosphere further endeared Botticelli to Pater, who admired that artist’s oracular mystery. When writing about the “Venus rising form the sea” he remarks upon the “quaintness of design” also waxing lyrical on the colour imbued with a quality “expressive to the spirit.” 15

For Pater, Botticelli expressed perfectly the power and resonance of Greek mythology, by which he himself was so fascinated. The qualities of statuesque coldness, subdued colour and bodily attenuations that had repelled the early Victorians, delighted Pater, who described them as the artist’s strengths. He praises the “sadness” of the Venus, the “chilled” and “cadaverous colour”. 16 Although Venus is the goddess of love and sensual delights, Pater living in the age of Baudelaire, perceives that she is never, “without some shadow of death in the grey flesh and wan flowers.” 17 This interpretation of Botticelli’s art and the artist’s use of pagan themes endeared him to the aesthetes,, who instigated a Botticelli cult that permeated Victorian artistic life. It drew satirical comments from many contemporary sources, notably Punch and was ridiculed in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience. Pater’s refined attitude was also satirised in the New Republic by WH Mallock. Pater had articulated the growing interest amongst writers and artists in a mysterious world of lost innocence, androgynes and beautiful youth. Some side-effects were the efflorescence of pseudo-Botticellian Madonnas and the formation of a group of upper class connoisseurs known as The Souls.

Pater’s rival John Ruskin (1819–1900) echoed his appreciation of the artist, but concentrated on his stylistic innovations. In a lecture delivered at Oxford in the winter of 1872 he referred to the Florentine as a “reforming leader”. Ruskin draws the attention of the students to Botticelli’s mastery of design and meticulous accuracy in depicting flowers, using the Primavera as his example. The bulk of his praise is reserved for Botticelli’s drawing and linear invention, as witnessed in his illustrations to Dante. Ruskin values, “The exuberance of imagination which other men at his time in Italy allowed to waste itself in idle arabesque…the arrangement of pure line in labyrinthine intricacy, through which the grace of order may give continual clue.” 18

February 1882 witnessed the auction of a large number of paintings belonging to the Duke of Hamilton. At a time when European interest in Botticelli was at its height the National Gallery and the Louvre bid in competition for two pictures in the Duke’s collection. According to Penelope Fitzgerald these were the Adoration of the Magi and Assumption, both of which eventually went to the National, although their attribution to Botticelli is erroneous. 19 Nevertheless the gallery later acquired the Adoration tondo (c1470-74), purchased in 1878, the Mystic Nativity and the Mars and Venus (c1485), which were to form the most impressive collection of Botticelli paintings outside Florence.

The final proselytising account of Botticelli’s artistic development to be considered was written by the eminent critic, John Addington Symonds; it formed a section of his vast History of the Renaissance in Italy that was published in 1886. When dealing with Botticelli he states that, “we have of late paid [him] tardy and perhaps exaggerated honours”. 20 Although admitting that Botticelli created work that was “exquisitely poetic” he complains that the “treatment of pagan themes in the spirit of medieval mysticism sometimes ended in grotesqueness.” 21 He concentrates on the Mars and Venus and the Birth of Venus, the latter the recipient of widespread critical acclaim that had elevated it to masterpiece status, four hundred years after its initial creation. In the Primavera he admires the “same choice of form, the same purity of line, the same rare interlacement in the limbs”. 22 Like Pater, he is fascinated above all by the treatment of mythology and pagan ideas. He articulated the romantic notion that the paintings were the echo of a lost paradise, “a beautiful lapsed mythology”. 23 The mythological works certainly had more appeal and evoked deeper resonances than the religious paintings. One reason for this could be the androgynous nature of Botticelli’s figures, an aspect of his art highly influential upon Burne-Jones. It was a subject often discussed amongst the aesthetes, many of whom, Pater and Symonds included, were homosexual. They had their female counterpart in the flamboyant Vernon Lee and her court of Botticellian women in Florence. 24 Symonds effectively sums up the pervasive appeal and influence of Botticelli for the late Victorians. He writes,

The prophecy of Mr Ruskin, the tendencies of our best contemporary art in Mr Burne-Jones painting, the specific note of our recent fashionable poetry, and more than all, our delight in the delicately poised psychological problems of the middle Renaissance, have evoked a kind of hero worship for this excellent artist and true poet. 25

Part Two: Burne-Jones and Botticelli

When reviewing an exhibition at the recently opened Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 the critic George Fraser commented,

It is only a limited number of admirers who can love or appreciate the production of the earlier Italian masters and the appreciation of this modern style, which follows the elder one so closely, will be confined, in large measure to those who can find the greatest delight in the delicate but soulless formalities of Pollaiuolo and Botticelli. 26

The “modern style” referred to was that visible in the paintings of Albert Moore, G.F. Watts and the host of late Victorians who admired and emulated early Renaissance artists. One man in particular had been profoundly affected by Italian Quattrocento art, especially that of Botticelli. Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) exhibited many of his most accomplished pictures, executed in a style that demonstrated the absorption of Florentine influences. The show brought him to the attention of critics and finally established his public reputation.

Devoted totally to his art, Burne-Jones had lived for many years outside the mainstream of the Victorian art world. He did, however, maintain close friendships with many of its major figures. An early infatuation with medievalism and the cult of chivalry was inspired by his reading and strengthened by friendships with William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Later, his art underwent subtle but dramatic changes, after four visits to Italy. From the dense detail of his medieval works he developed a style of elegant, decorative linearity, using colour to create gem-like textures. These works appeared rather incongruous when compared with the ubiquitous classical nudes and genre pictures covering the walls of the nation’s galleries. The other-worldly and dreamlike quality of his art was enhanced by the melancholy appearance of his figures, often sensuously languorous and contemplative. Perhaps he responded to a note of fatalism prevalent in the literature of the day.

He certainly articulated, more than any other Victorian painter, the nostalgia for an older England, the vital mystical and psychic power of Arthurian legend and John Addington Symonds’s lapsed mythology’. Correspondingly, he believed in an anti-materialistic philosophy and disagreed with British imperialism – unlike his nephew Rudyard Kipling. He also adhered to Morris’ belief that industrialism had blighted the country and that ancient values and religions, not least Christianity, were being dangerously eroded. A supremely literary painter he once moved Henry James to comment that he painted “with a pen”. 27 Inspired by Greek mythology, Dante and Chaucer, Burne-Jones produced increasingly large pictures devoted to these subjects, but clearly his most important source was Arthurian legend. Though Botticelli had placed his faith in the fervent, apocalyptic preaching of Savaronola, Burne-Jones immersed himself in Malory and Tennyson, believing that from the urbanised, industrialised degraded land a new more beautiful and spiritual world could emerge, represented symbolically by King Arthur awakening from centuries-old slumber in Avalon.

Skilled in many fields of artistic endeavour Burne-Jones produced work in stained glass, mosaic and book illustration. He also loved caricature, designing decorations for furniture and materials and painted a number of picture cycles intended for interior decoration. His working methods meant, however, that he constantly vacillated between one project and the next, often spending many years completing a single task. It also led to him establishing a workshop in order to alleviate the burden of his numerous commissions from private patrons and from William Morris. In this diversification of talents he resembled his ideal of the Florentine artist/craftsman. He often designed the clothes, armour, jewellery, furniture and musical instruments in his pictures. Botticelli was apprenticed to a goldsmith and his love of jewellery and craftsmanship is similarly evident in his art.

From Botticelli Burne-Jones was to derive many ideas regarding linear design, composition, mythological themes and a distinctive depiction of female beauty. In his pictures the women may be recognisable as Botticellian types, in their wistful, inward-gazing contemplation and slender statuesque grace. His mother and sister died when he was very young and the emotional effect on him must have been profound. Women fill his pictures in many guises, as beautiful visions, touching portraits and allegorical figures, or as beguiling sirens and enchantresses. What follows is a short examination of the development of his work. Botticelli’s influence can be seen as highly important when combined with Burne-Jones’ mystical vision and technical accomplishment.

J. Comyns Carr, one of his many close friends, recalls in his memoirs that Burne-Jones once remarked, “if I could travel backward I think my heart’s desire would take me to Florence in the time of Botticelli.” 28 This fascination with Florentine art began during frequent visits to the National Gallery in London in 1858 where he would often make studies from the growing collection of Early Renaissance paintings. Penelope Fitzgerald states that he would concentrate particularly on two works by Botticelli: the Virgin and Child and Three Maries from the Lombardo-Baldi Collection. 29 Inspired by his experience of Italian art he became increasingly impatient to see the major Renaissance masterpieces in situ. This desire was fulfilled in October 1859, when he visited Italy for the first time, accompanied by two friends Charles Faulkner and Val Prinsep. The journey had also been recommended by Ruskin, who felt that Rossetti’s influence upon Burne-Jones was becoming too strong, to the detriment of his draughtsmanship. The extensive itinerary - for a man who was always to be a poor traveller - included Genoa, Pisa, Venice and, inevitably, Florence. On his travel he made studies from Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Carpaccio and Orcagna, as well as Botticelli. Also, as he journeyed via Paris, he must have studied the Botticelli paintings in the Louvre. In highly enthusiastic letters Burne-Jones claimed that he, “worked tremendously at the pictures and shall go back quite an educated man.” 30

The sketchbook from this journey still survives in the Fitzwilliam Musuem in Cambridge and contains many studies from Botticelli, including copies of the flowers in the foreground of the Primavera. This painting is essential when assessing Botticelli’s influence, as echoes from it rebound throughout Burne-Jones’s subsequent work. Firstly, the meticulous depiction of plant life, vital in a painting concerned with the fecundity and fructifying power of Spring, reflected Burne-Jones’s own experience of Nature. Although ambivalent towards a life in the countryside (he missed his many friends in London when he stayed at Rottingdean in Sussex), he shared his hero Chaucer’s love of the natural world.

Flowers especially interested him, not surprising in a man who was fascinated by pattern, shapes and shot colour. Although the landscapes in his pictures are cursory, as they often were in Early Renaissance art, he took great pains in depicting plant life. One of the reasons for this was the symbolic significance with which a plant could be imbued. He lived in an age that generally recognised an iconography of flowers, to which he would introduce his own esoteric floral symbolism. Frequently the same plants are represented: briars, thorns, roses and sunflowers, forming a motif throughout his oeuvre. This culminated naturally in the thickly vegetated and overgrown scenes expressive of deep sleep and desuetude known as The Briar Rose Series (1870-1890, Farringdon Collection, Buscot Park, Berkshire). In the eighties he produced an exquisite Flower Book for his wife, consisting of thirty-eight carefully studied watercolours, now in the British Museum. The foreground of his designs for tapestries on Arthurian themes display closely observed plants and numerous varieties that enhance the patterning effect. Undoubtedly, Ruskin’s love of Nature and its necessary meticulous rendering, according to his idea of ‘minuteness’ must also have affected Burne-Jones, as it did the Pre-Raphaelites.

Burne-Jones rarely mentions the Primavera in his writings but he clearly derived great pleasure from it. One motif in particular, that of the Three Graces, recurs in his art. The Garden of the Hesperides (1870-1873, Private Collection) utilises a similar Botticellian prototype. He had a passion for dancing (and female dancers) and admired their depiction in paintings by Mantegna and Botticelli. He was also a frequent visitor to the music hall, then at the peak of its popularity. The rhythm, grace and poise of dancers are evident throughout his work and contributes to the harmony and elegance of his compositions. Apart from their obvious heritage in classical Greek and Roman sources, the appearance of the Three Graces in the Primavera must have stimulated Burne-Jones to include them in his own work. In the Three Graces (c1885, Carlisle Art Gallery) the dancers stand rather protectively. They exhibit a favourite pose, also seen in the Botticelli painting, with one foot on the ground, the other raised on its toes revealing the heel, an indication of potential movement. Even in the Arming of Perseus (1877, Southampton Art Gallery) originally intended to decorate Arthur Balfour’s house in a mythological cycle, the three sea nymphs adopt a similar pose in a landscape of undulating lines.

In The Mill (1870, Victoria and Albert Museum) one of his most enigmatic creations, the effortless grace of the Botticellian dancing maidens is hampered by their heavy dresses. They lack the delicate subtlety of those in the Primavera. Apparently Burne-Jones deliberately included references to the Primavera in The Mill for “the few people I care for”. 31 The bathers in the background were copied from those in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c1460, National Gallery, London). Perhaps he wished to recreate that painting’s sense of stasis and tranquillity. Certainly the picture can be classified as one his ‘poesia’, an idyllic scene without a definite subject, created in order to evoke contemplation and a sense of harmony and serenity. Another similar poetic work was the Chant d’Amour (1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Flora appears in a tapestry design of 1885, highly decorative, with flower patterns by William Morris, closely resembling her Botticellian counterpart. One version is in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, the other hangs in the Junior Common Room, Exeter College, Oxford, where Burne-Jones was a student from 1853 to 1858. His devotion to art curtailed his scholarly activities. When writing on Burne-Jones’s first Italian visit, which he erroneously ascribes to 1858, David Cecil states that,
“What he did learn from Botticelli was a congenial pictorial language…Further Burne-Jones’ strongest gift was for decorative design and this found sympathetic inspiration in Botticelli’s flowing intricate patterns and in the calligraphic line with which he executed them.” 32

His second journey to Italy took place from May to July 1862, when he was accompanied by his wife Georgiana and the formidable figure of John Ruskin. Although they visited the Louvre once more, Burne-Jones does not appear to have studied works by Botticelli on this occasion. He did, however, greatly enlarge his knowledge of Italian art under the direction of Ruskin for whom he executed a large number of sketches. The cities visited included Padua, Milan, Verona, Parma and Venice. He eventually felt compelled to return to England for, as he explained to Ruskin, “I should never paint another picture if I lived in Italy.” 33

He was drawn back to Italy on two more occasions: in 1871 and 1873. As his wife stated in her memoirs, Burne-Jones felt devoted to Italy and that, “he belonged to a race which he had always handed down a tradition that had never finally missed acknowledgement.” 34 In September 1871 he returned to the land with which he believed he had such an affinity, studying works of art in Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Assisi, Arezzo, Perugia, Rome and Florence. According to Penelope Fitzgerald the first sketches in his notebook were executed on September 21st in Turin. These were taken from a Botticelli Tobias and Raphael and Triumph of Chastity; paintings unfortunately not in fact from the hand of the Florentine master. 35 The visit to Rome on this crowded schedule was his first, but generally he remained unimpressed; the Sistine Chapel alone delighted him. Writing home, he declared that, “the Sleeping Adam, the Last Judgement, the Botticelli’s and the two Signorelli’s are as beautiful as anything in the world.” 36

This journey was perhaps the most significant in his general assimilation of Early Renaissance art, particularly that of Botticelli. The 1870s marked a stylistic watershed, culminating in his final grand, densely textured, elaborately patterned and decorative compositions. The influence of Michelangelo upon him was equally strong, but only surfaces in the form of some of his muscular males. The stature of Botticelli for Burne-Jones is revealed in this remark recorded by his assistant Thomas Rooke: “Even Michelangelo shirks sometimes, but Bottticelli never; he thinks well about it before he beigins and does what’s beautiful always.” 37

In December 1872 Burne-Jones attended Ruskin’s Slade Lecture at Oxford. Apparently, he wished to acquire copies of the Dante illustrations by Botticelli after having heard Ruskin’s panegyric. Not until 1884, however, did he finally attain them, when he subscribed to reproductions by the Berlin Photographic Company. The originals were auctioned in the sale of the Duke of Hamilton’s collection in 1882 and were purchased by the Berlin Museum.

In the course of his final Italian trip in the spring of 1873, curtailed by ill health, he travelled to Siena, Volterra, Bologna and Ravenna. He also visited the artist Spencer Stanhope in his villa at Bellesguardo, just outside Florence. This gave him a perfect opportunity for prolonged study of the Botticelli paintings in that city, to deepen his knowledge and receive fresh inspiration. On his return he attempted to inject new ideas, culled from his Florentine experience, into his massive, complex undertaking The Story of Troy. This polyptych was to prove too ambitious and remained unfinished. An oil study in Birmingham reveals Burne-Jones’ intentions – to create a structure based on Mantegna’s San Zeno Altarpiece of 1456-1459 in Verona. The Three Graces in Carlisle was a study for a Venus Concordia, intended as a predella panel and as a companion composition to Venus Discordia (1873, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) another highly Italianate work.

A significant event in the London art world occurred in June 1874, when the collection of Alexander Barker went on sale. A self-educated man from humble origins, Barker was one of the most individual and eclectic Victorian connoisseurs. His art collection, assiduously assembled, included works by Bellini,Crivelli and Gentile da Fabriano,as well as the Nativity (1470) by Piero della Francesca. Piero was another artist receiving belated attention at that time. Accompanied by the new director of the National Gallery, Burne-Jones attended the auction at Christie’s, where he saw the Nativity and the Botticelli Mars and Venus c1485 go to the National Gallery, the latter for £1050. 38 Interestingly, he had visited the collection at Christie’s frequently prior to the sale. He made many sketches, no doubt concentrating on the intricate, swelling linear pattern of the draperies of Venus with its multiplicity of folds. As the National Gallery increased its holding of works by early Italian masters and as more exhibitions relating to them were organised, Burne-Jones felt less inclined to travel abroad to see these pictures.

Occasionally, he experienced periods of nostalgia, for Florence, as can be seen in this extract from a letter written to the Graham family (major patrons) staying there in 1876. Burne-Jones declared,
“I want to see Botticelli’s Calumny in the Uffizi dreadfully and the Spring in the Bellle Arte – and the Dancing Choir that goes hand in hand up to heaven over the heads of four old men in that same dear place - …and if the angels are photographed will you buy them for me? At the back of the Virgin the rays of gold rain on a most dear face that looks up and I want to see it. Will you take a spy-glass and look at every heavenly face in that glory of pictures? And…in the same gallery is…a round Botticelli where the Virgin holds down a dear face to kiss another fat face – and no one is like him and never will be again.” 39

The painting with the ‘Dancing Choir’ was the Coronation of the Virgin (1488-1490 now in the Uffizi). This altarpiece was originally commissioned by the goldsmiths to decorate their chapel of St Eligius in San Marco. Ettlinger states that the encircling angels are an innovation in Botticelli’s art, probably derived from the Fra Angelico Coronation (C.1440) also in San Marco. 40 The angel looking up between the Virgin and God the Father is seen through a fan of heavenly rays, the entire painting being a brilliant exposition of Botticelli’s power of expression and portrayal of religious fervour. The identity of the second painting described by Burne-Jones is unclear. There are two Botticellli tondi in the Uffizi: the Madonna of the Magnificat (1480-1485) and the Madonna of the Pomegranate (c.1480). The portrayal of angels in these paintings can be seen as particularly influential upon Burne-Jones. Despite the ardour of his passage praising the Florentine artist, Burne-Jones did not visit Italy again, but he often requested that friends purchase photographs and reproductions whenever they visited that country.

Thematic and stylistic comparisons may be made between Botticelli and Burne-Jones through their use of mythological figures and personifications, depiction of women and of angels and most of all in their distinctive use of line. The goddess Venus is a theme, almost an obsession, in Burne-Jones’s art, particularly after his final visit to Italy. Many of his most evocative works are devoted to the goddess of love: Laus Veneris (1873-5, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) being an excellent example. In this painting, based on a Swinburne poem, the brilliant colour and oppressive languorous atmosphere combine harmoniously with the intricate Italianate decoration and remarkably shallow picture space. It is the finest example of Burne-Jones’s treatment of a painting as a patterned, textured surface. The most enduring image of Venus in the history of art is that of her birth from the sea, by Botticelli. The effect of the picture on Burne-Jones can be assessed by, for example, comparing the pose of Venus with that of the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation (1876-1879, Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight). Clothed and shorn of her cascading locks, she closely resembles the Botticellian prtototype, whose pose, of course, derives from the classical Venus Pudica. The Virgin’s face was typical of Burne-Jones: oval, with large limpid eyes, a small mouth and pale complexion. The expression of infinite longing was similar to that observed by Pater in Botticelli’s Madonnas. In the later cool, classical series of four paintings on the subject of Pygmalion (1878, Birmingham City Art Gallery) Venus appears in a work entitled The Godhead Fires. Clad in diaphanous draperies and standing in a pool of seawater amidst a scattering of red and white roses, she invests the inanimate female statue with life. The Three Graces also appear in the first picture of the series The Heart Desires, a work of curious androgyny.

Burne-Jones originally followed Botticelli and the Early Renaissance masters in their method of narrative and chronological development through the use of simultaneous representation. He later adopted an alternative method, by producing a series of paintings, in which each indiviual canvas reveals a separate part of the narrative. The best example of this is the stunning visual cycle known as The Days of Creation (1872-1878, Fogg Art Gallery, Cambridge, Mass.). Here the element of time is spread over six paintings, each day’s events occurring within a globe borne by an angel, whose number increase in each successive canvas. This creates a cumulative effect, that is enhanced by the rhythm of line in each picture, where the entire area is filled with the variegated colour and texture of wings, draperies, flowers and faces, giving a rich, tapestry-like effect. His angels are especially effective in this cycle and would appear to have been modelled on those in the Madonna of the Magnificat, where they are similarly serene and androgynous.

In a famous quotation Burne-Jones claimed that, “the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint”. 41 He clearly relished painting their wings and feathers. This emphasis on surface texture is similarly evident in his treatment of armour, with its elaborate designs that often resemble the plumage of his angels. In the large late work King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884, Tate Gallery, London) based on an Elizabethan ballad and Tennyson poem, the King’s armour is a fantastic, close-fitting creation of burnished metallic scales and feathers. An exemplary example of Burne-Jones’s skill as a designer is the Dies Domini, a drawing of 1880, in which a beardless Christ supported on a rippling sea of angel’s wings, gives His blessing. The composition is extremely flat and the eye is drawn to follow the complex flow of undulating line around the elaborate folds of cloth and drapery and the intricate patterns of plumage. This picture is also notable for its shape: a tondo. Burne-Jones often produced circular compositions for book illustrations and furniture designs and these demonstrate a mastery of spatial organisation and maximum utilisation of the possibilities offered by the form. Botticelli also painted tondi, but these often lacked cohesion and a strong design. The Adoration of the Magi (c1474, National Gallery, London) exhibits these faults.

The extreme linearity evident in the style of both artists can often be seen as a concern for the abstract quality of line considered as an element of a design. Herbert Horne described the rhythmic, expressive power of Botticelli’s line thus,
“With such a line, figure and background are woven into web after web of lovely and intricate imagery, the most harmonious in movement the most vivacious in expression and become transmuted by that peculiar sentiment which seems to proceed now from a sensuous conception of divine things, now from a visionary apprehension of physical loneliness, Botticelli succeeds in imparting a sense of uncommon beauty to forms which in themselves are not always beautiful.” 42 Burne-Jones enjoyed a similar mastery of line, both distinctive and graceful, of Gothic and Botticellian complexity. Certainly in his later works such as Sponsa de Libano (1891, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) based on the ‘Song of Solomon’, the sinuous curves of the lines weave a beautiful texture, that appears to unite background and foreground. The zephyrs and the figure of the Bride refer again to the Birth of Venus in the composition that demonstrates the linear flowerings that would culminate in Art Nouveau.

By 1886 it was not seen as unusual to find in the home of an art collector, “old chests, rare tapestries, two Carpaccios, three Botticellis; studies by Rossetti and Burne-Jones.” 43 The Florentine master had exerted a considerable influence on the art and taste of the late Victorian period through the proselytising zeal of critics like Walter Pater and artists such as Burne-Jones, who felt enriched by contact with his work. Both artists shared a sense of artistic detachment, not being interested overtly in naturalism or verisimilitude. Burne-Jones in particular believed in the power of art to transform reality, liberating the imagination in order to transcend the quotidian experience of industrialised England. He was the ideal artist to adapt Botticelli’s skill in disegno, refinement and interpretation of mythological subjects, although it could be argued that he drained the prototype of vitality. Taking the Florentines slender, yet statuesque forms he clothed his women in draperies that were a synthesis of Botticelli, Greek chitons and those of his contemporary Albert Moore. In The Beguiling of Merlin (1870-1874, Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight, Cheshire) the unnaturally elongated figure of Vivien the enchantress is clothed in tight-fitting, elaborately creased drapery, designed to be arresting as texture and pattern. His absorption of Botticellian influence reached its apotheosis in his ambitious late works. In the Golden Stairs (1880, Tate Gallery) a stately procession of elegant women gracefully descend a precarious staircase, creating a rhythmic pattern of curves down and across the picture, embroidered by the myriad delineations of their draperies. Here Burne-Jones combines his obsession with women in arcadian, mysterious surroundings with a Botticellian use of line and pale colouring, the beautiful wan figures being indebted to the Renaissance master.

In their attempt to rejuvenate handicrafts and skills in the face of increasing mechanisation, Morris and Burne-Jones involved themselves in designing and manufacturing furniture, textiles, wallpapers and stained glass. They created works of art in tune with their surroundings, to be appreciated as pictures or as decoration for an interior design. Many of Botticelli’s panel paintings, such as the Venus and Mars were intended for wedding chests and cassone to fulfil a didactic and decorative function. Together with T.M. Rooke, Spencer Stanhope and Fairfax Murray, Burne-Jones wished to recreate the atmosphere of a Renaissance workshop, where a variety of activities would take place and in which his large paintings could be finished by assistants.

The sensuous, hermetic quality of Burne-Jones’s art, with its unusual shot colouring, chromatic harmonies and poetic lack of subject endeared him to the European Symbolists. He was admired by his contemporaries, both artistic and literary and received a baronetcy in 1894. After his death in 1898 his reputation went into rapid decline, following a spate of biographies in the first decade of the twentieth century. In the Edwardian reaction against Victorianism and the progressive dislike for the period in the thirties, forties and fifties, the art of the time was derided for its sentimentality, literary influences and academicism. Few artists, including Burne-Jones, survived the critical onslaught. He was especially criticised by Clive Bell and the Bloomsbury Group, whose enormous influence tarnished his name for many years. It has only been in the last twenty years that his standing has improved dramatically, to the point where, together with the Pre-Raphaelites, he is seen one of the most significant English artists of the nineteenth century, influencing both Symbolism, and later, Art Nouveau. In the sudden re-evaluation of his reputation he resembles the Florentine artist he so greatly admired. His realisation of the vagaries of fashion and the ephemeral nature of fame is summed up in his own words, “Everything must go through its period of neglect; if it survives that and comes to the surface again it is pretty safe.” 44


This essay was written in January 1986 following a wonderful and fascinating university sojourn in Italy from September to December 1985 when I had the chance to visit Rome, Florence, Arrezo, Ravenna, Rimini, Mantua, Verona, Venice and Milan. In October 2004, shortly after having transcribed this early effort into a Word file, I travelled once more to Italy, visiting Florence and Siena and returning to Arezzo in order to introduce my wife to the incredible cycle of frescoes by Piero Della Francesca in the church of San Francesco. Having been given a lift in the early morning from Chianciano Terme and arriving around nine we discovered that we were the first visitors and could stand next to the restored frescoes in closer proximity than I was permitted in 1985 when restoration work was just beginning – after thirty minutes the first coach party arrived. We then caught the train to Perugia. During a visit to the Oratorio di San Bernadino it was clear to me that the intricately carved panels around the building’s portal must have been seen by Burne-Jones during his visit in 1871, so typical were they of his female forms with sinuous flowing draperies. Incidentally, in the church of San Pietro in the suburbs of Perugia, the sacristy contained a small picture of St Francesco and the Angel attributed to Caravaggio that seemed to be genuine and of which I had not previously been aware.


1. Michael Levey “Botticelli and Nineteenth Century England” in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes XXIII 1960 pp.291-306.

2. Denys Sutton “Aspects of British Collecting Part IV” in Apollo August 1985. An extremely useful guide to taste in this period. For Botticelli see pp.84-85.

3. Dr G.F Waagen Treasures of Art in Great Britain (John Murray, London, 1854). In volume III Waagen describes the Mystic Nativity as, “a very spirited and, considering the vehement character of the master, a most remarkable picture.” P3.

4. Quoted in John Steegman Victorian Taste: a Study of the Arts and Architecture from 1830-1870 (Thomas nelson and Sons, 1970) p.239.

5. P. Herbert Horne Botticelli, Painter of Florence. Originally published in 1908, with an introduction by George Bell. Reprint with an introduction by John Pope-Hennessy (Yale University Press, 1980) pp.xvii-xviii.

6. J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle A New History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century vol. II (John Murray, London, 1864) p.418.

7. ibid. p.420.

8. Quoted in R.W.Lightbown Sandro Botticelli (Paul Leek, 1978) p49.

9 Algernon Swinburne “Notes on the Designs of the Old Masters in Florence” in Essays and Studies (London, 1897) p327.

10 ibid. p326.

11 Walter Pater Selected Works Edited by Richard Aldington (Heinemann, London, 1948) p241. The Botticelli essay originally appeared in the Fortnightly Review August 1870.

12 ibid. p242

13 ibid. p243

14 ibid. p244

15 ibid. p245

16 ibid. p245

17 ibid. p246

18 John Ruskin “Ariadne Flornetina” in The Works of John Ruskin (John B Alden, New York, 1885) p130.

19 Penelope Fitzgerald Edward Burne-Jones, a Biography (Michael Joseph, London, 1975) p186. This book, although perhaps the most readable biography of the artist, is marred by a number of art historical errors; the most serious being the unfortunate misattribution of all paintings by Botticelli mentioned in the text. (See also notes 29 and 35) In this example the Adoration of the Magi was purchased too late to enable it to be identified with either of two paintings on that subject by Botticelii in the National Gallery. The Assumption, now attributed to Botticini, was seen by Waagen (vol. III p296) and has recently been described as, “An irrelevance prominently introduced into the lives of the painter”. (Michael Levey “Botticelli and Nineteenth Century England” p297).

20 John Addington Symonds History of the Renaissance in Italy vol. III The Fine Arts (Smith, Elder and Co. 1904) p181.

21 ibid. p183.

22 ibid. p184.

23 ibid. p182 Note 1.

24 See Philippe Jullian Dreamers of Decadence (Pall Mall, 1971) pp140-141. Vernon Lee, an eminent critic, wrote an article “Botticelli at the Villa Lemmi” in The Cornhill Magazine July-December 1882, complaining about the removal of the Botticelli frescoes from that building.

25 Symonds idem. p181 Note 1.

26 Quoted in Barrie Bullen “The Palace of Art, Sir Coutts Lindsay and the Grosvenor Gallery’ in Apollo November 1975 p355.

27 Henry James The Painter’s Eye edited by John L Sweeney (Rupert Hart Davis, 1956) p90.

28 J Comyns Carr Some Eminent Victorians (Duckworth, 1908) p72.

29 Fitzgerald idem. p58 (see note 19). Neither of these paintings can be attributed to Botticelli. The first is possibly by his workshop, the second is untraceable.

30 Georgiana Burne-Jones Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (Macmillan and Co. 1904) 2 volumes, vol. 1 p197.

31 Fitzgerald idem. p143.

32 David Cecil Visionary and Dreamer: Two Poetic Painters, Samuel Palmer and Edward Burne-Jones (Academy Editions, London, 1969, reprinted 1977) p74

33 Memorials vol. 1 p246

34 ibid. p200

35 Fitzgerald idem. p136. The Triumph of Chastity is another misattribution, the artist is unknown. The Tobias and Raphael, once in Or San Michele, Florence, is now given to the Pollaiuoli.

36 Ibid. p137

37 Mary Lago Burne-Jones Talking: his conversations 1895-8 preserved by his studio assistant Thomas Rooke (John Murray, London, 1981) p51

38 Fitzgerald idem. p155

39 Memorials, vol.2 pp64-65

40 L D and Helen S Ettlinger Botticelli (Thames and Hudson, London, 1976) p74. Fra Angelico’s Coronation is now in the Uffizi.

41 Quoted in Frances Spalding Magnificent Dreams, Burne-Jones and the Late Victorians (Phaidon, London, 1978) p34.

42 Herbert P Horne Botticell, Painter of Florence Originally published in 1908 by George Bell, reprint with introduction by John Pope-Hennessy, Yale University Press, 1980) p253

43 Quoted in Philippe Jullian Dreamers of Decadence (Pall Mall, 1971) p236

44 Quoted in Fitzgerald idem. p279.