The sword in the sky - Botticelli: From Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola

The two men in Sandro Botticelli's life could not have been more different. One was a collector of rare gems, a lover and a poet. The other was a prophet best remembered for consigning vanities to the fire.

Botticelli - the nickname of Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (c1445-1510) - lived in the shadow of these two charismatic figures, whose names form the subtitle of the exhibition dedicated to the sublime painter at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris: Botticelli: From Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola. One of Botticelli's stellar influences was a wise diplomat who kept the peace between Italy's city states and whose reign was remembered as a civilised golden age. But perhaps it is the man who claimed to speak directly with God, and whose violent zealous language won him adoring, unquestioning followers, who is more relevant today.

On his deathbed in 1492, Lorenzo de' Medici asked to see the other man, the preacher from Ferrara who had gripped the imagination of Florence with lurid and explicit predictions of crisis in church and state. So these two ugly men met. Lorenzo's sallow features confronted the friar's peasant profile.

Portraits of Savonarola glory in this profile with its huge fleshy nose and bulging eye. It must have been how Savonarola wanted to be portrayed, so his followers would remember that he looked like a carter or a cowherd rather than a prissy, perfumed, corrupt priest. Savonarola flaunts his rough features in the same way that he called himself Christ's "useless" servant. He did not have any special powers, he insisted: only God can see the future. And it was God who described it to Savonarola.

He was only a voice, but what a voice. As prior of the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, he delivered compelling apocalyptic messages in hugely popular sermons both at San Marco and Santa Reparata (the Duomo). But it wasn't all bonfires of the vanities. Savonarola was a political creature. He wanted to change the world and, in 1494, he was presented with a unique opportunity. The French invaded Italy and, as the crisis exposed the incompetence of Lorenzo's son, Piero de' Medici, the city exiled its first family and became a republic.

Savonarola predicted it all, or so people chose to believe. He had been saying in his sermons that the "sword of God" was coming from beyond the mountains. Charles VIII of France was the sword of God; he came across the alps; none of Italy's city states offered any resistance. It was uncanny, and Savonarola set out to exploit his success. He was already famous; now he became powerful. His voice was attended by growing crowds, and his followers became a faction, nicknamed "the Weepers" because they flaunted intense emotion. The Weepers included women as well as men - the majority of the listeners depicted in a 1496 woodcut of him preaching in the Duomo are women. He spoke of a sword in the sky but, despite the torrid language, his political demands were creative: he preached popular government. The constitution adopted by the Florentine republic under his influence made it the most representative state in Renaissance Europe.

One of his followers was Botticelli. It has always seemed to lovers of Botticelli's art a violent, traumatic turn in the painter's life. There could scarcely be a bigger gulf between the sexy, erudite masterpieces Botticelli painted as a Medici favourite - most gorgeous of all, La Primavera, that weightless frieze, with its springtime of lovers and gods in a verdant floating world - and the self-loathing puritanism of the Weepers.

It makes more sense when you realise that Savonarola wasn't just a misery who burned works of art, but a radical who praised the "revolution in the state of Florence". Vasari, in his 16th-century Life of Botticelli, makes the artist's last years sound sad and pathetic, driven to poverty by his reverence for Savonarola, "of whose sect he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting".

But there were few ways that people outside the elite - painters were craftsmen, not yet "artists" - could participate in politics. And besides, Savonarola gave his believers a way of making sense of some of the most shocking, brutal changes anyone remembered. Governments were falling, empires crumbling, Italy was one vast battlefield. Savonarola not only explained all this, but made it possible to see some glimmer of hope - it was all a divine plan in which Florence would play a special part in reforming the Christian world.

Botticelli's paintings do not quote Savonarola's prophesies in a bald, mechanical way, and there is the odd sniffy doubt about his association with the friar. It is rather that Savonarola's fantastical merging of real and revelatory history gave Botticelli, and hundreds like him, a language in which to talk about injustice and cruelty and redemption.

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