Italian Masterpieces II: The Calumny of Apelles

nickcharles · May 9, 2006 2:48 am


Sandro Botticelli is a name familiar to nearly anyone involved in any sort of art. His "Birth of Venus" and "Primavera" paintings are so widely famous that they have become symbols of the art and of the Renaissance in much the same way that Michaelangelo's David has. However, it is another lesser-known painting by Botticelli that remains to this day one of his most enigmatic.

"The Calumny of Apelles", done in the 1490s and currently in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, shows a scene quite unlike any others by Botticelli. Botticelli painted this as a recreation of an ancient, lost painting done by Apelles on the theme of calumny (or slander). Alberti described Apelles painting in his treatise "De Pictura", and it is off of this description that Botticelli worked.

The theme of this painting is calumny, and so the figures, instead of representing real people, are metaphorical for the purposes of the allegory. On the right of the painting sits King Midas with ass ears, into which are whispering the figures of Ignorance and Suspicion. In front of Midas, stands the hooded, dark figure of Hatred, followed by Calumny dragging her nearly naked victim by the hair. Calumny is attended to by the figures of Deceit and Fraud who are adjusting her jewelry. Behind this group is the figure of Penitence, who looks away and towards the naked figure of Truth, who is pointing upwards towards heaven.

The main allegory of this painting is clear enough, but that is about all that is unambiguous about this painting. We do not know why this painting was done, who might have commissioned it, who is being warned against listening to slander, or who is being defended from slander. We know that Apelles created the original painting as a defense of himself against accusations from a rival artist, so perhaps Botticelli did the same, and the motivation for this painting was a private affair of the painter. Botticelli gave this painting to his friend, Antonio Segni, so perhaps Segni is the one being defended against slander.

A look at contemporary events in the 1490s gives us more possible explanations. During this time period, the fiery preacher Savonarola entered Florence and condemned all forms of art as evil, and prophesied the downfall of the city because of the sins of its inhabitants. We know that Botticelli became a follower of Savonarola, as many in the city did until the public turned on him, and in an unfair trial sentenced him to be killed. So perhaps this painting was done in defense of Savonarola. On the other hand, maybe it was done earlier and is Botticellis defense of the arts against the slander of Savonarola.

This remains one of the many mysteries of Botticellis paintings, though the key to this one might actually be within the painting itself. The architecture in the background is filled with reliefs and sculptures depicting many stories, and many famous historical and mythological figures from widely varied sources. Perhaps these elements all form some sort of a program, that when read correctly reveals the true subject of the painting. However, given the enormous complexity of this task and the difficulty of identifying some of the reliefs and sculptures, this has yet to be satisfactorily done. Regardless of whether scholars ever figure this out, Botticellis Calumny of Apelles is, and will remain, one of his most beautiful and mysterious paintings.

The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The entire collection is copyrighted by The Yorck Project and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Graphic3970.jpgA special thanks to Staff Columnist, Jenna Hoffstein [bluevenus], as she reports from her studies in Italy! We invite you to view: bluevenus' Art Gallery bluevenus' Renderosity Store
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Article Comments

Arbelain ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 09 May 2006

Fantastic to read this articles in The First Page! My many congratus bluevenus! More-More!

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 10 May 2006

Fantastic start to your famous artists from the past series. Botticelli has always been a great inspiration to me. His paintings are filled with amazing details and, as you stated mystery. Question ... have you seen the original painting in person? If so, what was your first impression? As a side note: Wikipedia is a useful site to explore additional works by Botticelli Botticelli. One more question, with the upcoming movie, the Da Vinci Code, will you be exploring the works of Leonardo da Vinci? Thank you so much for bringing us, the digital artist, a reminder of the history and roots of our present day art. Dee-Marie

T.Rex ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 12 May 2006

Thanks for an insightful analysis of a serious work of art that has remained enigmatic throughout its existence. I have a degree in French Culture from the Sorbonne University, Paris, and recall very well the courses in French art and allegorical interpretation. It made me very glad to see someone contribute this type of analysis of serious art to Renderosity. There ARE great artists on the site, but all have a lot to learn from the great masters. Am looking foreward to more analyses and educational experiences of this sort. It helps the whole community. Sincerely, T.Rex

bluevenus ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 13 May 2006

Thank you so much for the kind comments, I am looking forward to writing more articles in this series! To answer your questions deemarie, I did visit the Uffizi in Florence which is the museum in which this painting is shown, but I'm not sure if I saw the Calumny of Apelles (I hadn't studied it yet so I wouldn't have recognized it!) The museum does have a huge Botticelli room which holds many of his most famous pieces including both the Birth of Venus and the Primavera, which anyone close to Florence now or in the future should absolutely go see! I would definitely like to write a piece on one of da Vinci's works but I haven't definitively chosen what to do for my next articles yet so I promise nothing :)

lh_cerdeira ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 14 May 2006

It's very nice to see something about "traditional" art here at R'osity too! I mean, we all should take a better look at the classics cause our concept of art now is based on them! Anyway, I hope that this is the first of a series of articles about classic art. (perhaps, you could write one about Michelangelo's "tondo of the holy family"?)

razzell2 ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 20 July 2006

my god what a beautiful and fascinating painting. your thesis is most informative but i sometimes wonder if we try so hard to "translate" these paintings that we loose sight of the fact that they are coming out of the imagination of true artists? i suppose there can be particular meaning by the artist, but then again, why cant this just be a painting done in the spur of the moment of the imagination of a genius? just a breathtaking painting regardless of the symbolism. im sure youve all heard the phrase, "paralysis by analysis"? just look at the painting and soak up the style and the flair and the movements of the bodies...and enjoy the great art that we are priveledged to still have here with us.

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