Contemplating my favorite Italian bankers

I am currently watching Masters of Florence, a soapy-type series about the founding of the Medici banking family led by Cosimo “Il Vecchio” de’Medici. The second season, Medici: The Magnificent centers on the rise of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo’s grandson, the de facto leader of the Florentine Republic and the great patron of the arts who fostered the early careers of Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo. His leadership of Florence from 1469-1492 is referred to as the “Golden Age.”*

Probable self-portrait of Botticelli, in his Adoration of the Magi (1475)

In the series, Botticelli features as a prominent character described as being discovered for his artistic talent and then raised in the Medici household like a brother to Lorenzo and Giuliano. As I think about the validity of the closeness of this relationship, however exaggerated for the sake of the series, it is certain that the Medicis feature in some fashion throughout Botticelli’s works.

Various members of the Medici family appear in Botticelli’s paintings, notably Venus and Mars (1485) currently at the National Gallery, London and the Madonna of the Magnificat (1481), a tondo at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Venus and Mars, c. 1485. Tempera on panel, 69 cm × 173 cm (27.17 in × 68.11 in). National Gallery, London. [Photograph by author]
Madonna of the Magnificat, c. 1483. Tempera on panel, 118 cm × 119 cm (46 in × 47 in). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The Subject of “Mars and Venus”



Mars, shown asleep as Venus, goddess of love, looks on while three baby satyrs play with Mars’ discarded armor. One satyr is blowing a conch in Mars’ ear in an attempt to wake him from his blissful slumber. This type of painting was known as an allegory, in which Venus and Mars serve as physical embodiments of beauty and valor. It can also be interpreted as Love’s conquest over War.

Giuliano as Model

Portrait of Giuliano de’Medici, c. 1478. Tempera on panel, 54 cm × 36 cm (21 in × 14 in). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. [Photograph by author]

Botticelli used Giuliano de’Medici, second son of Piero (the Gouty) de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni and brother to Lorenzo the Magnificent as the model for Mars, the god of war. Giuliano was often described as sporty and handsome; a fitting model for what some considered to be Botticelli’s “most perfect male nude.”**

A poem by Poliziano, a scholar, poet, and member of the Medici circle also supported the idea of Giuliano as the possible model for Mars. In La Stanze, he describes Giuliano’s prowess in a joust (hence the presence of armor in the painting), organized by Lorenzo to celebrate a treaty with Venice and Milan in 1475.**

Andrea del Verrocchio, Giuliano de’ Medici, c. 1475/1478. Terracotta bust. National Gallery of Art. Washington D.C. [Photograph by author]

A bust of his likeness (with similar hair) by Andrea del Verrocchio can be viewed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Giuliano was assassinated as part of the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478.

The Family Portrait 

Madonna of the Magnificat, c. 1483. Tempera on panel, 118 cm × 119 cm (46 in × 47 in). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat is a tondo or circular form painting that portrays Mary as a writer of the Magnificat (Latin for “My soul magnifies the Lord”), a song from the Gospel of Luke spoken by Mary to Elizabeth, her cousin, during the Visitation. Crowned by two angels as she is bathed with heavenly light, she sits with the Christ child on her lap. One angel supports the book in which Mary, quill in hand, writes the words of the Magnificat, while another angel provides the inkpot.

Historically, this was not the way Mary was typically shown; she usually is depicted in the act of reading, weaving, or knitting.

The Cestello Annunciation, c. 1489. Tempera on panel, 150 cm × 156 cm (59 in × 61 in). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius1486. Egg and oil on canvas, 207 cm × 146.7 cm (81 in × 57.8 in). National Gallery, London.
Vita Christi, Mary weaves, Jesus reading at her feet. Glasgow, Sp. Coll. MS Hunter 36, f. 81 v. col. b.

The Model for Mary

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Lucrezia Tornabuoni, c. 1475. Tempera and oil on poplar panel, 53.3 x 39.9 cm (21 x 15 11/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The model for Mary is considered by many scholars to be Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the wife of Piero (the Gouty) de’Medici and mother to Lorenzo the Magnificent and Giuliano. The boys also appear in the painting with their mother as the two angels holding the book and the inkpot.

It is interesting to note that Botticelli chose to portray Mary as a writer given that the model, Lucrezia, was also known in her time for her writings. She wrote poetry, religious stories, and plays and used them as teaching tools for her grandchildren. Some of her poetry was performed publicly, set to popular music at the time. Four years after her death, her poetry was published. ***

Further Reading:

David Bellingham, “Aphrodite deconstructed: Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” in the National Gallery, London,” in Brill’s Companion to Aphrodite, Eds Amy C. Smith, Sadie Pickup, 2010.

Christopher Hibbert, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, Morrow-Quill, 1980.

Lauro Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medici. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Nicolai Rubinstein, The government of Florence under the Medici (1434-1494). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sacred Narratives by Lucrezia Tornabuoni. Edited and translated by Jane Tylus. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Susan Schibanoff, “Botticelli’s Madonna Del Magnificat: Constructing the Woman Writer in Early Humanist Italy.” PMLA109, no. 2 (1994): 190-206.

Frank Zollner, Sandro Botticelli, Prestel, 2015 (2nd edn).


* Brucker, Gene (21 March 2005). Living on the Edge in Leonardo’s Florence. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 14–15. doi:10.1177/02656914080380030604. JSTOR 10.1525/j.ctt1ppkqw.

** Lightbown, Ronald, Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work, 1989, Thames and Hudson.

*** Tomas, Natalie R. (2003). The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence. Aldershot: Ashgate.

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