Botticini‘s vast altarpiece “Assumption of the Virgin” is a painting undertaken in tempera on a wood panel by the Early Renaissance Italian painter Francesco Botticini. It was originally installed in the church of San Pier Maggiore in Florence in 1477. The altarpiece remained there until 1784, when the church was demolished. It was then purchased by the National Gallery in the 1880s, but hasn’t been put on display for many years. During the past months, it has been the subject of the exhibition “Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece” at London’s National Gallery
There is a fascinating story to be told concerning the painting.
The painting has bewildered scholars for centuries, and this exhibit showcases new research on this monumental painting, clarifying long-perpetuated misunderstandings about its authorship, date, original location, and iconography.
The painting was commissioned by Matteo Palmieri (1406-1475), a top Florentine politician and ally of Cosimo de’ Medici. For over 44 years, he served in all manners of governmental roles, most prestigiously Gonfaloniere di Giustizia (Standard-bearer of Justice).
Palmieri was your quintessential Renaissance Man, also running an apothecary business and writing poetry, histories, and philosophical treatises. Just before he died, he commissioned The Assumption for his funerary chapel at San Pier Maggiore. Given its size at two metres high by four metres long, he intended that it serve as a way of ensuring a literally sizeable legacy.
Palmieri is portrayed kneeling at the lower left side of the painting together with his wife, Niccolosa de’ Serragli, on the right. He reportedly advised Francesco Botticini on the design of this painting, which incorporates a panoramic landscape of Florence in the lower register and an extraordinary dome of Heaven, populated with saints and angels, in the upper register.
The view behind Matteo Palmieri includes both Florence and Fiesole, as well as a farm belonging to him. Behind his wife Niccolosa are farms in the hills of Val d’Elsa, which were part of her dowry.
The 12 Apostles stand amazed before Mary’s opened tomb: instead of her body it contains clusters of lilies. The Virgin herself can be seen in the painting’s upper register, surrounded by angels and saints as she’s crowned Queen of Heaven.
Angels are ranged in nine choirs, divided into three hierarchies.
The highest of these represent Councillors (Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones), followed in the middle by Governors (Dominions, Virtues, and Powers), and finally Ministers (Principalities, Archangels, and Angels) in the third row.
Unusually, saints have been incorporated into the ranks of angels.
This may reflect Palmieri’s theological speculations. These were embodied in a poem, the Città di Vita, which came to be regarded as heretical.
Of Botticini himself, relatively little is known. Concerning this painting, he seems too enthralled by Botticelli, particularly in regard to his fondness for elongated figures and bright, primary colours.
Palmieri died in 1475 and was celebrated city-wide in a grand state funeral.
Botticini completed the altarpiece two years later, including his patron and patron’s wife in the scene, praying on either side of Mary’s tomb. The Assumption soon occupied a place of pride at San Pier Maggiore.
Crucially, the exhibition addresses centuries of debate surrounding the painting’s misattribution to Sandro Botticelli (a contemporary of Botticini’s), its relationship to Palmieri’s poem Città di Vita based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, and its condemnation for heresy.
Visions of Paradise provides the rare opportunity to view the painting up close, being shown alongside related paintings, drawings, prints, manuscripts, ceramics, and sculpture for the first time.
Central to the project to better understand the original function and context of the altarpiece has been the digital reconstruction of San Pier Maggiore using drawings, maps, and the substantial fragments of the church’s walls and foundations that remain part of the city’s fabric.
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