Sunday, March 19, 2017

Venus with Peaches

In search of the divine within an hour, we nailed it.

I happen to know that the last time I saw so many Botticelli paintings was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence back in October 2012, going on five years ago. As far as I was concerned, I was overdue for some masterful early Renaissance artwork, so the love story was a bonus.

Our first destination was the Muscarelle Museum to see "Botticelli and the Search for the Divine," a show so important that it will leave Williamsburg in two weeks and move on to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. With no invitations to Boston currently pending, I thought I'd best get myself down there.

Walking into the dimly-lit exhibit with wine-colored walls, we encountered a mass of humanity clustered in front of a docent leading a tour of the exhibit in the most droning voice possible. Fortunately, they soon moved on to the next gallery so we could concentrate on the work of the man to whom Botticelli was apprenticed, Fra Filippo Lippi, and ascertain how the master's style influenced the younger's.

But where things really got good was in the second gallery, full of his exquisite mature works such as "The Madonna of the Loggia" and "Madonna and  Child with the Young St. John the Baptist" (although I'm not going to lie, I'd have far preferred to be seeing them in the Uffizi) and the breathtaking "Venus," which has never been shown in the U.S. before.

Like ever. How fortunate was I that someone was willing to ensure I saw it during its brief visit?

No, no, not his "Birth of Venus," this was just "Venus," although both paintings are clearly of the same woman and today I learned her name: Simonetta Vespucci, a cousin-in-law to the explorer Amerigo Vespucci we've all heard of (I say "all" presuming schools still teach such things).

Was Botticelli in love with the great beauty who was already married to a nobleman? The very male docent said there's no proof of passion unless you count the painter's request to be buried at her feet, which he was after she died at 22.

Allow me to get on my estrogen soapbox here and say for the record that if a man wants to be buried at a woman's feet, there's about a 100% chance he's madly in love with her. Art historians, you may quote me on that.

Looking at "Adoration of the Magi" with my 20th century eyes, all I could think of when I saw the limited palette of reds and blues was Paramount Studio's mid-century Vista-Vision, where everything looked red or blue.

I ask you, how many people could look at a Botticelli and see a connection to "White Christmas?" You're welcome.

The final gallery held Botticelli's later works and I'm not going to lie, once church reformer Savonorola took over Florence, forcing artists to burn profane art in the bonfires of the vanities (and, no, I hadn't known what historical event that term referred to until today) and create instead religious paintings, Botticelli's work suffered.

No one should have made that man abandon his depictions of the beautiful Simonetta.

My art lover and I continued on to the Gabriel Archer Tavern for brunch because what could be better than a drive down a grape vine-lined road after our immersion in all things Italian? The view continued as we ate and drank in a dining room with windows for walls that also looked out on trellised vines.

A wooden box reading "William Byrd Brand Peaches" set on a ledge nearby, a reminder that we were solidly in colonial territory.

Toasting the lovely Simonetta and her talented admirer with Wedmore Place Cremant and Wessex Hundred Petit Verdot, we had a most un-Renaissance meal that began with fried chili chickpeas and concluded with double chocolate hazelnut mousse, with all manner of quiche, salads and heartfelt conversation in between.

By the time we finished talking and sipping, a front had moved through and the gray humidity had been replaced with a fierce wind and a serious drop in temperature, making it more appealing to get in the car than walk the vineyard.

Homeward bound, we were barely 20 minutes in when a sign warned us of a crash ahead and traffic all but stopped. A car with New York license plates sped by us on the shoulder, was soon followed by a police car with his lights on and by the time we caught up to them, the driver was out of the car and listening earnestly, hands in pockets, to what the cop was saying.

That guy's response to the inconvenience of stopped traffic had been a poor one while we were making the most of it, especially after I was handed the driver's phone and told to choose any playlist that appealed to me, an offer I never refuse.

It took us almost an extra hour and a detour through downtown Sandston to get back to Richmond, but when you're conversing pretty much non-stop and listening to a mix called "As Time Goes By," it's pretty divine and you really don't.

Notice that it's going by, that is.

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