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Botticelli's Reboot

The Birth of Venus is probably Sandro Botticelli’s most famous painting and I imagine most of you would recognize it on sight.

If I’m right, then you recognized right off the bat that this isn’t that painting. This one is called The Calumny of Apelles (1495). And even though I’m really hit or miss with Botticelli’s stuff, this one has a few things to recommend it. First off, it’s a reboot. Apelles of Kos was an Ancient Greek painter, supposedly one of the greatest of his time, who lived around the 4th century BC. While none of his paintings had survived to Botticelli’s time, a plethora of written descriptions had. And one of those enchanted Botticelli enough that he recreated the original himself. The piece was entitled Calumny, an antiquated word for slander. The other intriguing feature of the piece is that it’s an allegory.


The helpless man being drug by the hair across the floor is our central character and he is the embodiment of virtue. Naked truth brings up the rear of the procession, she’s the one pointing towards heaven. Glancing back at her, all robed in black, is penitence, though I’ve read a few who think of her as punishment instead. In the allegory, virtue is a victim. He is unjustly accused and judged by the forces of vice. The person dragging him to judgment is slander, who is groomed and preened on either side by figures representing conspiracy and fraud. That hooded figure actually doing the accusing is envy. The allegory's intensity is sparked right there, in the space between the judge and accuser. Notice how envy’s raised hand and slander’s torch draw the judge’s gaze, blocking his view of what's really going on. Are they keeping him from seeing the truth of what he’s judging? The judge is obviously Midas, still wearing the donkey ears Apollo gave him as a symbol of his propensity for foolish judgment. The women whispering in the judge’s ears are ignorance and suspicion. It’s very dark to me but Midas is so intent on what they’re telling him that he won’t even look at virtue. It’s like he wants to be lied to and that letting himself be deceived is how he sleeps at night. But whatever the reason, he just listens to their poison and fixates on envy to form his judgment.


Art historians speculate that Botticelli and Apelles both based their works on cases of actual slander directed at them or to someone they admired. That would make the whole allegory a little self-serving, which is interesting. They wouldn’t be the first or last people in history to think of themselves as pure virtue and some critic or opponent as pure vice. But even if this were based on contemporary events, this painting makes for a great conversation piece in any age and time.

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