Yesterday's innovations are today's classics

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

In 1498, Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli, burned a number of his paintings in the infamous "bonfire of the vanities." During the bonfire, the citizens of Florence, Italy, gathered to burn items they thought were sinful, such as paintings, musical instruments, jewelry and fancy clothes. This incident was inspired by religious fervor stirred up by a monk named Girolamo Savonarola, whose followers took over the city in 1494. Botticelli was said to have burned his paintings depicting Greek gods and goddesses.

Botticelli is best known for his painting, "The Birth of Venus," sometimes jokingly referred to as "Venus on the Half-Shell." He was one of a stable of artists maintained by the Medicis, a powerful and wealthy family of Florentine bankers. The Medicis, led by family patriarch Lorenzo the Magnificent (a.k.a. Il Magnifico), hired the greatest artists of their time, including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, for one purpose: positive PR.

The Medicis surrounded themselves with great art as a way of letting everyone know how magnificent Il Magnifico really was. Unfortunately, all great dynasties come to an end and the Medicis lost control of Florence when Lorenzo died in 1494. Over the coming centuries, the Medicis would gain and lose power and, along the way, commission some of the greatest art produced by Western civilization.

It was no surprise that Savonarola burned art commissioned by the Medicis. These artworks were radical and cutting-edge in their day. Lorenzo's grandfather, Cosimo di Medici, was a proponent of Humanism, a philosophy focusing on worldly, human concerns rather than spirituality. He also created an informal group of artists and philosophers who would meet to discuss new ideas in the arts and sciences. He called this group the Platonic Academy after Greek philosopher, Plato.

Lorenzo continued his grandfather's efforts and Botticelli was one of the artists involved in his Academy. Botticelli was a consummate Humanist until his conversion by Savonarola and his followers. Rather than painting Crucifixions, Annunciations, and Assumptions, Botticelli painted Greek gods and goddesses meant to represent ideals of wisdom and love. Unfortunately, rated-R paintings of Greek goddesses were frowned upon by Savonarola and company. These paintings were seen as idolatrous, pagan, way outside of the mainstream, and therefore deserving of the fire.

Today, these paintings are not seen in the same light. Radical new techniques like linear perspective and shocking subjects like Greek gods and goddesses are now traditions embraced by the most conservative artists. These conventions, founded by the artists of the Renaissance, have dominated art for over 400 years. Picasso and other Modern artists were the first to challenge these traditions. Some of the most radical Modern artists advocated burning libraries and flooding museums as a way of purging the old to make room for the new. However, other artists, writers, and musi-cians of the early 20th century didn't welcome this new modern art and sought a return to the traditional forms.

In 1932 in reaction to these new cultural trends, 10 Italian musicians issued their own manifesto decrying the loss of traditional values in art. Ottorino Respighi was one of these musicians. He was interested in art of the Renaissance, particularly the work of Sandro Botticelli. In 1927, he began work on his "Botticelli Tryptich," a musical interpretation of three of Botticelli's most famous works. The paintings that inspired Respighi's work include Botticelli's most famous piece, "The Birth of Venus"; an allegorical painting of the spring season titled "La Primavera," and a biblical scene titled "The Adoration of the Magi." These paintings, once so radical that they warranted burning in a bonfire, became inspiration for a musician celebrating traditions in art. Truly, yesterday's innovations are today's classics.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra will perform Respighi's "Botticelli Tryptich" with projections of Botticelli's masterpieces as each musical representation is played. Guest artist and Albany native Robert Sharpe, a classical guitarist, will also be performing Rodrigo's all-time favorite, Concierto de aranjuez with the orchestra. The concert is in the Albany Municipal Auditorium on Oct. 16. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. with a pre-concert "Conversation with the Conductor" open to all ticket holders, featuring conductor Claire Fox Hillard, Albany Museum of Art Director Nick Nelson and guitarist Robert Sharpe discussing the evening's concert from the stage of the Municipal Auditorium. The performance is at 7:30 p.m. This performance is a one in a series of concerts inspired by area attractions called "The Pride of Our Community..." Attractions include the Flint RiverQuarium, the Albany Museum of Art, the Albany Chorale, the Wetherbee Planetarium at Thronateeska, and local colleges and universities. More information about this concert and upcoming concerts can be found at the Albany Symphony's website: www.albanysymphony.org.

Arts & Artists columnist Nick Nelson is executive director of the Albany Museum of Art, 311 Meadowlark Drive. His column is a monthly feature in SouthView.