Artists through the ages: Botticelli

Posted: November 7, 2012 in Art, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The life of an artist and the works they produce can teach us so much about writing. And it doesn’t have to be boring! Check out the latest post in this series: “Artists through the ages: Leonardo da Vinci.”

Botticelli is another favorite artist of mine. He doesn’t get quite as much attention and Michelangelo and da Vinci, but he deserves to be recognized for his talents. He was also born in the mid 1400s and lived until the very early 1500s. Whereas both Michelangelo and da Vinci were a part of the High Renaissance, Botticelli was their predecessor and is considered to be a part of the Early Renaissance, although they did co-exist for a short time.

Interesting Facts:

  1. He was initially trained as a goldsmith.
  2. He was a part of the committee that decided where Michelangelo’s David should be placed.
  3. He also contributed some frescoes to the Sistine Chapel.
  4. He was never married, and actually had a strong aversion to the idea of marriage.

If you know any painting by Botticelli, it’s The Birth of Venus. He’s also famous for La Primavera and Venus and Mars.

I’m going to do something a little different with this blog post – and it’s not only because I couldn’t find any quotes from Botticelli (okay, it IS because I couldn’t find any quotes).

I’ve always been in love with La Primavera. If you look closely, the painting is chock full of tiny details that give you an overall impression of the painting even if you don’t pick up on them individually. For example, the oranges symbolize the Medici family, which were huge supporters of the creation of art during this period. The myrtle is symbolic for Venus, as that’s what she was wrapped in after she was born and came to shore on her conch shell.

These are just a few of the things you can pick out in the painting to help you interpret it. And in this same way, a book should be written. A good book should be a lot like a good painting, and vice versa, because the tiny details should also give you an overall impression of the novel, even if you don’t pick up on them individually.

For example, the color in a painting is very important. Is it realistic or surreal? Is it bright or dark? This sets the tone for the painting and puts us in a certain mood. The coloring can tell us that the painting is supposed to be exciting and happy, or it can tell us that it’s supposed to be tragic and powerful.

Along the same lines, your words in your story are like the colors in a painting. They set the tone of your story, depending on which ones you choose. Whether you color your book with bright, happy colors or with dark, terrifying colors is up to you – as long as you keep the words and the tone of your story consistent.

Art is laden with symbolism, but that’s the nature of the beast. This is especially true in older paintings, and particularly in Christian-based artwork. Art back then was used to convey a message to the illiterate masses, so symbols were necessary in order to get the point across.

To a lesser extent, it’s important to have symbols in your story as well. You don’t have to go so far as to make the whole story an allegory, like The Chronicles of Narnia, but even if people don’t pick up on the exact meaning and purpose of the symbols, they’ll still get a broad idea of what they’re doing in the story. When I first saw The Sixth Sense, a lot of the symbolism was lost on me, even though – subconsciously – certain things still influenced my viewing of the film. When I went back and re-watched it, I picked up on a lot more. Nothing changed, other than the fact that I became more aware. A painting, a movie, and a novel can all work in similar ways.

In La Primavera, the figures are realistic. This is no Picasso. The women are curvy and have soft, angelic faces. The man on the left is muscled and stoic. In short, they’re portrayals of both men and women that are appropriate to how someone like Botticelli would have view these people.

The characters in a book should work in a similar fashion. Whether you choose to have this naturalistic, idealistic portrayal of your characters is up to you. You can even go the Picasso route and have a character that’s out of sorts, as long the character is relatable. That’s always the most important thing. As long as we can still pick out the eyes, the nose, and the face in a Picasso painting, we can believe that this disfigured and strange being is in fact still human.

Something that you get automatically with a painting – or any other piece of art for that matter – is that the story is shown. There’s no telling in art. The piece should always speak for itself and show you the story that is trying to be told. Books struggle with this a lot more, and that’s why I believe it’s important for writers to study art. Look at all we can learn! Look at how, in La Primavera, the man on the left is stirring the storm clouds. We can infer that this is the god Mercury without having the artist paint his name on his chest. Even the simple fact that the women are dressed in white and Zephyrus is a dark, ominous blue tells us how we’re supposed to feel about the two different figures.

Writing should always work in the same way. We’re badgered into believing that we must always show and never tell, and I’ll never purport that to be untrue. But it can be hard! Sometimes you’re telling and you’re not even aware of it. Sometimes you think you’re showing (in the best way possible, get your minds out of the gutters!) and you’re really just telling your audience everything. Artists like Botticelli didn’t have the luxury (or the need, really) to explain their paintings. They let the artwork speak for itself, and we should always strive for our books to do the same.

  1. layers are so important to add that depth that even the readers may not be consciously aware of, you’re so right. someone said something similar at a conference recetly and that just amde so much sense to me. some of my favorite books have this depth to them that i couldn’t explain and it was because the author had worked so hard in the background, “painting” those layers.

    • Karen Rought says:

      I completely agree! That’s why I never have a problem rereading my favorite books or rewatching my favorite movies – it’s so fun to go back and try to pick up on things you didn’t notice before.

  2. Julie Glover says:

    I love a painting that has those details that draw me to look again and again and see something new each time. I also love Botticelli. I’m glad you featured him here. Great stuff, Karen!

  3. […] The life of an artist and the works they produce can teach us so much about writing. And it doesn’t have to be boring! Check out the latest post in this series: “Artists through the ages: Botticelli.” […]

  4. lexborgia says:

    He’s extremely underrated and never gets the credit he deserves, also as an architectural pioneer.

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