Botticelli (& Friends) Come to Town

Adoration of the Mago, Sandro Botticelli, ca 1475 Adoration of the Mago, Sandro Botticelli, ca 1475

Despite travel bans, quarantines and social distancing, a delegation of dazzling (and unmasked) Italians have taken up temporary residence at Hong Kong’s Museum of Art.

The star of this exhibition of paintings from Florence’s Uffizi is Sandro Botticelli’s own Adoration of the Magi. In this early work, populated with portraits of the almost omnipotent Medici, the painter himself, decked out in golden-hued robes at the far right of the painting, looks not at the main object of attention, but instead turns and looks out at us: a young man sure of his talent and legacy.

Lorenzo the Magnificent, Agnolo Bronzino, ca 1555-56
Lorenzo the Magnificent, Agnolo Bronzino, ca 1555-56

This is one painting that visitors are likely to have already seen. One of the delights of the exhibition is that it contains—and sets apart—paintings that one would have been less likely to have seen or at least to have noticed among all the other treasures of the Uffizi.

Outstanding among these is a tiny painting by Agnolo Bronzino, just 16 x 12cm, of Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as “the Magnificient”, looking as fresh as it must have when painted almost 500 years ago.

Indeed, if there is a complaint at all about the exhibition, it is that it gives Botticelli sole billing in its promotion, for it also features a marvelous Venus by Lorenzo di Credi, and works by Perugino, Filippo and Filippino Lippi and other great painters of the Florentine Renaissance.

 

Venus, Lorenzo di Credi, ca 1493-1495
Venus, Lorenzo di Credi, ca 1493-1495

The exhibition at the Museum of Art is no substitute for a visit to the actual Uffizi in Florence, and yet this hand-selected, focused collection has multiple charms. There is much more to Botticelli that his famous Venus, just as there is much more to the Florentine Renaissance than Botticelli. The exhibition is sensitively curated, focusing on a narrow period of a few decades at the end of the 15th century, and divided thematically into portraits, Madonnas and Child, sacred and secular scenes. The paintings themselves are well-presented and clearly-described. Even intrepid travelers who have visited the Uffizi multiple times will find welcome surprises here.

Hong Kong has by no means been the worst-hit place during the current pandemic, but it has nevertheless have been through an unsettling 12-15 months. That this exhibition, sensitively curated and presented, has been able to take place at all is a minor miracle. One can only imagine what the Uffizi and the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Hong Kong and Italian Governments and Italy’s diplomatic representatives in Hong Kong went through to bring the collection here. It cannot help but brighten the spirits of all who go visit it.

 

Botticelli and His Times runs through 24 February 2021 at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.