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Notes on Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi
This version of the Adoration of the Magi is  by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The work is on display at the Uffizi in Florence and is said to date from 1475 or 1476. It is also claimed that the painting was commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama for his funerary chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Botticelli produced several paintings on this theme, some say as many as eight. This version depicts several members of the Medici family, notably Cosimo de’ Medici, the Italian banker and politician, in the guise of the Magus kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus.
Although there are varied opinions as to the identities of the other Medici figures, most art historians tend to agree that the painter, Sandro Botticelli, is the standing figure on the right of the frame, wearing the ochre gown and looking out to the viewer.

Latest addition... April 25, 2019

Heads of State

attribution date


The painting’s date attribution of 1475 or 1476 is not accurate. The earliest the painting could have been completed is 1480, and perhaps even a year later. The scene is linked to an historical event, and also to two early works by a contemporary of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci. Another source of inspiration was the tondo painted between 1438 and 1441 by Domenico Veneziano on the same subject, the Adoration of the Magi.


This presentation sets out to reveal the iconography that redates the painting and its connection to Leonardo.

Adoration of the Magi. (1475-76?),

by Sandro Botticelli,

Uffizi, Florence


Adoration of the Magi. (1481)

by Leonardo da Vinci,

Uffizi, Florence

render unto Caesar...

Two years ago the Uffizi Gallery in Florence unveiled a restored work by Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1481 and 1482. Commissioned in March 1481 by the Augustinians of San Donato a Scopeto, the painting remained unfinished when Leonardo left Florence to go and work for the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.


The Adoration of the Magi was not the only unfinished painting Leonardo left behind. An earlier work also remained in the making. St Jerome in the Wilderness is now displayed in the Vatican Museum. Both these paintings are referenced by Sandro Botticelli in one of the many paintings he made depicting the Adoration of the Magi – the version housed with the Leonardo interpretation in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.


That 600 years later both Magi paintings are kept under the same roof can only be fortuitous, as they are inextricably linked in a way that has remained unrecorded until now.


Perhaps because of its sketchy state, the confusing compilation of figures and background scenes of conflict, the Leonardo version has proved to be enigmatic to modern age viewers. There isn’t a heavenly angel in sight amongst “the great throng” of people to proclaim the message of peace. The world, it seems, remains in turmoil.


But for Florentines, at the time when Leonardo began to paint the Adoration scene, the world was indeed chaotic. One particular event that shook not only Florence but the whole of Italy, even reverberating through Europe, was the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers, Lorenzo (the Magnificent) and his younger sibling Giuliano. The attack took place on April 26, 1478, during High Mass at the Duomo in Florence. Giuliano was mortally wounded but Lorenzo escaped with only a slight neck wound.
Retribution was swift. Anyone perceived to be connected to what became known as the Pazzi conspiracy was slaughtered in the bloodbath that followed, hence the warring backdrop and sea of confused faces surrounding the Adoration scene in which the Infant Jesus is raised and presented to the kneeling Magi.


The presentation of Jesus, surrounded by mayhem and uncertainty, mirrors the timing of the assassination attempt in the Santa Maria del Fiore. The conspirators had agreed to strike when the bell rung at the time of consecration and raising of the Host during Mass, and when the congregation closed their eyes and bowed their heads in adoration of the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Observe the figure at the Virgin’s right shoulder, leaning forward and ringing a small bell. Another figure to note is the man behind the Virgin. He appears to hold a knife in his right hand.


St Jerome in the Wilderness

(c 1480)

by Leonardo da Vinci

Vatican Museum


Bell and blade… the signal to strike against Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici.

Most historians agree that the standing figure on the extreme right, looking out of the frame, represents Leonardo. The figure standing in the opposite corner, described by historian Joseph Manca as “the unseen scholar” and a philosopher “in the broadest sense” is there to represent Julius Caesar, like his namesake Giuliano, assassinated by multiple stab wounds – 23 in total. Nineteen knife wounds were inflicted on Giuliano and a sword also cleaved his head.


It’s at this stage that we can begin to see the association between Leonardo’s Magi painting and the version featuring the Medici family produced by Botticelli. Which came first? On the basis that Botticelli has picked up on Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St Jerome and also included other elements associated with his contemporary, I would judge that Leonardo’s version came first and Botticelli adapted some of its features in way of a tribute to his departing colleague, echoing the homage and tribute the Magi gave to the Infant King.


Similar to Leonardo, Botticelli has placed his own image in the right corner of his painting, looking away from the Adoration scene. In the facing corner Giuliano de’ Medici strikes a similar pose to Julius Caesar, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere. It is this part of the painting that Botticelli refers to the assassination attempt on the Medici brothers, and also brings to light features which identify with Leonardo.


Matching pairs…

Julius Caesar and Giuliano de’ Medici… Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.

revising the date attribution

If it is accepted that the two Magi scenes refer to the assassination of Giulio de’ Medici, then the current date attribution of 1475 or 1476 given to the Botticelli version has to be moved back to take into account the date of the murder which took place on April 26, 1478. The painting presents other evidence to point to a date of at least 1480 before it was finished; and if it is also accepted that Botticelli has utilised features from Leonardo’s version, then that would push the date back even further, to at least the latter part of 1481, as Leonardo was not given his commission until March of the same year.


Botticelli’s narrative depicting the Pazzi conspiracy and attack on Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici.

the assassination of Giuliano de’ Medici


The Pazzi conspiracy, which resulted in the assassination of Guiliano de’ Medici and the attack on his elder brother Lorenzo at the same time, took place during High Mass in Florence’s Duomo on Sunday, April 26, 1478.
The classical scholar and poet Angelo Ambrogini, commonly known by his nickname Poliziano, was standing close to Lorenzo de’ Medici when the attack happened and helped rescue him from his assailants, two priests named Antonio Maffei and Stefano de Bagnone. Just months after the event Poliziano, who was part of the Medici household, published a commentary on the conspiracy, Pactianae Coniurationis Commentarium.


It is likely that this account was the source for the assassination narrative portrayed in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Poliziano is the figure on the left side of the painting shown with his head turned to the viewer, Botticelli’s method of acknowledging the poet’s contribution to the work.


Two other members of the assassination team assigned to deal with Giuliano had earlier persuaded him to attend the Mass at the Duomo – he had not be inclined to do so as he was recovering from an illness. Both men, Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, were known to Giuliano and accompanied him on the way to the cathedral. As they did so, Francesco de’ Pazzi placed his arms around Giuliano suggesting that the “golden boy”, as he was known, had grown fat during his illness. In reality Francesco de’ Pazzi was checking if Giuliano was wearing armour under his clothes. He wasn’t.


So in Botticelli’s painting we see Giuliano being embraced by his assassin, seemingly in an act friendship, but in fact an act of betrayal akin to the kiss Judas gave to Jesus in Gethsemane.


Standing next to Francesco is Bernardo Baroncelli, his left hand gripping the concealed hilt of the sword used to cleave Giuliano’s skull. Baroncelli’s right hand appears to point towards the Virgin and Child. It’s an illusion. His hand is directed towards the two people next in line, the priest Antonio Maffei, and in front of him, Giuliano’s brother Lorenzeo. The figure immediately behind Baroncelli and to the left of Maffei is Stefano Bagnone, the other priest designated to assassinate Lorenzo. As it was, the priests failed in their mission and Baroncelli gave chase to Lorenzo to try and finish him off. The ‘Magnifico’ had been wounded in the neck but managed to reach safety and refuge behind the heavy doors of the sacristy which were then locked before Baroncelli could reach him.


A close inspection of Maffei sees his right arm raised and the hand pointing to his neck collar. The collar is shaped as a blade – signifying that in his attempt to end Lorenzo’s life with a cut to the throat, Maffei had put his own neck at risk. The collar now becomes a noose placed around Maffei’s neck. Both priests were captured, castrated and then hanged.


Lorenzo had first thwarted Maffei when his attacker had grabbed his shoulder in an attempt to turn him. In doing so Lorenzo managed to partly protect himself by wrapping his cloak around his arm as a shield. This is shown in the painting.


Giuliano was not so fortunate. He was killed in a ferocius assault carried out by Francesco de’ Pazzi and was stabbed 19 times, just four less than his nameake Julius Caesar when he was assassinated by senators disatisfied with his plans for power and kingship. So fierce was Francesco’s attack on Giulio that he actually stabbed his own leg in the process, which may explain the red colour of his hose.


Baroncelli escaped justice in the short term after he managed to make his way to Constantinople. However, he was recognised and brought back in chains to Florence by Antonio de Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo, and hanged on December 29, 1479. Present at the time of Baronelli’s execution was Leonardo da Vinci who made a drawing of the hanging man, noting his style of clothes and their colours. Part of this drawing is utilised in Botticelli’s painting, and was probably a late addition. Baronelli’s hanging head appears behind the head of Poliziano. Seen as a skull it serves as a reminder that it was Baronelli who cleaved the skull of Giuliano with his sword. The likeness of Poliziano to Giuliano, even the style and colour of their clothes, is also a pointer to the descriptive notes Leonardo made alongside his sketch. Observe also the reference to the rope, a vertical line which has been emphasised as part the column in the background.


The reference to the Leonardo sketch implies that Botticelli completed the painting after the date Baronelli was hanged. It may also suggest a line (the rope) had been drawn under the whole unfortunate episode and the completed painting itself was ready to hang and be put on display!

Leonardo’s silver horse-head lyre


Leonardo da Vinci was an accomplished musician. He is noted for having made a silver lyre in the shape of a horse’s head which he brought with him as a gift for Ludovico Sforza when he moved to Milan . The instrument was known as a “lira da braccio”, literally an “arm lyre”, and a forerunner of the violin – hence the horse-head resting on the arms of the two men.


Angelo Poliziano


Bernardo Baroncelli, caught and hanged 19 months after he helped assassinate Giuliano de’ Medici.


Giuliano de’ Medici and his assassin Francesco de’ Pazzi.

The horse is a reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s silver horse-head lyre.

But Botticelli has implied a further interpretation which connects to a participant in the Pazzi consiracy itself, the bishop of Pisa, Francesco Salviati. For his part he shared the fate of four other conspirators when ropes were tied around their necks and they were left hanging from the windows of the Palazzo della Signoria.


The poet Poliziano afterwards wrote of what had happened, stating that when the Archbishop was hung from the window he sank his teeth into the body alongside him and wouldn’t let go. It happened to be Francesco de’ Pazzi, which is the reason why Botticelli shows the horse with its mouth open ready to bite the arm of Giuliano’s assassin. The horse’s dripping ‘saliva’ is a pun on the name Salviati.


There are claims that Poliziano’s story was an exaggeration on his part, Botticelli may also have been referring to the poet’s ‘silver tongue’ when he depicted the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ swelling on Francesco de’ Pazzi’s face!


hat-tip to Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci had a lifelong passion for creating intricate knot patterns. Some of his most complex mandala designs were later printed from woodcuts produced by the German artist Albrecht Dürer. In yet another hat-tip to Leonardo, Botticelli has placed a knotted mandala on the head of the priest and assassin, Antonio Maffei.


A print from one of Albrecht Dürer’s wood blocks based on designs by Leonardo da Vinci. Known as the ‘Fifth Knot’ from six surviving blocks

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


A section from Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration said to show Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, presumed to have commissioned the painting.

if not Gaspare, then who?

Supposedly, Botticelli’s version of the Adoration of the Magi, which is now housed in the Uffizi, Florence, was commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama for his funerary chapel in Santa Maria Novella.


While there is documentation referring to the chapel as Capella Magorum (Chapel of the Magi) and also Gaspare’s first will mentions that “the chapel is said to be under the title of, The Three Magi on the Day of the Epiphany of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.(Hatfield, Botticelli’s Uffizi “Adoration”, p.31), there is seemingly no evidence that Gaspare ever commissioned Botticelli to produce the painting. That the painting may have been displayed in the chapel as an altarpiece at some time is hardly proof that it was commissioned by Gaspare who, according to Hatfield, died around April 25, 1481.


Some historians refer to the line of figures with their backs to the wall on the right side of the painting (see above), and suggest that the pointing man facing the viewer is likely to be Gaspare identifying himself as the patron of the work, and wanting to be seen in the company of the Medici family. But Hatfield considered him “one of the pettiest figures ever to have crossed the pages of Florentine history” – “a nobody”.


So if it is not Gaspare pointing to himself, then who could it be? The painting makes several references to the works of Leonardo da Vinci, particularly on the left hand side of the painting (a pointer to Leonardo being left-handed). The left side of the painting also depicts the poet and writer Poliziano, source for the account of Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination, which Botticelli has referred to also in the left section.


The right side of the composition is partly a mirror effect of some of the figures portrayed on the opposite side, except there are slight differences in portrayal and narrative, and likely to refer to Leonardo’s ingenuity for “mirror-writing”.


Leonardo’s creative skills were initially developed while serving as an apprentice in the Florentine studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, goldsmith painter and sculptor. He joined Verrocchio’s workshop in 1466 at the age of 14 and worked there for the next ten years.


This section of the painting also references works and ideas of Leonardo, as well as Verrocchio, and it it possible that some of the figures lined up against the back wall represent other artists and craftsmen who served in Verrocchio’s workshop, including Botticelli shown as a self portrait in the corner of the frame. This links to another self-portrait in the line-up, that of Andrea del Verrocchio, the man in the blue gown pointing to himself, and his own self portrait that is now housed in the Uffizi, which Botticelli may have utlised for his painting.


Left: Andrea del Verrocchio, self portrait, c 1468-70, Uffizi Gallery, Florence...

Above: A likeness of Verrocchio from Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration

chicken or the egg?

The scenes below are from the painting known as the Assumption of the Virgin, said to have been completed by Francesco Botticini in 1477. It is now housed at the National Gallery in London.


Art historians recognise Botticini’s style of painting as being influenced by his contemporary Sandro Botticelli. Both painters were from Florence.


The Assumption of the Virgin (1475-76), Francesco Botticini,

National Gallery, London

Compare the twelve disciples with some of the main figures from the Uffizi Adoration of the Magi painting below and there are many similarities.


Adoration of the Magi. (1475-76?),

by Sandro Botticelli,

Uffizi, Florence

Perhaps it was this resemblance that prompted Giorgio Vasari to attribute the Assumption painting in to Sandro Botticelli and not Francesco Botticini in his book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550).


So which painting came first, Botticini’s Assumption or Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration? If the current attribution of 1475 is accepted for Botticelli’s painting then there is no problem in assuming it was painted before Botticini’s altarpiece (1477) and that Francesco sourced the figures for his twelve disciples from the Uffizi Adoration.


However, if it accepted that Botticelli’s painting does make reference to the assassination of Giuliano de’ Medici in 1478, then (1) the chicken or egg question kicks in again, or at least (2) challenges the completion date for Botticini’s work, or even, perhaps, (3) raises the possibility of Botticelli sourcing Botticini’s painting and not the other way around. A fourth scenario is that Vasari may have been correct in the first place by attributing the Assumption to the hand of Botticell and not Botticini.


Piero de’ Cosimo Medici and his son Lorenz0 de’ Medici

the hat and the crown

The central kneeling figure wearing the ermine-lined, red robe is Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, son of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, the figure kneeling in front of the new-born Saviour. To the right of Piero is his first-born son Lorenzo de’ Medici.


This Medici trio shared a common ailment – gout. Such was Piero’s condition that he was often confined to bed and became known as Piero the Gouty, conducting his business and political affairs from his bedroom for much of his time. It is said that his death in 1469 was a result of gout and lung disease.


Botticelli identifies Piero by painting two references to his illness, the hat at his feet, and the spiked crown on the ground to his right. The hat is shaped as a snail, a slow mover and invairably confined to his abode. The crown of thorns, placed next to Lorenzo, represents the transfer of Medici affairs to his eldest son, along with the heriditary painful condition of gout.


Three figures but six identities

birds of a feather

Behind the kneeling Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici and his two sons alongside him, Lorenzo and Giuliano, are three figures which the artist Botticelli has grouped to relate to each other in four distinct ways.


Firstly, each figure has two identities; secondly, each experienced judgement and condemnation; thirdly, all three reached celestial heights.
Previously mentioned was that Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration of the Magi is laden with references to Leonardo da Vinci and his works. This is a fourth connection that binds the group. The fifth connection is they represent a secondary group of Magi and their gifts: gold, myrrh and frankincense.


The standing bearded man represents two people mentioned in the Book of Zechariah, Zerubabbel, the governor of the Persian Province of Judah who laid the foundation of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, helped by the high priest Joshua. Zechariah’s account of the Jews returning from Babylonian captivity and a return to peace is described by the prophet in a series of eight visions. These are also referred to in part in Botticelli’s painting.
The stooping figure next in line represents the musician and companion to Leonardo, Atalante Migliorotti, and also the man who commissioned the painting, Guasparre dal Lama.


The faceless third figure – the winged man – is Leonardo da Vinci. In this scenario the second identity probably refers to Jacopo Saltarelli, an apprentice goldsmith charged with prostitution and engaging in sodomy with Leonardo and three other men. The accusation was made annonymously on April 9, 1476, but charges against all the men were later dismissed on the condition that no accusations were made against them in the future.


Leonardo never clarified his sexual orientation in any of his writings, although he did write in one of his notebooks that “the act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions”.


Like Leonardo, Sandro Botticelli was once accused of sodomy, though never prosecuted. Accusations of this kind were common at the time, often as a way of harming reputations. Many of Botticelli’s paintings contain sexual imagery and he was not adverse to injecting his own brand of irreverant humour in some scenes. The Uffizi Adoration is no exception, the target being Leonardo. Whereas Leonardo dissected human corpses, animals and birds in his quest for knowledge, Botticelli dissected reputations with his cutting remarks and piercing parodies for comic effect, even to the extent of self-parody. His placement behind the winged man is akin to the assassin in the opposite corner closing in and pretending to befriend Giuliano de’ Medici before inflicting 19 wounds on his body.


In his later years Leonardo wrote about his first memory as a child in his cradle. He was making notes at the time about the flight pattern of birds and the fork-tailed red kite (milvus vulgaris) in particular. His brief note read: “Writing like this so particularly about the kite seems to be my destiny, since the first memory of my childhood is that it seemed to me, when I was in my cradle, that a kite came to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.”


Although the notebook entry is thought to be have been made around 1505, it is possible that the incident was related orally to others at earlier stages of his life. Certainly, Botticelli appears to have referenced the incident in at least two places. It may even be that Botticelli doubted Leonardo’s account and in his irreverent way put it down to fantasy or a dream sequence his contemporary may have experienced at some time.


As Leonardo held a lifelong interest in birds and their flight, even designing and constructing vehicles for men to take to the skies, it is not surprising that Botticell depicted Leonardo as a bird with wings and a cape covering a self-propelled wind source. Botticelli took the jest a step further, intimating that Leonardo’s weakness, or even strength, could be observed on the underside of his belly, an obvious reference to the sodomy charge against Leonardo and a 15th century slang defintion of ‘kite’ as a person who preys on others.


The second reference to the fork-tailed kite and Leonardo’s earliest memory is the long-tailed peacock perched above the group of men on the right side of the painting. The overhang above the peacock is meant to depict the wingspan of another bird, perhaps the kite and the shadow hanging over Leonardo if ever a charge of sodomy was brought against him in the future. A fork is formed when the shadow is combined with the peacock, a bird that not only symbolised Leonardo’s perceived vanity and desire for attention with his dimorphic style of attire, but also may have pointed to the new life Leonardo was seeking which led to his move to Milan.


The peacock and its inverted shadow combine to suggest the fork-tail of the kite. But where is it pointing to?


Adoration of the Magi, 1481, Leonardo da Vinci, Louvre Museum, Paris

when Botticelli painted Leonardo

The above illustration is part of a series of preparation drawings made by Leonardo da Vinci for his unfinished painting depicting the Adoration of the Magi. He started the work in 1481 but it was never completed before he left Florence and moved to Milan. It has recently been restored and is housed at the Uffizi in Florence.


It is this work that Botticeli has utilised for his version of the Adoration of the Magi, also kept at the Uffizi. While many art historians date Botticelli’s version before Leonardo’s, it is likely that Botticelli did not complete his painting until after his return from Rome in 1482 where he was commissioned with a group of other Florentine artists to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel.


There are two figures from Leonardo’s sketch that Botticelli has adapted for his painting, the stooped man, and the figure with his arm across his chest and hand resting on his shoulder. The stooped figure represents Leonardo and connects to an early memory in his childhood.


Matching pairs from the Leonardo and Botticell versions of the Adoration of the Magi

In Leonardo’s unfinished painting, not the sketch, historians generally agree that the figure standing on the extreme right with his head turned is the artist himself. This figure is also replicated in the Botticelli version as the third standing figure from the left wearing a red hat. Like many of the figures in Botticelli’s painting, it has two identities: the first was revealed in earlier in the presentation as Bernardo Baroncelli, one of the assassins who took part in the Pazzi conspiracy and cleaved the head of Giuliano de’ Medici, hence his hat depicted as soaked in blood. His own head is also shown hanging from a rope above the figure and is a reference to Leonardo’ drawing of the hanging man..


Also mentioned earlier was the two groups either side of the painting are mirrored, and perhaps a pointer to Leonardo’s style of mirror-writing.


So when taking the faceless, stooped figure of Leonardo along with his account about the fork-tailed red kite, and mirroring it to the standing Baroncelli, a second identity is revealed – that of Leonardo da Vinci. Confirmation is provided by features pointing to the kite story and the charge of sodomy with the young goldsmith apprentice.


Could this be the face of Leonardo da Vinci in his late twenties, and painted by his contemporary Sandro Botticelli, probably around 1482?

The brim of the hat is wing-shaped, the underside a lghter red than the crown, representing the light underside of the fork-taled red kite. A small, white ‘tickling’ feather is attached to the hat band, the band itself representing a child’s baubles strung across the crib. A bird’s head with a pronounced beak forms one of the hair curls extending into the brim. Below the collar is a fork-shaped fold.


The shoulder insignia is a gold leaf, a reference to Leonardo’s early training as an apprentice goldsmith and to the young goldsmith he was accused with of sodomy. There is gold braid on Leonardo’s shoulder, and the hem of his green gown is threaded with a gold knot-pattern, another of Leonardo’s devices.


Leonardo’s left hand grip of his gown at waist level is a sexual signal directed to and observed by the young man at his side who has his arms wrapped around Giuliano de’ Medici. He is likely to represent Jacopo Saltarelli, the apprentice goldsmith and a recorded prostitute in Florentine court records. The waist level signal is intended to match the underbelly feature seen in the stooped figure opposite.


two for the price of one

This terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici is thought to have been made sometime between 1475 and 1478 by Andrea del Verrocchio, the Florentine, goldsmith, sculptor and painter. The bust is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.


Giuliano is wearing a protective cuirass emblazoned on the front with what first appears to be a depiction of the mythological Medusa. Described as a guardian or protectress, the winged Medusa had snakes coming out of her head instead of hair.


But this motif, in fact, represents the head of an angel – a guardian angel with wings enfolded to signify protection.


I doubt if the National Gallery realises it owns a two-for-the price-of-one work of art, for not only does it depict Giuliano de’ Medici but the breastplate portrait is of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.


Giorgio’s Vasari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci reveals that among Leonardo’s early works was a painting of the head of Medusa, although this is doubted by some art historians, and if the painting did ever exist, it is now lost.


However, Verrocchio’s bust of Giuliano de’ Medici also points to a connection between Medusa and Leonardo, as does Botticelli in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. So perhaps Varari’s report on Leonardo’s Medusa may have some merit after all.


A couple of decades later, the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna picked up on this when he painted Parnassus for Isabella d’Este – a pastiche on Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. He depicted Piero de’ Medici, eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, as wearing the breastplate and Botticelli as the ‘Medusa’ motif.


on the trail of Leonardo

The face of Leonardo da Vinci is one of several references made to him by Botticelli in the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli, in fact, had mirrored one of the figures in Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s version of Tobias and the Angel (1460). The model for the angel Raphael was Leonardo.


You can see Botticelli’s figure of Leonardo points to the ‘wing’ of the man next to him. He has also placed a ‘red-wing’ on Leonardo’s shoulder to reference the ‘red kite’. Then there is the ‘fluted’ folds on the shoulders of the two men standing behind Leonardo to echo the ‘fluted’ wing of the stooped figure on the opposite side of the picture, also meant to represent Leonardo from behind. So we have two depictions of Leonardo – from the front and from behind. This points to another image produced by Pollaiuolo, an engraving known as the Battle of the Naked Men (c1370-80). Its two central figures are likely front and back versions of Leonardo da Vinci.


Pollaiuolo may have also featured Leonardo in other works depicting combat between naked men: the panel painting showing Hercules crushing Antaeus (1470-75) and, perhaps, the bronze sculpture he made on the same theme (1470s). Both items are housed at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. As to which figure portrays Leonardo, if any, Botticelli may have simply been pointing to the idea that Leonardo not only modelled for Pollaiuolo but also shared Antonio’s interest in disecting bodies to study and portray the human form, particularly of men.


Andrea del Verrocchio noted this interest and connection, hence his portrayal of the screaming angel, aka Leonardo da Vinci, depicted by Pollaiuolo as the angel Raphael and also the screaming and crushed figure of Antaeus.


There is another interpretation that can be applied to the ‘screaming angel’ on Giuliano’s protective breastplate. If we suppose that the portrait does depict Leonardo in distress, then perhaps it was Giuliano who gave his support when he was anonymously acused with four other men of sodomy. The men had to report to the courts two months later and the charges were then dropped. Some historians have speculated it was because of one of the men’s family links to the Medici. Could the Medici ‘saviour’ have been Giuliano?


Shortly after Pollaiuolo had painted Tobias and the Angel, Andrea del Verrocchio produced a similar version. The Raphael figures differ slightly – the angel’s right arm, for instance. Verrocchio’s angel is comparable to the upright figure of Leonardo in Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration. The right arm is placed across the chest; the left hand holds up his cloak; and the head is inclined slightly and turns to one side with eyes cast downward.


Another feature is the linking of arms, similar in both Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio versions. This is carried through in Botticelli’s painting. Below the chin of the stooped man with the white cap (aka Leonardo and Jacopo Saltarelli) is a pair of hands. First impression is that both hands belong to Giuliano de’Medici. The hand underneath does, but the hand placed on the back belongs to the stooped man. This relationship points to Verrochio’s version of The Angel and Tobias in which, according to Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, Leonardo may have had a hand in some of the work, particularly in painting the fish, and possibly another reason why Verrocchio chose to depict Leonardo with an open mouth on Giuliano’s protective cuirass. Hooked and presented on a breastplate.


The breastplate acting a protective shield is also mirrored by the stooped man’s cap. It represents the discarded shield of Pollaiuolo’s naked man (seen from the back).


when Botticelli ‘goosed’ Hugo van der Goes

So why did Sandro Botticelli decide to include a profile of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and Van der Goes do likewise and feature Botticelli in the Monforte Altarpiece? Did the two artists meet at some time, perhaps in Florence after Hugo was commissioned to produce an altarpiece for the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova? Or maybe on his way to making a pilgrimage to Rome?


(Left) a sel-portrait of Botticelli and (right) as depicted by Hugo van der Goes.

Botticelli’s self portrait is shown above (left). In Hugo’s painting he is depicted wearing a blue cap and staring at another artist, Dieric Bouts who was deceased at the time. The reason why Hugo painted the cap in ‘cobalt’ blue was to reference the German mythical Kobold, a house sprite reputed to play malicious tricks if insulted or neglected – and a fitting description for Botticelli’s reputation for vindictive humour, often expressed in through his paintings.


Not seen in the frame above is the piece of rock placed across the chest of Bouts. It’s there for two reasons, but in this instance relates to the Kobbold and hints at the probable cause of Bouts’ death. Wikipedia explains: “The name of the element cobalt comes from the creature’s name, because medieval miners blamed the sprite for the poisonous and troublesome nature of the typical arsenical ores of this metal (cobaltite and smaltite) which polluted other mined elements.”


As a young apprentice, Bouts was probably tasked to grind minerals and rocks as part of the process in preparing paint. It likely contributed to his health problems later in life. This may also explain why Hugo van der Goes descended into bouts of depression and odd behaviour. Botticelli also struggled with depression.


Portraits of Hugo van der Goes by Botticelli (left) and Van der Goes (right).

Hugo van der Goes gave himself a prominent position in the Monforte Altarpiece, almost centre stage. Draped in black, an indication of his approaching death, he depicts himself as the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Frederick III, perhaps somewhat in recognition of his own vainglory.


Botticelli paints Hugo in the role of Balthazar, said to be a Babylonian scholar, in the secondary line of Magi. The iconography relating to this is detailed and complex, but one example is the striped scarf around his shoulders, the stripes representing myrrh and its association with death.


But there is another reference Botticelli creates with the scarf – that of a goose, a play on Hugo’s name, Goes, and its pronunciation “hoose”. The goose shape with its long neck can be seen by turning the feature on its side. Another pointer to the long neck might be the inferrence that Hugo was sticking his neck out by taking on a commission in Florence and the work from the mouths of local artists. Perhaps this is why Van der Goes responded by showing the figure in front of Botticelli with a long neck and what appears to be a ‘steel’ collar pointing to Botticelli’s cheek!


The Monforte Altarpiece, Hugo van der Goes’ response to Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi.

was Botticelli ever in Leuven?

It is likely that Sandro Botticelli made a journey from his home in Florence to Flanders and, in particular, to the Flemish region of Brabant and the city of Leuven, now part of Belgium.


While in Leuven, for whatever reason, it appears that Botticelli visited St Peter’s church and laid eyes on the famous altarpiece (still displayed there) painted by Dieric Bouts – the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The triptych was commissioned in 1464 and completed four years later in 1468.


The Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament completed by Dieric Bouts in 1468.

As Bouts died in May 1475, it is likely that Botticelli’s visit would have occurred sometime during a seven year span between 1468 and the early part of 1475.


Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi incorporates in detail some of the iconography and ideas embedded in the Bouts triptych, particularly in the centre panel depicting the Last Supper. I can only assume that this detailed knowledge was given to Botticelli by Dieric Bouts himself, which may further explain why Hugo van der Goes, a close associate of Bouts, placed portraits of the two artists side by side in his Adoration triptych known as the Montforte Altarpiece.

Botticelli’s frieze of artists

In an earlier note I pointed out that Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi could not have been completed before 1480 and perhaps even 1481. Since then, after further study of the iconography, I can say the painting was not finished until at least 1482, after Botticelli had returned from Rome where he had spent several months as part of a team of Florentine artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to frescoe the walls of the Sistine Chapel.


Sandro Botticelli and Dieric Bouts are featured in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes.


A line-up of artists and patrons, including the bearded Hugo van der Goes

Evidence for this claim is the line of figures Botticelli has ‘frescoed’ against the extended wall on the right side of the painting. Most of the men represent the main artists involved in the Sistine Chapel project, and some of the iconography in the group is linked to parts of the frescoed panels.


The Temptation of Christ, one of the frescoes in the Sisting Chapel painted by Botticelli.

Shown above is detail from The Temptation of Christ, one of the frescoes that line the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This particular panel was painted by Sandro Botticelli. The frescoes were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. Botticelli shared the work with three other artists, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The three are depicted in the back line while the front row shows Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio and Guasparre dal Lama.


The line-up is similar to the one featured in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shown in the clip below: (left to right) Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio, Guasparre dal Lama, Cosimo Rosselli, Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio.


Painters and patrons... a section from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi.

Verrocchio’s workshop trained many artists and skilled craftsmen (including Leonardo de Vinci) and was possibly a liaison link between the artists commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, while Guasparre was the man said to have commissioned Botticelli to paint the the Adoration of the Magi.
But why would Botticelli have placed Guasparre in a frescoe he had no apparent connection with, and in such a prominent position?


Painters and patrons... a section from the Sistine Chapel fresco, The Temptation of Christ, painted by Sandro Botticelli.

together in eclectic dreams


The top section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi shows the Virgin Mary presenting the Infant Jesus on her lap to Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder. Behind her stands Joseph, while above the group the Star of Bethlehem shines through the rafters of the temporary dwelling portrayed in a state of ruin and collapse.


What remains of the walled structure is divided into three distinct sections, the bricked corner walls to the right of the group; the dark and craggy rock that forms the back wall; and the pale outcrop which Joseph rests on. Then there is the raftered roof supported by two tree trunks.


The left half of the bricked walls section is shaped to represent the sejant erect heraldic lion, the symbol of Florence known as the Marzocco. Placed alongside the infant Jesus representing the sacrificial Lamb of God, it becomes the Lion and Lamb peace symbol.


Sculpted from the rock shelf which Joseph is leaning on is a head representing Leonardo da Vinci. When this is merged with the lion feature it produces a sphinx-like form of half-man and half-lion. Botticelli is specifically drawing attention to the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, and Leonardo’s claim in one of his notebooks that he travelled to Egypt and further East. However, historians put this down to fantasy on Leonardo’s part.


The shape of the dark rock that forms the back wall is a bellowing bull, its horns are represented as part of the roof’s rafters. The bellowing represents thunder, the horns, lightning (next to the light from the Star of Bethlehem breaking through the darkness). The bull is Taurus and another pointer to Leonardo’s travelogue and the mysterious draft letter letter to “the Decatdar of Syria, Lieutentant of the Sacred Sultan of Babylon” found in one of his notebooks, detailing his time spent in Armenia and describing the Taurus Mountains.


The dark rock also represents the sculpted Lion of Babylon that depicts a man pinned underneath (Leonardo). Its inclusion is another reference to Egypt but particularly to a part of Cairo at the time known as Babylon. The motif may also refer to the biblical “Babylon Captivity” of the Jews and so a symbol of oppression. Leonardo as the pinned man under the lion points to the polymath’s of oppression by the Florentine authorities and the likely false and malicious charge of sodomy made against him, hence his desire to leave the city when an opportunity arose and move to Milan. The mayhem and random slaughter of citizens following the assassination of Giluiano de’ Medici was another likely factor in Leonardo’s desire to leave Florence.


That Joseph is depicted leaning on the flat cap of Leonardo’s sculpted head, seemingly asleep, reinforces the dream and journey theme. After the departure of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream warning him of Herod’s intention to slay the new-born child, and that he should escape into Egypt. (Matthew 2 : 13-15)


Adding support to the premise that Leonardo is portrayed in his familar peaked flat cap as the Great Sphinx are the two tree trunks supporting the timbered roof of the building. They form the Roman numeral IV –four – and refer to a period in the Sphinx’s history and that of the short reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV.


The Marzocco of Florence


A combination of the Taurus bull and the Lion of Babylon


The Lion of Babylon


The Great Sphinx of Giza, partly submerged under sand, ca 1870’s

It was Thutmose who, as a prince, was out hunting one day and decided to rest in the shade of the Sphinx which was buried up to its neck in sand. Wikipedia explains: “He soon fell asleep and had a dream in which the sphinx told him that if he cleared away the sand and restored it he would become the next Pharaoh. After completing the restoration he placed a stone tablet, now known as the Dream Stele, between the two paws of the Sphinx. The restoration of the Sphinx, and the text of the Dream Stele would then be a piece of propaganda on Thutmose’s part, meant to bestow legitimacy upon his unexpected kingship.” (Peter Clayton, Chronicles of the Pharaohs)


This propoganda theme likely mirrors the motive and steps taken by Lorenzo de’ Medici to enhance his reputation following the Pazzi consiracy. The de facto ruler of Florence soared in popularity among the people of the Republic after the brutal murder of his brother Giuliano.


Like the Sphinx, Leonardo’s head is buried from the neck down. The shadowed area falls behind the head of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He is also in a dream-like state and focused on the face of the Child Jesus. This particular feature is a defining link to Deiric Bouts’ painting of the Last Supper from which Botticelli has adapted features to include in his Uffizi Adoration. Bouts also included Thutmose IV and the Dream Stele and linked the pharaoh to the apostle Jude Thaddeus and the Image of Edessa, the so-called Mandylion. Botticelli makes the connection to the Last Supper painting and the raising of the Host (the time during the Mass when Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in the Duomo) by identifying Lorenzo with Jude Thaddeus who is said to have brought the Mandylion (the cloth miraculously imprinted with the face of Jesus) to king Abdar of Edessa.


Comparing Lorenzo de’ Medici to the Apostle Jude Thaddeus in Dieric Bouts’ Last Supper painting.

In icons of St Jude, one of his attributes is a flame around his head to indicate his presence at Pentecost. This is shown as a ‘tongues of fire’ symbol on the top of Lorenzo’s hat. Lorenzo is also draped in a cloak meant to represent the Shroud of Jesus on which the covered face of Christ is depicted. Notice also the features of the face and beard of the turbaned man to the left of Lorenzo’s hat, intended to match the profile of Jude in the Bouts painting. The fold on Jude’s left arm represents the head of the Sphinx while there is also a suggestion of the shrouded face of Christ on his back, similar to that shown on Lorenzo.


Leonardo da Vinci portrayed as the Great Sphinx.

The stone carving of Leonardo is shaped as a double head. It may represent two aspects of Leonardo as well as the double-headed eagle, facing East and West, and perhaps a pointer to Leonardo’s flight frrom Florence to Milan as well as the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It’s just possible to make out the shape of an angel (above Cosimo’s head). This winged angel is also likely a reference to the ‘winged’ shape of a nemes crown, the striped extended head cloth worn by pharaohs. The left side head of the rock is formed from the other wing of the nemes.


Another link to Leonardo being portrayed as a sphinx was his fondness for composing riddles. The mythical Greek sphinx that guarded the city of Thebes would devour any traveller unable to answer its riddle. It was classed as female with the wings of an eagle and considered malevolent, while the Egyptian sphinx was portrayed with a man’s head and seen as benevolent.


The main profile of the sculpture shows Leonardo facing two figures connected with the East, the drooped head of Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli who escaped to Constantinople after assassinating Giuliano de’ Medici, only to be brought back to Florence and hanged while still dressed as a Turk. The other figure is the turbaned man alongside Leonardo, representing both King Agbar of Edessa and Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottaman Empire, who sanctioned the extradition of Baroncelli back to Florence. He also represents Epicurus, the Greek philosopher.

heads of state

Seeing double... Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV… adoring the Infant Saviour

heads of state


I previously pointed out that in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, the figure of Joseph is leaning on a stone shelf which depicts Leonardo da Vinci as the head of the Great Sphinx. It wasn’t the first time Botticelli had portrayed Leonardo as the Sphinx. He had used the motif in an earlier work when he and other Florentine artists were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The commission was seen as a gesture of goodwill in building the peace process between Florence and the Pope in the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and assassination of Giuliano de’ Medci.


I also mentioned that the two tree trunks supporting the roof of the building housing the Holy Family represent the Roman numeral IV – four – and made the connection to the pharaoh Thutmose IV.


Now the numeral can also be understood as a pointer to Pope Sixtus IV, born Francesco della Rovere.


The two supports are from oak trees. Some oak leaves sprout from the vertical support even though it has been stripped of its bark at the base and so starved from nutrients and therefore any future life, a likely reference to the figure below of the hanged assassin Bernardo Bandini del Baroncelli, who served on the side of Sixtus in the pope’s efforts to remove the Medici family from its power base in Florence.


The Pope’s family name of Della Rovere means “of the oaks” or “the place of the oaks”. So here we see Botticelli expressing the Pope’s desire to take control of the Florentine Republic of which Lorenzo de’ Medici was the de facto ruler.


Art historians generally agree that the figure kneeling in front of the Infant Jesus is Lorenzo’s grandfather, Cosimo de’ Medici, but it also depicts Pope Sixtus IV as head of the Church on earth, and so a bridge (pontiff) between heaven and earth, a crossing into the promised land, not only led by Moses as described in the Old Testament, but also through the death and resurrection on the new-born Saviour, Jesus – hence the hands of Cosimo and Sixtus clasping the feet of the Infant. The two families, the Medici and the Della Rovere, are shown united in a symbolic sign of reconciliation and peace.


It was Pope Sixtus IV who built the Sistine Bridge across the Tiber in Rome. Notice the river-bend shape of the white scarf draped around his shoulders. Seen as Cosimo, the drape represents a waxing crescent moon.

There is another reference to ‘the place of oaks’ – the head of Sixtus – shaped as an acorn with its cup and nut. It’s gaunt appearance is reminiscent of some of the skull studies in Leonardo’s anatomical drawings and is meant to act as a ‘bridge’ to the sculpted head of Leonardo portrayed in the ‘rockface’ above. Which brings me back to the start of this post and the mention of Botticelli painting a similar motif in an earlier work.


For this we have to return again to the Sistine Chapel and the connection to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from Egyptian captivity. The particular fresco is the Trials of Moses (or Youth of Moses) painted on the southern wall.

more to follow...

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