Recreation of Ancient Paintings: Botticelli, The Calumny of Apelles (1496-1497)

Recreation of Ancient Paintings: Botticelli, The Calumny of Apelles (1496-1497)

In sharp contrast to architecture, sculpture, and of course literature, no works of classical painting had survived into the fifteenth century. In what sense can we speak of a 'rebirth' of classical painting when 'Renaissance artists' had nothing to imitate? In the absence of ancient paintings to copy, one strategy was to recreate paintings that had been lost. This is the origin of the painting reproduced above.

Classical writings occasionally described the paintings of antiquity and the aspirations of their painters in a genre called ekphrasisA notable example of ekphrasis was the following description of the lost painting 'Calumny' by Apelles given by the Greek writer Lucian (c. 125-180 AD):

On the right of it sits Midas with very large ears, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has a piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents envy. There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.* 

The highly influential humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) recommended this work as a subject for artists to recreate in his landmark book On Painting of 1435.

The description that Lucian gives of Calumny painted by Apelles excites our admiration when we read it. I do not think it is inappropriate to tell it here, so that painters may be advised of the need to take particular care in creating inventions of this kind.... If this 'historia' seizes the imagination when described in words, how much beauty and pleasure do you think it presented in the actual painting of that excellent artist?** 

The most famous artist that heeded Alberti's challenge was Sandro Botticelli (c.1445-1510), whose 'Calumny of Apelles' (1496-7) is considered the best recreation of Lucian's description. But it is not amongst the artist's major works. At only 62 by 91 cm (24 by 36 in), the 'Calumny' is far smaller than the large mythological paintings for which Botticelli is most famous today: Primavera (c. 1480) and The Birth of Venus (mid-1480s) are roughly ten times the size. Many aspects of these paintings were inspired by classical myth and literature, but not by the literary descriptions of lost paintings known as ekphrasis.

So the flourishing of Italian 'Renaissance' painting was not caused either by the direct imitation of classical paintings, or by the direct recreation of lost classical works; nor did it result from rediscovering and deploying the rules of the art of painting, since no equivalent for painting survived of Vitruvius's ten books of architecture. The genuine derivation of 'Renaissance' painting from classical culture is more subtle. 

* Lucian, De Calumnia, 5.
** Alberti, On Painting, trans. Cecil Grayson (London, 1991), 88, 89.

Further reading.

D. Cast, The Calumny of Apelles: A Study in the Humanist Tradition (New Haven and London, 1981).

David Rosand, ‘Ekphrasis and the Generation of Images’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 3rd. series, I.1 (1990), 61-105: