A great artist
Sandro Botticelli (also known as Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi) is one of the most popular Italian Renaissance painters. His work is seen as a link between the late Italian Gothic and the innovation of the Early Renaissance.
He is famed for his carefully rendered scenes from mythology, most notably, The Birth of Venus and Primavera (both in the Uffizi gallery in Florence). He also painted religious subjects, including the Mystic Nativity and many renditions of the Madonna and Child.
Throughout his life, Botticelli lived in Florence, although he spent brief periods working elsewhere: in Pisa in 1474 and the Sistine Chapel in Rome in 1481–82.
Posthumously, he did not receive serious recognition until the late 19th century, when his work was popularised by the Pre-Raphaelites.
A mythological masterpiece
One of Botticelli’s most successful works is Pallas and the Centaur, created around 1482 using tempera on canvas.
To the left of the image is a centaur. To the right is a female figure, clutching the centaur’s hair. The identity of this female figure is unclear. In the earliest record of the painting – an inventory of 1499 – she was named as Camilla, a figure from Roman mythology. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Camilla was raised in the forest by her father, the exiled King Metabus. He promised the goddess Diana that Camilla would be her servant, a warrior virgin huntress – so she often represents chastity.
But in 1516, in another inventory, Botticelli’s muse was recorded as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, whose Greek equivalent, Athena, was often given the epithet Pallas. Today, she is generally referred to as Pallas.
The art historian, Arthur Frothingham, also suggested that the figure is Florencia, personifying the city of Florence.
Whilst the identity of the female figure has provoked much debate, the meaning behind the centaur is clearer. The centaur – a creature combining man and beast – symbolises the feral instincts of humanity – uncontrolled passion, lust and sensuality. So, noting this centaur’s submissive position, this painting represents submission of passion to chastity and reason.
A grand family
Pallas’ dress is decorated with the three ring insignia, a symbol of the Medici family – which indicates that they were probably Botticelli’s patrons. The Medici family was an Italian banking family and political dynasty which grew to enormous wealth and power. They produced four popes of the Catholic Church (Pope Leo X, Pope Clement VII, Pope Pius IV and Pope Leo XI) and two queens of France (Catherine de’ Medici and Marie de’ Medici). With control of the city of Florence, the Medici’s created an environment where art and humanism could flourish, playing a major part in propelling the Italian Renaissance.
Botticelli was one of the artists who benefitted from their patronage. Pallas and the Centaur was owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, who lived from 1463 to 1503. He was an Italian banker and politician, and cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He belonged to the junior (or “Popolani”) branch of the House of Medici of Florence. This painting may have been commissioned to mark his marriage with Semiramide Appiani in 1482.
A puzzle of symbols
Pallas wears branches around her head, arms, breasts and hips. These could either symbolise Camilla’s forest dwelling, or they could be olive branches – the olive tree was a symbol of Pallas. Some have suggested these are laurel branches, a possible pun alluding to Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Despite Pallas’ graceful, feminine appearance, on her back is a shield, and she has leather sandals on her feet. She also wields an enormous ceremonial halberd, a weapon carried by guards. As she clutches the hair of the centaur, it appears the centaur has been caught in the act of preparing to shoot a bow.
Like many of the Medici paintings, today, Pallas and the Centaur hangs in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. In the later 16th century it hung in the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall in Florence. In 1638 it was at the Medici Villa di Castello, along with Primavera. By 1830 it had been moved to Palazzo Pitti, a palace situated on the south side of the River Arno.
The painting was little-known until it was noticed in 1895 by an English artist living in Florence, William Blundell Spence. He spotted it in one of the ante-rooms of the Palazzo Pitti. From then, the painting became popular with the new Pre-Raphaelite movement, who admired art which was created before the time of Raphael.