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Sandro Botticelli - Calumny of Apelles

by Alexandra Tuschka

Although the title would suggest otherwise, "Appelles" is not something one of the 11 people depicted, but the title refers to the fact that Botticelli here brought an ancient work back to life. This because of a description in Lucian. It is the exact description of a work that is lost today and, in addition, tells us the interesting story about the creation of the original:

Apelles, born in the 4th century BC became the most important painter of antiquity. Not a single one of his works has really been preserved for us, only literary testimonies describe to us how they must have once looked. His work entitled "The Slander" was born out of a very personal experience. His rival Antiphilos denounced Appelles to the Egyptian king Ptolemy IV, claiming that the latter was part of a conspiracy. The king blindly believed the accusations. However, after Appelles' innocence was confirmed, he gave Antiphilos to him as a slave. Apelles painted his picture as an expression of his contempt and possibly also to come to terms with the terrible experience.

Botticelli, in turn, a child of the Renaissance, and thus of the era that rediscovered the works of antiquity and breathed new life into them, knew Lucian's description of the lost painting and recreated the work based on these words. Let's take a closer look at the individual figures:

"On the right side of the painting sits a man with long ears that lack little that they could be mistaken for Midas ears. His hand is outstretched toward the slander coming at him from the background." - Here reference is made to King Midas, a figure of ancient mythology whose stupidity and greed are the subject of numerous anecdotes. He got his donkey ears from Apollo after Midas wanted to award first place in a musical contest not to him with the lyre, but to Pan with the flute. The king is depicted here on the throne, with scepter, but his lowered gaze shows that he is not really looking. His outstretched arm suggests an address or condemnation.

" Beside him stand two female figures, which I take to be the ignorance and distrust." - The two women bend toward the king from both sides and physically harass him. They even pull their ears long to place their lies even better.

"From the left side the slander approaches him in the form of an extraordinarily charming, but heated and excited girl, whose features and movements express anger and wrath: In her left hand she holds a burning torch; with her right she drags a young man by the hair, who stretches up his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness." - "Slander" is also beautiful and thus has the gift of easily dazzling people. Its torch represents anger and hatred, but also lies. Everything is easily ignited and then difficult to extinguish again. Her grip on the young man's hair shows her superiority and power. The man has folded his hands in prayer. In Lukian, however, it is written that he "lifts up" his hands for prayer. Possibly this means the orant posture that was widespread until the 14th century.

"Before her walks a pale, ugly man with a piercing look, who looks as if a long illness had emaciated him: Everyone will recognize envy in him." - This figure also extends his arm, doubling the movement of the king. They also connect the two groups compositionally. He has grabbed the slander by the wrist, expressing his dominance. Since the "truth" still follows in the background, his position may also be an attempt to cover it.

"Behind it come two female figures, who are talking at the slander and seem to dress it up and adorn it: These are (...) the guile and the deceit. At the very back follows a mourning figure in black, torn garb: the Repentance, who turns backward weeping and looks full of shame at the approaching truth."(1) - These are the last two figures, which loosen up the composition a bit. However, it can also be said that their position expresses that "repentance" and "truth" come too late. The little black mother has aged considerably. Her crossed wrists represent powerlessness. The gesture is found in art with figures who have been wronged and who express their sadness in this way. She looks at the truth - as if in regret. Truth, in turn, is naked. The pointing gesture towards heaven will probably not have been present in Appelles, because it points to God's righteous judgment and is a typical Christian symbol. While ancient mythology knows many gods who were not always just, the Christian religion knows only one God who watches over everything and balances injustice.

Thus, all the figures, except for the young man, who is usually equated with Appelles himself, are allegorical in nature. The Italian (no ancient description was available here) set the whole in a Renaissance throne room with all sorts of sculptures and reliefs, only a few of which are clearly identified. The sea indicated as a line makes it clear that Botticelli did not want to make a name for himself as a landscape painter.

Alberti had also described the "slander" of the appeal and praised it in his highly influential work "De pictura" of 1435, recommending it to artists for imitation. Whether, in addition to the challenge of recreating an ancient work, there was also a personal reason on Botticelli's part for this elaboration is a matter for debate. For the small format of 62 x 91 cm suggests that this work was not intended to be exhibited publicly, but rather created for private use. There is possibly a biographical parallel to the story of the appeal, for we also know of Botticelli that he was anonymously accused of sodomy (sex with animals) in 1502. And as tempting as it is to associate this painting with that incident, However, since this work is usually dated 1494/95, the events do not quite fit together.

Sandro Botticelli - The Calumny of Appelles

Tempera on wood, 1494/95, 62 x 91 cm, Gallery of the Uffizi, Florence

Jacob Jordaens - Contest of Apollo and Marsyas

Oil on canvas, 1637, 180 x 270 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Unknown - Noah holding the oranges

Lucian, Calumnia 2, quoted from Werner Krenkel: Apelles bei Petron und Lucilius. In: Scientific Journal of the University of Rostock. Vol. 17, No. 7/8, 1968, pp. 689-695, here pp. 689 f.


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