1st Assignment: Formal Analysis: Layers of Allegory in Botticelli

In analyzing the art of the Layers of Allegory, one factual element alone may be considered, and it is the “calumny” of the title.  Calumny, being defined as an insult is considered as the human element of the art itself. Just as other artists create works on love or treachery, calumny seems to be a human element very suited for the treatment of this particular painting. Knowing only this, the most striking aspect of the painting at first sight is its allegorical essence.  It is clearly all about symbolism and iconography, as the pictured individuals represent states of being, thinking, and feeling.  The component of myth, for example, is evident in the figure of King Midas at the far right, easily identified by his having the ears of an ass.  True to allegory, he is flanked in the right foreground by three cloaked figures, all whispering frantically to him.  Midas’s arm is stretched out and he seems to be accusing a youth in the painting’s center of some unspecified crime. In the center, the youth is accompanied by several figures, all who appear to be desperately arguing on his behalf.  The form of a hooded old woman stands to the left of this grouping, turning her head toward a nude figure to her right.  The form and blatant spirituality of this figure indicates a divine presence, or more likely a symbolic representation of a virtue; that calumny is the subject, then, suggests this figure as a symbolic form of truth.  Viewed in its entirety, then, the layered iconography of the painting powerfully sets before the viewer a “process” of gross injustice; base slander is fed and acted upon by a royal authority, and innocence suffers.  To the side, a witness of mysterious authority turns to “truth” for a higher judgment, even as truth can only indicate the answer as being beyond the mortal world, with her gaze and hand extended to the heavens.  As complex as the painting is, The Calumny of Apelles appears to be a simple declaration against the evil of slander.

In terms of actual composition, Botticelli uses space and linear placement to present a highly symmetrical tableau.  Balance is the keynote here, as the figures are nearly perfectly separated by expanses of space within the classical setting.  The symmetry is also somewhat deceptive; because of the force and color used, Midas and his attendants to the right appear to dominate, as they are also elevated by his throne.  Only in further viewing does the impact of the more plainly colored and less showy “truth” create balance in scale, which may be a subtle purpose of the artist.  Line is also highly effective throughout, and in more than one way.  All the garments worn reflect the combined static and realistic qualities of fabric in typical Renaissance art; they drape in natural ways, yet they are also rigid.  Then, there is a grace of contour in the arrangements of the figures themselves.  There are essentially three groupings in the tableau, and the lines of each reflect meaning.  Midas and his attendants are an essence of force or rhythm, leaning forward in a cluster to convey accusation, led by his outstretched, pointing hand; the innocent youth and his advocates in the center are less clustered, even as the grace and curves of their formation have a more “human” or vulnerable character; and the two women to the right stand nearly together in formal attitudes.  Line here is particularly important, as the right arm of “truth” ascending contrasts the descending right arm of the old woman.  That the woman is also heavily robed, in contrast to the nakedness of “truth,” reveals another facet of the larger meaning.

All of this symmetry and placement occurs, however, in a field of perspective.  Botticelli layers the space in a tripartite way that echoes his three groupings.  As the figures are in the foreground, dimension is added by the ornate architectural backdrop behind them.  The columns between the three arches are filled with rich sculptures of classic heroes, serving as an additional backdrop of “witnesses.”  Beyond this, there is the further dimension of open sky, which emphasizes the heavens above pointed to by “truth”.  While Botticelli adheres to proportion in setting his layers in triple patterns, the actual shape of the scene is then rendered simultaneously simple and complex.  There is no real overlapping in this imagery; rather, there is more a sense of linear action as moving in a rhythm from the right to the left.

That Botticelli employs the rich palette of the Renaissance is not surprising, even as it must be remembered that his choices in color exist to redefine classicism, as well as serve as metaphors of their own.  As noted, “truth” is the least “colorful” representation, and her pale hues very much echo the tones and shades of the statuary behind her.  Conversely, Midas and his attendants are robed in thick, dark folds of color; brown and purple dominate this cluster.  The innocence of the central grouping is, then, more appropriately in pastel shades.  These choices in color clearly reflect the rhythm and meaning of the scene, as the eye of the viewer moves from the dark and menacing tones of the accuser to, ultimately, the pale and naked “truth”.

On one level, it may be argued that Botticelli’s The Calumny of Apelles is a strict example of the allegorical school of the Renaissance.  Everything is done exactly right, in terms of form, proportion, spatial dimension, color, and representation.  All components stand in correct relation to one another, an effect mirrored by the layers behind the actual scene.  It is the energy of the dynamic, however, that elevates the painting.  To express actual motion and conflict in a scene that is essentially a still tableau is not easy, yet this is what Botticelli accomplishes.  In a field or scene of allegorical effect, he presents a living moment recording all too human interaction.