Botticelli’s Joke

This snippet comes from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. Vasari (1511-1574) is regarded as the first Italian art historian, and his biographies of Renaissance painters, first published in 1550, went on to become an instant classic. As well as outlining the lives and works of various painters, Visari was also fond of amusing anecdotes and gossip. The following is taken from his life of Sandro Botticelli:
One of Sandro’s paintings, a very highly-regarded work to be found in San Francesco outside the Porta a San Miniato is a Madonna in a circular picture with some angels, all life-size.  He was a very good-humoured man and much given to playing jokes on his pupils and friends.  For example, the story goes that one of his pupils, called Biagio, painted a circular picture exactly like the one of Botticelli’s mentioned above, and that Sandro sold it for him to one of the citizens for six gold florins; then he found Biagio and told him, ‘I’ve finally sold that picture of yours. Now you must hang it up high this evening so it looks better, and then tomorrow morning go along and find the man who bought it so that you can show it to him properly displayed in a good light, and then he’ll give you your money.’ ‘Oh, you’ve done marvellously,’ said Biagio, who then went along to the shop, hung his picture at a good height, and left.

In the meantime, Sandro and another of his pupils, Jacopo, had made several paper hats (like the ones the citizens wore) which they stuck with white wax over the heads of the eight angels that surrounded the Madonna in his picture. Then, when the morning came, Biagio arrived with the citizen who had bought his painting (and who had been let into the joke). They went into the shop, where Biagio looked up and saw his Madonna seated, not in the midst of angels, but in the middle of the councillors of Florence, all wearing their paper hats!  He was just about to roar out in anger and make excuses when he noticed that the man he was with had said nothing at all, and was in fact starting to praise the picture, so Biagio kept quiet himself. At length he went home with him and was given his six florins, as the price agreed by Botticelli. Then he went back to the shop, a moment or two after Sandro and Jacopo had removed those paper hats, and he found that the angels he had painted were angels after all and was so stupefied that he was at a loss for words.

Eventually he turned to Sandro and said, ‘Sir, I don’t know if I am dreaming or if this is reality, but when I was here earlier those angels were wearing red hats, and now they’re not. What’s the meaning of it?’ ‘You’ve taken leave of your senses,’ said Sandro. ‘All that money has gone to your head. If what you say were true, do you think he’d have bought your picture?’ ‘That’s so,’ said Biagio, ‘He didn’t say a word. But all the same it struck me as very strange.’ Then all the other apprentices flocked around him and convinced him that he had had some kind of giddy spell.


  • November 26, 2009 - 4:27 pm | Permalink

    There is also a charming story about Botticelli exacting revenge on a noisy neighbour. He certainly had a sense of humour.

  • November 25, 2009 - 5:31 pm | Permalink

    A variation on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Lovely.

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