(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)
Bardi Altarpiece (detail)1484
Tempera on panel
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The Virgin is depicted enthroned in an arbour niche between St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. The detailed fashioning of the meadow flowers and the plants in the arbour niche call to mind Primavera, which Botticelli painted at almost the same time, clearly indicating the temporal proximity of the two works. The flowers represent a eulogy in symbolic form of the Mother of God, the significance allotted each of them being explained by means of thin banderoles attached to the individual plants. With reference to the roses which fill the bowls on the back-rest of the throne bench, for example, we may read, "Like a rose tree in Jericho"; the olive branches in the copper vases behind them bear the comparison, "Like a beautiful olive tree in an open field". The lemon trees completing the painting on each side have the text: "I am as tall as a cedar from Lebanon." The fact that Botticelli reproduced lemon trees here instead of cedars may be explained by the common confusion of these plants during the Renaissance, resulting from the ambiguity of the Italian translation of Latin "cedrus" as both cedar and lemon tree.
The texts of the banderoles present Mary as the pure Mother of God. The belief in her immaculate conception had a great following in the 15th century, especially in England. Giovanni Bardi too was clearly not unaffected and prompted Botticelli to produce what was an unusual pictorial composition for the Florence of that time. The careful breaking-down of the plant symbolism through the banderoles likewise stems from a tradition that was more indigenous to the northern countries than to Italy. Giovanni Bardi had presumably seen a similar painting during his period of residence in England and brought the idea back with him to Florence.