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A CurtainUp London Review
Botticelli in the Fire

"Do you even know how it ends for Venus? The goddess of love? Vulcan finds her and Mars in bed and throws a scalding iron net overtop of them trapping them for eternity for all the gods of Olympus gather round and laugh at them."
— Leonardo
Botticelli in the Fire
Cast in Botticelli in the Fire
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Jordan Tannahill impressed with his play Late Company at The Finborough and in the West End in 1417. Botticelli in the Fire is a quasi modern biography of the Florentine artist whose 1480s painting of The Birth of Venus is said in the play to be the first naked painting since Roman times.

I realised that although I knew Primavera and The Birth of Venus but hadn't seen them in Florence, I have seen Mars and Venus in the National Gallery in London but I knew little about the artist Botticelli nicknamed Little Barrel.

Dickie Beau plays Sandro Botticelli who is assisted by a younger artist Leonardo who comes from the Vinci area, yes Leonardo da Vinci (Hiran Abeysekera). Botticelli's patron is the great Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun) (true) whose wife Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba) models for Botticelli as his golden haired Venus (not true). What we have here is a melange of known historical facts and some artistic licence from Mr Tannahill. In fact the whole production is set in a more modern context than the early Renaissance of which Botticelli was a starting point but not the full Renaissance man.

The link with da Vinci is not known except that we know they were both apprenticed to Verrocchio and one of the angels in Verrocchio's The Baptism of Christ was painted by da Vinci and it has been speculated that the other was painted by Botticelli. Botticelli wasn't the rounded full Renaissance man that da Vinci was with his achievements in science, invention and engineering.

Tannahill's play gives Botticelli full reign for his sexual conquests of men and women in a life of promiscuity and hedonism. Fear comes to the homosexual community after the priest Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward) condemns the lascivious behaviour and starts rounding up homosexuals "sodomites" to burn them (not true in Florence but true in other Italian cities). We can see and hear the flames from Botticelli's workshop. For those who only know The Bonfire of the Vanities through Tom Wolfe's novel, Savonarola started these bonfires encouraging his followers to burn their valuable and "vain" possessions and we know that Botticelli gave some of his paintings to be burnt. Tannahill shows Botticelli lining up some paintings showing as plain black and red for the bonfire. These of course are the lost paintings. In the play Botticelli's conversion is not initially a religious one but in order to rescue a homosexual friend from death.

After Savonarola, Botticelli had no patronage or living and his art tended to be religious in theme. The great paintings based on Roman Myths were behind him.

Dickie Beau as Botticelli introduces us to Florence, "an extravaganza" he calls it. At this time the plague is rife and there are riots from the people whipped up by the priest Savonarola who preaches against corruption but Botticelli is partying with the Medicis. Stefan Adegbola plays Poggio di Chiusi, an outrageously camp friend who brings the latest news.

A chorus alludes to the desired perfect proportions when capturing the human form in paint, a rhythmic chant: "one-tenth is a quarter/ below the knee/ to the root/ one-tenth/ eyes/ knee/ breasts…" A competitive squash game between Botticelli and Lorenzo is cleverly directed and of course the Medici wins!

Plays about art are notoriously difficult to stage satisfactorily. Often they have to rely on the biographical rather than the visual art itself. Sometimes the biographical detail is not what we want to associate with the artist. Occasionally art based plays are very successful, thinking about Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton, about Van Gogh our reviews here.

What Jordan Tannahill's play did for me, whilst the play did not feel fully satisfactory, was to set me on a research path about the man behind the beautiful paintings. We get a full size reproduction of the Venus on stage and I won't spoil things by telling you what happens to this work of art.

Blanche McIntyre confidently directs the play and we understand Tannahill's theory that the Renaissance started in a blaze of hedonism as he says in the programme, "a historic battle between two paradigms: the paradigm of those whose lives are governed by a set of principles that dictate their existence in an afterlife, and the paradigm of those who live with a focus on earthly existence."

Notes: The Birth of Venus is thought to have been painted in the mid 1480s. Lorenzo de Medici died in 1492 After the overthrow of the Medicis, Savonarola became the effective leader of Florence. The Bonfire of the Vanities was in 1497. The beautiful model for Botticelli's paintings his Venus, Spring, Madonnnas was Simonetta Vespucci, wife of Marco Vespucci. Interestingly, her cousin by marriage was Amerigo Vespucci and we know what was named after him!

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Botticelli in the Fire
Written by Jordan Tannahill
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Starring: Dickie Beau, Hiran Abeysekera, Stefan Adegbola, Adetomiwa Edun, Louise Gold, Sirine Saba, Howard Ward
Design: James Cotterill
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Composer: Olly Fox
Movement Director: Polly Bennett
Fight Director: Philip d'Orleans
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to November 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th October 2019 evening performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 3EU (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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