Botticelli's Quarantine

New York magazine|May 25 - June 07, 2020

Botticelli's Quarantine
This is the saddest picture I have ever seen.
By Jerry Saltz

SANDRO BOTTICELLI’S SMALL, nearly unknown 15th-century masterpiece gives us a human being stripped of all hope. The painting is a metaphysical crucible filled with the woes of the external world, invisible emotions, shame, wailing last things, cataclysmic loss, silence, final journeys, the closing down of life, demonic intensity, and the retraction of self. Often called, perfectly, La Derelitta (or “The Desperate One”), it is the saddest painting I have ever seen, though I’ve never seen it in the flesh. I first saw it in my 20s. I had talked my way into a job showing slides for art-history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The afternoon I projected it, it smote me.

There’s no visual way into or out of this picture—no space. It’s all wall, a kind of premodern brutalism and rigid minimalism. Everything is stripped of adornment, rendered in low relief, unreal, dreamlike, diminished but concrete, realistic. Botticelli made The Desperate One in Florence when he was approaching a life crisis. He was born there in 1446 and died there in 1510. He never lived for long more than a few miles from where he was born, like Bruce Springsteen, who also has imagined encyclopedic universes filled with operatic casts. Springsteen once remarked, “I made it all up; that’s how good I am.” Botticelli saw it all. He was an eyewitness to the birth of a new world and the beginning of its death.

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May 25 - June 07, 2020