SAN FRANCISCO — If just for the rare opportunity to see so much Renaissance art in the Bay Area, Botticelli Drawings at the Legion of Honor would be well worth a visit. But the show is, notably, also the first ever dedicated to Botticelli’s drawings — which are, in themselves, rare — and includes a handful of drawings newly attributed to the artist by Furio Rinaldi, the show’s curator. For folks on my end of California (without, say, the Getty), it’s exciting to see quattrocento art up close, and new attributions are always hella cool. Also, who doesn’t adore Botticelli? 

Well, Giorgio Vasari for one. The so-called father of Western art history could be lukewarm about the art of Sandro Botticelli (though he did esteem the artist’s drawings), a 15th-century Florentine who was long ranked in the second tier of the Renaissance all-stars (meaning Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc., anyone sharing a name with a Ninja Turtle). But Botticelli may be the 21st century’s social media and advertising superstar. His “Birth of Venus” is one of the most recognized images in the world, “La Primavera” only slightly less so.

Neither famous painting is part of the current exhibition and in some ways that’s a gift, proffering the opportunity to experience Botticelli’s work away from blockbuster hustle or hype. The day I visited, the show was lively but not overcrowded and there was plenty of time to really observe the hand of a Renaissance artist for whom drawing was essential. 

It is a rare gift. Fewer than 40 drawings can be securely attributed Botticelli, who left no writing in his own hand, not even his last will and testament. And few artists have so effectively translated the fluency of drawing into painting. Botticelli’s sinuous deployment of line in his paintings — Rinaldi calls him “the consummate master of the line” —  has influenced artists for the past two centuries, from the Pre-Raphaelites to Art Nouveau and beyond. Artists and designers today might owe more to his hand than that of any other luminary of the Italian Renaissance.

For all these reasons, Botticelli Drawings feels of our time, abetted by the clean, unfussy light and organization of the exhibition. The show unfolds along a clear chronology, from Botticelli’s early apprenticeship with Carmelite friar Fra Filippo Lippi to his familiar mature style and workshop of his own (which included Lippi’s illegitimate son, Filippino Lippi), to experiencing the religious intensity of the monk Girolamo Savonarola, to ever more reliance on his workshop for artistic output, and a final decline into poverty.

We tend to think of Botticelli’s work as sweet: Pretty swaying ladies in diaphanous clothes, flowers, shells. But the Legion show is a reminder of the darker path his life’s journey took (to sort of quote Dante, whose writing Botticelli famously illustrated), the drawings serving as palimpsest for all of it. With the drawings as jumping off points for his paintings, including “The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist” — for which Rinaldi has discovered a study for the head of the Virgin — to the melancholic showstopper “Mystic Nativity,” we experience the fullness of his artistic process and expression, and the beauty and rhythm of the art, akin — as Rinaldi points out — to music or dance. The drawings bring us tantalizingly close to the artist himself, a man as clouded by intimations of darkness, and seeking some salve of beauty, as we are today.

Botticelli Drawings continues at the Legion of Honor (100 34th Avenue, San Francisco, California) through February 11. The exhibition was curated by Furio Rinaldi.

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