Serendipity solves mystery

Professor proves link between Botticelli and Savonarola

Joanna Weinstein
April 22, 2010

For years, students have taken his ‘Masterpieces of Art' course or his ‘Michelangelo' course at the Syracuse University Florence (SUF) campus located in Piazza Savonarola. Now, he has made Savonarola an entirely new figure of study for the art world.


Ten years ago, SUF professor Rab Hatfield entered the National Library of Florence to pick up a manuscript he had requested, but it wasn't available. Fortunately for him, the missing manuscript would soon change the history of art.


‘A little too timid to ask where my manuscript order was, I decided to pick up a catalogue that showed the woodcuts of Savonarola's early books,' explained Hatfield. Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian Dominican priest and Florence's leader from the late 1400s, was hailed as a prophet, pronounced a heretic, and scorned for his reactionary preaching and opposition to trade and moneymaking. Eventually, Savonarola, charged with heresay, sedition, and uttering prophecies, was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and in 1498, he was burned at the stake in Piazza Signoria, where a plaque now marks the spot.


Intrigued, Hatfield began flipping through the catalogue. That was when he noticed something unusual in the crucifixion, something different from the typical Renaissance representation. Instead, Hatfield noticed, the crucifixion included what he at first called a ‘chandelier image.' ‘I couldn't understand what this would be doing in a Savonarola book,' he said. As he looked closer, Hatfield realized that the ‘chandelier' was a mystical crown that an angel was presenting to Mary in heaven. More importantly, the crown bore familiar inscriptions: two weeks prior, Hatfield had seen the inscriptions, ‘Mother of God,' ‘Spouse of God,' in the ribbons and scrolls of Sandro Botticelli's Mystic Nativities, painted in 1501, three years after Savonarola's execution.


After extensive research, Hatfield concluded that the inscriptions on the crown in Savonarola's book and in Botticelli's Mystic Nativities were identical. He sent his findings that proved the link between Botticelli and Savonarola to the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, published by the art history department of the University of London.


‘Many people always have thought Botticelli was influenced by Gioachin de Fiori, a thirteenth-century theologian, yet my conclusion for this is negative,' observed Hatfield.


Rather, Hatfield's findings proved that the great friar of Florence, Savonarola, did indeed influence Botticelli's works. ‘Savonarola talked Florentines into changing the form of their democracy,' Hatfield explained. ‘This "chandelier image" is important. It is the reason we know Botticelli's influence.'


Hatfield also explained that the enigmatic Greek inscriptions at the top of Botticelli's Mystic Nativity warn Catholics of the Apocalypse. ‘He did it all himself,' explained Hatfield, referring to Botticelli's statement, which translates to ‘I, Alessandro, did this.' The Renaissance master knew he risked punishment for including references to such Savonarola-inspired theology in the Mystic Nativity after the cleric had been so definitively discredited.


However, the most mysterious part of the story is the discovery itself. ‘It was purely serendipitous,' said Hatfield. ‘The real findings are the lucky ones.


Those that are predicted are only confirmations, not findings. It is when you don't expect it that these things just pop out at you. That's when it's a real discovery!'


Hatfield's finding was recently announced to the public on an episode of the BBC's The Private Life of a Masterpiece. Nonetheless, Hatfield is modest. ‘It was just pure luck,' he maintains. ‘I also have the tremendous fortune of living in Florence where I can go to the Uffizi any day I want, and have 24/7 access to the originals.'


Hatfield notes that Italian art historians and academics are not as interested in issues of authorship as are scholars elsewhere, which is a significant advantage for him. ‘Back home it's all theory. Research there is usually carried out at a distance. But here I get to see the real, concrete thing.'


Commented SUF director Mike Calo, ‘Although professor Hatfield modestly suggests that his discovery was serendipitous, his knowledge of art history, his inquisitive nature, and his characteristic drive to pursue a hunch indicate that he is in fact a detective-our very own Sherlock Holmes of art history.'


SUF may call Hatfield its Sherlock Holmes of art history, but to many students past and present, he is a fascinating professor who encourages his students to be detectives with every work of art they encounter.


Read more about Rab Hatfield's art history sleuthing in Finding Leonardo: The Case for Recovering The Battle of Anghiari, published by The Florentine Press, and an interview with Hatfield in TF 54. Or do some sleuthing of your own: find professor Hatfield in TF 65.


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