Painted devotional tondi were very popular household furnishings during the Renaissance, especially in Tuscany. Botticelli executed several exquisite ones, such as the famous Madonna of the Magnificat. The tondo housed in Room IX of the Galleria, which came from Cardinal Salviati’s collection, was executed around 1488/90, and thus belongs to a period of the artist’s work in which one can already see several signs of the stylistic and religious change that was to characterize his work after Savonarola’s preaching, with more sculptural, but less graceful figures.
The Madonna and the Child are inside a complex tiered marble enclosure. Kneeling at their feet is St. John the Baptist, who is particularly small compared to the other figures. It may be a way of emphasizing how young the saint is, a reference to medieval traditions that represented less important figures as smaller-sized, or simply the result of clumsy work by Botticelli’s assistants, who played a large role in the execution of the painting. The Child is holding a pomegranate, a symbol of the Passion announced by the Baptist – the grains allude to the blood that will be spilled – which the Child accepts, while his mother protects him with her affectionate embrace. The enclosure around the group may be an allusion to Mary as hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden. Around them a chorus of angels is singing, Similar to those in other coeval paintings by Botticelli – such as the Madonna of the Pomegranate – their faces are a sign of the reutilization of the same cartoons within the workshop. The angels have garlands of roses on their heads and are bearing lilies; there are also roses in large vases behind them. The flowers also allude to Mary. In the litanies she is called “mystic rose”, while in the Song of Songs the Bride is a “lily among thorns”.
The vases of flowers behind the holy figures were to be used in a curious literary way, because they inspired Gabriele D’Annunzio. During his beloved strolls in Rome, the poet often went to Villa Borghese and visited the Galleria. And he described the vases in the first chapter of his novel Pleasure:
“… from the two squares the chaotic, continuous noise rose to the Trinità de’ Monti and via Sistina, reaching, attenuated, all the way into the rooms of Palazzo Zuccari.
The rooms were slowly being filled by the scent emanating from the fresh flowers in the vases. The abundant, large roses were immersed in thin crystal bowls that rose from a kind of gilded stem, widening out in the manner of an adamantine lily, like those behind the Virgin in the tondo by Sandro Botticelli in the Galleria Borghese. No other bowl shape matches this one in elegance. The flowers in that ethereal prison seem to almost spiritualize themselves and better give the image of a religious or amorous offering. Andrea Sperelli was waiting in his rooms for a lover.”
The lover was the enchanting Elena Muti, and Botticelli’s mystic flowers became the background of a sensual love scene in the most iconic novel of the Italian literary movement Decadentism: a subtly perverse reversal of meaning.