A Poststructural Feminist Response to Botticelli’s Woman Pursued

About once a week or so, I watch some of the content on the Prado Museum’s YouTube channel. The videos feature everything from gallery talks on works of art in the museum’s collection to special exhibitions, conferences, seminars, conservation projects, and technical studies of artworks. Watching allows me to both expand my understanding of the featured works or areas of study and enrich my art historical and technical vocabulary in Spanish. While they feature knowledgeable experts and are generally high in technical quality, the videos, presumably by virtue of the politics of the Prado, a state-funded museum, tend to present a more traditional—though rigorous— approach to gallery teaching and scholarship. In this post, however, I wanted to feature a video that I feel breaks with this mold, at least in terms of content.

The video records a talk given by artist Marina Nuñez in which she discusses three panels from Botticcelli’s Scenes from The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (1483) in relation to her own work. Her talk one of a handful in which the gallery lecturer is not a curator or conservator but rather a practicing artist. It formed part of a 2013 celebration for both International Women’s Day and the II Festival Miradas de Mujeres (“Second Festival of Women’s Views”), organized by Mujeres en las artes visuales (“Women in the Visual Arts”).

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Botticelli, Sandro. Scenes from The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, Panel 1. Museo del Prado.

The three panels, part of a series of four that formed a spalliera, or wooden wall hanging, were painted by Botticelli and his assistants to illustrate the story of Nastagio degli Onesti from the eighth novel of the fifth day of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In Boccaccio’s story, Nastagio, a young man from Ravenna, falls in love with the daughter of Paolo Traversari (the daughter remains unnamed throughout the story), but she rejects his advances, despite the lavish spending Nastagio embarks on in order to win her affection. Nastagio becomes dejected and even contemplates suicide, but ultimately leaves Ravenna at his friends’ prompting to try to forget the unnamed woman. As the tents at the far left of Panel 1 allude, he sets up camp on the outskirts outskirts of the city.

Like other late medieval paintings, each of the panels shows successive scenes within one frame. In this first panel, Nastagio, who wears the red hose, takes leave of his friends near the tents, then enters a pine grove. A naked woman pursued by mastiffs and a knight on horseback bursts onto the scene, wailing and crying mercy. Nastagio’s initial reaction is to defend the woman from the attacker, and accordingly grabs a tree branch to use as a weapon and demands that the knight cease his pursuit. At this, the knight, who identifies himself as Guido degli Anastagi, a deceased Ravenna nobleman, tells Nastagio that he, like Nastagio, loved a young woman who didn’t care for him, and her rejection led him to suicide. The young woman was unmoved by—and even took pleasure in—his suicide, and for her indifference, she was condemned to hell when she died. There, the couple received the following punishment, which was to be repeated every Friday for the number of years equal to the number of months the woman had ignored Guido: he was to pursue her, not as his beloved lady, but as his mortal enemy, and so, as often as he came upon her, he killed her with the same sword with which he killed himself, ripped her body open, and fed her heart and other internal organs to his dogs. This, the knight explains, happens at the same spot each week.

Botticelli
Botticelli, Sandro. Scenes from The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, Panel 2. Museo del Prado.

As soon as Guido finishes speaking, he springs, sword in hand, on the woman, who, kneeling while the two mastiffs grip her tightly, cries for him to stop. Despite her protests, he thrusts with all his force, striking her between the breasts, and runs her clean through the body. She falls forward on the ground sobbing and shrieking, at which Guido draws his knife, opens her in the back, takes out her heart and nearby organs, and throws them to the two mastiffs, who devour them. Shortly after this, the woman starts to her feet as if nothing has happened and runs towards the sea, pursued by the rider and dogs once more. Though rattled by what he has seen, it soon occurs to Nastagio that, given that the scene repeated every Friday at the same place, he might take advantage of it to his own end.

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Botticelli, Sandro. Scenes from The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, Panel 3. Museo del Prado.

Nastagio thus sends for some of his kinsfolk and friends, including the woman who had rejected him, to join him for a feast the following Friday in this same pine grove. The third panel shows the guests’ reaction to the scene enacted by the knight and woman, who appear just after the last course has been served. Describing the reaction of Nastagio’s beloved, Boccaccio’s text explains, “so great was her terror that, lest a like fate should befall her, she converted her aversion into affection.” On the far right of Panel 3, the woman’s maid can be seen communicating to Nastagio on her lady’s behalf that she is “ready in all respects to pleasure him to the full.” Though “greatly flattered,” Nastagio asks the maid to assure her lady that he will be happy to “have his pleasure of her in an honourable way,” by marrying her. Boccaccio’s story concludes by relating that the scene of the mutilated woman so touched the other ladies of Ravenna that they all became, and have ever since been, much more compliant with men’s desires.

Upon hearing this violent, graphic story, my first questions were who would have commissioned a painting of it and why.  Scholars believe the panels were commissioned by Antonio Pucci, possibly with the contribution from Lorenzo de’ Medici, on the occasion of the marriage of Antonio’s son, Giannozzo, to Lucrezia Bini. The spalliera was to decorate the walls of the family’s Palazzo Pucci in Florence. The disturbing idea that these were displayed in a domestic setting in clear view of guests or at least the family, including a newly wed bride, is contextualized by Nuñez’s reading of the piece as a defense of marriage. She draws attention to the fact that, as Panel 3 depicts, Nastagio doesn’t only invite his beloved to the pine grove to witness the murderous scene, but also a large portion of the Ravenna court. This, she proposes, alludes to the social, and not simply personal, message of the punitive mutilation; namely, the need to comply with accepted social institutions like marriage within Ravenna society. Marriage was a foundational, organizing social principal in medieval Italy, for which reason a refusal to insert oneself into this system constitutes a rejection of the social order. In this way, the story functions as not simply a story of unrequited love that is eventually resolved but as a defense of the institution of marriage, particularly one in which the woman is subject to the man.

In the course of writing this, I happened upon a disturbing Internet age iteration of Botticelli’s piece: one can have the panels printed to order as “wall mural wallpaper”. Apparently this site can generates “mural art” for any image available in the Bridgeman Art Library, and so it’s not to suggest that the site specifically marketed this image for use on a wall. Nonetheless, I’m compelled to suggest that they curate their content more carefully, though it does make for an interesting, if not also unsettling, parallel.

marina nunez sin titulo

In her talk, Nuñez explains that she was drawn to work because of the figure of the woman. Using a poststructuralist feminist lens, she interprets the woman as a symbol of the enormous quantity of subjugated women depicted in the history of western painting. The woman in Botticelli’s work inspired one of her early works, which explores the Freudian concept of the uncanny (“lo siniestro,” in Spanish) as it relates to violence enacted against women in domestic settings. The work is a series of three pencil drawings on 40 x 40 cm napkins, in which the woman from Botticelli’s third panel, ravenous dogs latched onto her legs, is placed inside seemingly comfortable and elegant contemporary bourgeois interiors. Nuñez states her intent of interrupting the fallacy that women and images of women are clearly separate and don’t influence one another. Rather, she avers that discourses, which often take the form of images, are crucial to forming our identity. Her Untitled (lo siniestro) not only conveys how a comfortable bourgeois world can in fact be a horrible, violent prison; it also draws our attention to the profusion of images of suppressed women within western art, which of course informs women’s identities and the way society thinks about them.

In 2006, Marina created the above video, in which a young woman runs through a forest, also naked, feeling from a danger. In this case, however, the danger is an imaginary one. The video was creating by layering two screens, one with a fixed camera filming the objective plane, complete with burning CGI trees, and another that follows the woman closely, filming her eyes. As the woman flees, she looks around herself, desperately afraid. She intermittently convulses in postures that the artist likens to what were historically labeled “hysterical convulsions,” at which moment her eyes burn from the inside. The perspective of the viewers, Nuñez explains, enables them to understand that what she is fleeing from is her own psyche—she is torn between her instincts and the demands that others have over her. Prompted by a viewer who made the connection at a screening of her video, Nuñez feels the work relates formally to the young woman in Botticelli’s, but also in terms of its narrative: both women face demands which they have refused to meet, and thereby fail to insert themselves into the social system.

Visit this page to explore more artworks and programs that have emerged from the work of by Mujeres en las artes visuales (“Women in the Visual Arts”). They’ve since switched to a biennial model, with the next one taking place in 2018.

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