Author: Frances Densmore

Date: 24 November 1885

Location: Frances Densmore: Notebooks, Record Group 30/156, Oberlin College Archives

Document Type: Autograph Document

Fig 16: Frances Densmore’s notebook
Fig 16: Frances Densmore’s notebook


Densmore wrote notes for five of Adelia Field Johnston’s art history lectures, and this is the last in the set. It is from a notebook which she recorded lectures from various professors, copied quotations and poems ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Beethoven. This particular lecture was focused on Botticelli’s painting
Birth of Venus and the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the most prominent cathedral in Florence. For more of Johnston’s lectures, see Singular Charm and Superb Character”- The Life of Adelia Antoinette Field Johnston.

Fig 17: The Birth of Venus
Fig 17: The Birth of Venus


Art Lecture IV

delivered by

Mrs. A A F. Johnston

Nov 24th 1885.


As a recapitulation of topics already discussed the following table is given

[List of artists she had previously studied omitted]


[written up the side of the page: Botticelli 1449-1515]1

9-1Botticelli2 was a pupil of Fra Fillippo Lippi3 and in some respects his paintings resemble those of his teacher, however he made most of his pictures circular in shape. One peculiarity is noticeable- his angels are not the delicate airy forms of Fra Angelico’s4 but sturdy little fellows, and, particularly the children are males, he did not think women were strong
enough to be angels. At this [
inserted above the line: time] the Medici family5 were ruling in Florence, and from their children he is said to have obtained many of the faces of his childangels [sic]; while in other pictures his friends would all appear as saints- thus making his paintings portraits in their day. He added to what his predecessors had given to art- emotion, and introduced life into his pictures in such a way that it seemed the figures did move- looking at apainting [sic] of a hovering angel you unconsciously turned again to see if it had not really changed its position in the sky, so lifelike did it appear. His pictures of Venus born upon the waters,6 and hurried ashore over the crested waves and through the spray by the [Furies?]7 is the first appearance of motion upon the canvas, as the wind blown drapery of the [Furies?] floats out against the sky we see that art has indeed taken a long step forward. He also went to the Sistine Chapel- so often visited by European tourists- this was built by Pope Sixtus IX.,8 and is one of the private chapels of the Vatican- the palace of the Pope. This is, therefore, a part of the Vatican and is a long room, of an awkward shape- being 150ft long by 50 wide. The ceiling was painted by Angelo,9 and 9-2against the wall back of one as they enter is the high altar10 with its magnificent painting of the Last Judgement.11 The ceiling is not all level, but is flat in the center with arches coming from the sides up to this panel. The space of the wall is divided into three widths which are cut into six parts by windows, in the middle space, below the windows are paintings, and in the lower third was originally hung very rich tapestry designed by Raphael-12 this however has since been replaced by paintings. Botticelli has there three frescoes representing the Life of Moses13 giving scenes from his boyhood to death- here we see him killing the Egyptian-14 there guarding the sheepfold and so on to his lonely end. When Botticelli painted Angels he used a new kind of drapery9 tower which was afterward adopted by all- it was full and graceful- fastened about the body by a end. His faces were not beautiful- indeed he could not idealize a face, but he made it expressive of much action and life. There was a little before this time an artist in Florence who was neither a sculptor nor a painter, and did what no one else has ever done, the strange new art was continued for a time by his nephew after his death but died with them. This man, like most artists, began as a goldsmith. Lucca Della Robbia15 was born [illegible cross-out] 1399, and the first part of his artist life was devoted to sculpture- some of his angels may now be seen in the Cathedral at Florence.16 But he declared them “too stiff” and marble “too hard”, [sic] “life was “to him” too short for sculpture, and he worked at this thought until he solved the problem. He took such putty as 9-3dishes are made of- the unbaked dough, which is [very?] plastic, and invented a glazing which when burned on this gave a very high polish [sic] This he moulded into figures, which are now to be seen everywhere particularly in the logia17 or deep front verandas of Florentine houses, some painted forming a basrelief [sic].18 He made all kinds of forms but began as everyone did with the Madonna19 he would put the face in basrelief [sic] or a medallion and surround it with a wreath of fruit and flowers. These were very durable and last to this day. At first he made all white- then colored them bright blue and orange- these
colors are very sharp, and in the sunlight almost dazzle the eyes. England has been trying to get some of this work and has now a few specimens in the [
illegible]. In Florence his home was just out of the great square on which the Cathedral fronts; Giotto’s20 then unfinished tower21 stood near, the designs of some of the basrelief [sic] were left by the great architect and one of these was given the Robbia to supply. Just beyond was the Baptistry22 whose wonderful doors23 [etched out] which Angelo said might well serve in the gates of Paradise, were then being made [sic] The Renaissance had then advanced so far that the people wanted a dome on the Cathedral- great rewards were offered for it, and immeasurable plans were formed to support the vaulted roof in one way and another, until at last the secret was discovered, the dome designed and built by one man.24

Fig 19: Gates of Paradise
Fig 19: Gates of Paradise

Transcribed by Natalia Shevin

1 Densmore’s notes are incorrect here. See next footnote.

2 Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance.

3 Fra’ Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) was an Italian painter.

4 Fra Angelico (1395-1455) was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance.

5 The Medici Family earned its fortune through banking during the thirteenth century, and were influential patrons of the arts.

6The Birth of Venus (Italian: Nascita di Venere), likely made during the 1480s by Botticelli.

7 Likely referring to the figures other than Venus in the painting.

8 Pope Sixtus IX was pope from 1471 to 1484; he was responsible for building the Sistine Chapel.

9 Michelangelo.

10 Densmore meant that when one enters the high altar the painting of the Last Judgement is behind them.

11 A fresco on the Sistine Chapel made by Michelangelo.

12 Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was an Italian painter of the high Renaissance.

13 The Trials of Moses is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

14 Referencing Exodus 2:12, “So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

15 Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-1482) was an Italian sculptor.

16 Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.

17 courtyard.

18 low relief; sculpture or carved work in which the figures project less than one half of their true proportions from the surface on which they are carved.

19 Virgin Mary.

20 Giotto di Bondone (1266/7-1337) was an Italian painter and architect during the late Middle Ages.

21 A freestanding tower which is part of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.

22 Attached to chapel where people would be baptized.

23 The East doors, or Gates of Paradise, made by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

24 Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was an Italian architect and artist of the Renaissance. He was the second choice to create the Gates of Paradise after Ghiberti.