Respighi's Botticelli Triptych: a guide to Respighi's colourful masterpiece and its best recordings

It takes a master of orchestral colour to translate masterpieces by the Italian painter Botticelli. Rebecca Franks explores Respighi's Botticelli Triptych and its best recordings

Respighi is famous for his Roman Trilogy, three sumptuous orchestral tone poems conjuring the fountains, pines and festivals of Rome.

His native Italy also inspired one of his most delicate pieces, the Botticelli Triptych (or Trittico Botticelliano, in the original Italian). Also known as Three Botticelli Pictures, each movement of this radiant 1927 work for orchestra takes its cue from a painting by Sandro Botticelli – born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi c1445 – one of the leading artists of the Italian Renaissance. Few composers have so skilfully and appealingly turned great art into great music.

Why did Respighi compose his Botticelli Triptych?

Relatively little is known about the background to its composition. What is certain is that the project sprang from Respighi’s association with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a wealthy American arts patron and music lover, who over the years commissioned a host of notable works, including Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 and Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète.

In 1925, she financed Respighi, by then in his late forties and well established in his homeland as a composer, to tour the United States. On his second visit in 1927, he attended a concert held by Coolidge at the Congress Library in Washington – possibly inspired by the building’s Italian Renaissance-style façade, Respighi announced he would write a piece based on Botticelli paintings and dedicate it to Coolidge. That September the Botticelli Triptych was premiered at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, in a concert sponsored by his American patron. It was, noted Respighi’s soprano wife and biographer, Elsa, ‘a good performance and quite well received’.


While Elsa’s words suggest nothing out of the ordinary, the art and music tell a different story. The Botticelli pictures all hang in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, crown jewels in a magnificent collection of art. For his sources, Respighi picked two of the artist’s best-known pieces, La Primavera (Spring) and Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus), plus a third slightly less well-known one, Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi). All three pictures are painted with tempera, a favourite among artists until the invention of oils. Made from dry pigments bound together with oil and egg yolk, tempera dried quickly, lasted well and resulted in vivid colours – a quality more than matched by Respighi’s masterful orchestration.


A guide to the music of Respighi's Botticelli Triptych

Although Botticelli’s three paintings don’t form an official set or tell a particular story, they all explore themes of birth, awakening and arrival. Respighi turns to Spring first, a beautiful painting completed around 1480 which draws on classical mythology and celebrates nature.

Nine figures fill the picture, standing in a grove of orange trees with, according to the Uffizi’s art historians, at least 138 accurately depicted species of plants. There are many different interpretations of the painting, but for Respighi the focus was spring itself. Elsa summed it up in a programme note: ‘Spring is personified by the figure of a woman. She comes forward scattering flowers, while all Nature round about her awakes. Young women, wreathed with flowers, weave dances, the birds sing. Trills, songs and dances follow each other in the orchestra with rhythms of joy.’

From spring, we move to winter. The centrepiece of Respighi’s triptych is Adoration of the Magi, based on one of Botticelli’s many depictions of the nativity. This resplendent painting of 1475 is rich in colour, detail and history. On one level, it depicts a familiar scene, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus placed high in the centre. Three finely dressed men pay their tributes to Christ, flocked by well-wishers either side. Yet there’s another layer of meaning to be found. The three Magi? They are Cosimo de’ Medici, once the powerful ruler of Florence, and his two sons Piero and Giovanni. And amid the brilliantly painted crowd, full of life and expression, we can even spot the painter himself, on the far right in an ochre robe, looking directly at the viewer.


So which elements does Respighi depict in his music? Rhapsodic bassoon and oboe lines, peppered with so-called ‘exotic’ chromaticisms, evoke the East, home to the three kings. Composer, like artist, draws the past into the present. Over atmospheric sustained low strings, flute and bassoon play Veni, veni, Emmanuel, the ancient Advent plainsong. Pastoral woodwind solos evoke shepherds’ songs, while bells, triangle, celesta and harp add a celebratory feel. Respighi also echoes the symmetry of Botticelli’s painting, bringing the bassoon solo back to usher in the final section. Here the bassoon plays a melody based on Tu scendi dalla stelle, an 18th-century Italian carol: ‘From starry skies descending, Thou comest, glorious King’.

To close, Respighi returns to Greek myth. The dramatic arrival of Venus, born from sea foam and propelled to land by Zephyrus, inspired Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, surely one of the most famous paintings in the world. The image of the Goddess of Love and Beauty, a luminous, naked figure in a huge scallop shell, has become iconic, inspiring magazine covers, pop singers, contemporary artists – and composers. Respighi’s Venus wafts in on a wash of shimmering strings, evoking undulating waves. Flute and clarinet flutter by, soft as the breeze. There’s a transparency to Respighi’s orchestral palette that matches Botticelli’s aquatic vision. A sense of expectation and awe grows, and a melody builds to become, in Elsa’s words, ‘a hymn to eternal beauty’.


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