Killing the woman (The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti - second episode)

Sandro Botticelli
Keywords: KillingwomanStoryNastagiodegliOnestiepisode

Work Overview

Killing the woman (The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti - second episode)
Sandro Botticelli
c. 1483
Tempera on panel
82 x 138 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Nastagio degli Onesti is the protagonist in one of the one hundred short stories contained in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. The eighth story of the fifth day, it tells of the unrequited love of the nobleman Nastagio for a girl who will eventually be induced to accept Nastagio's affection by the appearance of a rejected lover and her beloved.

Sandro Botticelli made a series of four panels that illustrate many episodes of the story Boccaccio, thought to have been commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1483 as a gift to Giannozzo Pucci at her marriage to Lucrezia Bini of that year. Originally stored in Palace Pucci, in the second half of the nineteenth century they were dispersed: three are now in the Prado, and only one, the last, has returned to its original location after being, among other things, in the Collection Watney of Charlbury at London.

In the second episode the woman has fallen, bitten by the dogs, wounded by the sword. The knight dismounts, cuts open her back and rips out her heart to feed it to his dogs. The woman gets to her feet and starts running again, the horse and dogs start the chase again. Degli Onesti realizes that he has witnessed a phantom hunt, a curse.

The knight on horseback rears backwards in a sudden halt as you fling yourself between he and the naked damsel whose once flawless skin now hangs in tatters from her convulsing frame. You grasp a nearby branch and as you raise it and your voice against the knight, begging him to cease his chase he looks down at you with surprising solemnity. With a somber tone he asks you to stand aside and begins to tell his woeful tale. He was once a respectable man until, like you, he met a woman and fell deeply in love. No matter how he pleaded with her she continued to cruelly ignore him until the day he could no longer bear her rejection and he killed himself with the very sword now clutched in his hand. Soon afterwards the woman died and as punishment for his mortal sin of suicide and her joy in his sufferings they were bound together in this terrible pursuit. Every Friday night in the clearing in which you stand the knight finally catches his prey and runs her through with his blade before feeding her innards to his hounds.

“Oh, well you should have said that to begin with!” you say and happily move aside to let the knight do his business.

Here in the second panel of Botticelli’s four panel series we learn that the fatal sin the chased woman committed was the always grievous error of telling a guy you don’t like that you don’t like him. Admittedly, she was pretty mean to him which isn’t cool, but I hardly think that that calls for her being chased by dogs and killed on a weekly basis. Just think about this next time that guy whose cat calls you’ve been politely ignoring on your way to work starts calling you a whore. Cheer up! At least your denial of his interest hasn’t resulted in him dragging you into a violent purgatory! Or you can make yourself depressed thinking about how the concept of women as common property who inherently owe men their attentions hasn’t changed much since 1353. It’s up to you.

It seems like the worst parts of this tale are over but you forget, there are two more panels! Panel three will tell you how Nostagio manages to use this bloody scene to manipulate his crush into marrying him. As we all know, love borne of manipulation no man (or his hounds) can tear asunder!

In a French manuscript illumination dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century (unfortunately not available due to copyright reasons), the illuminator has taken several artistic liberties to render what appears to be a very polite, glossed over version the of story of Nastagio. Although the fleeing girl is very clearly described in the text as being nude, in this illumination she is fully dressed in robes of vivid blue. There is also no indication of the intestinal mauling she is about to receive, seeming instead to be losing only the hem of her dress. This conservative approach to the depiction of the body and violations of it is characteristic of much of the manuscript, often showing supposed lovers fully covered by bed sheets and seized by a puzzling lack of mutual interest, or highly unrealistic or censored versions of violence.

The visual strategy employed to depict the narrative creates a clear, unified image in which the two pivotal scenes of the story have been combined into one unbroken composition. The doomed souls are shown only once, roughly in the center, and at the left we observe Nastagio witnessing this scene of retribution for the first time. Watching the same scene from the other side are Nastagio again and his banquet guests, including the scornful object of his affections. We know that Nastagio is depicted twice because of the identical robes, head wrap and sword; we can distinguish his lady guest because she is the only female figure at the table, and she gives away her anxiety in her guilt- and fear-ridden expression.

The technique of repeating figures within the same pictorial frame in order to convey narration is used throughout the manuscript, but the story of Nastagio is one of the few that manages to go beyond repetition and to unify further the series of images by looking at one group of figures from two points of view. This implied multiple perspective was perhaps also an early experiment in the course of the development of illusory perspective. Without realizing fully the rigorous technique that was to soon become the central catalyst for the Italian High Renaissance, this illumination nevertheless attempts to exploit an intended effect of drawn three-dimensional space.

Dating from the last quarter of the fifteenth century, Jacopo da Sellaio's rendition of the story of Nastagio has drastically altered the representation opted for in the French manuscript described above. Instead of unifying the story in one picture, what we see is only the first scene of the story, in which Nastagio stumbles upon an enactment of the doomed souls' punishment. The motif of repeated figures is carried into this depiction, but in a very different way: the first Nastagio is contemplative with a downcast glance, and the second is actively involved in trying to protect the fleeing girl. It still creates an image that depicts successive and not simultaneous moments, but the moments shown occur much more closely together than those in the illuminated manuscript. An important consideration at this point, in order to help clarify the different priorities in representing this story, is the medium of each. The illumination is from a manuscript, whereas the Sellaio painting is on a panel, and was most likely at one point mounted on a cassone, or a free-standing chest, that was commonly presented as part of a wedding gift. It can be assumed, then, that this panel was only one of three or four parts that were each mounted on such a chest.

Botticelli, Nastagio degli Onesti [outgoing link to: Web Gallery of Art] Similarly, Sandro Botticelli created four panels portraying the Nastagio tale, for a cassone commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici, three of which reside currently in the Prado in Madrid. The tale is here depicted with gruesome enthusiasm and frightening realism. The most renowned adaptation of the tale, this series was certainly influenced by previous interpretations and yet the originality of the work is unmistakable.