Piero Benci and his brother Pollaiolo were Renaissance painters who worked in tandem. They lived in Florence and were employed by the Medici Family. The brothers were known to dissect human corpses to better understand anatomy which is reflected in much of their art. Antonio depicted humans in action as noted by his famous work, Hercules Clubs the Hydra, that is also exhibited in the Uffizi with the virtues (Uffizi Gallery Biography). This particular painting was a part of a series of panels depicting six virtues designed for the Council Chambers of the Medici and the panels were commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild in 1469. Although the brothers worked together on many of their paintings, it is Piero who received the credit for this particular virtue.
Because the painting of these virtues took Piero an incredibly long time, the Merchant’s Guild grew impatient and almost assigned another painter to take over. Fortunately this did not come to pass and Piero painted all six virtues; however, Botticelli later painted another virtue. The six virtues that were personified include Faith, Charity, Prudence, Hope, and Justice and Botticelli later added Fortitude. Temperance literally means moderation, restraint, and abstinence- primarily in the realm of alcoholic drink. This painting depicts the woman (Temperance) pouring a thin strand of water into a basin full of wine. This act of dilution symbolizes restraint and abstinence from drunkenness. All lines from the ceiling and surrounding walls lead your eye to this act- the focal point of this painting. The white and blue colors of the water symbolize purity, a favorite of the Renaissance painters. This intertwining of white and blue strands is also painted on Temperance’s garment. Her sleeves, hair, and neckline also have the same water theme as the act that she is performing.
In Renaissance art, the symbolism of color in a particular painting holds great significance that the audience may not recognize. For example, the color green symbolizes baptism- the purifying and removal of all sin (The Hidden Symbolism of Color in Western Art). The woman is wearing green because temperance (or abstinence) is an act of purification and dilution of individual depravity. The color brown is also a symbol of earth- which is the color of her sleeves and the cloth draped over her lap. Although this woman is performing an act of purification and is herself “pure,” she is still in the world that is tainted by sin and depravity.
The two colors on the opposite walls also hold significant meaning-brown and blue symbolize earth and water. This theme is also seen on the placement of the woman’s feet- one on a brown piece of marble and another on a whitish/blue piece of marble. In pagan culture that later left its imprint on the Christian religion, an image of a woman with one foot on solid ground and another in water symbolized the balance of purity in an imperfect world. This color difference conveys to the audience that although humanity lives on a fallen earth (brown marble), the purity of water purges this away and brings us closer to heaven and closer to holiness (whitish blue marble).
1. Tate Modern. “The Hidden Symbolism of Colors in Western Art.” The History of
Painters. Qatar Museum Authority, 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.
2. Uffizi Gallery. “Antonio Benci and Piero Benci called Pollaiolo brothers ~
Biography.” Virtual Uffizi. Uffizi Gallery, 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.