Thursday, October 7, 2010

Original Gangster by David Marble

In 1983, a medical doctor published an article about Sandro Boticelli's painting Portrait of a Youth (c. 1482/85), arguing that the youth's hand gesture was an indication of juvenile arthritis. See the article here

But why would Boticelli depict a physical defect in the young man? It seems odd that Boticelli would so prominently portray such a crippling handicap in a portrait. The look on the young man's face is one of confidence and ability, and contradicts the idea that he has a debilitating physical defect. Had the young man actually had juvenile arthritis, it would make sense that Boticelli would portray him without his hands, as in his other famous Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1480-5).

Portraiture was generally used to aggrandize patrons, and associate them with a particular family, class, or group. In another work, Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder (c. 1474-5), the young man, similarly dressed, is holding a medallion with the profile of Cosimo de' Medici, identifying him with Medici family.

Couldn't the hand gesture of the young man in Boticelli's later painting similarly connect the youth to a certain family or group in 15th century Florentine culture? Is this the original "Westside" gang sign? Is this work the inspiration for the hand gesture that later inspired Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, countless rappers, gang-bangers, and white kids across the West coast?

While in prison, Tupac extensively read the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli. Several editions of The Prince have Boticelli's painting as the cover artwork.

Tupac was so inspired by Machiavell's writings he later used "Makaveli" as a pseudonym for his last album. Perhaps Tupac saw this hand gesture as a representation of the Machiavellian ideals that inspired him.

I haven't found any information on the exact origins of the modern "westside" sign. I first saw this connection during ArtHC 202 freshman year in 2006 as I explored Gardner's Art Through the Ages. I thought it was humorous and sent the image to some family and friends, but was again reminded of it with all the current discussions of hip-hop culture and art history. Apparently, I'm not the only one to make the connection, as I just saw on another blog this image of Snoop Dogg mimicking Boticelli's young man's confident look and hand gesture.

From Florence to the inner-mountain West, let's give it up for the West Side...


  1. Great post! I had no idea about the Tupac/Machiavelli connection ... fascinating.

    Connecting to Alicia's post - I wonder how Machiavelli's ideas about power have influenced the hip-hop culture (or at least Tupac) ... what do you think?

  2. I love it when scientists write about art history, the result is always fascinating/hilarious (like the Biologist who said that Van Gogh's color usage was influenced by what he ate).

    I think you have to be careful here not to get into Da Vinci code territory, having said that I think it is quite possible that like the youth with the Medici medallion, the hand gesture could be signify a connection to some group (although I would think we would have seen other portraits if this were the case).

    I would LOVE to know more about Tupac's insights into Machiavelli. Of course the connection to Foucault is elementary: both authors see fear as the primary motivating factor for their subjects.

  3. Fantastic! I love reading about the connections between "old masters" and contemporary hip hop culture. Of course you can always read the fantastic article from the December 2009 Art Bulletin "The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop." I really think there could be done with this, especially in connection with the medallion as the first bling.

    Either way, it's great to see art being kept relevant!

  4. Here is an interesting article about a 2003 symposium at Harvard University about hip-hop and Tupac, titled, "Tupac Shakur and the Search for a Modern Folk Hero"

  5. It is true. I have a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince with this cover image. Tupac once said that he uses the handsign as a symbol of "War", not gang color or territory...would be interesting to know the story behind the painting though...

    1. This is true but mabey Nickolai Machiavelli was against god and the holy Roman Catholic empire and that's why tupac was an outlaw to society thug life .b.p.k.a.k.a Benjamin Paul Kuhn

  6. yeah, tupac is definitely mimicking the prince cover. he also wore a similar medallion as the other famous botticelli, young man...

  7. Niccolo Machiavelli was an outlaw in his own time same as tupac thug life westside till we all die .b.p.k./benjamin Paul KUHN