Sandro Botticelli, whose original name was Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, was one of the greatest painters of the the Early Renaissance. Botticelli was the Florentine who created some of the most famous works of art in the world.
He was born in 1445 in Florence in the quarter of Santa Maria Novella near the Arno river, on Via Nuova (now Via del Porcellana, near Piazza Ognissanti).
Early life and career
Alessandro’s father, Mariano Filipepi, was a tanner and was aided in his trade by his proximity to the Arno. In an income tax return dating to 1458, Mariano stated that he had 4 sons: Giovanni, Antonio, Simone and Alessandro (nicknamed Sandro).
Mariano described Sandro, 13 years of age at this time, as “studious and sickly”.
His father’s description sheds light on the introspective nature of the boy, which possibly stemmed from his childhood illnesses and which left undelible tones of melancholy on many of his paintings.
As is often the case with Renaissance artists, most of the modern information about Botticelli’s life and character derives from Lives by Giorgio Vasari.
He wrote that as a youth, since Sandro was always restless, his exasperated father sent him to a craftsman named “Botticello” in the hopes that he would become a goldsmith, hence Botticelli, the name by which he is commonly referred.
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Another version of the story goes that Sandro’s brother, Giovanni, was known as a drunkard and therefore called Botticello (“botte” is the Italian word for barrel).
Thus, the famous painter would have taken the nickname of his brother, much less known and for other reasons.
Seeing that his son had finally become enflammed by a passion for art, Mariano decided that Botticelli should learn the art of painting. Around 1464, Sandro became apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi and by 1469 he was working on his own.
Filippo Lippi certainly had the earliest influence on the young Botticelli.
Lippi taught Botticelli the techniques of panel and fresco painting, and gave him an assured control of linear perspective. Stylistically, Botticelli acquired from Lippi a repertory of types and compositions, a certain graceful fancifulness in costuming, a linear sense of form, and a partiality to certain paler hues that are still visible even after Botticelli had developed his own strong and resonant colour schemes.
After Lippi left Florence for Spoleto, Botticelli worked to improve the comparatively soft, frail figural style he had learned from his teacher. To this end, he studied the sculptural style of Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painters of the 1460s, and under their influence Botticelli produced figures of sculptural roundness and strength. He also replaced Lippi’s delicate approach with a robust and vigorous naturalism, shaped always by conceptions of ideal beauty.
Already by 1470 Botticelli was established in Florence as an independent master with his own workshop
In August of that year, he completed a work that would bring him public acclaim and artistic prestige. This painting, entitled Fortitude, was commissioned by the Tribunale di Mercatanzia, one of the most important local institutions at the time. Fortitude is one of the seven Virtues. The other six pannels were commissioned to Pollaiolo.
Botticelli’s art from that time shows a use of ochre in the shadowed areas of flesh tones that gives a brown warmth very different from Lippi’s pallor. The forms in his paintings are defined with a line that is at once incisive and flowing, and there is a growing ability to suggest the character and even the mood of the figures by action, pose, and facial expression.
About 1478–81 Botticelli entered his artistic maturity. He was able to integrate figure and setting into harmonious compositions and to draw the human form with a compelling vitality. He would later display unequaled skill at rendering narrative texts, whether biographies of saints or stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, into a pictorial form that is at once exact, economical, and eloquent.
During these years, his work was enriched by Humanistic themes, having been commissioned by members of the Medici family. From this moment, Botticelli would be employed primarily by Florentines and Pisans.
It was during these years that the painter had close ties with the house of Medici, by then the recognized rulers of Florence.
Key early paintings
Sandro painted effigies of the conspirators of the Pazzi Conspirancy on the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio, thereby embracing the cause of the house of Medici. It was a Florentine custom to humiliate traitors in this way. He depicted the execution by hanging of the leaders of the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478 against the Medici. Thus, the period of his greatest prestige and most intensive activity began.
In 1480, Botticelli painted the St. Augustine in His Study for the Vespucci family, allies of the Medici. This painting is located in the church of Ognissanti.
Another lost work was a tondo of the Madonna ordered by a Florentine banker in Rome to present to Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga; this perhaps spread awareness of his work to Rome.
That same year, due to Lorenzo the Magnificent’s new cultural policy and desire for a reconciliation with the papacy, Botticelli was summoned to Rome. There he painted frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel alongside Ghirlandaio and Perugino.
In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli and other prominent Florentine and Umbrian artists to fresco the walls of the newly completed Sistine Chapel.
The iconographic scheme was a pair of cycles facing each other on the sides of the chapel of the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses, together suggesting the supremacy of the Papacy.
Botticelli’s contribution included three of the original fourteen large scenes: the Temptations of Christ, the Youth of Moses, and the Punishment of the Sons of Corah, as well as several of the imagined portraits of popes.
The subjects and many details to be stressed in their execution were no doubt handed to the artists by the Vatican authorities. The schemes present a complex and coherent program asserting Papal supremacy, and are more unified in this than in their artistic style, although the artists follow a consistent scale and broad compositional layout, with crowds of figures in the foreground and mainly landscapes in the top half of the scene.
Botticelli differs from his colleagues in imposing a more insistent triptych-like composition, dividing each of his scenes into a main central group with two flanking groups at the sides, showing different incidents. In each the principal figure of Christ or Moses appears several times. Botticelli’s are remarkable for their brilliant fusion of sequences of symbolic episodes into unitary compositions.
Religious paintings after Rome
In 1482, Botticelli father died and he returned to Florence. He was commissioned by the Medici (together with Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Pollaiolo) to paint frescoes in the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio. However, Sandro did not execute this task.
In 1487 the Magistratura dei Massai di Camera (tax officials) commissioned Botticelli to produce a tondo for the audience hall in the Palazzo Vecchio.This work is known as the Madonna of the Pomegranate.
The first major church commission after Rome was the Bardi Altarpiece, which depicts an enthroned Madonna and Child sitting on an elaborately carved raised stone bench in a garden, with plants and flowers in the background blotting out all but small patches of sky. It was finished and framed by February 1485 and is now in Berlin.
An incipient mannerism appears in Botticelli’s later works of the 1480s.
After the early 1490s, his style changed markedly; the paintings are smaller in scale, the figures therein are now slender to the point of idiosyncrasy, and the painter, by accentuating their gestures and expressions, concentrates his attention on their passionate urgency of action. This mysterious retreat from the idealizing naturalism of the 1480s perhaps resulted from Botticelli’s involvement with the fiery reformist preacher Girolamo Savonarola in the 1490s.
The years after 1494 were dramatic ones in Florence: its Medici rulers fell, and a republican government under Savonarola’s dominance was established.
Savonarola was an ascetic idealist who attacked the church’s corruption and prophesied its future renewal.
According to Vasari, Botticelli was a devoted follower of Savonarola, even after the friar was executed in 1498.
The spiritual tensions of these years are reflected in two religious paintings, the apocalyptic Mystic Crucifixion (1497) and the Mystic Nativity (1501), the latter of which expresses Botticelli’s own faith in the renewal of the church. It was also the first time that he signed and dated a painting.
Religious themes predominated his paintings, as evidenced by the Annunciation, painted for the Cistercian monks (today located in the Uffizi).
By 1498, the year of Savonarola’s execution, Botticelli was very wealthy, as described in the Catasto: he had a house in the Santa Maria Novella quarter and collected rent from a Villa in Bellosguardo, outside the Porta San Frediano.
However, Botticelli was deeply disturbed by Savonarola’s death, which seemed to him a grave injustice. The influence of the Dominican made a deep impression on Sandro, whose work became more visionary and greatly differed from the general stream of Florentine artistic trends.
In 1504 he was part of a committee created to choose a location for Michelangelo’s David, having been recently painted. The old painter died on 17 May 1510, having becoming practically inactive and forgotten, and was buried in the family tomb in the church of Ognissanti.
The most famous of Botticelli’s paintings
Botticelli’s more important paintings were created under the influence of the Medici family and reflect the cultural atmosphere that surrounded it.
The work considered as most typifying the relationship between the Medici family and the artist is the Adoration of the Magi, now housed in the Uffizi Gallery. This work was commissioned between 1475 and 1478 by Giovanni di Zanobi Lami, a banker with close ties to the Medici family. The main attraction of this painting is that it contains so many portraits of historical characters.
Sandro Botticelli’s two famous works, the Primavera (Spring) and the Birth of Venus, were commissioned by the Medici. They were painted between 1477 and 1478 for Giovanni and Lorenzo de’ Medici, the sons of Pierfrancesco.
This branch of the family later rebelled against the absolute rule of Piero di Lorenzo and became referred to as “the Medici of the people”. It was to this branch that the Grand Dukes belonged.
The Birth of Venus has already been described in a previous post, and the Primavera has the same basic setting.
Many interpretations exist regarding the origins of the subjects of the two works. While some are of the view that they derive from classical poetry, it is also believed that the inspiration emanates from the works of Ficino, according to which Venus, instead of symbolizing the carnal nature of pagan love, represents the Humanist ideal of spiritual love. It is therefore a cosmological-spiritual representation, in which Zephirus and Flora give birth to Spring, the central symbol of the creative capacity of Nature.
In the Birth of Venus and in the Primavera, it is remarkable how the delicate colors of dawn are portrayed in the flash tones of the figures rather than in the background. The optimism of the Humanist myth is here blended harmoniously with the calm melancholy so characteristic of Botticelli’s art.
Dante, printing, and manuscripts
Botticelli, according to Vasari, took an enduring interest in the study and interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of which being the famous Map of Hell, to which we dedicated one of our first posts.
He made some designs to illustrate the first printed edition of 1481 and worked intermittently over the following years on an uncompleted set of large drawings that matched each canto with a complete visual commentary.
This post was originally published on September 18, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on March 16, 2019.
Pictures by Wikimedia