Alessandro Filipepi was born in Florence in the quarter of Santa Maria Novella near the Arno river.
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.
In his Lives, Giorgio Vasari 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, which is most evident in the facial characteristics of Botticelli’s figures.
In 1470, Sandro had his own workshop, and 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.
By 1470, Botticelli had fully discovered his style. In the following 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 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. 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. Thus, the period of his greatest prestige and most intensive activity began.
In 1480, Botticelli painted the St. Augustine in His Study for for the Vespucci family, allies of the Medici. This painting is located in the church of Ognissanti. 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 1482, his 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.
Savonarola’s arrival on the Florentine political scene had an explicit incluence on Botticelli’s works. In fact, 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 1501, he painted the Mystic Nativity, which contained apocalyptic symbols and allusions to the contemporary situation in Italy. It was also the first time that he signed and dated a painting.
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.
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.
It is well known that Botticelli also produced illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of which being the famous Map of Hell, to which we dedicated one of our first posts.
Pictures by Wikimedia