Sandro Botticelli is considered one of the greatest artists of the Early Renaissance, and he produced numerous paintings that achieved masterpiece status, including Primavera and The Birth of Venus. In his lifetime, he was held as one of the most esteemed painters in Italy, earning numerous commissions from the powerful Medici family and their circle. “Botticelli’s mythological pictures are of fundamental importance to our understanding of the Florentine Renaissance,” Michaël J. Amy stated in the Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. “His paintings of ancient myth offer a pictorial equivalent of the humanist study and imitation of ancient poetry and the development of a highly refined vernacular poetry of love….”
With the High Renaissance, however, Botticelli’s reputation soon fell out of favor, and following the artist’s death in 1510, painters such as Leonardo da Vinci eclipsed his artistic influence. Botticelli would not be rediscovered until the second half of the nineteenth century. The Pre-Raphaelites imitated his style, and later critics and artists, like John Ruskin and Walter H. Pater, also gravitated to his graceful, melancholic works. According to Pater, writing in Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Botticelli “is before all things a poetical painter, blending the charm of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry, with the charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting.”
The details of Botticelli’s life are relatively obscure; much of what is known about the artist has been gathered from documents such as tax reports, inventories, and records of payment. Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi was born around 1445 in the Santa Maria Novella quarter of Florence. The son of Mariano di Filipepi, a tanner, and his wife Smeralda, he possibly earned the nickname “Il Botticello” (“little barrel”) from his eldest brother, Giovanni, a husky fellow. It is believed that Sandro, as he was called, was formally educated until he was fourteen years old, a rather long time for the era. An inquisitive but extremely restless child, Botticelli found school difficult, and his father eventually sent him to work as an apprentice. Botticelli’s first artistic training was with a goldsmith, perhaps Maso Finiguerra. “In the course of this apprenticeship, Botticelli was to develop a particularly pronounced sense for the decorative fashioning of forms, a feature which can be discerned in all of his paintings,” noted Barbara Deimling in Sandro Botticelli 1444/45-1510.
Determined to become a painter, around 1461 Botticelli was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi. The friar was one of the last devotional painters, but he was very popular with the Medici family; he also received important commissions from outside Florence. Botticelli flourished under Lippi’s tutelage, learning the techniques of Masaccio, an Italian painter whose work influenced many artists of the day, as well as those of his instructor. “Nowadays Botticelli’s early works are recognized to be predominantly small and medium format panel paintings of the Madonna, the composition of which usually bears some relation to famous pictures by his teacher,” Alexandra Grömling and Tilman Lingesleben commented in Botticelli. Still, the paintings show a young artist in the process of developing his own style, noted a contributor in Sandro Botticelli, who observed that “the characteristic heavy lines of Fra Filioppo’s hand have given way to Botticelli’s clean, slender lines, to his unique airy compositions where lines pursue one another, intertwine, then break away again in slow-moving rhythms.”
When Lippi left for a commission in Spoleto in 1467, Botticelli began his more or less independent existence. After Lippi’s departure, he has been associated traditionally with Andrea del Verrocchio and the Pollaiuolo brothers, Piero and Antonio. “From them Botticelli learned about space, foreshortening, and perspective, and came to understand how the human body moved,” remarked the contributor in Sandro Botticelli. “These were the last technical lessons Botticelli needed to become a great master, in complete control of his art.” By 1470 he set up a workshop of his own in Florence. 1470 also marks the creation of Botticelli’s first fully-documented work, Fortitude, a figure in a series of the seven virtues that was otherwise done by Piero del Pollaiuolo. When Piero was unable to keep up with this contracted work, Botticelli was recommended by Tommaso Soderini to the Tribunale di Mercanzia, the council that had commissioned the series. This work was completed during the first of three stages in Botticelli’s stylistic evolution, when the painter used an energetic, sculptural approach. As Grömling and Lingesleben commented, “The considerable sculptural quality of this figure marks a huge step forward from the gentle elegance of the formal language employed in Lippi’s workshop.”
Another early work is the Adoration of the Magi, probably commissioned by Antonio Pucci. Deimling believed that Adoration of the Magi “reveals elements in which the characteristic features of Botticelli’s art may already be distinguished. These can be detected in the varied treatment of the subject, for instance, and also in the emphasis on the beautifully curved lines and graceful postures of the figures, something particularly evident in the depiction of the Virgin.” During this early phase of his career, Botticelli seems to have captured the patronage of the influential Medici family, headed by Lorenzo de’ Medici, as well as their associates.
Botticelli was also hired as a portraitist, although only some examples of this work have survived. A distinctive example is the Portrait of a Man with the Medal of Cosimo the Elder. It already intimates Botticelli’s tendency to exaggerate proportions and linear contours. “Botticelli possessed the gift essential for portrait painting, the power to paint character,” Count Plunkett wrote in his biography of the artist. “It has been said that he was not a portraitist, and in a sense the statement is true. Few of the charming figures that we recognize in his great pictures are exactly faithful to the living type, line for line, but his power of painting the spirit is at times almost tragically shown.”
By the 1480s, Botticelli had developed a style that was less three-dimensional, one that used a concept of low relief and linear motion. Ronald Lightbown described this maturation in Botticelli: Life and Work: “Figures are designed and painted with plastic subtlety and confident mastery; they are incarnate with vitality, each seeming to have taken form unforced, imaged on wall or panel or canvas with resolute immediacy. Their scaling and the recession of their setting are in harmonious consonance, and the settings unfold themselves with a naturalness that conceals the artful skill of their devising.” Botticelli’s first surviving fresco, Saint Augustine in the church of the Ognissanti, dates from 1480, although it is clear that his reputation in this form had been established for some years. Otherwise, it is extremely unlikely that the painter would have received his most prestigious commission: a request of Pope Sixtus IV to contribute to the fresco cycle in the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli was summoned to Rome in July 1481, and would paint three scenes on the walls of the chapel: The Story of Moses, The Punishment of Korah, and The Temptation of Christ.
Upon returning to Florence, Botticelli’s career flourished. He continued to produce devotional works and altarpieces as well as images to please the increasingly courtly society of Florence with their growing secular tastes for paintings based on the maturing and humanist learning. His Primavera is recognized as the first of a series of allegorical paintings that exhibit Botticelli’s mature style and for which he is most famous. Primavera, a celebration of love and the return of Spring, “projects a mood of aristocratic elegance,” commented A. Richard Turner in Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art. “The figures float above the greensward against a tapestry-like background of fruit trees, faces idealized according to the prevailing conventions of female beauty, and diaphanous garments wrought in exquisite linear patterns.”
That work was followed by Pallas and the Centaur, Venus and Mars, and The Birth of Venus. The last of these works is by far Botticelli’s most famous; it remains in exceptionally good condition due in part to the painter’s excellent technique in using oil on canvas. Restoration work on several of Botticelli’s masterpieces confirms his skill as a draftsman and technician. “This sweet girlish figure, lightly balanced on the great sea shell, with her abundant bright tresses fluttering about her, is something sweeter and purer than any goddess,” Plunkett wrote. “She looks upon the fair world with wondering eyes, a little timid, and hardly conscious of her own beauty, but never in ancient art was such innocent modesty represented.” A contributor in Sandro Botticelli called the painting a “tour de force of composition and technique. Despite the realistic, detailed rendering of the landscape, strewn with leaves and flowers, the marvelous, idyllic, and timeless fable of The Birth of Venus. remains magical. Here, the ethereal contemplation of Beauty is intertwined with exacting elements of line and color.”
Thematic interest in these allegorical paintings ripened in the twentieth century, as historians and art critics sought to reveal their complex literary references and religious symbolism. A contributor in The Oxford Companion to Art concluded, “The classical deities represented are not the carefree Olympians of Ovid’s tales but the symbolic embodiment of some deep moral or metaphysical truth. In fact a philosophy which regarded Beauty as the visible token of the Divine would be most likely to account for that infusion of religious and solemn sentiments into classical myths which we can feel in Botticelli’s art.” It is believed that Lorenzo de’ Medici commissioned some of these paintings; it is known that the Primavera and The Birth of Venus were listed in the inventory of his villa at Castello by 1530-40.
Meanwhile, Botticelli was also serving as a respected painter in the field of religious painting. He completed a number of large scale altarpieces like the now destroyed Bardi Altarpiece for Santo Spirito. Later, he painted the main altarpiece for the Church of San Barnaba, founded by the Florentine republic and then administered by Botticelli’s own guild, the Arte dei Medici e Speziali. A commission that serves to illustrate his importance is the Annunciation altarpiece for the church of the Cistercian monks of the Cestello. With the Annunciation altarpiece for the church of the Cistercian monks of the Cestello, Botticelli’s forms start to become more abstract, and his figures bend and sway in a rhythmical excitement that suggests a kind of internal frenzy. A parallel development occurs in his tondi, paintings in round formats. Not only was he predisposed to the form because of his lyrical, decorative inclinations, but also he produced the most integrated compositions within the difficult constraints of the shape, for example his Madonna of the Pomegranate.
The 1490s were troubled times for Florence. Even before the 1492 death of Lorenzo de’ Medici there were religious, economic, and political rumblings. Girolamo Savonarola, a reformer who preached of an apocalypse, assumed control of Florence. Botticelli is sometimes credited as being a follower of Savonarola as an explanation of the radical change of direction in his work. Bruno Santi remarked in Botticelli that “the subject-matter of his paintings changes and becomes increasingly religious. The pictorial technique changes too: the colors become purer and more striking in order to accentuate even further the expressionism of the scenes; the contorted positions and shapes of figures emphasize the exasperation of their movements and their gestures.” Many works exhibited this new tendency, such as the Calumny of Apelles, a visualization of a description of a painting by an ancient Roman writer; the Crucifixion, the only work by Botticelli definitely expounding Savonarola’s view of the sinning city; and the Last Communion of St. Jerome, the most intense of several works portraying physical collapse of the body. “But no painting exemplifies Botticelli’s new style more than Mystic Nativity,” according to a contributor in Sandro Botticelli, an assessment echoed by Santi, who noted the work’s “bright, almost too brilliant colors” as well as the “disproportionate size of the figures, halfway between prostration and hope….”
In his later years Botticelli withdrew from the artistic community in Florence to work on a set of drawings illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy, described by Catherine Slessor in the Architectural Review as “giving extraordinary visual form to the poet’s epic tripartite journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.” Botticelli’s works of this period also include several secular paintings, including the Story of Virginia and the Story of Lucretia. The acidic colors, frenzied motion, and grainy texture of the pigment in the two words are characteristic of Botticelli’s late style. The last surviving record regarding the painter is from the Compagnia di San Luca, a painters’ fraternity; dated October 18, 1505, it lists his debits and corresponding payment. Crippled and essentially forgotten, Botticelli died on May 17, 1510, and was buried in the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence.
Some five centuries after Botticelli’s death, his paintings continue to capture the public’s imagination. According to Santi, “Botticelli portrayed better than any other artist all the tension of an age of great cultural and political creativity, but also an age that witnessed overwhelming social and historical upheavals.” Julia Mary Cartwright Ady, writing in The Painters of Florence from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century, similarly noted of Botticelli: “The range of his art is as wide as the culture of the Renaissance, and his work reflects the different currents of thought, the aspirations and ideals of his contemporaries, more fully than that of any other Florentine painter. But over all he throws the glamour of his own personality, the spell of a fine artistic nature and the passion of a profoundly sympathetic heart.”