By Staff Middle Land 9:25 am PST

Sandro Botticelli, (1445-1510) was an Italian painter of the Florentine school during the early Renaissance.

Detail from Sandro Botticelli, Self-portrait from the Adoration of the Magi. Date:: circa 1475 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Less than a hundred years later, this movement, under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, was characterized by Giorgio Vasari as a “golden age,” a sentiment that he aptly expressed at the beginning of his Vita of Botticelli. His posthumous reputation suffered until the late 19th century; since then, his work has come to represent the linear grace of early Renaissance painting. Among his most famous works are The Birth of Venus and Primavera.

Details of Botticelli’s life are sparse, but we know that he became an apprentice when he was about fourteen years old, indicating that he received a more complete education than other Renaissance artists. He was born in the city of Florence. Vasari reports that he was first trained as a goldsmith by his brother Antonio. Around 1462, he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi.

Many of Boticelli’s early works have been attributed to the older master, and attributions remain uncertain. Influenced in part by the monumentality of Masaccio’s painting, it was from Lippi that Botticelli learned a more intimate and detailed manner.

As it has recently been discovered, Botticelli may have traveled to Hungary during this period to participate in the creation of a fresco in Esztergom, commissioned in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi by Vitéz János, then Archbishop of Hungary.

By 1470, Botticelli had his own studio. Even at this early stage in his career, Botticelli’s work was characterized by a conception of the figure as if seen in low relief, drawn with clear contours and minimizing strong contrasts of light and shadow that would indicate fully modeled forms.

The Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli. (c. 1484–1486). Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The masterpieces Primavera (c. 1482) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) were both seen by Vasari in the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici at Castello in the mid-16th century. Until recently, it was assumed that both works were painted specifically for the villa. Recent scholars suggest otherwise: Primavera was painted for Lorenzo’s townhouse in Florence, and The Birth of Venus was commissioned by someone else for a different location. By 1499, both were installed in the Castello.

In these works, the influence of Gothic realism is tempered by Botticelli’s study of antiquity. However, if the pictorial means can be understood, the subjects remain fascinating for their ambiguity. The complex meanings of these paintings continue to receive considerable scholarly attention, much of it focused on the poetry and philosophy of the humanists who were the artist’s contemporaries. The works do not illustrate specific texts; rather, each relies on multiple texts for its meaning. Their beauty, described by Vasari as an example of “grace” and by John Ruskin as having a linear rhythm, is beyond question.

The Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella (c. 1475-1476, now in the Uffizi) contains the portraits of Cosimo de’ Medici (“the best of all that now survive for life and vigor”), his grandson Giuliano de’ Medici, and Cosimo’s son Giovanni. The quality of the scene was praised by Vasari as one of Botticelli’s highlights.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli and other prominent Florentine and Umbrian artists to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The iconological program was the supremacy of the papacy. Botticelli’s contribution was only moderately successful. He returned to Florence, and “being of a sophistical turn of mind, there he wrote a commentary on a part of Dante and illustrated the Inferno, which he printed, spending much time on it, and this abstention from work led to serious disturbances in his life.” Thus, Vasari characterized the first printed Dante (1481) with Botticelli’s decorations; he could not imagine that the new art of printing could occupy an artist.

In the mid-1480s, Botticelli worked with Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Filippino Lippi on a major fresco cycle for Lorenzo the Magnificent’s villa near Volterra; he also painted many frescoes in Florentine churches. In 1491, Botticelli served on a committee to decide on a facade for Florence’s Duomo.

Savonarola’s influence

Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as a Nymph 1480-1485. Sandro Botticelli. (Photo: © Rob Lumen Captum |

In later life, Botticelli was a follower of Savonarola, although the full extent of Savonarola’s influence is uncertain. The story that he burned his own paintings on pagan themes in the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” is not told by Vasari. Vasari, who nevertheless asserts that of Savonarola’s sect, “he was so ardently a partisan that he was induced thereby to abandon his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, he persisted in his attachment to that party and became a Piagnone, abandoning his work”.

Botticelli’s biographer, Ernst Steinman, searched for the artist’s psychological development through his Madonnas. In the “deepening of insight and expression in the rendering of Mary’s physiognomy,” Steinman sees evidence of Savonarola’s influence on Botticelli.

The biographer had to change the dates of several Madonnas to support his theory; specifically, they are dated ten years later than before. Steinman disagrees with Vasari’s assertion that Botticelli produced nothing after coming under the influence of Girolamo Savonarola. Steinman believes that the spiritual and emotional virgins that Sandro rendered follow directly from the teachings of the Dominican monk.

Death and Posthumous Eclipse

By 1502, Botticelli had little work to do. In 1504, he was a member of the committee appointed to decide where Michelangelo’s David should be placed. His later work, especially in a series on the life of St. Zenobius, showed a reduction in scale, expressively distorted figures, and a non-naturalistic use of color reminiscent of the work of Fra Angelico nearly a century earlier.

After his death, Botticelli’s reputation was eclipsed longer and more thoroughly than any other great European artist. His paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they were created, and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were eclipsed by those of Michelangelo. However, the British collector and art historian William Young Ottley brought Botticelli’s The Mystical Nativity back to London in 1799 after buying it in Italy.

After Ottley’s death, the next buyer allowed it to be displayed at a major art exhibition in Manchester in 1857, The Art Treasures Exhibition, where it was seen by more than a million people, along with many other works of art. The first nineteenth-century art historian to view Botticelli’s Sistine frescoes with satisfaction was Alexis-François Rio. Through Rio, Anna Brownell Jameson and Charles Eastlake were introduced to Botticelli, but while works by his hand began to appear in German collections, both the Nazarene movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ignored him.

Walter Pater created a literary image of Botticelli, who was then taken up by the Aesthetic movement. The first monograph on the artist was published in 1893. Between 1900 and 1920, more books were written on Botticelli than on any other painter.

Private life

Botticelli never married and expressed a strong aversion to marriage, a prospect he claimed gave him nightmares.

The popular view is that he suffered from unrequited love for Simonetta Vespucci, a married noblewoman. Legend has it that she was the model for The Birth of Venus and appears throughout his paintings, even though she had died years earlier in 1476. Botticelli asked to be buried at her feet in the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence. His wish was granted when he died some 34 years later in 1510.

Some modern historians have also investigated other aspects of his sexuality. In 1938, Jacques Mesnil discovered a summary of an indictment for November 16, 1502, in the Florentine archives, which simply read: “Botticelli keeps a boy” under an accusation of [sodomy]. The painter would have been fifty-eight then; the charges were eventually dropped. Mesnil dismissed it as a common slander used by partisans and opponents of Savonarola.

Opinion remains divided as to whether this is evidence of homosexuality. Many have strongly supported Mesnil, but others have cautioned against prematurely dismissing the accusation. However, while speculating on his paintings, Mesnil concluded that “woman was not the only object of his love.

The Birth of Venus

Sandro Botticelli. Detail. The Birth of Venus (detail), c. 1486, tempera on canvas, Uffizi, Florence (Photo:

A close-up of the Venus figure in Botticelli’s most famous piece, The Birth of Venus, displays Botticelli’s model, the beautiful Simonetta Vespucci. Once named “Queen of Beauty” at a Florentine jousting tournament, it was Simonetta’s face that Botticelli painted on an art banner. The banner was carried into battle by the tournament winner, Giuliano de’ Medici, a man who would soon become her lover. Under her image, Botticelli described her as “the incomparable.”

Spring by Botticelli. The central figure is presumed to be a portrait of La Bella Simonetta.

Shortly after she arrived in Florence, Simonetta became known as “La Bella Simonetta” and attracted the attention of poets and artists such as Botticelli. They vied to honor her with their artistic creations.

At the age of fifteen, Simonetta married a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the famous Italian explorer for whom America was named. It was through the Vespucci family connection that Simonetta first met Botticelli and the Medici family, prominent political figures and patrons of the arts.

Simonetta’s face embodied the Italian Renaissance concept of ideal beauty. This was important to artists like Botticelli, who believed that external beauty reflected inner beauty or virtue (spiritual beauty).

Simonetta died in 1476 at the age of twenty-two, but Botticelli continued to use her image in his art for the rest of his life. All of Botticelli’s female paintings were portraits of Simonetta. When he died three decades later, Botticelli asked to be buried at Simonetta’s feet.


La Primavera (Spring). Sandro Botticelli. Depicted people: Flora , Venus, Cupid, Mercury. Date: circa 1480 Early Renaissance (1420s –1500). Medium: tempera on panel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Detail La Primavera (Spring), Three Graces in Primavera. Sandro Botticelli. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Botticelli painted Primavera for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463-1503), a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Venus stands just to the right of the center, with her son Cupid hovering over her head. Botticelli drew attention to Venus by opening up the landscape behind her to reveal a patch of sky that forms a kind of halo around the head of the goddess of love.

To her right, seemingly the target of Cupid’s arrow, are the dancing Three Graces, closely based on ancient prototypes but dressed in thin, transparent garments. On the right, the blue, icy Zephyrus, the west wind, is about to carry off and marry the nymph Chloris, whom he transforms into Flora, the goddess of spring, appropriately dressed in a rich floral gown.

On the far left, the enigmatic figure of Mercury turns away from the others and raises his distinctive staff, the caduceus, perhaps to disperse storm clouds. The sensuality of the depiction, the appearance of Venus in spring, and the abduction and marriage of Chloris all suggest that the painting was commissioned for the wedding of young Lorenzo in May 1482.

The painting also encapsulates the Neo-Platonist view that earthly love is compatible with Christian theology. In their reinterpretation of classical mythology, Venus, as the source of love, provokes desire through Cupid. Desire can lead to lust and violence (Zephyr) or to the love of God through reason and faith (Mercury). Primavera, read from right to left, urged the newlyweds to seek God through love.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475-1476, tempera on panel, Uffizi, (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At the height of his fame, Florentine painter and draftsman Sandro Botticelli was one of Italy’s most esteemed artists.

In the Uffizi, there is a painting by Sandro Botticelli that is both a portrait of the Medici family and a self-portrait of the artist. It is the famous Adoration of the Magi, painted around 1475 for the chapel patronized by the Lama (or Lami) family in Santa Maria Novella. It is the painting that, according to Vasari, made the young Sandro famous in Florence and Italy and opened the way to Rome.

The painting is based on a subtle network of symbolic references. The Lami Chapel was dedicated to the Epiphany because the patron’s name, Gaspare, was the same as that traditionally attributed to one of the Three Kings. This explains the choice of iconographic theme. The Adoration of the Magi theme was very popular in Renaissance Florence.

The scene is populated by numerous figures, including several members of the Medici family: Cosimo de’ Medici (the Magus kneeling before the Virgin, described by Vasari as “the best of all that now exist for his life and vigor”), his sons Piero (the second Magus kneeling in the center with the red cloak) and Giovanni (the third Magus), and his grandsons Giuliano and Lorenzo.

The Annunciation. Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi). Italian. ca. 1485–92. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Public Domain)

The Met says regarding this work: One of the most celebrated paintings in the Robert Lehman Collection, this depiction of the Annunciation unfolds in a classicizing architectural interior rendered with one-point perspective to create the illusion of depth, a technique achieved in early fifteenth-century Florence. The incised lines visible on the panel’s surface are evidence of Botticelli’s working method to create the complex composition. A row of pillars divides the space occupied by the Angel Gabriel from the intimate bed chamber of the Virgin, who kneels in humility as she receives his divine message. The panel was almost certainly commissioned as a private devotional image, not as part of a larger work. While the identity of the patron is not known, the painting was in the famed Barberini collection in Rome in the seventeenth century.



Original article: Art in Toscany