Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
Sandro Botticelli was one of the greatest painters of the Florentine Renaissance. His “The Birth of Venus and Primavera” are often said to epitomize for modern viewers the spirit of the Renaissance.
Botticelli’s name is derived from that of his elder brother Giovanni, a pawnbroker who was called Botticello (“The Little Barrel”). As is often the case with Renaissance artists, most of the modern information about Botticelli’s life and character derives from Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, & Architects”, as supplemented and corrected from documents. Botticelli’s father was a tanner who apprenticed Sandro to a goldsmith after his schooling was finished. But, since Sandro preferred painting, his father then placed him under Filippo Lippi, who was one of the most admired Florentine masters.
Lippi’s painterly style, which was formed in the early Florentine Renaissance, was fundamental to Botticelli’s own artistic formation, and his influence is evident even in his pupil’s late works. Lippi taught Botticelli the techniques of panel painting and fresco 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 is 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. Absorbed in his art, he never married, and he lived with his family.
These transitions in Botticelli’s style can be seen in the small panels of Judith (“The Return of Judith”) and Holofernes (“The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes”), both c. 1470, and in his first dated work, “Fortitude” (1470), which was painted for the hall of the Tribunale dell’Are della Mercanzia, or merchants’ tribunal, in Florence. 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; all tentativeness in his work disappeared and was replaced by a consummate mastery. 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.
Botticelli worked in all the current genres of Florentine art. He painted altarpieces in fresco and on panel, tondi (round paintings), small panel pictures, and small devotional triptychs. His altarpieces include narrow vertical panels such as the “St. Sebastian” (1474); small oblong panels such as the famous “Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1476) from the Church of Santa Maria Novella; medium-sized altarpieces, of which the finest is the beautiful Bardi Altarpiece (1484–85); and large-scale works such as the St. Barnabas Altarpiece (c. 1488) and the “Coronation of the Virgin” (c. 1490). His early mastery of fresco is clearly visible in his “St. Augustine” (1480) in the Church of Ognissanti, in which the saint’s cogent energy and vigor express both intellectual power and spiritual devotion. Three of Botticelli’s finest religious frescoes (completed 1482) were part of the decorations of the Sistine Chapel undertaken by a team of Florentine and Umbrian artists who had been summoned to Rome in July 1481. The theological themes of the frescoes were chosen to illustrate papal supremacy over the church; Botticelli’s are remarkable for their brilliant fusion of sequences of symbolic episodes into unitary compositions.Florentine tondi were often large, richly framed paintings, and Botticelli produced major works in this format, beginning with the “Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1473) that he painted for Antonio Pucci. Before Botticelli, tondi had been conceived essentially as oblong scenes, but Botticelli suppressed all superfluity of detail in them and became adept at harmonizing his figures with the circular form. His complete mastery of the tondo format is evident in two of his most beautiful paintings, “The Madonna of the Magnificat” (1482) and The Madonna of the Pomegranate (c. 1487). Botticelli also painted a few small oblong Madonnas, notably the “Madonna of the Book” (c. 1480), but he mostly left the painting of Madonnas and other devotional subjects to his workshop, which produced them in great numbers. In his art the Virgin Mary is always a tall, queenly figure wearing the conventional red robe and blue cloak, but enriched in his autograph works by sensitively rendered accessories. She often has an inner pensiveness of expression, the same inwardness of mood that is communicated by Botticelli’s saints.
Botticelli is the earliest European artist whose paintings of secular historical subjects survive in some number and are equal or superior in importance to his religious paintings. Nevertheless, much of his secular work is lost; from a working life of some 40 years, only eight examples by him survive in an already well-established genre, the portrait. One of these, the portrait of a young man holding a medal of Cosimo de’ Medici (c. 1474), is especially significant because in it Botticelli copied the Flemish painter Hans Memling’s recently invented device of setting the figure before a landscape seen from a high vantage point. This is the earliest instance of the influence on Botticelli of contemporary Flemish landscape art, which is clearly visible in a number of his landscape settings.
Perhaps it was Botticelli’s skill in portraiture that gained him the patronage of the Medici family, in particular of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano, who then dominated Florence. Botticelli painted a portrait of Giuliano and posthumous portraits of his grandfather Cosimo and father Piero. Portraits of all four Medici appear as the Three Magi and an attendant figure in the “Adoration of the Magi” from Santa Maria Novella. Botticelli is also known to have painted (1475) for Giuliano a banner of Pallas trampling on the flames of love and Cupid bound to an olive tree. This work, though lost, is important as a key to Botticelli’s use of Classical mythology to illustrate the sentiment of medieval courtly love in his great mythological paintings.
After Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination in the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, it was Botticelli who painted the defamatory fresco of the hanged conspirators on a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio. The frescoes were destroyed after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. Lorenzo certainly always favoured Botticelli, as Vasari claims, but even more significant in the painter’s career was the lasting friendship and patronage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, head of the junior Medici line and from 1494 an open opponent of the senior line. Tommaso Soderini, who secured for Botticelli in 1470 the commission for the “Fortitude”, and Antonio Pucci, for whom he painted his earliest surviving tondo, were both prominent Medicean partisans, as was Giovanni Tornabuoni, who about 1486–87 commissioned Botticelli’s most important surviving secular frescoes.
Many of the commissions given to Botticelli by these rich patrons were linked to Florentine customs on the occasion of a marriage, which was by far the most important family ceremony of that time. A chamber was usually prepared for the newly married couple in the family palace of the groom, and paintings were mounted within it. The themes of such paintings were either romantic, exalting love and lovers, or exemplary, depicting heroines of virtuous fame. Botticelli’s earliest known work of this kind was commissioned by Lorenzo de’Medici for the marriage of Antonio Pucci’s son Giannozzo in 1483. The set of four panels—”The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti”—narrates a story from Boccaccio. Mythological figures had been used in earlier Renaissance secular art, but the complex culture of late Medicean Florence, which was simultaneously infused with the romantic sentiment of courtly love and with the humanist interest for Classical antiquity and its vanished artistic traditions, employed these mythological figures more fully and in more correctly antiquarian fashion. A new mythological language became current, inspired partly by Classical literature and sculpture and by descriptions of lost ancient paintings and partly by the Renaissance search for the full physical realization of the ideal human figure.
Among the greatest examples of this novel fashion in secular painting are four of Botticelli’s most famous works: “Primavera” (c. 1477–82), “Pallas and the Centaur” (c. 1485), “Venus and Mars” (c. 1485), and “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1485 [see above]). The “Primavera”, or “Allegory of Spring”, and “The Birth of Venus” were painted for the home of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. All four of these panel paintings have been variously interpreted by modern scholarship. The figures certainly do not enact a known myth but rather are used allegorically to illustrate various aspects of love: in “Primavera”, its kindling and its fruition in marriage; in “Pallas”, the subjugation of male lust by female chastity; in “Venus and Mars”, a celebration of woman’s calm triumph after man’s sexual exhaustion; and in “The Birth of Venus”, the birth of love in the world. The “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus” contain some of the most sensuously beautiful nudes and semi-nudes painted during the Renaissance. The four paintings’ settings, which are partly mythological—that of the “Primavera” is the Garden of the “Hesperides”—and partly symbolic, are pastoral and idyllic in sentiment.
Botticelli’s frescoes from a chamber in the Villa Lemmi, celebrating the marriage of Lorenzo Tornabuoni and Giovanna degli Albizzi in 1486, also draw on Classical mythology for their subject matter. In these frescoes, real personages mingle with mythological figures: Venus, attended by her Graces, gives flowers to Giovanna degli Albizzi, while Lorenzo Tornabuoni, who is called to a mercantile life, is brought before Prudentia and the Liberal Arts.
The influence of the Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti’s art theories is apparent in Botticelli’s Classical borrowings and his meticulous use of linear perspective. The work that best illustrates Botticelli’s interest in reviving the glories of Classical antiquity is the “The Calumny of Apelles” (c. 1495), a subject recommended by Alberti, who took it from a description of a work by the ancient Greek painter Apelles. Botticelli also drew inspiration from Classical art more directly. While in Rome in 1481–82, for example, he reproduced that city’s Arch of Constantine in one of his Sistine frescoes. Three of the figures in “Primavera” are taken from a Classical statue of the Three Graces, while the figure of Venus in “The Birth of Venus” derives from an ancient statue of “Venus Pudica”.
An incipient mannerism appears in Botticelli’s late works of the 1480s and in works such as the magnificent Cestello “Annunciation” (1490) and the small “Pietà” (late 1490s) now in the Poldi-Pezzoli Museum. After the early 1490s his style changed markedly; the paintings are smaller in scale, the figures in them are now slender to the point of idiosyncrasy, and the painter, by accentuating their gestures and expressions, concentrates 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 from 1494 were dramatic ones in Florence: its Medici rulers fell, and a republican government under Savonarola’s dominance was installed. 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), which expresses Botticelli’s own faith in the renewal of the church. “The Tragedy of Lucretia” (c. 1499) and “The Story of Virginia Romana” (1499) appear to condemn the Medici’s tyranny and to celebrate republicanism.
Botticelli, according to Vasari, took an enduring interest in the study and interpretation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. 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. He was also much in demand by engravers, embroiderers, and tapestry workers as a designer; among his few surviving drawings are some that can be associated with these techniques.
Although Vasari describes Botticelli as impoverished and disabled in his last years, other evidence suggests that he and his family remained fairly prosperous. He received commissions throughout the 1490s and was still paying his dues, if belatedly, to the Company of Saint Luke, the Florentine painters’ guild, in 1505. But the absence of any further commissions and the tentativeness of the very last Dante drawings suggest that he was perhaps overtaken by ill health. Upon his death in 1510 he was buried in the Church of Ognissanti. About 50 paintings survive that are either wholly or partly from his own hand. The Uffizi Gallery’s magnificent collection of his works includes many of his masterpieces.