Sandro Botticelli, biography and works

One of the great early Renaissance painters, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi – better known by his nickname Botticelli (Florence, March 1, 1445 – Florence, May 17, 1510) – was active during the heyday of the Renaissance in Florence, and in 1480 was perhaps the most influential painter in the city. A pupil of Fra Filippo Lippi, for most of his life, he suffered from various illnesses and – apart from a period in Rome (1481-2) when Pope Sixtus IV commissioned him to paint the Story of Moses in the Sistine Chapel – he spent almost the entire his life working for the great families of the Florentine Renaissance, in particular the Medici.

In addition to the ordinary religious works, Botticelli specialized in idealized paintings of classical mythology, full of atmosphere and populated by extremely imaginative figures. His poetic works, often sensual, reflect not only the Renaissance mentality of the fifteenth century but also the contemporary political situation, itself largely controlled by his employers, the Medici.

Botticelli’s most memorable contributions to Renaissance art are his paintings: Primavera (c. 1482-3), Venus and Mars (c. 1483), and the Birth of Venus (c. 1484-6), all in the Gallery of the Uffizi in Florence. All three contain complex and symbolic meanings. In addition, Botticelli completed some of the best drawings of the Renaissance and painted numerous frescoes in tempera for various Florentine churches.

Botticelli’s paintings were painted in tempera – a method in which colored pigments are combined with an emulsion of water and egg yolks or whole eggs (sometimes glue or milk). Tempera was commonly used in Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries for both panel painting and frescoes until it was replaced by oil paint. Tempera colors are bright and translucent, but because the paint dries very quickly, mixing time is short, so a tempera artist creates more or less light or darker shades by adding lighter or darker dots or lines of color. Dark to an area of dry paint. Botticelli painted most of his pictures on wood panels – although some were done on canvas – and completed many wall paintings.


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Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel

Commissioned by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Perugino (1445-1523), and Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), three of the most famous painters of the time, to decorate the Sistine Chapel with frescoes (1481-2), it seems to have been struck by the need to create a closed and connected narrative. By comparison, the figures of Primavera are connected not by narrative dialogue but by imperceptible linear rhythms, which facilitate the creation of a single scene. The best part of these Sistine Chapel frescoes is in the details, like the children with firewood, and the evocative portraits of people, like Zefora, one of Jethro’s daughters (Trial of Moses, 1482, Sistine Chapel).

Back in Florence, Botticelli completed his best-known religious paintings, including the Madonna del Magnificat and the Madonna del Pomegranate (both Uffizi). His circular rhythms are particularly well suited to the medium and the harmonious arrangement of the figures. He also painted the Altarpiece of San Barnaba (1490), the Coronation of San Marco (1490), and the Annunciation (1490) for the Monks of Cestello (Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti, Florence). A sharper line is visible in these paintings, with greater force in the gestures and a far superior linear rhythm, particularly in the drapery of the Annunciation.

Botticelli’s line had reached its limit in the Birth of Venus (1484, Uffizi), particularly in the mass of blond hair. Later paintings, such as the Pietà (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and the Mystical Nativity (1500, National Gallery, London), as well as the different versions of The Three Miracles of San Zenobio (1500-5, National Gallery, London; Metropolitan Museum, New York; Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) differ in the breaking of the line, as well as in the intensity and boldness of the color.

Most of Botticelli’s output was devoted to sacred art, including wall frescoes, altarpieces, and other decorative works. Furthermore, he produced some outstanding examples of mythological paintings (such as Primavera and the Birth of Venus) and several examples of portraiture. Some self-portraits also appear in his paintings by him. He was also a virtuoso in drawing, as evidenced by the illustrations for a manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1490) for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. The approximately 90 surviving drawings are divided between the Vatican Library and the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin.

The preaching of Girolamo Savonarola, together with his death in 1498, triggered a spiritual crisis in Botticelli, as in others such as Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517). He lived with his brother Simone, an active supporter of Savonarola, whose sermons highlighting the corruption and decadence of Florence (according to Savonarola) must have raised Botticelli’s doubts about his past behavior. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that he turned to a more moralistic form of painting (Calunnia, 1495, Uffizi). At the same time, he was also inspired by virtuous tales: see The Story of Virginia (c. 1496-1504, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) and The Story of Lucretia (c. 1496-1504, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). The sacred paintings of recent years, such as the dramatic Mystical Living Crib (1500, National Gallery, London), contain moral allusions to the evil inherent in man and his inevitable punishment. In the Crucifixion (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, USA), he uses a Dantesque allegorical sequence involving a fox, an angel, and a wolf, against the backdrop of a Florentine storm.

Reputation as an artist and legacy

Despite the high quality, Botticelli’s painting did not have much impact on his contemporaries. His pupil Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) was one of the few to understand his art, unlike other followers such as Jacopo del Sellaio (1441-93) and Bartolommeo di Giovanni. As for the new sixteenth-century generation, they were much more interested in the “new way” of creating in Florence by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520), and Michelangelo (1475-1564). This explains why he died in obscurity at the age of 65.

Botticelli was the ideal visual interpreter for the refined humanism of Florentine society and its Medici leaders. His lyrical idealism was very different from the bourgeois painting of Ghirlandaio and from the fantastic realism of Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). Botticelli was soon forgotten, and it was not until the late 19th century when he was “reinterpreted” by John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Pre-Raphaelites such as Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), along with later followers of Art Nouveau, that he was brought back in his place as one of the best old masters of the Quattrocento and Renaissance.

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