SANDRO BOTTICELLI: Symbolising the Art of Beauty

The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1485 - photo by Gallerie degli Uffizi

Sandro Botticelli is the creator of probably two of the most famous paintings in the world. He was born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, between 1444-1446 but probably in 1445. The name he was known by was bestowed on him by default; Botticello, which means ’little barrel’ was given to Sandro’s brother Giovanni as an unfortunately accurate nickname. A document dated 1470 refers to Sandro Mariano Botticelli, which name he permanently assumed.

Probable self-portrait of Botticelli, in his Adoration of the Magi, 1475 – photo by Wikipedia

Sandro was born in Florence, the youngest of four brothers who reached adulthood. His father, Mariano di Vanni d’Amedeo Filipepi, was a tanner until, in 1460, he and son Antonio went into business together beating out gold-leaf, which would have enabled him to meet many artists. Giorgio Vasari noted that Sandro was apprenticed as a goldsmith from about the age of fourteen.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), was a noted painter, writer, architect and historian and author of ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’, a definitive account of contemporary Italian art. Le Vite, as it is more commonly known, was first published in 1550 before a second edition was issued in 1568.

Sandro’s family lived on the Via Borgo Ognissanti, a neighbourhood comprising mostly artisans and workmen. The wealthy bankers and wool-merchants family headed by Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai also resided there, and it is recorded that by 1458, the two families lived on the same street. Sandro’s father bought a house on the Via Nuova (now Via della Porcellana) in 1464 in which Sandro lived from about 1470 until his death.

Virgin and Child, and Angels (Madonna of the Magnificat), Sandro Botticelli, 1483 – photo by Gallerie degli Uffizi

Unusually for the time, Sandro had a workshop attached to the house, which he shared with his brother Giovanni and his family, and later, brother Simone. The Vespucci family lived on the same street – the Americas are named after third son Amerigo – financier, explorer, navigator and cartographer.

Sandro was patronised by the powerful tycoon and politician Lorenzo d’Medici (1449-1492), also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. He supported and sponsored poets and artists, including Michelangelo. He was an authority on what Vasari deemed the ‘Golden Age’ of Italian Renaissance art. The Vespucci were staunch supporters of Medici and thus also patrons of Botticelli.

Botticelli was renowned for his numerous works depicting the Madonna but was also widely known for his mythological paintings. He and his assistants in his workshop produced numerous works. It is generally understood that the master produced the under-drawings and the apprentices completed the pieces.

The Adoration of the Kings, Sandro Botticelli, about 1445–1510 – photo by The National Gallery, London

Drawings that Botticelli himself completed were also copied by the assistants. His style was linear and thus easily imitated, which made identification of his own work extremely problematic.

There is a version of Adoration of the Kings dated to about 1470, held by the National Gallery, which is thought to have been completed by Botticelli after having been started by his student, Filippino Lippi. It was almost unheard of for a master to complete a pupil’s work.

Botticelli had previously been apprenticed to Fra’ Filippo Lippi, Filippino’s father. Lippi senior was something of a rogue, even resorting to forgery to free himself from financial setbacks. In 1456, he had been commissioned to paint frescoes in the St Mary Magdalene cathedral in Florence. While he was living in the city, he was painting a piece for the St. Margherita monastery chapel, where he met Lucrezia Buti. She was a novice for the order and Lippi requested that she be allowed to model for the Madonna in his painting. Lippi abducted Lucrezia and kept her in his home, which later resulted in the birth of Filippino in April 1457. Filippo died in October 1469, possibly poisoned by Lucrezia’s family to assuage her honour. Lippi junior became a master painter in his own right.

The Fortitude by Sandro Botticelli – photo by Gallerie degli Uffizi

In June 1472, Botticelli was commissioned to paint two panels of the Seven Virtues for the commercial court judges. He completed only one, Fortitude, which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Another prominent artist, Piero del Pollaiuolo, had been commissioned for the remainder of the set. He and his brother Antonio often worked together and the pair reputedly dissected bodies to learn about human anatomy.

Botticelli’s most famous works are The Birth of Venus and Primavera, both of which hang in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

The Birth of Venus or Nascita di Venere in its native language, is tempera on canvas measuring 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in), painted c. 1484-1486. It depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility. She is standing in a scallop shell, emerging new-born but fully grown from the sea. Other than Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, the other characters are not definitively identified. The nymph being carried by Zephyrus may be either Aura, who is a light breeze, or Chloris, a nymph who later transforms into the goddess Flora, the third figure depicted – or she may be one of the three Horae (hours) who were goddesses of the seasons. This one would be Thallo, the goddess of Spring. It is believed by some experts that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503) and his brother Giovanni di Pierfrancesco, cousins of Lorenzo the Magnificent, commissioned the painting for their new home Villa di Castello that they had bought in 1477 after the death of their father. However, a full inventory of art belonging to Lorenzo made in 1499 makes no mention of the piece, and there is no record of a commission.

Spring (Primavera) by Sandro Botticelli, 1480 – photo by Gallerie degli Uffizi

This work is closely associated with Primavera, although the paintings were not made as a pair. It is thought that this was painted before The Birth of Venus, possibly coinciding with Lorenzo’s wedding in July 1482. Primavera is tempera on panel, measuring 202 cm × 314 cm (80 in × 124 in). Besides the difference in size, Venus was painted on two pieces of canvas sewn together, whereas Primavera is painted on panel. Canvas was cheaper and more popular as support and used for paintings for owners of country villas rather than for palaces or museums.

Primavera, or Spring, depicts a gathering of figures in a garden, but there is no legend that unites the figures who are featured individually in classical mythology. Read from right to left, Zephyrus, the god of the west wind abducts and later marries the nymph Chloris, before transforming her into Flora, the goddess of Spring. Cupid is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. He is the son of Venus who is centrally depicted. The Three Graces, Aglaia who represents elegance and splendour, Thalia – youth and beauty, and Euphrosyne – mirth and joy. Finally, Mercury is portrayed, a god responsible for a vast portfolio; of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travellers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves. The whole is set in the garden of the Hesperides, where the dragon Ladon guarded the golden apples of immortality. Zephyrus and possibly Chloris/Flora are also present in Venus.

Giorgio Vasari saw the two paintings together at the Villa di Castello, probably between 1530-1540, but prior to his compilation of the first edition of Le Vite in 1550. The two paintings remained together at the Castello until 1815, when they were moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (which famously houses Michelangelo’s sculpture of David) prior to being permanently exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery from 1919.

Saint Sebastian by Sandro Botticelli, 1474 – photo by History Link 101

The Quattrocento period, from 1400 – 1499 incorporates art from the end of the Middle Ages, which lasted until the end of the 15th century, and the Early and High Renaissance periods, starting around 1425 and 1495 respectively. It primarily comprised art emanating from Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice and Naples. Quattrocento art focussed on realism; of human anatomy, perspective and landscape and classic Greek and Roman sculpture. Botticelli, although he symbolised the methodology of the period, did not enhance or influence it with his own work. He had developed his own style, preferring the more Gothic approach, rather than following in da Vinci’s footsteps into the High Renaissance style by the 1490s.

The sole dated piece by Botticelli is Saint Sebastian painted in 1474 for the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence. It is now held in the Staatliche Museen complex in Berlin. Botticelli was not renowned for his accurate renditions of the human form, but this work is an exemplary example of his talents. He had previously completed a sacra conversazione (sacred conversation) altarpiece between 1470-1472 depicting eight figures.

Botticelli only left Florence on two occasions in his lifetime. In 1474, he was invited to go to Pisa to work on frescoes for the Camposanto. None of this work has survived, but payments for work done were recorded up to that September.

Youth of Moses or The Trials of Moses, Sandro Botticelli, 1481–1482 – photo by Wikipedia

Between 1475-1476, he painted the first of eight versions of the Adoration of the Magi. It is thought to include his only known self-portrait, as well as Cosimo di Giovanni de’Medici (the Elder), sons Piero and Giovanni and grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano. This version, tempera on panel and measuring 1.11m x 1.34m (44 in × 53 in), currently hangs in the Uffizi Gallery.

The second sojourn away from home only lasted a few months; probably only from July 1481 to May 1482. He was commanded by Pope Sixtus IV to work on the frescoes of the recently constructed Sistine Chapel in Rome. He was to be responsible for three of the fourteen large panels measuring approximately 3.5 x 5.7 meters; Temptations of Christ, Youth of Moses and Punishment of the Sons of Corah. He would also have worked on parts of the ceiling, which were replaced soon after by Michelangelo’s iconic work.

Vasari inferred that Botticelli was given overall responsibility for the project, but a later school of thought gives this honour to Pietro Perugino, one of the first Italian painters to use oils, and the primary artist on the project. It appears that the artists did not have free reign to complete the work; they would have been given directives by the Vatican luminaries. They were directed to emphasise the Papacy and Botticelli’s hand is evident in hypothetical portraits of early popes. Most of these have not survived the ravages of time, but at least ten of the surviving works are thought to have been his work along with another five that he probably contributed to.

The Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli, 1478/1482 – photo by National Gallery of Art

While he was in Rome, Botticelli painted another version of the Adoration of the Magi. This is now held in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA.

Botticelli undertook to create illustrations for Dante Alighieri’s (c.1265-1321) Divine Comedy, begun in about 1308 and completed in 1320. It comprises three parts, Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso). Goldsmith Baccio Baldini created engravings from drawings Botticelli made, but these were not generally successful. The layout of the 100 cantos comprising the Divine Comedy allowed for one engraving per canto, but only nineteen illustrations were created. Many copies of the books already printed and bound had separate sheets of the illustrations pasted in at later dates, indicating that the engraver could not deliver his finished products in time.

Divine Comedy Illustrated by Sandro Botticelli – photo by Wikipedia

The manuscript Divine Comedy Illustrated by Botticelli, contains 92 full-page drawings. Most drawings are only at the foundation stage, not having been embellished beyond silverpoint (where a silver wire is scratched across a prepared surface, usually of gesso or primer). Many pages had been inked but only four had been completely coloured.

The manuscript was divided up over time, but the bulk of the lost pages were rediscovered in the collection of the Scottish Duke of Hamilton and purchased by the Kupferstichkabinett Berlin (Museum of Prints and Drawings) in 1882. The remaining eight pages were traced to the Vatican Library. In 2000-2001, all 92 pages were collated for exhibition in Berlin, Rome and the Royal Academy in London – the first time for hundreds of years that the manuscript was complete. In his later years, Botticelli became a devout follower of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar who promoted the destruction of secular art and culture, while condemning corruption in the Church and exploitation of the poor.

On 7 February 1497, Savonarola oversaw the ‘bonfire of the vanities’, when items including mirrors, cosmetics, playing cards, musical instruments, ‘immoral’ books and art including paintings and sculpture, were burnt as a symbolic protest against temptation and sin. There is doubt over whether Botticelli burnt his own paintings in the purge, but he is reputed to have given up art, at least temporarily, with the subsequent loss of income causing him to live in dire poverty.

Idealised Portrait of a Lady (believed to be a portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph), Sandro Botticelli, 1480 – photo by Wikipedia

Botticelli may have been homosexual; he never married and is reputed to have had a dream that he married. He awoke “struck with grief” and roamed the streets for the remainder of the night to avoid going back to sleep and have his dream recurring. In November 1502, he was accused of sodomy. However, this was a commonplace charge at the time and he was never prosecuted.

He is also reputed to have been in love with a married woman, Simonetta Vespucci, wife of Marco Vespucci. She was a great beauty and may have modelled for Botticelli. She died of tuberculosis at age 22 and Botticelli requested that he be buried at her feet. He died on 17 May 1510 in his beloved Florence and was buried in his parish Ognissanti Church.