Background: Sandro Boticelli was born in 1445 in the city of Florence in a house in the Via Nuova, Borg’Ognissanti. Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445 – May 17, 1510), was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine school under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, a movement that Giorgio Vasari would characterize less than a hundred years later as a “golden age”, a thought, suitably enough, he expressed at the head of his Vita of Botticelli. Botticelli’s posthumous reputation suffered until the late 19th century; since then his work has been seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting. Among his best known works are The Birth of Venus and Primavera.
Education: There are very few details of Botticelli’s life, but it is known that he became an apprentice when he was about fourteen years old, which would indicate that he received a fuller education than other Renaissance artists. Probably by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi; many of his early works have been attributed to the elder master, and attributions continue to be uncertain. Influenced also by the monumentality of Masaccio’s painting, it was from Lippi that Botticelli learned a more intimate and detailed manner. As recently discovered, during this time, Botticelli could have traveled to Hungary, participating in the creation of a fresco in Esztergom, ordered in the workshop of Filippo Lippi by János Vitéz, then archbishop of Hungary.
By 1470, Botticelli had his own workshop. Even at this early date, his 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 which would indicate fully modeled forms.
Achievements: The Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella (c. 1475–1476, now at the Uffizi), contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano. The quality of the scene was hailed by Vasari as one of Botticelli’s pinnacles.
Primavera (c. 1482): icon of the springtime renewal of the Florentine Renaissance, also at the summer palazzo of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, as a companion piece to the Birth of Venus and Pallas and the Centaur. Left to right: Mercury, the Three Graces, Venus, Flora, Chloris, Zephyrus.
“Like much of Florence, Botticelli had come under the sway of Savonarola and his art had transformed from the decorative to the deeply devout – The Mystical Nativity (c. 1500-1501) [for example] bears all the signs of this change”
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. Sandro’s contribution included the Temptations of Christ, the Punishment of the Rebels and Trial of Moses. He returned to Florence, and “being of a sophistical turn of mind, he there wrote a commentary on a portion of Dante and illustrated the Inferno which he printed, spending much time over it, and this abstention from work led to serious disorders in his living.” Thus Vasari characterized the first printed Dante (1481) with Botticelli’s decorations; he could not imagine that the new art of printing might occupy an artist.
The masterpieces Primavera (c. 1482) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) were both seen by Vasari at the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici at Castello in the mid-16th century, and until recently, it was assumed that both works were painted specifically for the villa. Recent scholarship suggests otherwise: the Primavera was painted for Lorenzo’s townhouse in Florence, and The Birth of Venus was commissioned by someone else for a different site. By 1499, both had been installed at Castello.
In these works, the influence of Gothic realism is tempered by Botticelli’s study of the antique. But if the painterly means may be understood, the subjects themselves remain fascinating for their ambiguity. The complex meanings of these paintings continue to receive widespread scholarly attention, mainly focusing on the poetry and philosophy of humanists who were the artist’s contemporaries. The works do not illustrate particular texts; rather, each relies upon several texts for its significance. Of their beauty, characterized by Vasari as exemplifying “grace” and by John Ruskin as possessing linear rhythm, there can be no doubt.
In the mid-1480s, Botticelli worked on a major fresco cycle with Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi, for Lorenzo the Magnificent’s villa near Volterra; in addition he painted many frescoes in Florentine churches. In 1491 he served on a committee to decide upon a façade for the Cathedral of Florence.