Sandro Botticelli

Painter symbol of the Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli with his art perfectly embodies the spirit of the culture of Laurentian Florence. Born in Florence in 1445, for most of his life he gravitated around the figure of the patron Lorenzo de’ Medici and with his works he gave new life and an unequaled refinement to the art of his time.

A young Florentine: childhood and training of an artist in the 15th century

The youngest of Mariano Filipepi and Smeralda’s four children, Sandro grew up between the house in Via della Vigna Nuova and the family shop in the Santo Spirito district. The father is a tanner and, although not rich, still manages to support the family worthily. Still very young, he did not show a great aptitude for study and his father decided to send him to the workshop of a goldsmith friend of his, a typical formation of many Florentine artists of the time. Vasari in his Lives reports that in those years the young man began to show a certain talent for drawing, so around 1461 he was sent to continue his studies with the famous painter Filippo Lippi. His second master is Andrea del Verrocchio, an illustrious artist who will also train Leonardo da Vinci. In the Madonna del Roseto, created at the age of 25 in 1470 and now exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery, we can see the fusion of the styles of the two great mentors: the chiaroscuro is sharp and deep, a typical feature of Verrocchio’s workshop, while the face of Mary, sweet and soft, it is absolutely a legacy of Lippi.

Botticelli and the Medici

But it was only in 1475 that the artist, now thirty years old, received the first commission from Lorenzo de’ Medici. It is a banner, now lost, depicting the goddess Minerva. The work is intended for Lorenzo’s brother, the charming Giuliano, on the occasion of the Giostra di Santa Croce immortalized by the poet Agnolo Poliziano in his Stanze. It may seem like a minor work, but it allows Botticelli to enter the Medici circle. It is this new courtly environment that will provide him with the inspirations for his most famous paintings. Already in 1476 he created a large altarpiece for his new clients: the Adoration of the Magi. The work is a real glorification of the Medici family. All the main characters are members of this illustrious family: Cosimo with his sons Piero and Giovanni like the Magi, Lorenzo and Giuliano watch the giving of gifts from the crowd. We are already faced with a revolutionary painting. Not only is the sacred scene imbued with political meanings, with the powerful of the secular world represented as important actors in the biblical episode, but the very structure of the work breaks the molds of the previous tradition. For the first time the Holy Family is represented in the centre, the apex of an imaginary pyramid which has its base in the Medici and their acquaintances, giving a frontal view strongly opposed to the typically medieval lateral one.

Two years later, in 1478, the worst chapter in the history of the Medici family takes place: the wealthy banker family de’ Pazzi, their historical rivals, hatch a plot with the support of the Pope, the Republic of Siena and other Italian lordships to steal control over city politics to Lorenzo. On Sunday 26 April, during the mass officiated in the Cathedral by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a young student from Pisa who was celebrating his newly received office, the two brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano were attacked in what soon turned into a veritable city guerrilla war. Lorenzo manages to escape but Giuliano, unfortunately, loses his life. The attack is not well digested by the Florentine people. Perhaps because of the esteem that the citizens had for Lorenzo, perhaps because of the blasphemous and sacrilegious act of murder in the church, the crowd attacks the conspirators and, one after the other, they are executed. Botticelli was entrusted with the macabre task of creating billboards on which the hanged corpses of the conspirators were depicted. These gloomy effigies are therefore hung on the facade of Palazzo Vecchio as a warning. By now, Sandro is officially a close companion of the Magnfico.

Man and art at the center of the cosmos

Years go by and Sandro becomes more and more involved with the circle of intellectuals, artists and poets that surround the Magnificent. The culture of the ruling class is strongly centered on Neoplatonic philosophy, recovered and partly adapted by humanist intellectuals thanks to the large amount of Greek writings of the Hellenistic age that had flowed into the West from Constantinople in the last century. Botticelli was immediately fascinated by it. Art and the artist are seen as intermediaries between the world of Ideas, transcendent by definition, and physical reality. It is precisely these cultural influences that lead Sandro to create his most famous works, such as Pallas and the Centaur, an allegory of reason that wins over animal instinct, now kept in the Uffizi Gallery.

The two Venuses: symbols of Renaissance Art

We are in the 1480s, by now Botticelli can be considered almost a court painter, although there is still no real court. The Medici family exerts its influence on the city and Italian politics mainly through money and diplomacy, without any official title. Precisely within this context Sandro was sent, in 1480, to Rome together with a group of other Florentine artists as a gift of peace to Pope Sixtus IV, strongly linked to the Pazzi conspiracy, with the task of frescoing part of the Sistine Chapel. It was not unusual for the Magnificent to send his favorite intellectuals on visits to the other Italian courts. The goal was always one: to show the cultural, and consequently economic and political supremacy of Florence and the Medici family.

But it was around his return to Tuscany, in 1482, that Sandro created the two paintings that more than any other consecrated him as the emblem of Renaissance painting: Spring and The Birth of Venus. The two works, for years considered sisters, show similarities but also clear differences. The first is a painting on wood while the second is on canvas. One is a riot of flowers and mythological figures, the other an essential and almost abstract landscape. We owe the first written testimony of these two masterpieces to Vasari who in 1550 described them as being located in the Medici villa of Castello, belonging to the popular branch of the family.

Primavera - gallery
Spring, 1480 c.
605174 Nascita di Venere, Botticelli - gallery
Birth of Venus, 1485-1486

With La Primavera, Botticelli creates a real botanical catalog of the typical flora of the Florentine hills of that era and, perhaps, precisely of the garden of the Villa di Careggi where Lorenzo often hosted his favorites. In fact, in the picture we find at least 138 different plant species, all recognizable and absolutely real. Deeply allegorical meanings are hidden behind its beauty. The artist was perhaps inspired by a Stanza by his friend Agnolo Poliziano, in which a garden in bloom is described with the three Graces and Zephyr chasing Flora, goddess of spring. In Botticelli’s version, these three characters from the myth are joined by the nymph Chloris, Mercury, Cupid and, in the centre, a splendid Venus, the undisputed lady of the garden.

Always in parallel with the poetics of Poliziano, the greatest of the works of the time sees the light a few years later: The Birth of Venus. Venus, in the center of the work as in the previous table, is represented in the pose of Venus Pudica, while trying to cover herself, perhaps inspired by an ancient statue in the Medici collection. Zephyr and Aura, divinities linked to the air and the winds push the goddess from the left towards the shore, where one of the Hours awaits her, offering her a richly embroidered cloak. Here, Botticelli is totally immersed in the metaphysical world of ideas. The setting is ethereal, the light almost divine. Venus, in the center enchants with her wonderful face and her splendid hair. In this painting in particular we can see the fundamental characteristic of the Florentine artist’s works, namely the use of drawing as a unique tool for the composition of scenes and characters. Everything from color to perspective is subordinated to the slight line that delimits everything. His subjects are almost devoid of volume and mass, light and without physical depth. The figures seem to have been cut out of the thin line of his drawing while the scenes and backdrops are flat, as if the characters were pasted onto a painted wall. The reality it represents is fundamentally and deliberately abstract, detached from nature and lowered into a mental and imaginary dimension.

The mature years, the death of Lorenzo and the mystical crisis

Although Botticelli is best known for his pagan-themed works, his religious commissions should not be overlooked. Two very famous panels are the Tondi called Madonna del Magnificat and Madonna della Pomegranate, respectively from around 1485 and 1487 and now kept in the Uffizi. Especially in the first one can still see the teachings of dear master Filippo Lippi. Maria is beautiful, even if her face is melancholy, and the colors are as precious as gems. The scene is skillfully constructed to accommodate the circular shape of the work, with curved bodies and the force lines of the hands converging on the book. The artist’s life and career could not go better, but the quiet of his dear Florence is soon spoiled.

At the beginning of the 90s of the century, an obscure Dominican friar arrives in the city. Girolamo Savonarola, originally from Ferrara, began to preach the need for cultural and spiritual renewal, denouncing the excesses of the Church and of the city’s patrician families. Among its objectives there is also the scourging of the arts and philosophy, seen as too tied to the pagan traditions of classical antiquity. The religious crisis of the city began with the simple, from home workers, from peasants, dissatisfied with the government of the powerful, but was unable to spread completely thanks to the countermeasures taken by the Medici government. In 1492, on the death of Lorenzo, the crisis hit the city. Three days earlier, lightning had struck the lantern in Brunelleschi’s dome. The two events are immediately interpreted as divine auspices. Two years later, Piero de’ Medici was expelled from the city and Florence, spurred on by Savonarola, proclaimed the Republic.

Sandro Botticelli is deeply affected by the friar’s sermons and by the events that invest his city. Faced with the bonfires of the vanities, during which Savonarola’s followers burn objects, books and works of art considered sinful, the artist begins to develop a strong sense of guilt for the themes dealt with in his youth. The last years of his artistic production are characterized by an extreme mysticism, perhaps an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of God. The work that represents this clear break with his past is undoubtedly La Calumnia, completed around 1495 and kept in the Uffizi. The scene develops starting from the right, with King Midas, who plays the role of the bad judge, seated on a throne and advised by the allegories of Ignorance and Suspicion, in the presence of Livor, while judging a Calumniato dragged by Calumnia itself which she is in turn accompanied by the handmaidens Insidia and Fraud. On the opposite side, an old woman, personification of Remorse, looks towards the Nuda Veritas which in turn turns to heaven, to God, the only source of Justice. The painting, in total contrast with his youthful ideas, is an open criticism of the ancient world, a world without God and therefore without mercy and true justice.

La Calunnia
La Calumnia, 1495

At the beginning of the new century, its fame is on the wane, supplanted by a new generation of great artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo. The last years of his life he spent almost in poverty and solitude.

Sandro Botticelli died in Florence in 1510, at the age of 65, leaving a rich legacy of works full of symbolic and allegorical meanings, imbued with charm and mystery.

Cover photo: Self-Portrait, c.1483-1484, Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery, London, United Kingdom

Dove e quando

Florence, 1445 – Florence, 1510

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