Born: c. 1445
Died: c. 1510
Italian painter and artist
The Italian painter Botticelli was one of the major artists in Florence during the Renaissance (a period of revived interest in Greek and Roman culture that began in Italy during the fourteenth century).
Sandro Botticelli was born in 1445 in Florence, Italy, the son of a tanner (one who converts animal skins into leather). Not much is known about his childhood or early life. In 1460 he began training with Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406–1469), one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. Botticelli's first works followed the current version of the popular style in Florence used by artists such as Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488). This style placed great importance on the human figure rather than on space. Botticelli's major early works are Fortitude (1470) and St. Sebastian (1474). In some of these he changed the appearance of muscular energy and physical action found in Verrocchio's work. The people in Botticelli's work are shown as melancholy and thoughtful.
These qualities are most evident in Botticelli's best-known works, Spring and the Birth of Venus, executed for the estate of a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. Their precise subject matter has been the subject of much debate and has never been agreed on. Both works were certainly designed with the help of a scholar, but if there was a story invented for the occasion that would explain the works, it was not recorded. Since Venus has a central position in both works, it is possible to consider the two figures of Venus as a contrasting pair.
Botticelli continued using this early style after 1480 (the Birth is perhaps as late as 1485), but a new style soon emerged in frescoes (paintings done on moist plaster with water-based colors) such as St. Augustine (1480) in the Church of the Ognissanti, Florence; the Annunciation (1481) for San Martino, Florence; and three frescoes (1481–82) in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy, executed during Botticelli's only trip away from Florence. These frescoes show a new concern with the construction of stage like spaces and stiffer figures, also seen in a series of altarpieces (works of art that decorate the space above and behind an altar) of 1485 and 1489. The influence of the work of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494) and of Flemish painting can be seen, but it is clear that Botticelli's art had not undergone any major changes.
After 1490 Botticelli concentrated on paintings with many small figures, so that the entire picture surface seemed more alive. Many works exhibited this new method, such as the Calumny of Apelles, a drawing of a description of a painting by an ancient Roman writer; the Crucifixion, with a rain of arrows falling on a view of Florence in the background; the Last Communion of St. Jerome, the most intense of several works showing physical collapse of the body; and the Nativity (1501), which used an old design of Fra Angelico (c. 1400–1455) and an inscription referring to current predictions of the end of the world.
Botticelli became crippled in his later years and failed to receive painting assignments. He may have continued to work on his set of drawings (never finished) illustrating Dante's (1265–1321) Divine Comedy. By about 1504, when the young Raphael (1483–1520) came to Florence to observe the new styles of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Michelangelo (1475–1564), Botticelli's art must have seemed old-fashioned, although it had been widely copied in the 1490s.
Wide swings in popularity
Sandro Botticelli was born several generations after Donatello (1386–1466), Masaccio (1401–1428), and their associates who gave Florentine art its direction, and just before it took a great turn in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. Botticelli worked in an established, almost traditional manner at a point just before such a style went out of fashion.
Successful in the 1470s and 1480s, then forgotten at the time of his death in 1510, Botticelli was popular in the nineteenth century, especially in England.
For More Information
Argan, Giulio. Botticelli: Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Skira, trans. 1957.
Lightbown, R. W. Sandro Botticelli. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Venezia, Mike. Botticelli. Chicago: Children's Press, 1991.
Botticelli, Sandro (1444–1510)
Botticelli, Sandro (1444–1510)
A Florentine artist and a leading painter of the Renaissance, Botticelli was born as Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (the name “Botticelli” means “little barrel” in Italian, a nickname the painter borrowed from his elder brother). Historians know little about his youth except that he was the son of a tanner. He may have worked in a goldsmith's workshop, and may have been an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi. His early paintings were influenced by Masaccio, one of the most important late-medieval painters, as well as Andrea del Verrocchio.
In the 1470s, Botticelli opened his own workshop, and remained a citizen of Florence for the rest of his life.
He won commissions from the church of Santa Maria Novella (The Adoration of the Magi ), and from the Medici family for portraits of Cosimo de' Medici, Cosimo's son Giovanni, and his grandson Giuliano.
Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli to Rome to execute frescoes for the walls of the Sistine Chapel, where he painted The Youth of Moses, The Punishment of the Sons of Corah, and the Temptation of Christ. After returning to Florence, he worked on illustrations for Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy, and his illustrations appeared in the first printed edition of the poem, in 1481.
Botticelli was schooled in traditional religious themes. His works include several famous Madonnas, and paintings of Saint Sebastian, and Saint Augustine. But the artist's most famous works borrow figures and themes from pagan mythology, and are characterized by strong and precise contour, soft colors, and mysterious settings. The canvases entitled Primavera (1478) and The Birth of Venus (1485) were painted for the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a cousin of the Florentine despot Lorenzo the Magnificent. In both paintings appears the figure of Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty. In these works Botticelli may have been influenced by the philosophy of Neoplatonism, which was popular among Lorenzo's court circle, and which attempted to reconcile classical paganism and Christianity.
Botticelli's artistic style changed in his later works, when he began painting more staged, traditional settings and figures in stiffer, more formal poses. Botticelli grew conservative in his approach to painting, and filled his works with a sense of religious devotion and piety. At the same time he became an ardent supporter of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who was lashing out at the self-indulgent luxuries of aristocrats and rulers of Florence. One of Botticelli's later works, a Crucifixion, shows arrows raining down on Florence. The artist may have added some of his own works to the famous bonfires that Savonarola held to destroy what he saw as sinful art and books that were corrupting the city.
Late in life Botticelli suffered from a physical disability that prevented him from working. He lost commissions and found himself struggling to survive. His manner of painting, which reminded many people of past medieval artists, went out of style. He was largely forgotten until the nineteenth century, when “pre-Raphaelite” painters of England discovered his mysterious allegories and dreamlike imagery. Since that time, Botticelli's style and works have made him one of the most familiar artists of the Italian Renaissance.
See Also: Medici, Lorenzo de'; painting
The Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510) was one of the major Renaissance artists in Florence, which was the center for innovative painting in fifteenth-century Europe.
Sandro Botticelli was born several generations after Donatello, Masaccio, and their associates gave Florentine art its essential direction and just before it took a great turn in the High Renaissance work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. Botticelli worked in an established, almost traditional manner at a point just before the mode was generally perceived as no longer adequate.
Vagaries of Botticelli Criticism
A certain critical tradition has looked on Botticelli as a "decadent" artist, connected with the culture embodied in Lorenzo the Magnificent, de facto ruler of the city, poet, philosopher, and sophisticate. Successful in the 1470s and 1480s, then out of fashion and forgotten at the time of his death, Botticelli was greatly acclaimed in the 19th century, especially in England by the Pre-Raphaelites, who found that he legitimized their style, which combined the sensuous and the immaterial. Of late, scholars have considered this to be a misreading of Botticelli and have stressed his Florentine concern for solidly modeled form and religious exposition. Concurrently, however, admiration for his work has declined. Recent study has also tended to reject, as without contemporary support, the picture of him as first a member of Lorenzo's intellectual circle and later a devotee of the religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola.
Son of a tanner, trained by a master whose name is not known, Botticelli followed in his first works the current version of the Florentine style, the prime practitioner of which was Andrea del Verrocchio. This style was not much concerned with the convincing rendition of space and emphasized the human figure, with dense modeling, sharp contour, and linear rhythm. Botticelli's major early works are Fortitude (1470, one of seven Virtues for a merchants' assembly hall; the other six are by Piero Pollaiuolo), two tiny panels of the story of Judith and Holofernes, and St. Sebastian (1474). In some of these he altered the appearance of muscular energy and physical action found in Verrocchio's work in the direction of nervous fatigue and contemplative repose.
These qualities are most evident in Botticelli's best-known works, Spring and the Birth of Venus, executed for a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, for his villa. They obviously reflect the contemporary literary culture, but their precise subject matter has been much debated and has never been agreed on; they were certainly designed in consultation with a scholar, but he may have invented an allegory for the occasion which was not recorded. Since Venus has a central position in both works, it is plausible to consider the two figures of Venus as a contrasting pair. There was a literary convention in philosophical-archeological writing of the time of contrasting the spiritual and the earthly Venus, which may well be a factor in the paintings, though not the entire theme.
Botticelli continued using this early style after 1480 (the Birth is perhaps as late as 1485), but meantime a new style emerged in frescoes such as St. Augustine (1480) in the Church of the Ognissanti, Florence; the Annunciation (1481) for S. Martino, Florence; and three frescoes (1481-1482) in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, executed during Botticelli's only trip away from Florence. These frescoes show a new concern with the construction of stagelike spaces and stiffer figures, also seen in a series of altarpieces of 1485 and 1489. A bow to the newly fashionable work of Domenico Ghirlandaio and of Flemish painting is implied, but the tense linearity of the figure reveals that Botticelli's art had not undergone any fundamental changes.
After 1490 Botticelli began to concentrate on paintings with many small figures, using the same cutting contour lines, so that the entire picture surface acquired a trembling vibrancy. Many works exhibited this new tendency, such as the Calumny of Apelles, a visualization of a description of a painting by an ancient Roman writer; the Crucifixion, with a rain of arrows descending on a view of Florence in the background, the only work by Botticelli definitely expounding Savonarola's view of the sinning city; the Last Communion of St. Jerome, the most intense of several works portraying physical collapse of the body; and the Nativity, (1501), which employed an archaic design of Fra Angelico, with a stylized cave suggesting pre-Renaissance landscapes, and an inscription referring to current prophecies of the end of the world.
In his late years Botticelli was crippled and failed to receive commissions, but he may have continued to work on his set of drawings (never finished) illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy, remarkable for their consistent evocation of an energized irrational space. By about 1504, when the young Raphael came to Florence to observe the new modes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Botticelli's art must have seemed obsolete, although it had been widely imitated in the 1490s.
Herbert P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence (1908), is a classic of biographical reconstruction. Lionello Venturi, Botticelli (1937), provides critical analysis. Botticelli is placed in the context of contemporary intellectual movements in Giulio Argan, Botticelli: Biographical and Critical Study (trans. 1957). Roberto Salvini, All the Paintings of Botticelli (trans., 4 vols., 1965), is up to date and reliable. □