Sandro Botticelli - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli was born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi. His date of birth is not certain, but his father, who worked as a tanner, submitted tax returns that claimed Botticelli was two years old in 1447 and 13 years old in 1458. Therefore, art historians have assumed that he was born around 1445.
Very little is known about the artist's early life, but it is thought that he grew up on the Via Borgo Ognissanti in Florence. Botticelli lived in this relatively poor area of the city all his life. According to legend, one of the artist's four older brothers gave him the nickname "Botticelli", meaning "little barrel", and the moniker stuck; as early as 1470, he was referred to in a document as "Sandro Mariano Botticelli".
Early Training and Work
According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, in his influential book Lives of the Artists, published in 1550, Botticelli entered the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1459) towards the end of the 1450s. Lippi is known for his simple and beautiful paintings, especially of the Madonna and Child. His clarity of line and use of the female figure had a significant influence on Botticelli's style, particularly in the early paintings such as Madonna of the Eucharist (c. 1472). The lineage can be seen in Lippi's frescoes in the cathedral of Prato, just outside Florence.
Although there is no documentary evidence, Lippi's significant stylistic influence suggests that Botticelli may well have been an apprentice in his studio. It was common at the time for apprentices to begin at the age of thirteen or earlier, so it is likely that Botticelli began his artistic education early. Lippi enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Medici family, and Botticelli soon began to benefit from this connection as well. Records show that the family moved around the corner to the Via Nuova in 1464, where they made a connection with the wealthy Vespucci family, including Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer and voyager after whom the Americas were named. A legend began circulating in the 19th century that Botticelli used Amerigo's beautiful cousin-in-law Simonetta as the model for many of his famous paintings, however, although it makes for an enticing story, the truth is it is unlikely to be the case, as Simonetta was already dead by the time Botticelli began painting them.
The first documented painting by Botticelli is Fortitude from a panel of seven paintings of the virtues, the other six having been painted by the workshop of Antonio del Pollaiuolo, who was originally commissioned for the work. Botticelli was influenced by Pollaiuolo's naturalistic renditions of the human body, and understanding of anatomy, which Pollaiuolo reputedly studied from dissected dead bodies. However, Botticelli always held back from true naturalism, preferring a distorted figure if it better served the overall idea. Botticelli's early Madonnas already display the human warmth and tenderness that would come to distinguish his work throughout his life.
In the late 1460s, Botticelli is also thought to have been active in Andrea del Verrocchio's workshop better known today for his sculpture than his painting, and the influence is evident in the sculptural contours of Botticelli's figures. By 1470, Botticelli had moved back into his family's home on Via Nuova and set up his workshop there. Botticelli's unique style made it easy for his workshop to copy or finish works that he started, so there are many paintings where it is hard to establish the artist's distinct hand amongst those of his apprentices.
In 1472, Botticelli's position allowed him to join the group of Florentine painters called the Compagnia di San Luca. His early work in this period was produced for churches in Florence, including his Adoration of the Magi (c.1476) for Santa Maria Novella, one of the city's most important religious spaces. The painting contains portraits of Cosimo de' Medici, and his sons Piero and Giovanni, along with other members of the Medici family. In addition to these, the painting is thought to include the only known self-portrait by the artist.
As well as the more famous works, his workshop during this period was the most popular supplier of Madonnas to private and public patrons in Florence, and Botticelli soon became so well-known that in 1481 Pope Sixtus IV asked Botticelli to oversee the decoration of the recently completed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. For this project, Botticelli created a series of frescoes, often overlooked by visitors whose eyes are drawn straight to Michelangelo's famous ceiling. Giorgio Vasari notes that, "having therefore acquired still greater fame and reputation among the great number of competitors who worked with him, both Florentines and men of other cities, he received from the Pope a good sum of money, the whole of which he consumed and squandered in a moment during his residence in Rome, where he lived in haphazard fashion, as was his wont."
Botticelli was at the forefront of a major shift that took place in Western Europe as the Medieval "dark ages" were coming to a close, while Rennaissance Humanism and the rational sciences were just beginning to form an entirely new world view, which would eventually grow into the Enlightenment a few centuries later. Soon after his return to Florence, Botticelli started work on his two most famous works, Primavera (late 1470s-early 1480s) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1486). Vasari saw these works in Pierfrancesco de' Medici's villa and it was assumed for a long time that the works were intended for this site, but art historians are now uncertain about the origins and commissioners of these two paintings. It seems likely that the paintings were both commissioned by a member of the Medici family, but this is uncertain.
The Medici's Florence was a prosperous and permissive society that allowed culture to flourish. Cosimo de' Medici set up an academy and encouraged scholars from across Europe to come to Florence to debate Neoplatonic philosophy and Rennaissance Humanism. The classical subjects of the paintings of this period suggest that Botticelli may have been associated with the academy, though he wasn't a member. Venus, who appears in many of Botticelli's most famous paintings of the period, was an important figure for the Neoplatonists, representing humanitas - the development of human virtue, in all its forms. A shift was happening across science, culture and philosophy, and Botticelli's paintings gave form to this new vision, heralding the emergence of a modern world. In these paintings we are able to see the tensions between the Medieval and the modern, the former being predominantly Christian, with art that was largely devotional, and highly decorative and stylized; the latter rational, scientific, and glorifying the Classical art that came from what the Neoplatonists believed to have been a more culturally advanced society.
Botticelli worked alongside various other key artists of the Florentine Renaissance. With some, however, he did not get on very well. In his Libro di Pittura (book on painting), Leonardo da Vinci noted that Botticelli once claimed that he did not like landscape painting because "by throwing a sponge soaked with different colors at a wall, one can make a spot in which a beautiful landscape can be seen." Leonardo responded angrily to this in his notebook: "Although that stain may suggest ideas, it will not teach you to complete any art, and the above mentioned painter (Botticelli) paints very bad landscapes."
At some point in the 1490s, Botticelli leased a small country house and farm on the outskirts of Florence with his brother Simone. The artist seems to have led a bachelor life - he certainly never married. In Angelo Poliziano's Detti Piacevoli (1477), he presents an anecdote about an exchange between Botticelli and his patron Tommaso Soderini. When Soderini asked Botticelli why he was not married, Botticelli replies that he had recently dreamed that he was married, woke up feeling a deep sense of grief and then walked around the city to stop himself from falling asleep again and resuming the dream. There is an accusation in the Florentine Archives against Botticelli from 1502, indicating that he "kept a boy", which has led to speculation that he may have been gay or bisexual. Art historians are divided over how much should be read into this, as accusations along these lines were a common form of petty slander at the time. Many historians have also noted the homo-erotic tendencies in paintings such as St Sebastian (c. 1474).
During the 1490s, the political climate in Florence changed significantly following the death of Lorenzo de' Medici and the invasion of Charles VIII of France. A Dominican friar named Savonarola, who criticized the morals of Florentine society in apocalyptic sermons, began to have significant influence over the city as the Medicis' power receeded. This religious fervour concluded in The Burning of the Vanities on Shrove Tuesday, 1497, in which it is speculated many of Botticelli's paintings may have been lost.
The paintings of the 1500s are more sombre and overtly spiritual in content, yet they are still marked by Botticelli's warmth and imaginative brilliance. Paintings such as Mystic Crucifixion (1501), and Mystic Nativity (1501) have an emotional intensity that shows a deeper understanding of the tragedy of the human condition; they also show a great deal of attention given to the settings, whether it is detailed imaginary architecture or a rustic field. What became of Botticelli during this period is debated by scholars, some believing the more overtly religious subjects of his late paintings to be evidence that he too became a follower of Savonarola. Some suggest that he was out of work towards the end of his life, as the more scientific, humanist painters such as Leonardo da Vinci came into favor. Vasari writes that Botticelli was feckless, and squandered the money he had made earlier in his career. Whatever the reason, he seems to have died a poor man.
Botticelli died in 1510, and was buried in the chapel of the Vespucci family in the church of Ognissanti in Florence, meters away from where he grew up and lived all his life. His grave is marked by a simple circle of marble.
The Legacy of Sandro Botticelli
Botticelli's influence on the course of art history and popular culture has been significant across the centuries in a way rivalled by few other artists. His legacy begins with the artists he taught directly, such as Filippino Lippi, the son of Filippo Lippi who had trained Botticelli early in life. In an unconventional move, Botticelli finished Filippino Lippi's fresco The Adoration of the Kings (1496) (it was more usual for a pupil to finish his master's work, not vice versa). Giorgio Vasari saw Botticelli as the epitome of the "golden age" of art achieved during the time of the great patron of the arts, Lorenzo de' Medici.
However, although he was famous during his lifetime, Botticelli's reputation suffered after his death for several centuries. Perhaps because Botticelli's work remained rooted in a Medieval tradition that was forsaken during the High Renaissance, his work was dismissed along with Gothic art. So-called because it was thought at the time to be influenced by the Goths and the Vandals, who were considered to be uncultured. Another theory speculates that Botticelli's career suffered after the Medicis were forced to leave Florence, and power was usurped for a time by conservative Christian influences that denounced the decadence of the former rulers and the artists they patronised.
It was not until the 19th century that his work was reappraised and began to be valued highly once more. The Pre-Raphaelite movement rejected the softer style of art espoused by Raphael and later artists, preferring the linearity of early Florentine Renaissance painting, and particularly praising Botticelli. Dante Gabriel Rossetti even owned a work by the artist, and wrote a sonnet dedicated to Botticelli's Primavera (late 1470s- early 1480s), believing the central figure to be the same woman depicted in the portrait he owned.
From the Pre-Raphaelites, Botticelli's influence spread widely across artistic movements. A recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London cites the artist's influence in works as diverse as Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and photographer Rineke Djikstra. In addition, references to Botticelli - and particularly to The Birth of Venus (c. 1496) - can be seen in popular culture, such as in the James Bond film Dr. No when Ursula Andress emerges from the sea.