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Who was Sandro Botticelli?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Italian artist, who was one of the foremost painters of the Florentine Renaissance. He was born Alessandro di Mariano dei Filipepi in Florence. (The name Botticelli was derived from the nickname of his eldest brother, Giovanni, who was called "II Botticello," meaning "the little barrel".) He lived all his life in Florence, where he died on May 17, 1510.

Early Career

Botticelli's career began during the rule of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence (reigned 1469-1492). The brilliance of the Medici court and of the humanist poets, philosophers, and painters who flourished under Lorenzo's patronage formed a part of the complex background of Botticelli's early years. But even in his early works, his individuality emerged. Though the forms he adopted were relatively solid and realistic, in the taste of the preceding generation, he made insistent abstract patterns in line. This, plus a quiet, lyrical melancholy in the expression of his figures, suggests a degree of disenchantment with the confident, often exuberant, acceptance of the world by the painters of the earlier 15th century.

The strongest influences in Botticelli's formative years came from painters associated with the court—Fra Filippo Lippi, to whom he was apprenticed, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Antonio Pollaiuolo. Lippi's influence can be seen in Botticelli's Chigi Madonna (1468; Gardner Museum, Boston). Two panels of the story of Judith and Holofernes (about 1471; Uffizi Gallery, Florence) show the impact of the linearity and intensity of Pollaiuolo. Fortitude (1470; Uffizi) and Saint Sebastian (1473-1474; Berlin Museum) reveal the influence of Verrocchio's cool elegance.

The Allegories

Initially a response of his temperament, Botticelli's disenchantment found philosophical support in the Platonist theories prevalent at the Medici court, as seen in the great mythological pictures of his mid-career. Of these the best known are two allegories, now in the Uffizi, that were originally painted for the Medici villa at Castello—the Primavera (1477-1478) and the Birth of Venus (1485-1488). Both feature Venus as goddess not only of Beauty, Spring, and Love, but of Spiritual Love, an ideal shared by the Platonic and Christian traditions and stressed by the Florentine Platonists in their attempt to blend the two traditions.

In the Birth of Venus, the goddess, born of the sea, is gently blown toward the shore in a shower of roses by Zephyr, the god of the wind. The blue of the wind-god's cape, traditionally a heavenly color, suggests the spiritual motivation of ideal love. White-robed Chastity, one of the Graces, waits on the shore to cover the nudity of the goddess with a mantle of red, traditionally an earth color. Pure beauty, in its naked heavenly essence, is not for mortal eyes; we see only its impure though still inspiring worldly manifestations, the "mantle" of art and the beauty of nature. These are inspiring because they are emanations of the Divine, reminding man of the origin of his own spirit in the mind of God. Thus, as the creation of the world is an expression of God's love, so the "spiritual circuit" of the Platonists is completed as man is inspired by love and through beauty to seek to reunite his spirit with its divine source. This may even be the meaning of the golden color of the unusually luxuriant hair that flows about the body of Venus: gold is the color traditionally associated with divine emanation and revelation.

In the Primavera, Venus presides over the spring season. She is framed by an arch in the background trees and is slightly to the rear of the other figures, suggesting once again something of her remoteness and inaccessibility. Zephyr, at the right of the group, pursues Flora, who is preceded by the flower-decked figure of Spring herself (Primavera), scattering roses as she advances. At the left of Venus come the three Graces in dancing poses, and finally Mercury, clearing away the clouds. Above the head of Venus hovers blind Cupid aiming one of his flame-tipped arrows.

In both paintings the composition moves quietly in the direction of the wind toward the light—a natural light suggesting divine light and the spiritual circuit of emanation and inspiration. The unimportance of earthly things is expressed on the level of form as well as on a symbolic level. In both paintings the figures float lightly across the picture, without any apparent response to the force of gravity. Botticelli here and in many of his later works abandons the then-fashionable modeling of solid forms through strong light and shadow in favor of soft, bland lighting that, aided by increasingly accented linearity, flattens and abstracts the forms. The line rhythms assume a delicate, lilting quality that literally lifts the forms, fusing them with their surroundings, which are as shallow spatially as the figures are flat.

The melancholy expressions of Venus and of the figures of the Virgin Mary, as in the Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487; Uffizi Gallery) and the Madonna with the Two Saint Johns (1486, Berlin Museum), reinforce the many parallels drawn by the Platonists between Venus and Mary as symbols of divine, spiritual love. The "pagan" and religious works are similar in mood and in general qualities of style. Like Platonism itself, these paintings represent a search for a spiritual idealism compatible with Christian faith.

Late Works

Given the pious and anxious mood of Botticelli's work from its beginnings, it is not surprising that he became an ardent follower of the reformer Girolamo Savonarola in the last decade of the 15th century. In Botticelli's late works the quality of line hardens as the figures become more ecstatic. This intensity reaches it peak in the Nativity (1500; National Gallery, London), a memorial to Savonarola, whose execution in 1498 was considered by many Florentines to be a martyr's death. That Botticelli shared this sentiment is made clear by an allegorical inscription, and, at the bottom of the scene, by the depiction of three martyrs embraced by angels, symbolizing Savonarola and the two followers burned with him.


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