Sandro Botticelli

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli (Florence March 1, 1445May 17, 1510) was an Italian painter of the Florentine school during the Early Renaissance (Quattrocento). Less than a hundred years later, this movement, under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, was characterized by Giorgio Vasari as a "golden age", a thought, suitably enough, he expressed at the head of his Vita of Botticelli.

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The Birth of Venus: a revived Venus Pudica for a new view of pagan Antiquity (Uffizi, Florence)

Born in Florence in the working-class rione of Ognissanti, Botticelli was first apprenticed to a goldsmith, then, following the boy's wishes, his doting father sent him to Fra Filippo Lippi who was at work frescoing the Convent of the Carmine. Lippo Lippi's synthesis of the new control of three-dimensional forms, tender expressiveness in face and gesture, and decorative details inherited from the late Gothic style were the strongest influences on Botticelli. A different influence was the new scuptural monumentality of the Pollaiuolo brothers, who were doing a series of Virtues for the Tribunale or meeting hall of the Mercanzia, a cloth-merchants' confraternity, and Botticello contributed to the set the Fortitude, dated 1470 in the Uffizi Gallery . He was an apprentice too of Andrea del Verrocchio, where Leonardo da Vinci worked beside him, but he made his name in his local Church of Ognisanti, with a Saint Augustine that successfully competed as a pendant with Domenico Ghirlandaio's Jerome on the other side "the head of the saint being expressive of profound thought and quick subtlety" (Vasari) In 1470 he opened his own independent studio.

Lorenzo de' Medici was quick to employ his talent. Botticelli made consistent use of the circular tondo form and did many beautiful female nudes, according to Vasari. The Birth of Venus (illustration, right) was at the Medici villa of Castello.

Botticelli's Venus graces the first of the  (2002)
Botticelli's Venus graces the first of the Italian euro coins (2002)

He was influenced in his art by Fra Filippo Lippi and Antonio Pollaiuolo. The repeated contacts with the Medici family were undoubtedly useful for granting him political protection and creating conditions ideal for his production of several masterpieces.

Sandro was intensely religious. In later life, he was one of Savonarola's followers and burned his own paintings on pagan themes in the notorious "Bonfire of the Vanities". Earlier, Botticelli had painted an Assumption of the Virgin for Matteo Palmieri in a chapel at San Pietro Maggiore in which, it was rumored, both the patron who dictated the iconic scheme and the painter who painted it, were guilty of unidentified heresy, a delicate requirement in such a subject. The heretical notions seem to be gnostic in character:

"By the side door of San Piero Maggiore he did a panel for Matteo Palmieri, with a large number of figures representing the Assumption of Our Lady with zones of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, doctors, virgins, and the orders of angels, the whole from a design given to him by Matteo, who was a worthy and learned man. He executed this work with the greatest mastery and diligence, introducing the portraits of Matteo and his wife on their knees. But although the great beauty of this work could find no other fault with it, said that Matteo and Sandro were guilty of grave heresy. Whether this be true or not, I cannot say." (Vasari)

This is a common misconception based on a mistake by Vasari. The painting referred to here, now in the National Gallery in London, is by the artist Botticini. Vasari confused their similar sounding names.

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Primavera (1478): icon of the springtime renewal of the Florentine Renaissance, also at the Medici villa at Castello, as a kind of pendant to the Birth of Venus

Though comparatively few of Botticelli's mythological paintings survive, the Primavera (illustration, left) epitmozes his use of classical mythology as vehicles to illustrate the sentiments that are actually derived from medieval courtly love. (Jean Seznec's book on the survival and new uses of pagan Antiquity in the Renaissance explored these themes in depth.) Sandro's commissioned Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella, ca 1476, with the portraits of Cosimo de' Medici ("the finest of all that are now extant for its life and vigour"), his grandson Giuliano de' Medici, and Cosimo's son Giovanni, were effusively described by Vasari:

"The beauty of the heads in this scene is indescribable, their attitudes all different, some full-face, some in profile, some three-quarters, some bent down, and in various other ways, while the expressions of the attendants, both young and old, are greatly varied, displaying the artist's perfect mastery of his profession. Sandro further clearly shows the distinction between the suites of each of the kings. It is a marvellous work in colour, design and composition, and the wonder and admiration of all artists."

The Adoration brought Sandro such a reputation in Florence and abroad that Pope Sixtus IV called him to Rome in July 1481, part of a team of Florentine and Umbrian artists who had been summoned to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, the project where Renaissance painting arrived in Rome. The iconological program was the supremacy of the Papacy. Sandro did his job there, was well paid by the Pope, spent all that he earned in his characteristic generous impractical manner, unveiled the paintings, which were a revelation to Roman patrons and artists. But Botticelli didn't stay to reap the benefits of the patronage in papal circles that would have come his way; he packed up his brushes and immediately returned to Florence.

"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 abstension 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. As for the subject, when Fra Girolamo Savonarola began to preach hellfire and damnation, the susceptible Sandro Botticelli became one of his adherents, a piagnone left painting as a worldly vanity, burned much of his own early work, fell into poverty as a result, and would have starved but for the tender support of his former patrons.


  • [ Giorgio Vasari, Vite...]: Botticelli

For an excellent monograph on Botticelli and a catalogue of his works, see Ronald Lightbown Sandro Botticelli, 2 vols. (London: Paul Elek, 1974)

For an easily accessible introduction to Botticelli see Ettlinger, L.D. and Helen S., Botticelli (London:Thames and Hudson, 1976) or Levey, M. and Mandel, G., The Complete Paintings of Botticelli (London, 1970)

For the Botticelli/Botticini confusion see the National Gallery catalogue: Davies, M., The Earlier Italian Schools (London: National Gallery, 1961)

The most important monograph on Botticelli remains Herbert Horne's Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, painter of Florence (London: G Bell and Sons, 1908), despite the fact that it is nearly one hundred years old!

Walter Pater's essay on Botticelli of 1873 (in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) remains an excellent piece of art criticism and reveals much of the 19th century attitude to this artist.

There remain many confusing opinions on the subject of the Primavera. See the following for a sample of the different ideas. Dempsey includes a lucid introduction to the various schools of thought.

Warburg, A., "The Primavera and Birth of Venus by Botticelli" in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, 1999, pp.89-156..

Gombrich, E., "Botticelli's Mythologies: A Study in the neo-Platonic Symbolism of his Circle", in Symbolic Images (1972), pp. 31-86.

Dempsey, C., The Portrayal of Love. Botticelli's Primavera and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Princeton,1992).

Wind, E., Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (N.Y., 1968).

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