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Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli 083.jpg
Probable self-portrait of Botticelli, in his Adoration of the Magi (1475)
Born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi
c. 1445[1]
Florence, Republic of Florence, (now Italy)
Died May 17, 1510(1510-05-17) (aged c. 64)
Florence, Republic of Florence
Nationality Italian
Education Filippo Lippi
Andrea del Verrocchio
Known for Painting
Notable work Primavera
The Birth of Venus
The Adoration of the Magi
Other works
Movement Italian Renaissance

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli (Italian: [ˈsandro bottiˈtʃɛlli]; c. 1445[1] – May 17, 1510), was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, a movement that Giorgio Vasari would characterize less than a hundred years later in his Vita of Botticelli as a "golden age". Botticelli's posthumous reputation suffered until the late 19th century; since then, his work has been seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting.

As well as the small number of mythological subjects which are his best known works, he painted a wide range of religious subjects and also portraits. Among Botticelli's best-known works are The Birth of Venus and Primavera.


Early lifeEdit

Botticelli was born in the city of Florence in a house in the Via Nuova, Borg'Ognissanti, to Mariano di Vanni d'Amedeo Filipepi. Vasari reported that Botticelli was initially trained as a goldsmith by his brother Antonio.[2] There are very few details of Botticelli's life, but it is known that he became an apprentice when he was about fourteen years old, which would indicate that he received a fuller education than other Renaissance artists. By 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi;[3] many of his early works have been attributed to the elder master, and attributions continue to be uncertain. Influenced also by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting, it was from Lippi that Botticelli learned a more intimate and detailed manner.

Lippi died in 1469 and by 1470 at the latest Botticelli had his own workshop, which included the young Filippino Lippi, son of his master.[4] Even at this early date, his work was characterized by a conception of the figure as if seen in low relief, drawn with clear contours, and minimizing strong contrasts of light and shadow which would indicate fully modelled forms.


The Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella (c. 1475–76, now in the Uffizi), contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano. The quality of the scene was hailed by Vasari as one of Botticelli's pinnacles.[5]

A large fresco for the customs house of Florence, that is now lost, depicted the execution by hanging of the leaders of the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici. This was Botticelli's first major fresco commission, and may have led to his summons to Rome. It was destroyed after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494.[6]

Sistine ChapelEdit

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli and other prominent Florentine and Umbrian artists to fresco the walls of the newly-completed Sistine Chapel. This large project was to be the main decoration of the chapel; most of the frescos remain, but are now greatly overshadowed and disrupted by Michelangelo's work of the next century, to make room for which some of them were destroyed.[7]

The iconographic scheme was a pair of cycles, facing each other on the sides of the chapel, of the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses, together suggesting the supremacy of the Papacy. Botticelli's contribution included three of the original fourteen large scenes: the Temptations of Christ, Youth of Moses and Punishment of the Sons of Corah,[8] as well as several of the imagined portraits of popes in the level above, and paintings of unknown subjects in the lunettes above, where Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling now is. He may have also done a fourth scene on the end wall opposite the altar, now destroyed.[9] Each painter bought a team of assistants from his workshop, as the space to be covered was considerable; each of the main panels is some 3.5 by 5.7 metres, and the work was done in a few months.[10]

Vasari implies that Botticelli was given overall artistic charge of the project, but modern art historians think it more likely that Pietro Perugino, the first artist to be employed, was given this role.[11] The subjects and many details to be stressed in their execution were no doubt handed to the artists by the Vatican authorities; the schemes present a complex and coherent programme asserting Papal supremacy, and are more unified in this than in their artistic style, although the artists follow a consistent scale and broad compositional layout, with crowds of figures in the foreground and mainly landscape in the top half of the scene. Allowing for the painted pilasters that separate each scene, the level of the horizon matches between scenes, and Moses wears the same yellow and green clothes in his scenes.[12] Botticelli differs from his colleagues in imposing a more insistent triptych-like composition, dividing each of his scenes into a main central group with two flanking groups at the sides, showing different incidents.[13] In each the principal figure of Christ or Moses appears several times, seven in the case of the Youth of Moses.[14]


Primavera (c. 1482), icon of the springtime renewal of the Florentine Renaissance, seen by Vasari at the summer palazzo of Pierfrancesco de' Medici. Left to right: Mercury, the Three Graces, Venus, Flora, Chloris, Zephyrus

In 1482 he returned to Florence, and "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 abstention 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. Botticelli later began a manuscript illustrated Dante, most of which was taken only as far as the underdrawings.

The masterpieces Primavera (c. 1482) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) are not a pair, but are inevitably discussed together; both are in the Uffizi. They are among the most famous paintings in the world, and icons of the Italian Renaissance. As depictions of subjects from classical mythology on a very large scale they were virtually unprecedented in Western art since classical antiquity. They have been endlessly analysed by art historians, with the main themes being: the emulation of ancient painters and the context of wedding celebrations (generally agreed), the influence of Renaissance Neo-Platonism (somewhat controversial), and the identity of the commissioners (not agreed).

They were both seen by Vasari at the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici at Castello in the mid-16th century, and until recently, it was assumed that both works were painted specifically for the villa. Recent scholarship suggests otherwise: the Primavera was painted for Lorenzo's townhouse in Florence, and The Birth of Venus was commissioned by someone else for a different site. By 1499, both had been installed at Castello.[15]

In these works, the influence of Gothic realism is tempered by Botticelli's study of the antique. But if the painterly means may be understood, the subjects themselves remain fascinating for their ambiguity. The complex meanings of these paintings continue to receive widespread scholarly attention, mainly focusing on the poetry and philosophy of humanists who were the artist's contemporaries. The works do not illustrate particular texts; rather, each relies upon several texts for its significance. Of their beauty, characterized by Vasari as exemplifying "grace" and by John Ruskin as possessing linear rhythm, there can be no doubt. The pictures feature Botticelli's linear style emphasized by the soft continual contours and pastel colors.[16]

In the mid-1480s, Botticelli worked on a major fresco cycle with Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi, for Lorenzo the Magnificent's villa near Volterra; in addition he painted many frescoes in Florentine churches. In 1491 he served on a committee to decide upon a façade for the Cathedral of Florence.


Botticelli painted many portraits, as well as a number of idealized portrait-like paintings of women which probably do not represent a specific person (several closely resemble the Venus in his Venus and Mars).[17] Traditional gossip links these to the famous beauty Simonetta Vespucci, who died aged twenty-two in 1476, but this seems unlikely. These figures represent a secular link to his Madonnas. With one or two exceptions his small independent panel portraits show the sitter no further down the torso than about the bottom of the rib-cage. Women are normally in profile, full or just a little turned, whereas men are normally a "three-quarters" pose, but never quite seen completely frontally. Backgrounds may be plain, or show an open window, usually with nothing but sky visible through it. A few have developed landscape backgrounds. These characteristics were typical of Florentine portraits at the beginning of his career, but old-fashioned by his last years. Many portraits exist in several versions, probably most mainly by the workshop; there is often uncertainty in their attribution. Often the background changes between versions while the figure remains the same.

Botticelli often slightly exaggerates aspects of the features to increase the likeness.[18] He also painted portraits in other works, as when he inserted a self-portrait and the Medici into his early Adoration of the Magi. Large allegorical frescos from a villa show members of the Tornabuoni family together with gods and personifications; probably not all of these survive but ones with portraits of a young man with the Seven Liberal Arts and a young woman with Venus and the Three Graces are now in the Louvre.[19]

Influence of SavonarolaEdit

The Mystical Nativity (c. 1500–01)

In later life, Botticelli became a follower of the deeply moralistic Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498, though the full extent of Savonarola's influence remains uncertain.[20]

Like much of Florence, Botticelli had come under the sway of Savonarola and his art had transformed from the decorative to the deeply devout – The Mystical Nativity (c. 1500–1501) [for example] bears all the signs of this change[21]

The story that he had destroyed his own paintings on pagan themes in the notorious "Bonfire of the Vanities" is not told by Vasari, who nevertheless asserts that regarding the sect of Savonarola "he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone[22] he abandoned his work.

Botticelli biographer Ernst Steinmann searched for the artist's psychological development through his Madonnas. In the "deepening of insight and expression in the rendering of Mary's physiognomy", Steinmann discerned proof of Savonarola's influence over Botticelli. (In Steinmann's assessment, the dates of a number of Madonnas were placed at a later point in the artist's life). Steinmann disagreed with Vasari's assertion that Botticelli produced nothing after coming under the influence of Savonarola, asserting instead that the spiritual and emotional Virgins followed directly from the teachings of the Dominican monk.[citation needed]

Other mediaEdit

Vasari mentions that Botticelli produced very fine drawings, which were sought out by artists after his death.[23] Apart from the Dante illustrations, only a small number of these survive, none of which can be connected with surviving paintings although they appear to be preparatory drawings rather than independent works. Some may be connected with the work in other media that we know Botticelli did. Three vestments survive with embroidered designs by him, and he developed a new technique for decorating banners for religious and secular processions, apparently in some kind of appliqué technique.[24]

Last yearsEdit

Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, c. 1470–1475, Louvre

Botticelli apparently produced relatively little work after 1501, or perhaps earlier. In late 1502 Isabella d'Este wanted a painting done in Florence. Her agent Francesco Malatesta wrote to inform her that her first choice, Perugino, was away, Filippino Lippi had a full schedule for six months, but Botticelli was free to start at once, and ready to oblige. She preferred to wait for Perugino's return.[25] This casts serious doubt on Vasari's assertion that he had abandoned painting under the influence of Savonarola, who was by then dead for some four years. In 1504 he was a member of the committee appointed to decide where Michelangelo's David would be placed.

His later work, especially as seen in the four panels with Scenes from the Life of Saint Zenobius, witnessed a diminution of scale, expressively distorted figures, and a non-naturalistic use of colour reminiscent of the work of Fra Angelico nearly a century earlier.

He continued to pay his dues to the Compagnia di San Luca (a confraternity rather than the artist's guild) until at least October 1505;[26] the tentative date ranges assigned to his late paintings run no further than this. By then he was aged sixty or more, in this period definitely into old age. Vasari, who lived in Florence from around 1527, says that Botticelli died "ill and decrepit, at the age of seventy-eight", after a period when he was "unable to stand upright and moving around with the help of crutches".[27] He died in May 1510, but is now thought to have been something under seventy at the time. He was buried outside the Ognissanti Church in a spot the church has now built over.[28] This had been his parish church as a child, and contained paintings by him.[29]

Later reputationEdit

After his death, Botticelli's reputation was eclipsed longer and more thoroughly than that of any other major European artist. His paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they had been created,[30] and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were upstaged by those of Michelangelo.

The English collector William Young Ottley bought Botticelli's The Mystical Nativity in Italy, bringing it to London in 1799. After Ottley's death, its next purchaser, William Fuller Maitland of Stansted, allowed it to be exhibited in a major art exhibition held in Manchester in 1857, the Art Treasures Exhibition,[31] where among many other art works it was viewed by more than a million people.

The first nineteenth-century art historian to have looked with satisfaction at Botticelli's Sistine frescoes was Alexis-François Rio; Anna Brownell Jameson and Charles Eastlake were alerted to Botticelli as well, and works by his hand began to appear in German collections. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood incorporated elements of his work into their own.[32] Walter Pater created a literary picture of Botticelli, who was then taken up by the Aesthetic movement. The first monograph on the artist was published in 1893; then, between 1900 and 1920 more books were written on Botticelli than on any other painter.[33]

The main belt asteroid 29361 Botticelli discovered on 9 February 1996, is named after him.[34]

Private lifeEdit

Botticelli never married, and expressed a strong disliking to the idea of marriage, a prospect he claimed gave him nightmares.[35]

Some modern historians have also examined other aspects of his sexuality. In 1938, Jacques Mesnil discovered a summary of a charge in the Florentine Archives for November 16, 1502, which read simply "Botticelli keeps a boy", under an accusation of sodomy. The painter would then have been fifty-eight; the charges were eventually dropped. Mesnil dismissed it as a customary slander by which partisans and adversaries of Savonarola abused each other. Opinion remains divided on whether this is evidence of homosexuality.[36] Many have firmly backed Mesnil,[37] but others have cautioned against hasty dismissal of the charge.[38] Yet while speculating on the subject of his paintings, Mesnil nevertheless concluded "woman was not the only object of his love".[39]


Venus and Mars, c. 1483. Tempera on panel, 69 cm × 173 cm (27.17 in × 68.11 in)


  1. ^ a b Patrick, Renaissance and Reformation vol 1, 2007. Other sources give 1446, 1447 or 1444–45.
  2. ^ According to Vasari, he was still in school in February 1458; an able pupil, he easily grew restless, and was initially apprenticed as a goldsmith. Lightbown, p. 19.
  3. ^ Lightbown, p. 20.
  4. ^ Dempsey, Hartt, 324
  5. ^ Vasari, 150-152
  6. ^ Hartt, 325-326; Dempsey
  7. ^ Shearman, 38-42; Hartt, 326
  8. ^ Shearman, 70-75; Hartt, 326-327
  9. ^ Shearman, 47
  10. ^ Hartt, 327; Shearman, 47
  11. ^ Hartt, 326-327; Lightbown, 92-94, thinks no one was, but that Botticelli set the style for the figures of the popes.
  12. ^ Lightbown, 90-92, 97-99, 105-106; Hartt, 327; Shearman, 47, 50-75
  13. ^ Hartt, 327
  14. ^ Lightbown, 99-105
  15. ^ Smith, Webster: On the Original Location of the Primavera.
  16. ^ R. W. Lightbown (1978). Sandro Botticelli: Life and work. University of California Press. p. 25. ISBN 05-20033-72-8. During the colouring Botticelli strengthened many of the contours by means of a pointed instrument, probably to give them the bold clarity so characteristic of his linear style. 
  17. ^ Campbell, 6
  18. ^ Campbell, 12
  19. ^ Campbell, 56, 136-136
  20. ^ Hartt, 335-336; Davies, 105-106
  21. ^ The Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece The Mystic Nativity BBC TV 2009
  22. ^ A "Weeper" or "Mourner", as the repentant followers of Savonarola were called. (Vasari text on-line).
  23. ^ Vasari, 155
  24. ^ Lightbown, 296-298
  25. ^ Lightbown, 302
  26. ^ Lightbown, 303-304
  27. ^ Vasari, 154
  28. ^ Lightbown, 305
  29. ^ Lightbown, 17
  30. ^ Primavera and The Birth of Venus remained in the Grand Ducal Medici villa of Castello until 1815. (Levey 1960:292
  31. ^ Davies, 106
  32. ^ Pre-Raphaelite Art in the Victoria & Albert Museum, Suzanne Fagence Cooper, p.95-96 ISBN 1-85177-394-0
  33. ^ This section is based on Michael Levey, "Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England" Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 23.3/4 (July 1960:291–306).
  34. ^ "29361 Botticelli (1996 CY)". JPL Small-Body Database Browser. Jet Propulsion Laboratories. 2012-04-09. Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  35. ^ Ronald Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work, New York, 1989
  36. ^ Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, Harvard University, 2003
  37. ^ Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 9780195069754
  38. ^ Andre Chastel, Art et humanisme a Florence au temps de Laurent le Magnifique, Presses Universitaires de France, 1959
  39. ^ Jacques Mesnil, Botticelli, Paris, 1938


  • Campbell, Lorne, Renaissance Portraits, European Portrait-Painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries, 1990, Yale, ISBN 0300046758
  • Davies, Martin, Catalogue of the Earlier Italian Schools, National Gallery Catalogues, 1961, reprinted 1986, ISBN 0901791296
  • Dempsey,Charles, "Botticelli, Sandro", Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 15 May. 2017. subscription required
  • Hartt, Frederick, History of Italian Renaissance Art, (2nd edn.)1987, Thames & Hudson (US Harry N Abrams), ISBN 0500235104
  • Legouix, Susan, Botticelli, 2004 (revd edn), Chaucer Press, ISBN 1904449212
  • Lightbown, Ronald, Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work, 1989, Thames and Hudson
  • Shearman, John, in Pietrangeli, Carlo, et al., The Sistine Chapel: The Art, the History, and the Restoration, 1986, Harmony Books/Nippon Television, ISBN 051756274X
  • Vasari, selected & ed. Malcom Bull, Artists of the Renaissance, Penguin 1965 (page nos from BCA edn, 1979). Vasari Life on-line (in a different translation)

Further readingEdit

  • N. Pons: Botticelli: Catalogo completo, Milan, 1989, with complete illustrations
  • C. Caneva: Botticelli: Catalogo completo, Florence, 1990, with complete illustrations

External linksEdit