In this article we shall study the artistic output of one of the greatest Renaissance masters, Sandro Botticelli. Many of you will be familiar with his masterpiece in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, ‘The Birth of Venus’. By many it is regarded as the second most ‘famous’ painting in the world, after, of course, ‘Mona Lisa’. We shall, naturally enough, examine this work during the course of this article, but there is much more to Botticelli’s oeuvre that merits our attention.
If you have read any of my other art posts, you may be aware that I like to consider works of art in the context of the history, social and political, of the times in which they were created. With Botticelli, this means Florence in the latter part of the fifteenth century, the quattrocento. It is a fascinating time in history, a complex, contradictory time, containing as it did both Lorenzo de’ Medici and the charismatic Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. A delicate and fluctuating balance existed between traditional Florentine republicanism and the Medici family trying, but not yet fully succeeding, to crush it. Humanist learning was flourishing and the success of banking, trading and cloth-making made many families wealthy, allowing the cultivation of an opulent, naturalistic style of art through patronage. Art had become a political tool and Botticelli was the leading man of Renaissance Florence, an influencer. Then, Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ died on 8 April 1492, Savonarola rose to power and a golden age in Florence, one of great artistic creativity, ended.
Botticelli’s painting was shaped by a whole range of influences, including:
• His patrons
• His own life – unusually, he made paintings for himself which embodied his own imagination and visions
• The culture and society of quattrocento Florence – the rise of Savonarola would produce a sea change in his style
Botticelli’s primary innovation was filtered, transformed beauty. Botticelli is , indeed, seen by many art critics as the man who ‘invented’ beauty and was certainly the first artist to explore the female gaze. There is little doubt that many of Botticelli’s women share a resemblance, and some believe that this is possibly to a real woman, Simonetta Vespucci, beloved of Giuliano de’ Medici, who died aged 23. Others, myself included, consider that Botticelli unrelentingly searched for a universal model of beauty, rather than recreating an individual appearance. To many, his Madonnas and Venus figures represent this idealised form of female beauty. Others call up the rather strange androgyny exhibited by many of his figures. Some comment on the eroticism that his work represents to their eyes. As always, we encounter and interact with a painting on a uniquely personal level and bring our own experiences and values to bear on the qualitative aesthetic of that viewing.
Unlike many artists, Botticelli was famous in his lifetime but he died just as the High Renaissance style was reading its zenith so his art suddenly became old fashioned. Botticelli was eclipsed by the giants of the High Renaissance – Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo – and his art became quickly disregarded and forgotten. This situation persisted until the nineteenth century, when a renewed interest in the art of Italy from the time before Raphael, sparked by the creativity of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, led to a new appreciation of Botticelli’s work. His legacy has persisted from then until now; as we shall see, his work continues to be re-imagined in ever more surprising ways.
His masterpieces speak a powerful contemporary language.
Botticelli and the Medici
Early in his career, Botticelli became a favourite of the Medici and the great men of their party. Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ recommended him but may not have directly commissioned any works from him, but his brother Giuliano was definitely a patron, as was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin from a separate branch of the family. Let us explore this relationship through several works.
*for all works in this article, the dates I give are approximate; few dates for Botticelli’s works are definitive
It portrays the Virgin enthroned with Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Saints Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Alexandria and, kneeling in the foreground, Saints Cosmas and Damian.
The saints in foreground, patron saints of the Medici, are portraits of Lorenzo and Giuliano.
‘Adoration of the Magi’
A small work, richly detailed, which won Botticelli universal admiration. The Adoration is the climax of his early style, still influenced by Lippi, characterised by skill in line drawing and modelling of figures and the use of strong, light colour palette. The painting shows a range of poses of heads in profile, three-quarter profile and full face, a technique Botticelli was making his own. Interestingly, it was the first nonlinear depiction of the story of the Nativity.
Lorenzo was by this time using culture to his advantage, as a way to further his reputation. Artists were being used to represent powerful people in paintings and frescoes and Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ contains portraits of Cosimo, Piero, Lorenzo, Giovanni and Giuliano. The Magi were considered kings; there is no confusion of meaning here. This is a bold, unequivocal statement of Medici power.
Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, both alive, are shown, but Cosimo and his sons Piero and Giovanni were all dead so why did the patron (Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama, himself depicted as one of the Magi) choose to portray them in his painting? He presumably continued an allegiance to the family and their continued dominance, under Lorenzo, over Florence. This was still the surest horse to back.
A figure to the right of the foreground catches our eye with a somewhat arrogant gaze. This is widely accepted as a self portrait of the artist.
The Pazzi conspiracy Botticelli’s first dated commission from the Signoria, the ruling council of Florence, was after the Pazzi conspiracy, an outrage which shocked the city. Members of the Pazzi family, a rival to the Medici, attacked and stabbed Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano during Easter celebrations in the Duomo on 26 April, 1478. This outrage was instigated by Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, who was himself suspected of personal involvement. The conspirators also tried to seize the Palazzo della Signoria and rouse the people but failed miserably in their aim to seize political control of Florence.
Giuliano died of his wounds, but Lorenzo made his escape to the Medici palace, where he rallied his supporters and took his full revenge. Those responsible were hung outside Bargello. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the conspirators hanging and his pictures were displayed in public as pro Medici propaganda.
Botticelli was subsequently commissioned to paint a fresco of the eight chief participants’ executions above the door of the customs house, which was subsequently erased in November 1494 after Piero de Medici’s flight from Florence and the return from exile of Medici opponents including the Pazzi family.
Botticelli painted several portraits of Giuliano, with whom he was well acquainted, during the 1470s. The prototype of these, painted posthumously in 1478, hangs in Washington.
He also painted a posthumous portrait of Piero, son of Cosimo and father of Lorenzo, in the mid/late 1470s, which was destroyed in World War II.
Finally, let us consider the ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo de Medici’
The portrait, from a time when Botticelli was building his talents and reputation as a portrait artist, is in the Flemish style. The medal is cast in gilt gesso and the man’s hands are painted around it, rather awkwardly. Overall, it is a cramped, uncomfortable composition.
The identity of the youth is unknown. Speculation as to his identity has encompassed a number of members of the Medici family – Lorenzo, Piero or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco – and even Botticelli’s brother Antonio.
There can be no more obvious indication that an artist’s work is being influenced by his patrons that his directly representing them in his work. The Medici were probably the most sought after patrons of the arts in Florence in the quattrocento and Botticelli would continue, as we shall see, to be a chosen vehicle for their commissions for years to come.
Botticelli’s early life
For someone such as myself, who counts Florence as his favourite place in the world, and whose knowledge of Italian art centres largely on the cradle of the Renaissance, Botticelli is an ideal subject to study as, apart from a brief sojourn in Rome in 1481-2, all of his life was spent in Florence.
Botticelli was a nickname, his family name was Filipepi; his full name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. His mother was Smerelda and his father, Mariano, a tanner to trade. Young Sandro worked alongside his father for a time. He was born in 1445 in Borgo Ognissanti, near the church where he is buried. The family had eight children, four of whom survived to adulthood.
Botticelli was sent to work with a goldsmith but was drawn to painting instead. He was placed as an assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi in 1461-2, an artist favoured and protected by the Medici, to whom he was therefore introduced. From the beginning, his art was characterised by its liveliness, tenderness, brightness and decorativeness.
Botticelli spent five years in Prato with Lippi when he was domiciled there during his infamous affair with the nun Lucrezia Buti, who bore him his son Filippino. Under Lippi’s tutelage, Botticelli learned techniques of painting on panel and fresco and elements of style, composition and ornamentation that comprised the common pictorial language of the day.
To understand Botticelli one must balance what he took from Lippi, what he discarded, what he added and what he developed. Consider a typical Lippi painting, his ‘Annunciation’ from the National Gallery in London, painted around 1450.
From Lippi, Botticelli took:
• Linear treatment of the human form
• Pointed oval faces and broad foreheads
• Golden-haired, impish boy angels
• Fancy, rich costumes embroidered with gold and pearls
• Use of transparent fabric over opaque colour
• Use of architecture to define spatial depth
• Common repertory of Madonna motifs, such as the pomegranate and the Child clutching the veil
• Populating the scene with multiple figures
Botticelli left Lippi in 1467 when Lippi departed for Spoleto and set up his workshop
It is now time for us to explore some of Botticelli’s early paintings.
Botticelli’s early works
The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ from 1465 is Botticelli’s earliest surviving istoria painting, possibly his earliest surviving work.
The work shows that Botticelli’s abilities are nascent at this early stage in his career. The composition is badly balanced, shows discords in size, is not centred on the adoration of the Child and contains many figures which lack adequate expression or action. It does not form a single convincing whole. Botticelli painted several subsequent ‘Adorations’, one of which we have already encountered.
One of his early Madonnas is the ‘Virgin and Child with Two Angels’
The work owes an obvious debt to Filippo Lippi and still has something of Lippi’s softness but now Botticelli demonstrates firmer linear definition, more emphatic and naturalistic modelling and greater intensity of expression. The strong red, blue and green in the Virgin’s dress and are Botticelli’s own.
Botticelli’s breakthrough work is widely regarded to be ‘Fortitude’.
This is one of a series of the seven virtues, painted for the chamber of the Sei della Mercanzia, a tribunal of six judges which tried disputes between merchants. They commissioned a series of seven works for the back of the bench on which they sat. Piero del Pollaiuolo won the contract but soon fell behind.
Tomasso Soderini, a loyal Medici supporter, brother-in-law of Piero and uncle of Giuliano, persuaded the Sei to allot two of the virtues to Botticelli, who eventually only completed Fortitude, following the composition of the other six.
She is drawn with a sure, vigorous naturalism of line and robust relief, employing a beautiful colour palette and use of metallic reflections. This is Botticelli’s first example of inventing an elegantly fantastic costume, including armour, something which would become a feature of his works.
Around the same time, Botticelli was commissioned to paint another ‘Adoration’, this time a tondo, now in the National Gallery London.
His patron was Antonio Pucci, another partisan of the Medici who was involved in the various manipulations by which they controlled the government of the Republic.
The architecture is used to convent the eye on a central vertical band and to define the various planes and overall perspective. It takes the form of a ruined basilica, with a nave receding into the distance and a decaying transept on the left.
The lines of figures and the concentration of strong bright colours in their costumes maintains this emphasis on perspective. The poplar on which the painting is executed is seen, on close inspection, to have a perspectival grid of fine incised lines.
The composition has developed in confidence from the earlier example we saw; the Holy Family now take centre stage but their figures are smaller than those in the foreground and too diminished for plausible illusion, giving what is still a rather scattered overall appearance.
His first surviving altarpiece is a ‘Virgin and Child with Saints’.
Very little is known of the history of this piece, which we encountered earlier when we looked at Medici patronage. It retains much of Lippi’s influence. In it, Botticelli shows that he can pose a group of large scale figures making them all convincing individually and in relation to each other.
Botticelli was now becoming recognised as a portrait artist, and a remarkable one at that, but sadly only eight or so of his portraits survive. His ‘Portrait of Smerelda Bandinelli’ (aka Brandini) in the Victoria and Albert Museum is the first recorded portrait of a woman looking directly at the viewer.
It shows many similarities to Leonardo da Vinci’s much more lauded ‘Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci’ (1474). Botticelli deserves more appreciation that he receives for what is a major development in the history of art. It is one of the earliest imaginative developments of an interior setting in Florentine portraiture. Light from the window throws the left wall into shadow while illuminating the face and transparent gown worn over a scarlet robe. She looks directly at us in an almost challenging manner, one which must have astonished contemporary viewers who had never seen any such representation before.
Portrait of a Young Man
Botticelli is credited with introducing the three-quarter pose, rather than the more usually adopted profile, and this is one of the first three-quarter portraits in Western European art.
Beginning of Botticelli’s mature style
Botticelli’s mature style developed between 1478 and 1481 and is characterised by:
• Figure design with confident plasticity
• Immediacy and vitality in form
• Scaling and recession in harmonious consonance
• Natural unfolding of scenes
• Expertise in use of light and colour
Let us continue into this phase of Botticelli’s career by comparing the works we have just seen with two further portraits.
Again, the identity of the sitter is unknown. Botticelli uses dark clothing to focus our attention on the features of the handsome subject. The significance of this painting is that the sitter faces us directly, rather than in profile or three-quarter view. It would be Botticelli’s only such en face portrait and take portraiture in a new direction.
This work was attributed to Botticelli only in 1922. Of interest is the prominence of his hand, which appears to have swollen joints and elongated fingers. This could be a stylistic motif, something we will certainly encounter in Botticelli’s later works, but has also led to the suggestion that it is a representation of a medical condition such as juvenile arthritis or Marfan’s syndrome.
Another example of Botticelli’s mature works is his first surviving and possibly his greatest fresco, ‘Saint Augustine’ in the Church of Ognissanti, Florence, which was painted in rivalry with its pendant, Ghirlandaio’s ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’.
In 1464 Botticelli’s father bought a house in Via Nuova near to Ognissanti (modern Via della Porcellana), which Sandro took over in 1470 and lived in for the rest of his life. Here the notable family on the street were the Vespucci, including Amerigo Vespucci , born in 1454, after whom the Americas were named. The Vespucci were close Medici allies, and would become regular patrons of Botticelli. The fresco was commissioned by the Vespucci family, probably Amerigo’s father Nastaglio, a notary, and his brother Giorgio Antonio, both neighbours of Botticelli.
Note the exactitude of the still-life objects, the illusionistic rendering of the open drawer and the representation of the small space of the cell. On the beam, the shield of the Vespucci family demonstrates its patronage.
‘Madonna del Libro’
Botticelli interprets the scene with his now familiar subtlety and love of small details: the set of boxes and the bowl of lush fruits, the pages of the book, the garments, the intricate halos and the transparent veils which all exhibit a realistic tactile quality. The composition is refined and balanced. Botticelli painted it employing subtle differences in colour, and was able to put these colours together so that they complement each other admirably. The painting is adorned with gold filigree decorating the clothes and objects, the result of the contractual agreement he made with the commissioner. The top layer of blue was lapis lazuli, a very expensive ingredient, indicating it was commissioned by a highly prestigious patron, the identity of whom is unknown.
The painting shows all the elements of Botticelli’s mature poetic style, with the interrelationship of light, shapes and voids which confers an ethereal quality to the work, whose delicate, elegant linearity is still far from the intense pathos of his late work.
‘Madonna del Magnificat’
This tondo depicts the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, full of grace. The provenance of the work is unclear, but it entered the Uffizi in 1764.
The work shows the Virgin Mary crowned by two of five angels, a sheer veil covering her flowing blonde hair and a Byzantine style scarf around her shoulders. She is writing the opening of the Magnificat, a canticle known as the ‘Song of Mary’, on the right-hand page of a book; on the left page is part of the Benedictus. The infant Jesus guides her hand, looking up to the clear blue sky, or perhaps to his mother, softly returning his gaze. In her left hand she holds a pomegranate symbolic of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection. The figures are placed in front of a bright and serene landscape, and the framing creates a division between Heaven and earth. To the left, three angels crowd around, seemingly in deep conversation amongst one another
During this phase of Botticelli’s work, he maintained a very moderate, average emotional state throughout the content of his paintings, well illustrated in this work. During this phase, Botticelli painted several Madonnas, each of which was incredibly maternal in nature, the soft motherly love of the Virgin accentuated by the tenderness between herself and the Christ child. Botticelli famously painted his female figures, especially his Madonnas, with incredibly pale, porcelain-like faces, with light pink blushing across their noses, cheeks, and mouths, a combination of features typically found in court paintings, as well as qualities learned from his study of Classical works. Botticelli juxtaposes the Classical grace of these quasi-courtly paintings with the garb of then-contemporary Florentines.
Botticelli in Rome
To placate Pope Sixtus IV, Lorenzo sent him Botticelli to paint the walls of the Sistine chapel. Also working there at the time were Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and Perugino. The design scheme was to illustrate the concordance of the Old and New Testaments by matching events in the Old Testament with those they foreshadowed in the New. Moses was taken as the archetype of Christ, eight panels from each life facing each other.
Botticelli contributed three frescoes:
Temptation of Christ, Bearer of the Law of the Gospels (1481-2): Christ’s three temptations are seen in the upper register
Temptation of Moses, Bearer of the Written Law (1481-2): depicts several separate acts involving Moses
Conturbation of the Laws of Moses: three episodes – revolt of the Jews against Moses, discomfiture of the sons of Aaron and the Levites, the punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram
Botticelli’s style is now much richer, with golden highlights. However, in all, the overriding desire of Sixtus IV for narrative clarity and symbolic emphasis detracts from the aesthetic appeal of the work.
In Rome, Botticelli also painted another Adoration, National Gallery of Art Washington, not majorly developing his previous depictions of this theme.
Botticelli’s secular works of the1480s
The works for which Botticelli is most renown are his series of large secular paintings from the 1480s. The main ones we shall consider are:
• Pallas and the Centaur
• The Birth of Venus
• Mars and Venus
These superlative paintings create a mythological world self-sufficient in its beauty, quite unlike anything else in existence or being produced at the time. They continue to fascinate to this day, drawing huge crowds to the room in the Uffizi in Florence where they are displayed.
Each individual work is deserving of more attention than we shall have time for in this article, which aims to give an overview of Botticelli’s career. However, for me the most searching question that arises as I view and read about these paintings is this: should great works of art contain profound philosophical or moral questions or be enjoyed for their imaginative and expressive values?
This is a large painting, on poplar panel, some two by three metres in size. It was painted for a villa owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, where it hung alongside ‘Pallas and the Centaur’. It is a hugely complex and ambiguous work in which, no matter how often one stands before it or looks at a reproduction, one always finds something new. Botticelli is famous for the many layers of symbolism which surround his secular work, never more so than within this painting, about which volume upon volume has been written. In the limited space available here, I choose to begin with something it is actually very easy to overlook here, a visual description of what it is we are looking at.
It is set in a semicircular meadow, rich in grasses and flowering plants, enclosed by spruce and orange trees. It is the garden of Venus, who stands before her tree, the myrtle. The flowers tell us it is spring; most are drawn from life although in some Botticelli blends flowers from one plant and leaves from another. There are at least 500 species represented.
Venus is represented as the goddess of love and marriage. Her right hand gestures to the three dancing graces and her son, Cupid, who fires an arrow to kindle the flames of love in the Grace’s heart. The Graces exemplify the kind of beauty admired in quattrocento Florence.
Zephyr flies down through the trees on the right and blows the draperies of Chloris forward; he seizes her and she turns to scream as flowers cascade from her mouth.
Mercury stands facing outwards to the left, halting a stream of grey clouds about to enter the garden. His helmet and sword confirm his role of guarding the garden.
In the foreground, Flora advances, her right hand plunged into a mass of roses; as she scatters them they grow at her feet. She is attired and adorned in a range of flowers.
This is the first painting since antiquity which represented the ancient gods.
The history of the painting is not known with certainty, although it may have been commissioned by one of the Medici. It draws from a number of classical and Renaissance literary sources, including the works of the Ancient Roman poet Ovid and, less certainly, Lucretius, and may also allude to a poem by Poliziano, the Medici house poet who may have helped Botticelli devise the composition, as there is no source in which these figures ever appeared together which could act as a reference source.
The aspects of Botticelli’s technique which are evident here have been previously discussed. It is akin to a medieval tapestry with its minute depiction of plants, beyond natural in its decorative appearance. A key to understanding the process of its creation is that the painting combines the natural world with Botticelli’s internal imaginary world.
How to interpret this work?
It has been postulated to be a Neoplatonic allegory, inspired by Marsilio Ficino, the greatest philosopher at Lorenzo’s court, in which Venus symbolises the gentle, humanising virtue of humanitas. In this philosophy, Venus rules over both earthly and divine love, representing a classical version of the Virgin Mary. Of note, Venus’s hand gesture, intended to the viewer, is akin to that adopted by Mary as she greets the Angel in most scenes depicting the ‘Annunciation’.
Others take an opposing view that the sensuality evident in the figures is exactly the meaning, that of love, including the carnal form and its fruition, of celebrating pleasure and enjoyment.
Should you choose to, any time spent reading about the history and meaning of this work would be well worth the investment of your time.
Pallas and the Centaur
Again, this work was painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to hang in his villa. Later, it hung in the Palazzo Vecchio.
First, to describe what is seen. On the left is a tall cliff, beyond a bay or lake before a hill. A ship sails in the lake. The Centaur stands in the left foreground, armed with a bow and four arrows. He looks with pain and surprise at the female figure who has seized his hair. She is normally identified as the Roman goddess Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Pallas Athena. Her robe is embroidered with the Medici device of three interlocked diamond rings. Branches of olive, the tree of Pallas, wind around her arms, breasts and hair. She holds a halberd.
Interpretations of this painting range over a wide range of possibilities:
• Political allegory symbolising triumph of peace over discord, or of triumph over vice
• An allegory of culture taming the wild and feral in our nature
• An allegory of passion submitting to chastity and/or reason
• A representation of the Neoplatonic idea that the human soul is part animal and part human
• She is a guard arresting the centaur who is trying to hunt in the territory of the goddess Diana; the emphasis on her chastity is a compliment to Lorenzo’s bride
• A simple wedding gift, from Lorenzo to his cousin
To me, the fascination is not which of these possibilities one regards as ‘correct’ but that there are so many options to consider. In most of the art I study, the provenance, patronage and meaning of the work is indisputable. The fact that Botticelli’s art can be so enigmatic speaks to me both of the character of the man and the increasing flexibility of the humanist time in which he was living. We shall soon see, however, that these halcyon days were finite.
The Birth of Venus
Painted for an unknown patron then passed to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici or his father Giovanni, this work dates from one or two years after Primavera and Pallas and the Centaur, and is painted on canvas, compared with the Primavera which is on panel.
Let’s look at what is depicted.
The scene is set in a great bay with a steep horizon of sea and land, the coast set to the right, dotted with trees. At the extreme right is a grove of orange trees. The sea is capped by waves which lap to shore and turn right, pushing a large scallop shell along.
Venus stands in contrapposto in the first graceful movement of stepping ashore, partly concealing her breasts with her right hand and her belly and thighs with her hair. The breath of Zephyr ruffles her hair: he flies behind her, wrapped in a blue cloak and clasping a nymph in his left arm.
Around and in front of them falls a cascade of roses; in mythology roses were born at the same time as Venus. A barefooted Hora, goddess of spring, steps forward to receive Venus, her robe embroidered with cornflowers and daisies and fringed with gold.
Strictly speaking (and at risk of sounding pedantic) in mythological terms the painting does not depict the birth of Venus but her landing on shore after her birth. It is probably Cyprus, which became her kingdom – she was first worshipped at Paphos.
The painting is much simpler in composition than Primavera; compare the sparse sea with the rich meadow. The balance of figures and unity of action complies with Leon Battista Alberti’s precept that the most dignified istoria paintings should contain only a few figures. It was clearly painted to delight the eye by its use of line, colour and crisp delineation of contours.
This painting, quite simply, is an ode to beauty, a beauty which goes beyond realism to represent an ideal form of beauty. Perhaps this is the moment of the ‘invention’ of female beauty; certainly, for many, it remains the ideal standard of female beauty. Apart from beauty, many of Botticelli’s female faces have an air of introspection, suggesting an inner process, consciousness and intelligence. I find myself wondering, as I look at his Venuses and Madonnas, what thoughts might occupy their minds as they gaze out in eternity.
This is the first Renaissance celebration of the female nude, represented for the quality of its own perfection, with no intended erotic, moral or religious overtones. There appears to be no deeper meaning to the painting than this; perhaps it is a mistake to suppose that every secular Renaissance painting is charged with moral significance. For other viewers, particularly with a modern eye, ‘Venus’ represents a celebration of female sexuality, with its mixture of innocence, purity and eroticism. We shall look more closely at how this image has been reinvented for the modern age at the end of this piece.
The Medici, who owned and may have commissioned the work, adhered to a Neoplatonic philosophy that held beauty as a means to experiencing the divine. But this was not always the way that Renaissance society viewed pictorial depiction of naked flesh; only a few years before, nudity was associated with sin, as we see depicted in Masaccio’s famous fresco depicting the ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ from the Brancacci chapel in Florence, painted in 1425. Contrast the shame and anguish on Eve’s face with the way in which Venus holds our gaze.
And things would come full circle before the end of the century. Savonarola believed that beauty was a distraction from God and preached a constant diatribe against sin. His crusade against beauty in its physical forms reached a crescendo on 7 February 1497 with the Bonfire of the Vanities, leading to a sudden change in the creative climate of Florence which greatly affected Botticelli as the ambiguity of his pagan paintings left him open to attack. We shall soon see the major impact this would have on Botticelli’s output.
Mars and Venus
This is the first surviving picture by Botticelli which was inspired by motifs from literary descriptions of individual Greek paintings, not merely suggested by ancient myth or poetry. It is painted on panel; unknown for whom or where.
The picture is set in a meadow sheltered by the myrtle grove of Venus, who reclines on the grass after their romantic dalliance, supported by a red cushion, in a white gown trimmed in gold braid.
To the right lies Mars, his lips parted and eyes closed in sleep, his head resting on a tree trunk, his arm over his cuirass. His figure is beautifully modelled and drafted and perfectly foreshortened.
The poses of their figures were taken from an ancient sarcophagus now in the Vatican museum.
Between the figures play three infant satyrs, playing with the lance and helmet. One tries to waken Mars by blowing in a conch shell, another pokes his head through the cuirass. Wasps swarm from the tree trunk; their presence has been interpreted as a punning reference to the Vespucci family who may have commissioned the work.
The meaning of this work would appear to be more straightforward – the triumph of Venus over Mars, of love’s power to subdue masculine nature. Botticelli has made this quite clear by the inscription Amor Vincit Fortitudinem.
Religious paintings from 1483
Botticelli’s work during this central stage of his career is more tightly fettered by tradition and by the devotional tastes and expectations of his patrons; they are generally designed according to established patterns of convention. The style is that of Florentine naturalism. Botticelli does not break with the traditional conventions of altarpieces; rather, he intensifies them by his ability to reveal inner thoughts and the condensed expressiveness of his colour and line, bringing some of his personality and style to bear.
An example of his output from this time is the ‘Madonna della Melangrana’.
The magnificent contemporary frame carved with the Florentine lily suggests that this work was painted for a Florentine public office. Very little is known about the exact history of the piece.
The Virgin, three-quarter length, supports the Child holding an open pomegranate. Three angels are arranged on each side of her, expressing Botticelli’s typical variety of profiles and expressions. He uses gold radiantly to create an atmosphere of heavenly light.
This is one of the last paintings in which he lavishes all of his old interest and care on the representation of rich, coloured, patterned objects which fall and flow.
His art is about to take a darker turn.
We have seen how Botticelli, like many of his fellow artists, secured the influential patronage of the Medici family, under the leadership of Lorenzo, who became known as ‘Il Magnifico’. No matter one’s views on the morality of the Medici, a topic well beyond the scope of this article, it is difficult to dispute the fact that under his leadership and patronage the artistic milieu of Florence flourished.
Then Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ died on 8 April 1492. Power passed to his son Piero. During the French invasion of 1494, Piero allied himself with the Pope, Alexander IV and King Alfonso of Naples. Rivalry between the two branches of the Medici family ruptured and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and his brother Giovanni were accused of conspiring with the king of France, Charles VIII, against Piero and confined to their villas. As Charles advanced, Piero tried to placate him by surrendering Pisa and other frontier places. This proved to be a huge mistake as his support among powerful citizens of the city evaporated and he was forced to flee.
In the vacuum thus created, Savonarola rose to power. His followers, the piagnoni, included Botticelli’s brother, Simone, the Della Robbia family, the architect Il Cronaca and, possibly, Botticelli himself. Vasari was scathing that Botticelli became an adherent, although some modern scholars believe he was confusing the two brothers.
After the expulsion of the Medici, Savonarola preached that Christ had achieved this by taking Florence under his special protection and that, to maintain this favour, the population must repent. When Charles signed a treaty of alliance and departed, the city’s escape was seen as a miracle delivered by the holy friar. Savonarola believed that humanity was drowning in sin and preached that the day of judgement was near. People flocked to his sermons in their droves. He spoke openly about clerical and political corruption.
Savonarola had charisma and achieved what to many must have seemed an impossible task – steering a political path between government by the oligarchic families and the Popolo by the formation of a new Consiglio. However, people were tiring of him because his opposition to trade and profit had contributed to economic misery.
In 1497 he was excommunicated by the Pope, whom Savonarola had denounced for his laxity and love of luxury. The following year, largely at the insistence of the Pope, Savonarola was arrested on 8 April, tortured and burned at the stake on 23 May. The following year there was a reaction in favour of Savonarola and his followers.
This is a very simplistic overview of a complex and nuanced period in history. As I put together this summary, I couldn’t help but reflect on how little some things have changed when it comes to power and politics, even if we no longer burn our disgraced leaders in public.
Botticelli’s late works
Botticelli’s small paintings of his last years condense much art and refined effects of colour into a little space and are finished in a technique often miniaturistic in its use of fine, delicate strokes.
A good example of this, and an intriguing painting with regards to its meaning and intention, is the ‘Calumny of Apelles’.
Here Botticelli creates a lost antique painting by Apelles, described in Lucian’s dialogue on calumny (a term we are more familiar with is ‘slander’), the story of which relates to Apelles being falsely denounced. As with most of his works, the exact date of its execution is difficult to ascertain with certainty; this is relevant when we come shortly to consider its possible meaning.
The scene is set in the white marble and red-paved hall of a royal palace, richly decorated with statues and reliefs, some of which reproduce known works by Botticelli. The figures depicted are all personifications of virtues or vices.
Far right sits a king with asses ears into which whisper Ignorance and Suspicion. Before him are three groups of figures.
Rancour moves his hand towards the king’s eyes, blinding him to the truth. With his right hand, he pulls Calumny forward. She is accompanied by Perfidy and Remorse, clothed in black.
Far right, unclothed, is Truth, hand raised towards Heaven.
In term of the development of Botticelli’s late style, it is enlightening to compare this painting with his great mythologies of the 1480s. The figures here are slimmer; they are elongated and their limbs slender and extended, a style approaching Mannerism. Corporally speaking, rather than solid physical fullness, he is depicting intense, incisive, absorbed expression.
Once again, one must wonder – what is the meaning of this work? Two things immediately come to mind. Given the paucity of recorded information surrounding the painting, and indeed much of Botticelli’s work, any such observations are by their nature subjective. And secondly, many possible explanations have been postulated when one begins to read about the work. I shall outline some of these below and state my opinion too.
Did Botticelli nearly fall victim to a calumnious denunciation by an envious rival? Record do show he was accused of sodomy, a crime in Florence at that time, but the allegations were dismissed.
Was he objecting to the criticism of Savonarola, which was beginning to be heard although would not reach its crescendo for two or three years? Some writers use this as ammunition to support the idea that Botticelli, openly or otherwise, supported the Dominican friar. Perhaps the estimated date of the painting is against this theory.
Some report that a friend was affected by a slanderous accusation and this painting is a gesture of Botticelli’s support.
Or it a more general criticism aimed by a world-weary Botticelli at the world in which he is living?
Or was it purely for his own pleasure, as he depicts his own works?
I believe the likeliest explanation is a combination of the latter two scenarios. I am fully aware that by taking this position I am influenced by my own reactions to situations which I find objectionable, but I suggest we all adopt this response to some degree. Yes, I will make my objections known, sometimes forcibly, but I will usually fight back, and at the same time console myself, by turning to something of value and meaning, which restores my faith in the world and my place in it.
Florence was a turbulent place in the 1490s as we have seen, and there must have been a sense of the momentous events just over the horizon. Having enjoyed the benefits of Medici patronage for years, Botticelli saw more testing times ahead, for himself personally and for his city. By including his own works in what is a painting which holds a mirror up to the times in which he is living, Botticelli defiantly asserts his worth and ongoing values.
This painting represents the end of Botticelli’s golden era as the triumvirate of the High Renaissance took centre stage among changing tastes and he could no longer find commissions.
7 February 1497
A pyramid of fire rages in Piazza della Signoria – the Bonfire of the Vanities – consuming paintings, sculpture and books of immense value and beauty. Savonarola was one of the great orators of his day, and his sermons stopped the golden age of Florentine art dead. Florence, once a powerhouse of creativity, descends into darkness.
Botticelli must now make art for a new era. Everything must be chaste, quiet and moral. Religious piety and sorrow populate his paintings.
Painted for an altar in Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence, this is a composition of coldly ornate passionate emotion, typical of Botticelli’s late works. Whereas before he idealised the body to define beauty, here he is distorting the body to convey grief. Christ lies in the arms of the two Marys, his body undulating with sharply indented curves. At the apex is the blazing yellow robe and agonised face of Joseph, in front of the tomb, holding the Crown of Thorns and the Three Nails.
The naturalism in his work has disappeared, replaced by a personal geometry which would influence future painters.
The piece was commissioned by the book illuminator Donati di Antonio Cioni for his family chapel. Members of his family were followers of Savonarola, known as piagnoni or ‘snivellers’, once again raising the question of what, if any, was the relationship between Botticelli and Savonarola. We have one final work to examine in this light, which may prove to be the most revealing of all.
As we have seen, in the latter years of the 1490s, two things happened; Savonarola rose to power and there was a sea change in the content and style of Botticelli’s art. As I reached this awareness during my research for this article I wondered – are these two facts directly causally related, or did they occur coincidentally at a crossroads in history? Let’s consider the possibilities.
Most artists will change their style, often significantly, as their career advances. Sometimes this relates to a change in their health; Claude Monet developed cataracts which materially altered the style of his painting. Sometimes the artist is responding to developments in the history of their time; I have written previously of the artistic response to the Catholic Counter-Reformation, with particular regard to Caravaggio. And sometimes it is simply a desire to create something completely new, both to the artist and to the viewer; to me, the art of Ai Weiwei comes to mind. So it is possible that Botticelli himself chose the path of his art, either through personal taste or because he could detect the winds of change around him.
But there is considerable evidence that Botticelli did have views on Savonarola and indeed that he may have actively approved of the doctrine he preached. Indeed, Giorgi Vasari himself wrote that Botticelli ‘was so ardent a partisan (of Savonarola) that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress’. It is also written, again by Vasari amongst others (although one person assertively doing so has the good grace to admit that ‘the truth is lost to history’) that Botticelli was compelled to burn his mythological paintings at the priest’s behest. This refers to the infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ of 7 February 1497. Prior to this, followers of Savonarola had roamed Florence, even breaking into homes, removing anything deemed remotely trivial or lascivious, to be consumed in the flames.
Savonarola did not condemn all types of art; it was acceptable if it provided moral instruction and encouraged his followers to reflect on the life and death of Christ. Knowing this, and influenced by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, surely it is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that Botticelli produced his late works in the style he did, a more somber, simplistic style harking back to the sentiment and style of older religious painting. But would Botticelli really have thrown his secular paintings in the flames, driven by a fanatical adherence to Savonarola’s message? I find this hard to envisage; it is one thing (apart from anything else, a prudent one) to dance to the tune the new leader is playing, it is yet another entirely to publicly renounce one’s past glories in this way.
Botticelli could not stop the Bonfire, but I cannot conscience him literally adding fuel to the fire.
I believe Botticelli bowed to the inevitable and altered his style and content to fit the prevailing social conditions; he is hardly the first, and certainly would not be the last, artist to be constrained in this way. Coinciding as it did with the rise of the High Renaissance triumvirate, Botticelli’s new style proved unfashionable and his career would rapidly decline. But there is one final work for us to consider and, once again, it has the imprint of Savonarola all over it.
For the reasons just explained, Botticelli’s ‘Mystical Nativity’ is a return to a more medieval style of devotional imagery. By now, Botticelli had withdrawn from Florentine civic life and politics. This painting contains a conventional Nativity, Virgin Adoring the Child and an Adoration of the Shepherds, and yet it is much, much more. Simultaneously, it is a painting both about the birth of Jesus and the end of humanity.
Central to the composition is the Holy Family in a stable.
In the foreground, pairs of men and angels embrace. The men wear wreaths of olive, the tree of peace, while the angels hold olive boughs with scrolls inscribed ‘On earth peace to men of goodwill’. In the foreground , five devils sink into pits.
To the right of the Holy Family, two shepherds kneel in adoration, while to the left three men are shown the Family by an angel; the scroll on her olive branch reads ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. On the roof of the stable kneel three angels, again adorned with olive.
Above opens the golden dome of heaven and twelve dancing angels, each holding a stem of olive from which flutter two scrolls whose inscriptions praise the Virgin; the inscriptions on the scrolls held by the angels come directly from sermons by Savonarola on the twelve privileges of the Virgin.
The sky, with its golden background, is eternity and the perfection of the universe.
This is the most refined and delicately coloured of Botticelli’s late works. The predominant colour palette is one of green.
So, what is the meaning of this painting? Once again, we have no information on the commissioning of the work to help us. Many believe that the direct inclusion of words from his sermons proves that Botticelli was indeed a follower of Savonarola, and this is, of course, plausible. The absence of a clear logical reason as to why Botticelli should adhere to the philosophy of a man who railed against his dear patrons, the Medici, and indeed against the creation of the kind of art to which Botticelli had dedicated much of his life, does not make such a scenario inconceivable. But it makes me look for an alternative, perhaps one that encompasses Botticelli’s personal beliefs. And he provides us with proof of these in the inscription at the top of the painting, the only time in his life that he ‘signed’ one of his works.
The Greek inscription along the top of the painting translates as: ‘This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I, Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three and a half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture’. The allusion is to the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, as told in the book of Revelation. At the end of the Florentine year 1500 Botticelli saw himself as living in the second wave of the Apocalypse. He held to a theme which permeated Savonarola’s preachings, that this would pass and the church would rise again around the season of Olive Sunday, our Palm Sunday.
So this is in fact a picture of hope and comfort, again presumably intended for Botticelli’s own use, rather than a patron. And perhaps it shows us that Botticelli did indeed approve of some of Savonarola’s sentiments, at least the more hopeful and redemptive ones.
Perhaps there is just a glimpse, towards the end, of the conviction of an obstinate but ultimately prudent piagnone.
Sadly, Botticelli’s career was now in terminal decline. When he died, on 17 May, 1510, no one noticed. He is buried in the church of Ognissanti, yards from where he was born and lived the vast majority of his life.
Drawings for Dante’s Divina Commedia
Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is an epic 14th century poem in three parts, the best known of which, Inferno, describes Dante’s descent through Hell, guided by the poet Virgil, and the numerous characters which he encounters there. It remains on of the canonical works of Western literature but was popular from its inception. Many artists over the years have drawn illustrations for Dante’s magnificent epic and Botticelli was one. He in fact set out to do so on two separate occasions, under circumstances which give further insight into what drove his creative engine.
Botticelli designed nineteen plates on copper, engraved by the goldsmith Baccio Baldini for the 1481 edition of the Divina Commedia, published in Florence by Nicolo di Lorenzo della Magna.
At the time, such an undertaking was unprecedented for a leading painter but, sadly, was it destined to fail, largely because Baldini’s attempts to render Botticelli’s style into engravings was ineffective. The project was probably cut short when Botticelli was summoned to Rome to work in the Sistine Chapel and his interest in seeming an inferior talent attempt to translate his work waned sharply.
He would return to Inferno years later, making a large series of drawings in pen and stylus, of which ninety-three survive. Huge in their complexity and emotional contrast, these were executed over a period of many years, are experimental in nature, have been extensively reworked and are, in the main, incomplete. We must assume they were done for a copy of Dante that Botticelli intended solely for himself. It is worth remembering that artists choosing to create from their imagination for their own appreciation and enjoyment was not a commonplace occurrence in this period of art history.
This is the most extensive, detailed and well-known of Botticelli’s illustrations.
It is shaped as an inverted cone, descending to the tenth level where Satan lurks, devouring as sinner with each of his three mouths. Each level corresponds, as does the poem, to a particular type of sinner receiving their appropriate punishment.
Immediately after his death, Botticelli was, and remained, forgotten, his works in placed storage. The ‘Birth of Venus’, now probably the world’s most recognisable picture after ‘Mona Lisa’, remained hidden for centuries, probably in a minor Medici palace. It and ‘Primavera’ entered the Uffizi in 1815, only to go straight into storage.
Botticelli was resurrected in the 19th century by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood who responded to his paganism, nonconformity to type, nudity and ambiguity. They resurrected interest in Italian paintings before the time of Raphael. One of their shining lights, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, regarded Botticelli as a hook on which to hang their depiction of female beauty. For rich Victorian collectors, Venus was the acceptable form of the female nude and the Pre-Raphaelites found a willing market to view and buy their art.
Dante Gabriele Rossetti owned a version of the ‘Portrait of Smerelda Bandinelli’ and reinterpreted it as ‘Woman at the Window’ (1879), Fogg Art Museum Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This was the beginning of a series of reimagining of Botticelli’s works, in particular the ‘Birth of Venus’.
In 1939, the painting was taken to the United States by Mussolini, who promoted it as a representation of the ‘brand’ of Italy.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just as with the ‘Mona Lisa’, the ‘Birth of Venus’ has become a modern icon. Late 20th and 21st century depictions of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ include:
• Andy Warhol
• Yin Xin
• Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’
• Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’
• Dolce and Gabbana
• Tomoko Nagao
• Rip Cronk
Botticelli’s masterpiece continues to speak a powerful contemporary language to generations of new admirers.
Sandro Botticelli created some of the most memorable images in Renaissance art. His idealised form of beauty became emblematic and has proved to possess remarkable longevity in these times of ephemeral fashions.
His career can be analysed in three phases – his early support by Medici patrons, a central phase which left us some truly amazing secular works and a late phase, under the shadow of Savonarola, when his art took on a brooding introspection.
His life is a reminder of how our creative talents can be both stimulated and inhibited by the circumstances which surround us, but ultimately depend on our inner processes and desires.