Botticelli
Biography of Early Renaissance Painter from Florence.

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Detail of The Birth of Venus (c.1484)
by Botticelli, one of the finest
Early Renaissance artists.

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Alessandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Contents

Biography
Botticelli's Art
Early Paintings
Sistine Chapel Frescoes
Returns to Florence: 1482-98
Savonarola and Aftermath: 1498-1510
Reputation As an Artist and Legacy

 



Birth of Venus (c.1484-6, Uffizi)
This portrays the goddess Venus
who has emerged from the sea on
a shell, blown towards shore by the
Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passion.
She is met by one of the Horae,
goddesses of the seasons, who hands
her a flowered cloak. The picture has
a variety of political, mythological
and physical meanings.
See Female Nudes in Art History.

Biography

One of the great painters of the Early Renaissance, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi - better known by his nickname Botticelli ("little barrels") - was active during the golden age of the Renaissance in Florence, and by 1480 was possibly the most influential painter in the city. A pupil of Fra Filippo Lippi, he suffered from ill health for much of his life, and - apart from a period in Rome (1481-2) when he was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to paint the Story of Moses in the Sistine Chapel - he spent virtually all of his life working for the great families of Florentine society, notably the Medici family. As well as standard religious works, Botticelli specialized in idealized paintings of classical mythology that are filled with atmosphere and populated with enormously imaginative figures. His poetic, often sensuous, works reflect not only the Renaissance mindset of the quattrocento but also reflect the contemporary political situation - itself largely controlled by his employers, the Medicis. Although overshadowed by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Botticelli remains one of the greatest figures of Early Renaissance painting in Florence.


La Primavera (c.1482-3, Uffizi)
A complex painting full of typical
Renaissance iconography and form.
Its interpretation requires a thorough
grasp of classical mythology as well
as Renaissance literature. Venus is
standing in the centre of the picture
set slightly back from the other.
Above her, Cupid is aiming one of
his arrows of love at the Charites
(Three Graces), who are dancing.
The garden of Venus, the goddess
of love, is guarded on the left by
Mercury in a red cloak, who holds
up his hand to touch the clouds.
He is the guardian of the garden.
From the right, Zephyrus, the god
of the winds, is pushing his way in,
in pursuit of the nymph Chloris.
Next to her walks Flora, goddess of
spring. Primavera also contains a
complex political message and is
a clear invitation to choose the
values of Renaissance Humanism.

Botticelli's Art

Botticelli's most memorable contribution to Renaissance art are his paintings: La Primavera (c.1482-3), Venus and Mars (c.1483), and the Birth of Venus (c.1484-6), all in the Uffizi Gallery Florence. All three contain complex and allegorical meanings. In addition, Botticelli completed some of the best drawings of the Renaissance, and painted numerous tempera frescoes for several Florentine churches.

COLOURS USED IN PAINTING
For an idea of the pigments
used by Botticelli in his
colour painting, see:
Renaissance Colour Palette.

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For the top allegorical painting,
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Botticelli's pictures were painted using tempera - a method in which colour-pigments are combined with an emulsion of water and egg yolks, or whole eggs, (sometimes glue or milk). Tempera was commonly used in Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, both for panel painting and fresco work, until it was replaced by oil painting. Tempera colours are bright and translucent, but because the paint dries very quickly there is little time for blending, so a tempera artist creates lighter or darker shades by adding lighter or darker dots or lines of color to an area of dried paint. Botticelli painted most of his pictures on wooden panels - though some were executed on canvases - and completed many wall-paintings.

EARLY RENAISSANCE ART
For other painters and sculptors
not mentioned in the text, see:
Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427)
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446)
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455)
Donatello (1386-1466)
Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72)
Piero della Francesca (1420-92)
Antonello da Messina (1430-79)
Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506)
Donato Bramante (c.1444-1514)

Early Paintings

Botticelli first learned the craft of goldsmithing, before becoming a pupil in the studio of Fra Filippo Lippi, about the same time as Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88) and Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1432-98). His early works, such as his versions of the Virgin and Child (examples in the Uffizi, Louvre, and National Gallery, London) are modelled on works by Lippi, to whom they are sometimes attributed. However, even at this early stage Lippi's heavy drawing becomes light and subtle in the hands of his pupil. Likewise the tension in Verrocchio's and Pollaiuolo's figures is softened in those of Botticelli. Compare, for instance, Virtues by Piero del Pollaiuolo (1443-96) with Botticelli's St Sebastian (Berlin-Dahlem). The latter's typical treatment is even more evident in the two Scenes from the Life of Judith (Uffizi).

Botticelli's Primavera (1478, Uffizi), painted for the Villa Medici at Castello, is one of the most memorable interpretations of a classical myth. Curiously, his approach to Antiquity differs significantly from that of previous Renaissance painters from the early 15th century, such as Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), Fra Angelico (c.1400-55), and Tommaso Masaccio (1401-1428). Whereas these early artists generally welcomed the existence of a new humanity in a world illuminated by new perspectives and opportunities, Botticelli preferred to create a classical universe that was above all an evocation of the past - an escape from reality. Thus, for example, the buildings which appear in the backdrop of The Adoration of the Magi (1475, Uffizi) are not presented in their original condition but as romantic ruins.

Sistine Chapel Frescoes

Commissioned with Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), Perugino (1445-1523) and Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), three of the most famous painters of the day, to decorate the Sistine chapel (1481-2) with frescoes, he appears to have been irked by the need to create an enclosed, linked narrative. By comparison, the figures in the Primavera are linked not by any narrative dialogue but by imperceptible linear rhythms, facilitating the creation of a single scene. The best part of these Sistine Chapel frescoes is in their details, such as the children with firewood, and the evocative portraits of people, like Zephora, one of Jethro's daughters (Trials of Moses, 1482, Sistine Chapel).

Returns to Florence: 1482-98

After returning to Florence, Botticelli completed his most famous Madonnas and the large circular paintings (tondi) including the Madonna of the Magnificat and the Madonna of the Pomegranate (both Uffizi). His circular rhythms are particularly well suited to the medium as well as the harmonious arrangment of the figures. He also painted the Altarpiece of St Barnabus (1490), The Coronation of St Mark (1490), as well as The Annunciation (1490) for the monks of Cestello (Uffizi and Pitti Palace, Florence). In these pictures, a sharper line is visible, together with more force in the gestures, and a far greater linear rhythm, notably in the drapery of The Annunciation.

Botticelli's line had reached its limit in The Birth of Venus (1484, Uffizi) particularly in the mass of blonde hair. Subsequent paintings, such as the Pieta (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and the Mystic Nativity (1500, National Gallery, London), as well as the different versions of The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius (1500-5, National Gallery, London; Metropolitan Museum, New York; Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) are differentiated by the break in the line, as well as the intensity and boldness of colour.

The bulk of Botticelli's output was devoted to religious art, including fresco mural painting, as well as altarpiece art and other decorative works. In addition, he also produced pictures of allegorical, literary and mythological themes (like Primavera and the Birth of Venus), as well as several examples of portrait art: a few self-portraits also appear in his paintings. He was also a virtuoso in the art of drawing, as exemplified by his set of illustrations for a manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy (1490), for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. The 90 or so surviving drawings are divided between the Vatican Library and the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.

Savonarola and Aftermath: 1498-1510

The sermonizing of Savonarola, along with his death in 1498, triggered a spritual crisis in Botticelli. He was living with his brother Simone, an active supporter of Savonarola, whose sermons highlighting the corruption and decadence of fin de siecle Florence must have caused Botticelli quite a few doubts about his own past behaviour. In view of this, it is perhaps no surprise that he turned to a more moralistic form of history painting (Calumny, 1495, Uffizi). At the same time he was equally inspired by virtuous tales: see The Story of Virginia (c.1496-1504, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo), and The Story of Lucretia (c.1496-1504, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). The sacred pictures of his final years, like the dramatic Mystic Nativity (1500, National Gallery, London) contain moral allusions about the wickedness of Italy and its inevitable punishment. In the Crucifixion (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass) he employed a Dante-esque allegorical sequence, involving a fox, an angel and a wolf, set against a backdrop of a Florentine tempest.

Reputation As an Artist and Legacy

Despite its high quality, Botticelli's painting failed to have any special effect on his contemporaries. His pupil Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) was one of the few to understand his art - unlike other followers such as Jacopo del Sellaio (1441-93) and Bartolommeo di Giovanni. As for the new 16th century generation, they were far more interested in the new manner being created in Florence by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520), and Michelangelo (1475-1564). Which perhaps explains why he died in obscurity, at the age of 65.

Botticelli was the ideal visual interpreter for the refined humanism of Florentine society and its Medici leaders. His lyrical idealism was quite different from the bourgeois painting of Ghirlandaio and the fantastic realism of Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). As a result, Botticelli was soon forgotten and it wasn't until the late-19th century when he was 'reinterpreted' by John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Pre-Raphaelites like Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), along with later followers of Art Nouveau, that he was returned to his position as one of the finest Old Masters of the quattrocento.

There are Botticellis in several of the best art museums in Europe and America: the largest holding can be seen in the Uffizi, Florence.

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