The Renaissance produced some of the most prolific artists that are still heralded today as the great standard of talent and execution. One of the most prominent artist’s on this list is Botticelli (1445 – 1510). He encompassed a style of painting that emphasized a pure state-of-mind and a preference for nostalgia that has made him the “especial object of Pre-Raphaelite admiration in the nineteen century… ” 1 However, outside of his own lifetime, Botticelli became the “The Forgotten Florentine”, as his work “suffered centuries of neglect before it was rediscovered by the Victorians.” 2
Like many of his contemporaries, Botticelli had an expressive, even emotional aspect to his painting. He was energetic and intense but simultaneously refined in execution. A grace was exuded through his linear presentation of design and blend of clear colours that enhanced delicate natural details. With an evocative sensitivity toward the artists of the Middle Ages, Botticelli combined all of these attributes in his remarkable works. This is most evident in his major paintings of Primavera and The Birth of Venus in addition to a number of other images that were equally outstanding. Before exploring these creations, it is helpful to become acquainted with the background of this famous artist.
Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi was born in Florence in 1445. His family affectionately nicknamed him Botticelli which is an Italian rewording of the word “botticello,” meaning “small wine cask”; this name would remain with him forever. His working-class family prided themselves in providing tanning and quality weaving goods that were highly sought after at the time. Although quite poor, the family was close-knit and existed in happy domesticity. Botticelli was a talented but restless child and his parent’s decided to remove him from school and instead send him to work as an artist’s apprentice.
His training began with the goldsmith, Maso Finiguerra from where he progressed to the studio of artist Fra Filippo Lippi in 1461. The majority of Botticelli’s experience was painting frescoes for Florentine churches and cathedrals which eventually led to working with the painter and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo. In addition to learning his craft from these artists’, Botticelli also made valuable connections to wealthy and powerful families. Confident with his talent and ability to secure commissions, Botticelli established his own workshop in 1470. It was at this time that he received his first appointment and had the opportunity to exhibit his considerable gifts. His first patron was the Merchants’ Guild for whom he completed the painting of Fortitude for the Council Chamber. This was secured for him by way of his Medici family connections – the most prominent of Florentine families.
During his career, Botticelli was engaged by several noteworthy patrons, including the wealthy Medici Dynasty, Pope Sixtus IV and writer Dante Alghieri. It was through these clients that Botticelli completed some of his greatest works which transformed him into a highly regarded artist of the day. The Medici family had a significant influence on the success of Botticelli and throughout his working life they provided him with a steady tributary of clients. In addition, the Medici’s themselves were highly desirous for numerous original Botticelli paintings. Of these works, Primavera (above) and Birth of Venus were two of the most outstanding that Botticelli created for the Medici’s and they were displayed in the Medici Villa Castello. The interpretation of these pictures has made reference to the long, slender proportions of Venus together with showering her in soft golden light that “may depict Venus as a symbol of both pagan and Christian love.” 3 These two paintings helped to establish Botticelli as having both secular and non-secular abilities with his painting.
Once the Sistine Chapel was complete in 1481, it was the duty of Pope Sixtus IV to assemble a special group of artisan’s to decorate the interiors; Botticelli was one of them summoned to contribute. Delighted with the opportunity, Botticelli went to the Vatican in Rome and there he executed The Punishment of Korah, The Youth of Moses and the Temptation of Christ. After a year in Rome, Botticelli returned to Florence in 1482 and he became more sought after than ever before. His work at the Sistine Chapel brought him an abundance of new commissions that ranged in subjects from secular to religious subjects and took the form of banners, wedding chests (cassoni) and paintings. His renditions of Madonna and Child images were particularly renowned and his studio created many reproductions of his own originals as they were too popular and hence financially lucrative not to exploit. Botticelli also hired several assistants and prospered to a level he never anticipated.
During this time, Botticelli also embarked on illustrations for writer Dante Algheri’s most prolific work, The Divine Comedy. Commissioned by Lorenzo Medici for these images, Botticelli spent time from 1480 to 1500 working on these drawings, however they were never completed. By 1490 Botticelli fortunes changed and calls for his works, particularly religious subjects diminished. This was due to the Medici family being expelled from Italy and the Dominican monk Savonarola preaching major moral and religious reforms. These events had a profound impact on Botticelli and his work reflected his state-of-mind. He refused to adapt to the realism of anatomy that Leonardo Da Vinci used or to the latest subjects heralded by the new artistic elite. He instead wanted to stay in the romantic reflection of expression from the past. Throughout his lifetime Botticelli remained in his home city of Florence and in the house that his father purchased for the family many years before. When his father died, Botticelli continued to live with his brothers in this home. Given his loyalty and love of his birthplace, Botticelli was more disturbed with the later developments in Florence. He suffered decades of decline and when he died in 1510, he was buried in his lifetime parish of the Church of Ognissanti; sadly, no mark of the grave remains today.
Botticelli’s genius was re-discovered during the Victorian age and admiration for this work continues to the present. For those possessing artistic appreciation, it is easy to understand why. Some of the most outstanding features of Botticelli’s style embraced a variety of remarkable techniques. His early influences from the artisans that he apprenticed with greatly affected his work. Botticelli’s treatment of fine details, especially his rendition of halos was exemplary; his fine work to augment the most “exquisite brushwork in a delicate mesh of gold.” 4 Botticelli was considered the master of line as he was graceful and disciplined in what Sir David Piper called “the seductive charm of his flowing line.” The effort Botticelli placed in creating distinction and beauty in his flowers, garments, facial expressions and other subtle but refined subjects was extraordinary. It is no wonder that he is regarded today as one of the most brilliant and enduring artist’s of the Renaissance period.
Gaunt, William, The Great Painters, ISBN 1 85052 0674, 1986, Page 11
Mitchell, B. & Bragg, Melvyn, Great Artists, ISBN 0 99994 6943, 1987, Page 89