While the history of art reached its apex in the West during the Italian High Renaissance (c.1490–c.1520) with Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo, the artists who came just before made distinct and significant contributions. Perhaps the most important painter during the decades just preceding this High Renaissance was Sandro Botticelli (c.1445–1510). Sandro Botticelli is best remembered today for his Birth of Venus and Primavera, his two greatest masterpieces. His body of works contain so much more of note. The history of art in the West is not simply the history of rule-breaking. Nor is it a history of attempts at realism until the nineteenth century. Rather, it is the history of creative expression, craftsmanship, patronage, and values. Before the Renaissance, the craft element of the arts had been paramount. With the rise in skill of the artists over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, artistic styles and branding became much more significant. Artists began to sign their works or paint themselves into the images as extras (as we shall see, Botticelli did this). The Renaissance was also the age when realism caught up with symbolism as the central element of a painting and when painting itself caught up with sculpture in importance.
Sandro Botticelli was famous in his own day as a successful artist. However, his fame waned in his last years and he became increasingly obscure over the following centuries. Giorgio Vasari included Botticelli briefly in his famous Lives (1550) but, aside from this, Botticelli remained in obscurity until the nineteenth century. His Birth of Venus went on display at the Uffizi in the early-nineteenth century as part of a survey of Italian art leading up to the High Renaissance but Botticelli did not gain an enduring reputation in art circles until the latter half of the century. Botticelli’s fame was rekindled by the Pre-Raphaelites, Walter Pater, and Bernard Berenson.
“Educated in a period of triumphant naturalism, he plunged at first into mere representation with almost self-obliterating earnestness; the pupil of Fra Filippo, he was trained to a love of spiritual genre; himself gifted with strong instincts for the significant, he was able to create such a type of the thinker as in his fresco of St. Augustin; yet in his best years he left everything, even spiritual significance, behind him, and abandoned himself to the presentation of those qualities alone which in a picture are directly life-communicating, and life-enhancing. Those of us who care for nothing in the work of art but what it represents, are either powerfully attracted or repelled by his unhackneyed types and quivering feeling; but if we are such as have an imagination of touch and of movement that it is easy to stimulate, we feel a pleasure in Botticelli that few, if any, other artists can give us…we are only on the verge of fully appreciating his real genius. This in its happiest moments is an unparalleled power of perfectly combining values of touch with values of movement.” -Bernard Berenson
Sandro Botticelli’s life is probably best explored through the various works he created during his professional life, rather than through a strictly chronological approach. According to the fifteenth century art historian Vasari, Botticelli trained first as a goldsmith (a common practice at the time) then moved on through a workshop apprenticeship before establishing his own workshop in his own house. His paintings included many portraits, mythological scenes from the Classical world as well as Christian mythology.
This adoration of the Magi scene is one of Botticelli’s earliest surviving paintings and is perhaps the best example of the beginnings of his professional artistic career. Scenes depicting the Magi, or three wise men, were particularly popular in Renaissance art because the Magi were seen as the best biblical representation of wealthy people who were also benevolent. One can also note a thematic continuity from the mythical visit of the wise men giving riches to the baby Jesus and the wealthy bankers of Renaissance Italy supporting the arts. The Medici family is depicted among those crowded around the central biblical scene. The young Lorenzo de Medici (later known as Il Magnifico) is depicted on the far left wearing a purple tunic. On the opposite side of the painting, Sandro Botticelli has depicted himself looking out. Here he stands, among the crowd and the Medici inner circle. Botticelli gazes out, a confident craftsman with a discerning and exact eye.
When looking at Botticelli paintings, also consider the medium and technique. Like most artists of his time, Botticelli used egg tempera paints, not oils. Oil paints were known and used increasingly as the fifteenth century gave way to the sixteenth (and were more popular, at first, in Northern Europe) but tempera predominated in this early phase of the Italian Renaissance. One of the key differences in terms of color between the two, is that oil paints allow for brighter, more dynamic colors while tempera paints tend to produce more muted colors. Oil paints tend to dry much more slowly, allowing for greater change. Whereas oil paint can be blended and played around with, tempera has to be applied via careful hatching as the paint will dry in seconds. Also consider that each workshop made their own materials. Before the nineteenth century, artists could not simply go to the store to buy materials. Each workshop had to make their own paints by mixing pigments with water and a binder (egg tempera or oil).
With this basic knowledge of tempera technique, look back at the above self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli. Focus on the folds of his clothing and the interplay between light and shade. Look at the individual strands of his hair. Notice the way his face is depicted in the soon-to-be classic three-quarter pose. Consider how many hours Botticelli put into the entire painting in this comparatively unforgiving medium. This may be one of his earliest commissioned works but it shows that Botticelli was certainly already a great artistic master.
Sandro Botticelli painted many scenes from Classical Antiquity. While these paintings are innovative and among the greatest produced during the Renaissance, it should be noted that nonsecular Christian art constituted the majority of artistic works produced during the Italian Renaissance. With that being said, let’s look in detail at four examples of Botticelli’s works which depict scenes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The first (depicted above) depicts the coming of spring. The Primavera was likely commissioned for the wedding of Lorenzo de Medici’s young cousin.
The central female figure in the painting is the goddess of love, Venus. She is surrounded by a kind of arch of foliage and the god of love, Cupid, is flying above her. Cupid is about to shoot out one of his arrows, his blindfold emphasizing that love itself is blind. Three graces dance and to the right the god Mercury turns his back to the graces and reaches with a stick for the fruit above. On the other side of the painting, Zephyr (the west wind) pursues the nymph Chloris (who appears only half running away, half enchanted by her pursuer). Upon being caught, the nymph turns into the goddess of spring Flora (pictured in the ornate, floral robe). Though a secular painting, the figure of Venus is clearly influenced by depictions of the virgin Mary. Madonna and child images were among the most popular in the Renaissance. Botticelli himself painted at least 13, one of which is depicted below.
This depiction of Venus and Mars is one of Botticelli’s more playful images to have survived. Art historians speculate that Botticelli may have consulted the Renaissance humanist Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494) for detailed knowledge of Classical mythology, specifically with regard to this piece and the Primavera. Some stanzas from Poliziano:
He found her seated on the edge of her couch,
just then released from the embrace of Mars,
who lay on his back in her lap, still feeding his
eyes on her face: acloud of roses showered
down upon them to renew them for their amor-
ous pursuits; but Venus with ready desires was
giving him a thousand kisses on his eyes and
And little naked cupids played above and about,
flying here and there: and one with wings of a
thousand colors fanned about the scattered roses,
one filled his quiver with the fresh flow-
ers , then poured it out over the bed, one stopped
the falling cloud upon his wings, and then pro-
ceeded to shake it down.”
The Birth of Venus was influenced by Ovid and Lucian’s understanding of Apelles. The subject matter was one which can still be seen in surviving Roman art:
This Roman painting was made before the year 79 CE and comes from Pompeii. It was unknown to Sandro Botticelli at the time (as Pompeii was not rediscovered until the eighteenth century). The Pompeii image is thought to be fairly close to the Greek original by Apelles (4th century BCE). Botticelli had to make due with what he knew of Lucian.
Venus emerges from a scallop shell, fully grown and greeted by Zephyr and the Hora of Spring (an attendant of Venus). She covers herself with hand and hair as her attendant prepares to clothe her. Venus looks out, with her face slightly turned. Zephyr blows her toward her attendant and the shore. Flowers surround Zephyr and his nymph, being blown about. Flowers also feature prominently in Botticelli’s other famous work Primavera.
The water is depicted in a rather detailed way around the scallop shell but becomes less detailed, more static as one follows it into the background. The focus of the painting (the figures) and particular details (such as the flowers) are finely depicted while other elements of the painting a little less so. Notice the feet of Venus. Venus stands on the scallop shell but this stance is particularly awkward as she appears, rather, to be hovering in front of it rather than having her feet clearly planted on the shell itself.
The innovate aspects of this painting include both the pagan subject matter and that it depicts a female nude. While it is an artistic masterpiece, it falls a bit short in terms of quality when compared with the Primavera. While Botticelli does appear to have grasped how to plant the feet of figures firmly on the ground (see the painting below), he had not mastered it to the degree that Masaccio had decades before.
Some of Botticelli’s later works reveal the influence of the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who came to power in Florence after the Medici were expelled in 1494. Lorenzo Il Magnifico died in 1492 and his son was nowhere near as capable at managing the Florentine state. The Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) rose to power after claiming that his apocalyptic predictions were being realized with a French invasion of Italy. Florence essentially became a theocracy and the artistic and intellectual advances of previous decades were threatened.
“Behold the sword of the Lord will descend suddenly and quickly upon the earth.” -Girolamo Savonarola, 1492
Sandro Botticelli was personally moved by the arguments of the reactionary friar and destroyed some of his own works in what became known as the ‘bonfires of the vanities.’ These bonfires were part of a government effort to censor and destroy works considered immoral. Books, paintings, cosmetics, among many other things, were thrown to the flames.
Savonarola’s theocracy did not last. By 1498, he fell from power and found himself being burned. Savonarola’s fundamentalism actually brought him into conflict with the pope, who eventually excommunicated him in 1497. Within a year, Savonarola was imprisoned and executed. A new Florentine government took power.
Sandro Botticelli did continue to produce paintings but his reputation was waning as younger talented artists emerged.
The Calumny of Apelles is based, in part on a description from the Roman writer Lucian (c.125-c.180). Lucian was a Roman satirist and rhetorician who was largely forgotten during the long span of the Middle Ages. His popularity reemerged during the Renaissance as humanists found dozens of his works.
Sandro Botticelli was not exactly a humanist. He was not a philologist (one interested in studying the history of language through written sources) and he was not a man of letters. His paintings do reveal an interest in, and general knowledge of, the myths and general themes he depicted. Painters generally did not choose their subjects but they would have still had to know what they were depicting. They would have also likely had to have had some interest in the subject in order to depict certain subtleties convincingly in the very competitive art market of Renaissance Florence. Lorenzo Il Magnifico was interested in the various forms of art flourishing in his city at the time. He was well acquainted with the ideas of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino and supported poet Poliziano. Both Ficino and Poliziano are thought by art historians to have had some influence on Botticelli. The one literary work Botticelli seemed to have a deep and passionate interest was Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. He went so far as to produce a series of elaborate drawings of the Inferno (this will be the subject of a separate article).
The above depiction of a young man being introduced to the seven Liberal Arts ranks as an important allegorical representation of areas of study which promote individual excellence and empower the individual to use his or her own knowledge, coupled with personal experience, to change the world for the better. It is a painting depicting great potential, even if Botticelli’s education in the Classics was essentially limited to a few conversations and viewing how others depicted classical scenes in paint.
Sandro Botticelli was one of the great painters before the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. He was a passionate craftsman with a deep interest in what he depicted and developed a distinct painting style which has aided to the immortality of his most famous subjects. He had to wait for centuries for a discerning critic who actually appreciated his work. Vasari appears to have had little real interest in Botticelli beyond seeing him as a necessary stop on the way to the greats of the High Renaissance. Vasari’s poor grasp of Botticelli ranks as one of the weaknesses of his Lives. Given his skill and surviving body of works, Sandro Botticelli is probably the greatest painter between Masaccio and Leonardo da Vinci. To get a complete understanding of his various skills, one should look at his portraits as well as his various mythological subjects.
Additional Sources on Botticelli: