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Sandro Botticelli

Florentine painter (1447-1510)

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Botticelli, SANDRO, a famous Florentine painter, b. at Florence about 1447; d. in the same city, 1510. Botticelli’s name is properly Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Mariano Filipepi being his father, but he is called after the Florentine painter and goldsmith, Botticelli, to whom he was first apprenticed. Later on he was a pupil of Fra Filippo Lippi and learned from this master to paint in the ideal manner of Fra Angelico. Through the influence of Verrocchio and the brothers Pollajuoli this idealism was combined with the naturalness of Masaccio. These qualities explain Botticelli’s great influence over later painters. Botticelli’s life was a retired one passed largely in very modest circumstances. We know, however, that he was in the employ of the Medici and other prominent Florentine families from about 1483 to 1500. Although never inclined to frivolity he was yet influenced by the worldly spirit of the age until Savonarola’s powerful call to repentance aroused his moral nature and guided his powers, as it seems, into entirely new paths. He never knew how to take care of money and he died at last in need. Botticelli was too unassuming to sign and date his works in most instances, so that the order in time of his paintings has to be judged from the canvases themselves.

I. Madonnas.—Botticelli enjoys, above all, a well-earned fame as a painter of the Madonna. In these pictures the fascination lies more in the expression of the Mother and Child and in the look on the faces of the half-grown boy-angels than in the unaffected simplicity of the pose and composition. Two of these pictures, circular in form (called tondo, round) have become very famous. Both are in Florence: one is the “Magnificat“, and in the other the Child is holding a pomegranate. A circular canvas at Berlin which depicts the Madonna enthroned and surrounded by angels carrying candles is characterized by deep religious feeling. A number of small pictures of the Madonna recall Fra Filippo; others more severe in tone seem to show the influence of Verrocchio. The Child’s expression is always sweet and winning, yet thoughtful as well, and at times the look is one of intense earnestness. The Mother in holy awe restrains her tenderness and seems to have a presentiment of future sorrow. This feeling of melancholy foreboding is also expressed in the attendant angels and saints. A painting of this enthroned Madonna with the two Johns is at Berlin; two canvases at Florence depict the same Madonna surrounded by numerous saints. It is plain that the look of melancholy on the face of the Mother of God had a strange attraction for the painter. His portrait of himself in the “Destruction of Core, Dathan, and Abiron” shows his natural inclination to intense earnestness, and in the “Outcasts” he has depicted the profoundest depths of grief.

Biblical Subjects.—In 1481 Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli, along with other painters, to Rome to decorate the new Sistine Chapel. According to the biographer, Vasari, he was even to superintend the entire work. In the chapel Botticelli painted three frescoes which represent events in the lives of Moses and Christ. No less than seven scenes are united in the “Life of the Youthful Moses“, so that the composition lacks unity. Without doubt the artist labored under a feeling of restraint. The composition is animated in parts and is intended to arouse the feelings. The “Destruction of Core, Dathan, and Abiron” is represented in three scenes. The figure of Moses appears here in all the majesty which God had granted him for the punishment of the rebels. There is an interesting connection between this picture and Perugino’s “Granting of the Keys to Peter” on the opposite wall. Moses in the fullness of his might is the counterpart of Peter to whom the Keys of Heaven are entrusted. Over against the fresco of the proving of the youthful Moses, Botticelli painted from the New Testament the “Temptation of Christ“. The pope has this picture before him when, seated upon his throne, he is present at the celebration of the Mass. Strange to say, the foreground of the painting represents the purification of a leper before a company of ecclesiastics and secular dignitaries and contains besides an allusion to the pope. The explanation of the scene is as follows: Moses had to undergo trials before he could become the leader of his people, so also the Savior had to suffer in order to heal mankind from the leprosy of sin, and so also the pope in order to carry out Christ’s missions. As an allegorical indication of this a hospital built by Sixtus IV is shown in the picture. It must be acknowledged that the painter executed the difficult task assigned to him in the chapel with striking skill. Feeling the importance of this work Botticelli carried out his designs almost entirely himself; the smallest details show the infinite pains he took. In these frescoes he has given a large amount of space to Roman architecture, thereby setting a good working example to the painters coming after him. Of Botticelli’s other Biblical pictures mention may be made of the “Birth of Christ”, which was intended to be a memorial of Savonarola. While a chorus of angels sing the praises of God above the manger, in this picture, three angels below lead Dominican monks towards the Savior, Christ, who had been proclaimed by Savonarola to be king of the city of Florence. We have also an “Adoration of the Magi” in four examples (Florence, London, and St. Peters-burg). This canvas is full of figures and has a background composed of stately architecture and landscape. The copy at Florence is famous on account of the portraits of the Medici it contains, which were introduced in accordance with the custom of the time. About 1500 Botticelli produced the two examples of the “Lamentation of Christ” which are now at Munich and Milan. In this composition the expression of grief is deep but subdued.

Portraits.—Among the twenty-four portraits of popes in the Sistine chapel five are by Botticelli. In the church of the Ognissanti at Florence there is a celebrated picture of St. Augustine by Botticelli opposite to a St. Jerome by Ghirlandajo. There are two portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici in existence and an excellent portrait of a woman at Frankfort.

Other Subjects.—In celebration of a wedding Botticelli painted in the villa of the Tornabuoni near Fiesole an allegorical scene representing the Seven Arts and the Virtues paying their homage to the newly married pair. Among his mythological pictures may be mentioned the “Venus” who sails upon a shell towards the island which she has chosen for her habitation. Another mythological subject is “Venus and Mars”. Botticelli contributed the enthroned “Fortitude” and “Spring” to the allegorical style of painting so popular in his day. The “Calumny of Apelles“, which is realistic in execution, is essentially allegorical. Closely related to these works are the more than ninety illustrations to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, that poem which, from Giotto to Michelangelo, has stimulated the imagination of so many painters. Four sheets executed in color seem to indicate an intention to carry out the whole work in the same manner after the designs had once been made with pen and pencil. Many of the pictures are not more than outlined or sketched. There is, however, much that is admirable in these designs, which formed one of the chief occupations of the last years of the painter. The fidelity to nature in the drawing of the human figure, the contemplative expression of the faces, the dramatic animation of the action, and the skillful arrangement of the perspective make these designs a last triumph for Botticelli.


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