Sandro Botticelli paintings are among the best known Renaissance paintings, and showcase the skills of one of the most brilliant masters of line in the history of art.

Likely self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli, from his Adoration of the Magi, 1475. 

Botticelli’s given name was Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi.  After his oldest brother became successful selling barrels of merchandise, all the brothers were nicknamed “Botticelli”, or “little barrels”.  When Sandro excelled in drawing, his father apprenticed him to Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469), one of the most highly regarded Renaissance painters in fresco.  It is likely from him that Botticelli learned his appreciation for and mastery of line.

Botticelli soon surpassed Fra Filippo Lippi in reputation (assisted by the friar Lippi himself, who was banished from his order in 1456 after impregnating a nun). During the 1470s, Sandro Botticelli established his own workshop and found an incomparable patron in the powerful Medici family, who ruled Florence from 1434 to 1737 and adored Botticelli paintings.

It was for a Medici wedding – that of Lorenzo di Piero Francesco de Medici (1463-1503) – that Sandro Botticelli created Primavera.  Although the exact meaning of Primavera continues to perplex art history scholars, its mythological characters convey all the promise inherent in a wedding:

 

  • Botticelli places Venus, the goddess of fertility and beauty, slightly off center with her head silhouetted in a halo of sky and trees; she wears a headdress typical of a married Florentine woman.  On the left are Venus’s attendants, the Three Graces, whose draping, feathery dresses flaunts Botticelli’s facility with line: look how brilliantly the Graces’ legs are shown through the sheer fabric. Above the Three Graces, Cupid, the son of Venus, teasingly aims his bow; note his characteristic blindfold.  Yep, love was blind in Renaissance art, too!

Sandro Botticelli. Primavera, c. 1482. Tempera on wood panel, 6’8″ by 10’4″. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

  • On the left is the god Mercury, identified by his characteristic winged boots and caduceus, a staff entwined with snakes that he uses here to prevent clouds from drifting into Venus’ paradise.  The caduceus, also a symbol for doctors, is a nod to the Medicis, whose surname means “doctor”.  The month of this wedding, May, comes from the name of Mercury’s mother, the nymph Maia. 
  • On the right, the wind god, Zephyr, is pursuing a nymph whom he converts into Flora, goddess of springtime. In a floral gown, she strolls on a carpet of flowers in a reference to Florence, the “City of Flowers”. The forest canopy is dense with bright orange fruit, which Fred Kleiner notes is called “mela medica”, or medicinal apples; inclusion of this fruit reinforces that this is a Medici commission.

Although Botticelli was one of the leading Renaissance painters, Botticelli paintings grew nearly obscure shortly after his death in 1510.

First, Botticelli fell under the influence of Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)a Dominican monk whose impassioned sermons for salvation and against worldliness persuaded many Florentines to “repent”.  This repentance included voluntarily burning one’s books and artwork.  The infamous Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497 tragically contained early Botticelli paintings among other Renaissance art and treasures.  

Secondly, Sandro Botticelli was still working when the second generation of Renaissance painters appeared. Among these were Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), whose accomplishments eclipsed Botticelli’s (and nearly every one else’s). It wasn’t until centuries later that Sandro Botticelli was rediscovered by, among others, Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres and the Pre-Raphaelites.  

Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c. 1498.


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