Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine school under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, a movement that Giorgio Vasari would characterize less than a hundred years later as a "golden age". He was born in the city of Florence and initially trained as a goldsmith by his brother Antonio. There are very few details of Botticelli's life, but it is known that he became an apprentice when he was about fourteen years old, which would indicate that he received a fuller education than other Renaissance artists. Probably by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi; many of his early works have been attributed to the elder master, and attributions continue to be uncertain. Influenced also by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting, it was from Lippi that Botticelli learned a more intimate and detailed manner. As recently discovered, during this time, Botticelli could have traveled to Hungary, participating in the creation of a fresco in Esztergom, ordered in the workshop of Filippo Lippi by János Vitéz, then archbishop of Hungary.

By 1470, Botticelli had his own workshop. Even at this early date, his work was characterized by a conception of the figure as if seen in low relief, drawn with clear contours, and minimizing strong contrasts of light and shadow which would indicate fully modeled forms. Later, "Like much of Florence, Botticelli had come under the sway of Savonarola and his art had transformed from the decorative to the deeply devout - The Mystical Nativity (c. 1500-1501) bears all the signs of this change".

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli and other prominent Florentine and Umbrian artists to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The iconological program was the supremacy of the Papacy. Sandro's contribution included the Temptations of Christ, the Punishment of the Rebels and Trial of Moses. He returned to Florence, and "being of a sophistical turn of mind, he there wrote a commentary on a portion of Dante and illustrated the Inferno which he printed, spending much time over it, and this abstention from work led to serious disorders in his living.

We can see in the masterpieces Primavera (c. 1482) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) the influence of Gothic realism tempered by Botticelli's study of the antique. But if the painterly means may be understood, the subjects themselves remain fascinating for their ambiguity. The complex meanings of these paintings continue to receive widespread scholarly attention, mainly focusing on the poetry and philosophy of humanists who were the artist's contemporaries. The works do not illustrate particular texts; rather, each relies upon several texts for its significance.

In the mid-1480s, Botticelli worked on a major fresco cycle with Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi, for Lorenzo the Magnificent's villa near Volterra; in addition he painted many frescoes in Florentine churches. In 1491 he served on a committee to decide upon a façade for the Cathedral of Florence.

In later life, Botticelli was one of the followers of the deeply moralistic friar Girolamo Savonarola who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498, though the full extent of Savonarola's influence remains uncertain. "The story that he burnt his own paintings on pagan themes in the notorious "Bonfire of the Vanities" is not told by Vasari. Botticelli biographer Ernst Steinmann disagreed with Vasari's assertion that Botticelli produced nothing after coming under the influence of Savonarola, believing rather that the spiritual and emotional Virgins painted by Sandro followed directly from the teachings of the Dominican monk.

Botticelli was already little employed in 1502. In 1504 he was a member of the committee appointed to decide where Michelangelo's David would be placed. His later work, especially as seen in a series on the life of St. Zenobius, witnessed a diminution of scale, expressively distorted figures, and a non-naturalistic use of colour reminiscent of the work of Fra Angelico nearly a century earlier. After his death, his reputation was eclipsed longer and more thoroughly than that of any other major European artist. His paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they had been created, his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel upstaged by Michelangelo's. The first monograph on the artist was published in 1893; then, between 1900 and 1920 more books were written on Botticelli than on any other painter.

The popular view is that he suffered from an unrequited love for Simonetta Vespucci, a married noblewoman. According to popular belief, she had served as the model for The Birth of Venus and recurs throughout his paintings, despite the fact that she had died years earlier, in 1476. Botticelli asked that when he died, he be buried at her feet in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence. His wish was carried out when he died some 34 years later, in 1510. Some modern historians have also examined other aspects of his sexuality. Jacques Mesnil discovered a summary of a charge in the Florentine Archives for November 16, 1502, which read simply "Botticelli keeps a boy", under an accusation of sodomy. The painter would then have been fifty-eight. Opinion remains divided on whether this is evidence of homosexuality.