Mark Harden's Artchive
Sandro Botticelli

(Text from "The Bulfinch Guide to Art History")

(Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi)

Italian painter. He was Florentine and extremely successful at the peak of his career, with a highly individual and graceful style founded on the rhythmic capabilities of outline. With the emergence of the High Renaissance style at the turn of the 16th century, he fell out of fashion, died in obscurity and was only returned to his position as one of the best-loved quattrocento painters through the interest of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites. His nickname "Botticelli" means "little barrel" and was originally bestowed on his older brother. For some reason the name was passed on to, and adopted by, the younger painter brother.
Botticelli's early years are obscure, but he seems to have been trained in the studio of Filippo Lippi whose style informs his earliest dated work, the Fortitude panel (1470, Florence, Uffizi). This was commissioned to be one of a series of seven, the others having been executed by Piero Pollaiuolo. A stylistic affinity here also with Pollaiuolo is perhaps due to the patrons' requirements for unity within the series (certainly it is never evident again). Many of Botticelli's paintings are undated, but an Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Uffizi) has been dated by modern scholarship to c1475. This is important because it provides evidence of Botticelli having already secured the patronage of the Medici whose portraits (according to Vasari) appear in the picture. So well did this work establish Botticelli's reputation that in 1481-82 he was commissioned to join Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli (the most celebrated painters of the day) to paint frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli's two most famous paintings were painted around this time, possibly for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. They are the Primavera (c1478) and the Birth of Venus (c1483), both in the Uffizi. These are mythologies, not of the capricious Ovidian sort, but, it has been suggested, ones that embody the moral and metaphysical Neoplatonic ideas that were then fashionable in the Medici circles. Pure visual poetry, they are stylistically the quintessence of Botticelli: there is a deliberate denial of rational spatial construction and no attempt to model solid-looking figures; instead the figures float on the forward plane of the picture against a decorative landscape backdrop, and form, defined by outline, is willfully modified to imbue that outline with expressive power.
That Botticelli could work in more than one manner at a time (perhaps, like the Fortitude, adapting it for the context) is shown in his fresco of St. Augustine in his Study, painted in 1480 for the Florentine church of the Ognissanti and in rivalry with Ghirlandaio's nearby St. Jerome (both still in situ). Here Botticelli's style is more monumental, with a close attention to naturalistic detail. His workshop in these years was highly successful, one of its most lucrative lines being panels depicting the Madonna and Child, perhaps the most beautiful of which is the tondo of the Madonna of the Magnificat (c1485, Florence, Uffizi). Like his master Lippi, before him, Botticelli has created his own instantly recognizable type of feminine beauty, used for Madonnas and Venuses alike. His most remarkable painting is also the only one that is signed, the Mystic Nativity (1500, London, National Gallery). It is deliberately archaic with hieratic differences in scale (the Virgin and Child dwarfing the other figures) and carries a cryptic inscription (partly erased) forecasting the end of the present troubled world and the beginning of a new order. Many of his works datable to this period seem to be imbued with the same spiritual tension (which some scholars have attributed to Botticelli's association with the hellfire preacher Savonarola, although such an association has not been substantiated). During his last decade his style must have appeared absolutely out of date and he seems to have done very little work. Without doubt the High Renaissance style obscured his achievement and, despite his earlier success, he had no followers of any merit. His most important pupil was the son of his own master, Filippino Lippi.

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