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Sandro Botticelli

The Soul of the Renaissance

Self-portrait (from 1475 Adoration of the Magi)

Born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, son of a tanner in Via del Porcellana, Botticelli (1445–1510) seems to have had a childhood full of health problems. His nickname 'Little Barrels' suggests he was of the chubby sort, two factors that may have contributed to his introvert nature. Apprenticed at first to his elder brother as a goldsmith, he soon turned to painting and studied under Filippo Lippi.

In 1470 he opened his own workshop. Through these early years. Botticelli produced mainly religious works: conventional, but with a flair for line and colour that made him one of the most popular artists in Florence. That gradually brought him into the circle of the Medici, for whom he painted many of his greatest works.

Three Graces (detail from the Primavera)

The 1480s were perhaps his most productive period. In 1481 he illustrated Dante's Inferno; after that he was called to Rome to work on the Sistine Chapel, where his frescoes are somewhat lost in the shadow of Michelangelo's ceiling.

Back at home he began his great mythological frescoes for the Medici: the Primavera (1482) and the Birth of Venus (1485) among others, not to mention Pallas and the Centaur (1483), a bit of high-toned pro-Medici propaganda. (That wasn't his only political job for the Medici; after the failure of the Pazzi Conspiracy Lorenzo had him paint effigies of the perpetrators on the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio.)

Besides the Medici, Botticelli also worked for the Vespucci, and it was with them he met his muse, Simonetta Vespucci, the probable model for his Venus.


More than any other quattrocento artist, Botticelli's works reveal the imaginative soul of the Florentine Renaissance, inspired by the translations and their interpretations by the painter's spiritual mentor, Marsilio Ficino. The paintings themselves, most notably La Primavera in the Uffizi, were talismans, bringing the good planetary influences to earth by the magic of art.

Enter the Dire Friar

Though there is no evidence for the story that Botticelli threw his own paintings onto the 'Bonfire of Vanities', he did know Savonarola personally and, like so many other Florentines, fell completely under his spell. Briefly he stopped painting altogether.

But in the 1490's he painted some religious works of remarkable intensity. He continued to turn out secular works, though in a colder, more formal style. Contrary to the judgements of many historians, the old fire never really left him. He could still come up with images such as the mysterious, startling Calumny (1495), and in the late Madonnas we can often see a memory of his Simonetta, near whom he was buried in the church of the Ognissanti.

The progress of Botticelli's reputation is a strange voyage through the western psyche. Few artists have ever seen such a dramatic fall from favour and rebirth. Botticelli was already out of fashion in his final years. After his death he and his paintings were rapidly blotted out of memory, as if the strange magic of quattrocento Florence was a little too scary for the decorous centuries that followed. Many of his best works were probably lost through neglect.

Botticelli owes his comeback largely to the British. The first Botticelli to be purchased by a British collector turned up in London in 1799. British visitors to Florence started asking about him. The Accademia and the Uffizi put the Birth of Venus and the Primavera on display in the 1830s.

In 1857, five of his works were included in an exhibition in Manchester and seen by over a million people. By then, Botticelli had already become one of the prime inspirations for the Pre-Raphaelites. Before long, he would regain his rightful place as one of art's greatest.

Many of his most famous works are in the Uffizi; minor works are in the Accademia, Villa La Quiete, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Palazzo Pitti, Museo Casa di Dante, Santa Maria Novella, Museo Horne and Ognissanti.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Sandro Botticelli