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Sandro Botticelli: The Renaissance Artist
Sandro Botticelli, born Alessandro Mariano Filipepi, was the son of a tanner. He was born in Florence around 1445 and showed a talent for painting at a very early age. Botticelli was first apprenticed under a goldsmith named Sandro, from whom it is believed he derived his nickname. At the age of sixteen, he served an apprenticeship with the painter Fra Filippo Lippi (Durant, 1953). From Lippi he learned to create the effect of transparency, to draw outlines, and to give his pictures fluidity and harmony. He also worked with painter and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo, from whom he gained his sense of line.
By 1470, Botticelli had his own workshop and had developed a highly personal style characterized by elegant execution, a sense of melancholy, and a strong emphasis on line. Botticelli spent most of his life working for the great families of Florence, including the Medici family. Botticelli’s name appears regularly in the account books of members of the Medici family, for whom he painted banners, portraits, and altarpieces along with paintings of allegorical or mythological subject matter. Likenesses of the Medici family are found in various paintings including “Judith,” “Madonna of the Magnificat,” and “Adoration of the Magi.”
Apart from his works for members of the Medici family, Botticelli received many commissions from other prominent members of the Florentine society, including the Vespucci family. Botticelli first made a name for himself by his paintings of the Virgin and Child, and was given a public commission to paint “Fortitude” which was to be hung in the Trade law court. In about 1481, Botticelli, along with Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Cosimo Rosselli, was called to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Botticelli controlled the scheme and executed three of the frescoes. The large scale of these works and the attempt to include several stages of narrative in one composition were not fully mastered and remain confused and disorganized (Gowing, 1983).
In his paintings, Botticelli retained enough objects and paid enough attention to the human body to create a sense of realism, but it is evident that he was more concerned with the spiritual presence of his subjects (Magill, 1989). Because of this, his subjects were less individualized in terms of their clothing or bodily structure and the sense of a domestic scene was not emphasized. Feminine beauty was so much a part of Botticelli’s classical and religious paintings that is has been speculated that he was deeply influenced by the Neoplatonists, who equated the concept of beauty with truth (Magill, 1989).
Botticelli was influenced less by exciting scientific rules for drawing than by the thinking of humanists such as Ficino and the religious fervor that swept through Florence when the French invaded Italy. Botticelli’s brilliant drawings did not contain the grace and charm as those of Ficino, but were definite and strong. His paintings are not so much illustrations of his subjects as they are the subjects themselves (Magill, 1989). It is as though the apprehension of eternal beauty and perfection were itself a matter composed of his rhythmical lines, soothing colors, and elongated shapes.
Botticelli’s allegorical paintings, including “Primavera” and “The Birth of Venus,” are his most successful and best-known works. These paintings are largely undocumented but can be dated in the late 1470s. Their exact meaning, as well as the circumstances surrounding their commissioning, is still uncertain. Precise identification of the figures is frustrated by the fact that Botticelli’s female types rarely change. This observation has lead critics to believe that the allegories were partially intended as exemplars.
In the 1490s, Botticelli experienced a religious crisis. Around the year 1498, Florence was troubled by the violent words of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who spoke against anything that was not, in his view, necessary to the life of man. The population was in great turmoil, divided between his followers and the angry ones, until he was eventually burnt at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria. These events affected Botticelli deeply, and his works of the time showed a dramatic force, not previously present. They developed a more careful characterization of the faces, which became more serious and concentrated. His subsequent works reflected an intense religious devotion.
Botticelli lived during a time when masterpieces were ground out on a daily basis and when humdrum or copycat art did not exist (Milani, 1996). The period between 1500 and 1750 was a time of unparalleled, world-class creativity and discovery. Botticelli worked at the beginning of the Renaissance, when artists and philosophers were gaining confidence about their ability to understand nature. Although Botticelli was viewed as a technically resourceful painter in his time, he was eventually eclipsed by Leonardo da Vinci, whose range of human gestures, dynamic compositions, and use of light and shade made Botticelli seem old-fashioned. However, in the late nineteenth century, he was reinstated because he represented the simplicity and sincerity of early Italian art.
Botticelli’s previous standing among the leading artists of his day ensured that even though the new generation of artists, such as Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, received the most important commissions, Botticelli’s opinion was still valued. It was suggested that to Isabella d’Este that Botticelli should be invited to complement Mantegna’s contribution to her Studiolo, and tow years later he was among those who were called upon to decide on the placing of Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence.
After 1500, there are no paintings from Botticelli’s hand. He was only fifty-six, and still might have had some art left in him, but he yielded place to Leonardo and Michelangelo, and lapsed into morose poverty. Sandro Botticelli died in 1510 after painting “Scenes from the Life of the Virgin,” The Last Actions of St. Zanobi,” and “Mystic Nativity” a few years earlier. .
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