Sandro Botticelli / by Chris Hall

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli, Self Portrait, detail from Adoration of the Magi (1475).

Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter, born in the crucible of art that was Renaissance Florence.  Very little is known of Botticelli's early life.  We know that by 1462 he was apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi, from whom he learned intimacy and detail, and we know that he was also influenced by the monumentality of Masaccio's painting.  Botticelli would use both of these influences to great effect later in life.  It is possible that when he was apprenticed in Filippo Lippi's workshop, he may have traveled to Esztergom, Hungary to work on a fresco commission.  By 1470, however, Botticelli had opened his own studio.  In 1475, Botticelli painted what is thought by some to be his first masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi for the church Santa Maria Novella.  The painting contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni, and his grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It also contains what may be Botticelli's self-portrait, as the blond figure in the yellow robe on the far right.  The work was so successful that he was commissioned to repaint it seven more times.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Botticelli, and a few other Florentine artists, to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  Botticelli's contributions included The Temptations of Christ, The Punishment of the Rebels, and The Trials of Moses.  Having completed the work in 1482, Botticelli returned to Florence, where he became enamored with Dante's Divine Comedy.  He wrote a commentary for portions of the work, painted a Portrait of Dante, his Map of Hell, and made 92 illustrations for the Inferno, which he then had printed (printing was a then a new art-form).  Botticelli's two most famous works, Primavera, and The Birth of Venus  were commissioned works by Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici.  Both works reflect Botticelli's and the Medici's interest in mythological and Neoplatonic subject matter.  Known for their linear grace, both iconic paintings are considered by many to be among the most beautiful works of art in all of art history.

In late life, Botticelli became one of the followers of the puritanical, fire and brimstone Dominican zealot, Girolamo Savonarola, who preached in Florence from 1490 until his execution in 1498.  Savonarola, at first, was extremely popular with the Florentines, who expelled the Medici and put Savonarola into power as head of the republic in 1494.  Savonarola quickly established a strict theocracy in an attempt to rid the city of vice.  Bands of morality police patrolled the streets, curbing immodest dress and behavior.  Most significant, however, was Savonarola's notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where citizens were pressured into burning condemned items which might tempt a person to sin.  Among the condemned items were mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and musical instruments.  Secular books and artworks were also targeted.  Among the participants in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” was Sandro Botticelli, who reportedly burned his own pagan themed works.  Giorgio Vasari writes that Savonarola's influence on Botticelli was so great, “that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.  For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work."  Eventually the Florentines grew tired of Savonarola's repressive government and his claims of prophecy and miracle making (he claimed to have saved Florence from God's wrath from another flood and claimed to be able to walk through fire).  Popular legend has it that when Savonarola attempted to close down the taverns, the Florentines rebelled, and Savonarola was executed, simultaneously hanged and burned in a bonfire in the Piazza della Signoria.  

Botticelli produced little in his later years, and he quickly grew into obscurity.  He lived long enough to see his work eclipsed by another Florentine, young Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Botticelli was all but forgotten after his death, a footnote in art history, until he was later rediscovered in the late 19th century.  It is hard for me to accept that an artist can go against their very nature, and stop creating art.  When ordered to stop painting by the Nazis, Emil Nolde found a way to still paint.  How willing a participant Botticelli was in Savonarola's government, we can not ever know.  Perhaps there were other reasons why Botticelli stopped painting.  It is also hard for me to accept that great art, such as The Birth of Venus, can be forgotten, lost to time.  Such works seem timeless today.  When I was in the Uffizi in Florence, I spent what felt like an eternity in front of the painting.  Realizing that Botticelli's works were once unappreciated and forgotten is a reminder that every culture, every age, has its own spirit and aesthetic tastes.  What may be great today, could be considered irrelevant and meaningless tomorrow – and vice versa.