The Early Renaissance
Original name ALESSANDRO DI MARIANO FILIPEPI (b. 1445, Florence
[Italy]--d. May 17, 1510, Florence), Florentine early
Birth of Venus (c. 1485) and
Primavera (1477-78) are
often said to epitomize for modern viewers the spirit of the
Renaissance. His ecclesiastical commissions included work for all the
major churches of Florence and for the Sistine Chapel in Rome. His
name is derived from his elder brother Giovanni, a pawnbroker, who was
called Il Botticello ("The Little Barrel").
[Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1994]
Although he was one of the most individual
painters of the Italian Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli remained little known
for centuries after his death. Then his work was rediscovered late in the
19th century by a group of artists in England known as the Pre-Raphaelites.
Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi in Florence in 1445, Botticelli was
apprenticed to a goldsmith. Later he was a pupil of the painter Fra Filippo
Lippi. He spent all his life in Florence except for a visit to Rome in
1481-82. There he painted wall frescoes in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican.
In Florence, Botticelli was a protege of several members of the powerful
Medici family. He painted portraits of the family and many religious
pictures, including the famous
The Adoration of the Magi.
The most original
of his paintings are those illustrating Greek and Roman legends. The best
known are the two large panels
The Birth of Venus.
Mark Harden and
The Adoration of the Magi
1470-75; Tempera on panel (130 Kb); 111 x 134 cm;
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Madonna of the Magnificat
Tempera on Panel, diameter 118 cm, in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence
(thanks to Tim Sullivan, email@example.com)
Madonna of the Pomegranate
Madonna and Child and six Angels, c. 1487, Uffizi in Florence
(thanks to Peter Mandaville, firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Cestello Annunciation
c. 1489 (180 Kb); Tempera on panel, 150 x 156 cm;
Botticelli: Lyrical Precision
After Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli
(Alessandro di Moriano Filipepi, 1444/5-1510)
comes as the next great painter of the Florentine tradition. The new,
sharply contoured, slender form and rippling sinuous line that is
synonymous with Botticelli was influenced by the brilliant, precise
draftsmanship of the Pollaiuolo brothers, who trained not only as painters,
but as goldsmiths, engravers, sculptors, and embroidery designers.
However, the rather stiff, scientifically formulaic appearance of the
Pollaiuolos' painting of
The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, for instance, which clearly
follows anatomical dictates, finds no place in the painting of Botticelli.
His sophisticated understanding of perspective, anatomy, and the Humanist
debate of the Medici court never overshadows the sheer poetry of his vision.
Nothing is more gracious, in lyrical beauty, than Botticelli's mythological
The Birth of Venus,
where the pagan story is taken with reverent seriousness and Venus is the
Virgin Mary in another form. But it is also significant that no-one has
ever agreed on the actual subject of
and a whole shelf in a library can be taken up with different theories;
but though scholars may argue, we need no theories to make
Primavera dear to us.
In this allegory of life, beauty, and knowledge united by love, Botticelli
catches the freshness of an early spring morning, with the pale light
shining through the tall, straight trees, already laden with their golden
fruit: oranges, or the mythical Golden Apples of the Hesperides?
At the right Zephyr, the warm wind of Spring, embraces the Roman goddess
Flora, or perhaps the earth nymph Chloris, disphanously clad and running
from his amorous clasp. She is shown at the moment of her metamorphosis
into Flora, as her breath turns to flowers which take root over the
countryside. Across from her, we see Flora as a goddess, in all her
glory (or perhaps her daughter Persephone, who spends half her time
beneath the earth, as befits the patron saint of flowers) as she steps
forward clad in blossoms. In the centre is a gentle Venus, all dignity and
promise of spiritual joy, and above her, the infant Cupid aims his loving
arrows. To the left, the Three Graces dance in a silent reverie of grace,
removed from the others in time also, as indicated by the breeze that wafts
their hair and clothes in the opposite direction from Zephyr's gusts.
Mercury, the messenger of the gods, provides another male counterpart to
the Zephyr. Zephyr initiates, breathing love into the warmth he brings
to a wintry world, and Mercury sublimates, taking the hopes of humanity
and opening the way to the gods.
The Birth of Venus
1477-78; "Allegory of Spring"; 315 x 205 cm (10 ft 4 in x 6 ft 9 in)
painted for the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici
now in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence
Everything in this miraculous work is profoundly life-enhancing. Yet it
offers no safeguards against pain or accident: Cupid is blindfolded as
he flies, and the graces seem enclosed in their own private bliss. So
the poetry has an underlying wistfulness, a sort of musing nostalgia
for something that we cannot possess, yet something with which we feel so
deeply in tune. Even the gentle yet strong colors speak of this
ambivalence: the figures have an unmistakable presence and weight as they
stand before us, moving in the slowest of rhythms. Yet they also seem
insubstantial, a dream of what might be rather than a sight of what is.
This longing, this hauntingly intangible sadness is even more visible
in the lovely face of Venus as she is wafted to our dark shores by the
winds, and the garment, rich though it is, waits ready to cover up her
sweet and naked body. We cannot look upon love unclothed, says
The Birth of Venus;
we are too weak, maybe too polluted, to bear the beauty.
Botticelli accepted that paganism, too, was a religion and could bear
profoundly philosophical significance. His religious paintings manifest
this belief by converging all truths into one.
He seems to have had a personal devotion to the biblical account of
The Adoration of the Magi,
setting it in a ruined classical world. This was not uncommon Renaissance
device, suggesting that the birth of Christ brought fulfilment to the
hopes of everyone, completing the achievements of the past.
But no painter felt this with the intensity of Botticelli. We feel that
he desperately needed this psychic reassurance, and that the wild graphic
power of his
Adoration's great circles of activity, coming to rest on the
still center of the Virgin and her Child, made visible his own interior
circlings. Even the far green hills sway in sympathy with the clustered
humans as if by magnetic attraction around the incarnate Lord.
Botticelli was not the only Florentine to be blessed or afflicted by
an intensely anxious temperament. In the 1490s, the city of Florence
was overtaken by a political crisis. The Medici government fell, and
there followed a four-year period of extremist religious rule under
the zealot Savonarola. Either in response to this, or possibly out of
some desire of his own for stylistic experimentation, Botticelli produced
a series of rather clumsy-looking religious works--the
San Bernabo Altarpiece is an example.
© 20 May 1996,
Nicolas Pioch -
Thanks to the
BMW Foundation, the WebMuseum
and contributors for their support.