Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445—May 17, 1510) is the lodestar of the Italian Renaissance, the master of light linearity and proportion, and hale feminine beauty. His present-day world-renown stands against four hundred years of underappreciation.
Sandro Botticelli’s Life
Alessandro/Sandro’s first steps were probably taken inside a Florentine goldsmith’s workshop. From his masters Filippo Lippi and Verrocchio, much more than his sculptural sense, Sandro acquired a facility with the Marian theme.
Over the course of his life, he would paint and draw the Virgin innumerable times, often in clear synthesis with his rendition of the pagan goddess Venus. Botticelli would also excel in the round portraits of the Holy Family (il tondo), likely contributing to their exceptional popularity in Florence.
His ostensibly fortunate patronage by the Medici follows upon his success in painting Florentine churches across the 1470s. The world-famous Spring was a part of the Medici commissions, but the more fundamental consequence of Botticelli’s access to the aristocracy of the Republic is the Neoplatonic infusion that permeates Spring itself.
Pope Sixtus IV brought the artist to Rome in 1481 to make him a part of the illustrious team tasked with painting the newly built Chapel. In a breathtaking overlap of genius typical of the Italian Renaissance, Botticelli’s triptychs of the lives of Christ and Moses would end up figuring as sidelines to Michelangelo’s revision twenty years later. Some of Botticelli’s work would even be erased to make space for Michelangelo. Botticelli would meet the rising grandmaster in 1504 when he would sit on a committee set to decide where Michelangelo’s David ought to be placed.
Back in Florence, Botticelli clearly enjoyed the admiration of the Medici family and circle (even painting some of the enemies of the Medici being executed), yet may have taken, at least passively, Savonarola’s theocratic side in the religious and political upsets in Florence in the 1490s. It is in fact unclear how much of the pietistic preachment of Savonarola influenced Botticelli’s late-life abandonment of gorgeous beauty in favor of austere, Gothic-like compositions with religious themes. Certainly, the Calumny of Apelles of 1495 (commonly known as Calunnia) is a sign of Botticelli’s perception of political happenings in the city — Savonarola was slandered with the claim that he had appropriated the Medici treasure and sought to effect a restoration of one of their family members.
As a sign of character, it must be noted that Botticelli spent almost the entirety of his life in his home city, which admittedly seemed, in the 15th century, the capital of the Italian peninsula. Botticelli even chose to work from his home when he could.
Spring (“Primavera”; 1470s-80s)
Painted for a member of the Medici family to be placed in a private room and related to a cluster of other mythological representations (as we have learned from an inventory discovered in the 1970s), this large-scale portrayal of myth was remarkable for the size given to a non-Christian subject. It clearly reflects the interest of the Florentine elite in classical philosophy and literature.
A valid interpretation of the painting starts with the letter addressed by Marsilio Ficino, the Neoplatonist court philosopher of the Medici, to Lorenzo de’ Medici. Ficino argued for the need to follow Mercury (far left on the painting), which is to say to be discerning, to apply judgment. But at the same time, a man must also follow Venus (central figure), which is to say retain grace and humanity.
If the letter and the painting were arranged for Lorenzo de’ Medici’s wedding, a possible theme might also be Love. A natural reading would follow a right-to-left progression: Zephyrus in the act of kidnapping Chloris; Flora, the goddess of spring into which Chloris is about to metamorphose; Venus with a swollen stomach draped in red; Cupid above her in the act of aiming his bow; the Three Graces joining arms in a ring-around-a-rosy; and Mercury, armed and pointing his wooden rod towards the sky.
The floral setting made up of exquisite plants in bloom — some of them reproductions from nature and others imagined — occupies the visual space. It is indeed a rendition of Spring: orange blossoms falling, the laurel appearing, and flowers beginning to spot the idyllic green. However, the absence of actual greenery and the blackness of all the plants, apart from any possible impressions of overbearing shade, appears to be derived from a passage in Boccaccio’s Decameron, where a copse of orange trees is described at the precise moment as the spring shows when the grass “seemed black”.
Sandro Botticelli’s effect is that of absolute yet convincing focus on the fruits of the reborn season and the symbolical figures in metaphysical space.
The Birth of Venus (c. 1480s)
Venus, according to myth, was born from the foam of the sea. Botticelli’s famed rendition has her alighting from a scallop while covering her nudity in the manner of a Venus Pudica, her upper and lower limbs in a chiastic opposition. Zephyrus and Aura, appearing in a fusion of shapes, are blowing her onto the shore.
Once again a figure of Love is studied as central on a large plane. Its meaning is primarily the Neoplatonic (Plotinian) notion of love as the soul of the world. And once more, assuming that Ficino’s admonition to Lorenzo played a part in this composition, there is possible ethical teaching to a young couple: that of being faithful and having trust. It passes through Aura and the story told of her in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Sandro Botticelli’s Fame
Botticelli was not especially regarded in the generation following his death, and for more than four hundred years was regarded as a minor artist undeserving of the true Renaissance fame as that accorded to da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The supreme biographer of Renaissance painters, Giorgio Vasari, in writing of Sandro Botticelli in his Lives, showed a distinct dislike and disinterest. As is often the case with overshadowed masters of the Renaissance, it is in the 19th and the 20th century that Botticelli garnered admirers across different schools and that the realization of his originality and accomplishment set in.
Sandro Botticelli’s Legacy
In a noteworthy reversal of fortune, Botticelli is today known to historians of art as the master of perspective, linear shapes, soft contours, and pastel colors. Italy commemorates its Venus, a symbol of absolute beauty and grace, on its 10-cent coin.