Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi - known as - Sandro Botticelli 

? 1445 – May 17th 1510,

Born to a tanner in the city of Florence some time in 1445, Botticelli lived and worked in the same vicinity for his entire life. He was the youngest of four surviving siblings, the others having died in childhood, and was given the nickname ‘Botticelli’ meaning ‘little barrel’ by his brother, Giovanni.  By 1470 a document referred to the painter as "Sandro Mariano Botticelli", and this soubriquet is how he has been known ever since.

Unlike many Renaissance artists Botticelli did not start an apprenticeship until he was around fourteen years old, suggesting that perhaps he had remained in education until that time. Already displaying a wealth of artistic talent, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith and then to master painter Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the most important Florentine painters of the era, from whom he received a thorough training in fresco, drawing and panel painting. In 1460 father and son started a new business together as beaters-out of gold leaf, an occupation that would have undoubtedly brought them into contact with other artists, though by this time artists were beginning to reject such artistry (and expense) in favour of a more natural style.

In 1464, Botticelli’s father had enough money to buy a house in Via Nuova. It was in this house, that he shared with two of his brothers, that Botticelli was to live and work for the remainder of his life. On the same street lived the Vespucci family who were close friends and allies of the Medici, both of whom were later to become patrons of Botticelli.

Lippi died in 1469 by which time Botticelli had his own workshop and had taken as an apprentice the young Filippino Lippi, his old master’s son. Botticelli's pigments were the best that money could buy and it would have been his apprentice’s job to grind the pigments ready to mix with water or egg to make the paints that his master would use.

Like many of his contemporaries Botticelli is probably best known and admired for his religious subjects and portraits, many of the former being in the round or tondo shape. He is particularly famous for his many renditions of the Madonna and Child, all of which displayed the painter’s craftmanship and vision. His reputation went from strength to strength during the 1470’s and 1480’s which is when he is also believed to have completed his large, mythological paintings, but as he never dated his work it is difficult to know exactly when a particular piece was produced. Two of his most renowned works from the 1480’s are ‘The Birth of Venus’ and ‘Primavera’. Painted three years apart they were not designed to be a pair but tend to be discussed in the same breath as they are amongst the most famous paintings in the world.

Some historians believe that the face of the same young noblewoman, Simonette Vespucci, a celebrated Florentine beauty, appears repeatedly in Botticelli’s paintings, though there is no actual evidence to support this. She died from tuberculosis in 1476 at the age of 22 and such was her renown that she was conveyed in an open coffin during her funeral for people to pay their respects. That she died before the painting of Primavera and The Birth of Venus suggests that either Botticelli had done preliminary sketches of her or had already painted her portrait, but it is generally accepted that she was the model for Venus in ‘The Birth of Venus’ and Flora in ‘Primavera’.

In 1481,  Botticelli was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the walls of the recently finished Sistine Chapel in Rome, one of the few times that Botticelli ever left Florence. Many of the frescos still exist and can be seen today but are now greatly rivalled by the genius of Michelangelo. His work in the Sistine chapel cemented Botticelli’s reputation though, and he was awarded several religious commissions upon his return home, the first of which was the Bardi Altarpiece that was completed in 1485. By the end of this decade Botticelli was producing few large secular paintings but his workshop was producing a number of Madonnas in the tondo format, a design often commissioned by the nobility for their palaces.

Early in the 1490’s Botticelli became a devotee of the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola preached against what he considered to be the excesses of the time which included most forms of luxury, thus earning him the support of the ordinary working people. Within a couple of years, he had gained such popularity that he was able to oust the ruling family, the Medici, which was paradoxical as his presence in Florence had been requested by Lorenzo de’ Medici in the first place. Mobs burned down the Medici bank and the family were forced to flee leaving the way open for Savonarola to effectively rule in their stead.

Beginning in 1495 Savonarola began his ‘bonfires of the vanities’ and fuelled them with items that he deemed to be offensive or unacceptable to the Church. Such items included paintings, tapestries, manuscripts, ancient sculptures and texts as well as mundane objects such as musical instruments and mirrors. His conflagrations ultimately destroyed priceless works of art including some of those by Botticelli. So great was Savonarola’s influence over Botticelli that he persuaded the aging painter to abandon his art and thereby his sole source of income, reducing the once wealthy painter to absolute penury.  If it had not been for his friends and patron Lorenzo de’ Medici Botticelli’s death from starvation would have been assured.      

Eventually Savonarola's excesses were brought to the notice of Pope Alexander VI and ended with his ex-communication and execution in 1498 in the very square in which he had held his bonfires.

It seems that over the next few years Botticelli painted much less, the cause of this being unsure. It may have been that his commissions from the Florentine upper echelons waned because of his support for Savonarola or it may have been due to the fact that he undertook to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy on sheepskin, no mean task as it involved more than one hundred illustrations, for his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici.

However, it is known that Botticelli’s health deteriorated leaving him a semi-cripple and he died in 1510.

Three hundred and thirty eight years later, after interest in Botticelli’s contribution to the Italian Renaissance had been rekindled, a group of artists who called themselves The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood returned to the intense colours, composition and beauty of Quattrocento Italian art.

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