Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), author of one of the most famous works in history, the Birth of Venus, was a major painter of the Florentine Renaissance and a protégé of the Medici family. His aesthetic quest, reflected in the creation of an ideal female type, was marked by the influence of Neoplatonism and humanism. He was steeped in classical culture, but like many Italian painters, he was also sensitive to Flemish painting. Botticelli took part in some of the greatest decorative projects of his time, in particular “the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican”.
Sandro Botticelli (real name Filipepi) was born in Florence, in 1445. The child came from a modest family of tanners. According to Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli’s nickname came from the patronymic of his first master, a goldsmith called Botticello, but this origin has been disputed. The precision that Botticelli acquired through contact with goldsmiths was to be useful for his drawing.
It was only at the age of 20, relatively late, that Sandro made his debut in the studio of the religious painter Lippi, a great master of the Quattrocento, where he met other young artists. In 1470, after passing through Verrocchio’s workshop (as did Leonardo da Vinci at the same time), Botticelli opened his own workshop, thanks to the support of the Medici, and began to take on commissions. His work was mainly dedicated to religious iconography, but also to the execution of portraits for wealthy patrons.
Botticelli was close to the Neoplatonists and humanists, such as John Pico della Mirandola. In his works, he developed a symbolic language inherited from Antiquity, a reflection on beauty and the ideal, a reflection of the harmony of the divine. The human being is at the heart of the world, and art must lead to his spiritual elevation.
In 1481, Botticelli was called by the Pope to work on the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Other important artists took part in this highly prestigious commission, notably Perugino. The three frescoes he painted for the side aisles were not recognised for their true value because of the disputes between the Pope and his patrons, the Medici. It was at this time (1478-1485) that the artist produced two works that would make him famous (Spring and The Birth of Venus) for a member of the Medici family. Botticelli also illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy. But his art was not to the taste of the Catholic reform led in Florence by the preacher Jerome Savonarola, who opprobrized works of art and books deemed pagan. Botticelli himself seems to have adhered to this struggle, falling into religion to excess. He even threw some of his mythological nudes at the stake himself. A curious setback for a painter marked by humanism! At the end of his life, the artist was in great financial difficulty and no longer worked. He died in Florence in 1510, at the age of 65.
His key works
The Madonna of the Magnificat, 1481
The Spring, 1478-1482
Taken from Ovid’s first-century poetic text The Metamorphoses, this allegorical representation mixes mythology and religious iconography. The main character, Venus, appears in the attitude of the Virgin, wearing colours. The garden seems fantastic, like the Garden of the Hesperides, which Venus visited. The women, with their ideal beauty, are characteristic of the artist’s style, i.e. particularly graceful, all round and soft. Botticelli brings to life the Neoplatonic theory, which states that the sensible world is the reflection of the world of ideas. Around Venus, the two sides of this theory seem to clash: spiritual (ideal) love and carnal (natural) love, a frequent opposition in Renaissance works.
The Birth of Venus, 1484-1485
This work, one of the most famous in the world, depicts Venus, the goddess of beauty and allegory of universal fertility, being born from the waves of the sea (Venus anadyomene). The young woman is aerial and she stands in a shell, on which she seems to be barely resting. She is also a modest Venus, hiding her sex behind her long hair animated by the wind (symbolised by Zephyr, on the left). Her posture, in contrapposto, is reminiscent of ancient sculpture. It would seem that the model was the mistress of Julian de Medici, who commissioned the work. As usual in works of Neoplatonic inspiration, the painter, in a system of double reading, confronts several levels of reality, ideal and natural.