According to some sources Alessandro Filipepi inherited his nickname from his brother, Giovanni who was fat. “Botticella” is an Italian pun meaning “little barrel”. Vasari, however, maintains that as a young man the painter had worked with a goldsmith friend of his father’s whose name was, indeed, “Botticello”; others affirm that it came from his brother Antonio who was a gold and silversmith a “battigello” in the dialect of the era. Son of a tailor, Botticelli began as an apprentice to a goldsmith, and then, in 1464 entered the prestigious workshop of Filippo Lippi. In 1467 he went to study with Verrocchio. From the first he learned about delicate colors and soft lines, while the second gave him his knowledge of plasticity of figures. Sometime around 1470 he struck out on his own, and in 1472 joined the Compagnia San Luca. During this period he began to receive important commissions and acquired fundamental experiences in the field of historic-religious paintings, (diptych of Judith and Holofernes, 1469-1470 circa) and portraits (Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, 1474-1475). In 1475 he began to work for the Medici, frequenting their court and the most illustrious figures of the era. He created paintings of extraordinary formal balance (The Adoration of the Magi, 1475, circa; The Madonna of The Book, 1480, circa; Madonna of the Magnificat, 1480-1481, circa; The Allegory of Spring, 1482 circa; The Birth of Venus, 1484-1486 circa) and carried the linear style of his Florentine masters to the greatest splendor. In 1481 he was summoned to Rome by pope Sixtus IV who commissioned three frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. He returned to Florence the following year. His fame was by now consolidated and in 1491 Lorenzo de’Medici asked him, along with Lorenzo di Credi, Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Alessio Baldovinetti, to review the plans submitted in the competition for the new façade of the Florence cathedral. The political crisis in Florence and the subsequent banishment of the Medici along with Savonarola’s preaching led to a progressive breakdown of the humanistic certainties, and Botticelli’s painting showed increasingly marked tension. His works from the last decade of the century acquired dramatic tones (Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 1492-1495 circa) with strong emotional involvement. Upon the death of Savonarola the artist, who had embraced the monk’s moralistic ideas, sought refuge in mysticism and produced paintings characterized by increasingly complex religious symbolism (Mystic Crucifixion, Cambridge, 1497; Mystic Nativity, London 1501, circa). Botticelli’s artistic development that was so closely linked to the Florentine religious and political experience marked the dramatic transition from the golden period of humanism to the restlessness of the new century.
Virgin and Child with the Young St. John
This painting is also known as the Madonna of the Rose Garden, or of the Roseto and is one of the young painter’s early religious works. Here Botticelli still felt the influence of the Carmelite monk Filippo Lippi in whose atelier he had worked between 1465 and 1467. The iconographic solution emphasizes the figure of the Virgin as mater amabilis as expressed in the accentuated tenderness between the Mother and Child. The presence of the young St. John may be a veiled allusion to the city of Florence (John the Baptist is its patron saint), but there are several other typical symbols of Marian iconography such as the rose and the book.
Virgin and Child with Saints
Here the Virgin is enthroned between Saints Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Francis and Catherine of Alexandria, while Cosmas and Damian kneel at her feet. It is highly likely that the faces of these two saints are portraits of members of the Medici Family. The hypothesis that they are Giuliano and Lorenzo, is supported by the fact that Cosmas and Damian were the patron saints of the Medici Family.
Virgin and Child with Two Angels
During the early years of his career Botticelli dedicated many paintings to the Virgin and Child. In this painting Botticelli still seems closely tied to the style of Filippo Lippi. The protagonists of the scene are set in a garden that is surrounded by a high wall, suggesting the hortus conclusus, the place sacred to the Virgin Mary
This painting, which may have hung in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, represents Sebastian, who was a tribune in the praetorian guards during the reign of Diocletian. Upon his conversion he began to preach the Gospel among the troops, but was soon discovered and in 304 was ordered to be shot dead with arrows, and yet he survived. The episode was frequently portrayed during the Christian era, not only for the intrinsic meaning of the legend, but because during the Middle Ages St. Sebastian was transformed, into a protector against the plague; the arrows shot against him were symbolic because the ancients had believed that Apollo’s arrows caused disease. Devotion to the saint spread to Florence that was often stricken by the plague and it is quite probable that Botticelli’s painting was a votive offering in thanks to God for a recovery, or protection against the terrible disease.Iconography
Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder
This painting belonged to Carlo de’Medici and went into the museum upon his death in 1666. The presence of the medal of Cosimo the Elder “Pater Patriae” has led to the hypothesis that the subject could have been a member of the Medici family, but of the various names that had been proposed, the most likely is that the man portrayed was actually Sandro Botticelli’s brother, Antonio who was a goldsmith and medal maker. The medal the man holds is made of gilded stucco applied to the panel. It was an unusual technique for the era and there is another similar example: Man Holding a Medal of Nero by Hans Memling.
The Adoration of the Magi
A passage from the Gospel According to Matthew tells us that wise men came from the east to Bethlehem to worship the newly born king, and that they followed a shooting star. It seems that they were Persian priests who were experts in astrology and hence able to observe heavenly phenomena and foresee their effects on earth. The theme of the Magi, so dear to the Florentine Renaissance, is picked up here by Botticelli who executed this painting for Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker with ties to the Medici family. The painting was to be placed in the family chapel that was built in the church of Santa Maria Novella in 1469 (it has since been lost). The scene is filled with numerous onlookers in contemporary dress; the faces of some members of the Medici family have been identified along with what is presumed to be a self-portrait of the artist, the figure on the far right, wearing a yellow cloak.Iconography
The Allegory of Spring
This painting, along with Pallas and the Centaur, was in the room next to the bedroom of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, cousin to Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the palazzo on Via Larga. According to the most widespread interpretation, the protagonist of the scene is Venus. The focus of the entire composition, the goddess stands in the middle of her garden that is filled with countless species of plants and herbs, and which mythology had placed on the island of Cyprus. She is surrounded by the divinities of her entourage: the blindfolded Cupid, the Three Graces dancing in a circle and Mercury. On the opposite side of this huge painting, Zephyr the gentle wind that blows in springtime grasps the nymph Chloris who, flees in terror. Next to Spring there is Flora, scattering rosebuds. The entire composition, in all its details is dedicated to exalting spring, the season in which Nature expresses the utmost of her powers of fertility as celebrated by Ovid, Horace and Lucretius. When transferred to the level of Neoplatonic philosophy, the allegory could be interpreted in yet another key: Venus-Humanitas, the blend of spirit and material, the link between man and God, divides the material world on the right from the spiritual world on the left.
Pallas and the Centaur
Executed for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, this painting, along with the Allegory of Spring graced the walls of the residence of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousins. It is a secular allegory that has been interpreted in myriad ways: from the political to the moral and philosophical. Athena with a shield on her back, carries a halberd in her left hand, and with the other holds a sad, offended looking centaur by the hair. It has been perceived as an allegorical elegy of Lorenzo de’Medici’s diplomatic skills: he had worked hard for peace and had made an alliance with the kingdom of Naples so that it abandoned the anti-Florentine league of Sixtus IV (1480). Athena with the ceremonial halberd, olive branches entwined in her hair and her robes decorated with Medici symbols would, therefore, personify Florence and peace. The centaur would be the Rome of Sixtus IV, while the Naples and the gulf are visible in the background. Other scholars have interpreted the canvas in relation to the humanistic culture of the era influenced primarily by the Neoplatonic climate and the philosophical ideals of Marsilio Ficino. Therefore, in the conflict between instinct and reason, the centaur-instinct is tamed by Athena-reason. Yet another hypothesis interprets the painting as a variation on the theme of Chastity triumphing over the brutal instincts of Luxury with reference to the marital life of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici who is supposed to have made a gift of this large painting to his wife Semiramide.
Venus and Mars
It has been thought that Botticelli did this painting for the Vespucci family; the wasps buzzing around the stump in the upper right corner would be an allusion to the family name (in Italian the word for “wasp” is vespa). Perhaps this Botticellian version of the mythological love story was to be a headboard in the Vespucci bridal chamber. The love between the god of war and goddess was a favorite theme of the period’s painters. The sleeping Mars, and the elegant Venus are laying on a field, with myrtle bushes – the plant that was sacred to her. Around them, little satyrs play with the sleeping god’s weapons. According to many scholars, Venus and Mars is more than a simple tribute to mythology and love: the painting would reflect the humanistic climate and Neoplatonic ideals that permeated the Medici Florence of Botticelli’s era. Thus, the painting could be an allegorical representation of the “harmony of opposites”, that is the victory of Venus (love) over Mars (war), or even of the Venus-Humanitas that has the power to vanquish war.
The Birth of Venus
The sources of the imagery in this painting are Homer’s hymn to Venus and Ovid. However, a close relationship has been found between the composition and the relief carving on the door of Venus’ palace as described in a passage of Poliziano’s Stanze. There are various interpretations of the subject that seem to go beyond a mere celebration of the goddess as the mythical incarnation of Beauty and Love, sinking its roots into the Neoplatonic culture in which Botticelli worked. Therefore, it would not be a mere representation of the birth of the pagan goddess of love, but rather, the birth of Humanitas, the virtue generated by the union of the spirit and matter which, for the erudite of the era, was identified with the naked beauty and purity of the nude Venus. On the left are Aura, the soft breeze and Zephyr in an embrace, while on the right Hora is about to cover the goddess with a cloak decorated with flowers.
This painting was ordered by Benedetto di Ser Francesco Guardi in 1469 for his chapel in the church of the Frati Cistercensi del Cestello (that is now called Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi). The scene is set indoors with the typical architectural elements of the period and expedients the artist used to create spatial illusions, drawing the gaze towards the landscape that is framed by the window. The realism of the setting, however, does not preclude the presence of some symbolic elements typical of the Annunciation, such as the lily, an attribute of the Virgin Mary and symbol of purity, that the Archangel Gabriel holds in his hand or the lectern that alludes to the presence of a book, to recall the prophecy of Isaiah who had foretold that a savior would be born to a virgin.
Lamentation Over the Dead Christ
The Virgin, St. Peter, Mary Magdalene, the pious women, St. John the Evangelist, St. Jerome and St. Paul are gathered around the body of the dead Christ. The scene is highly emotional, as conveyed in the mournful eyes and gestures of the onlookers. This intensified attention to the expression of feeling is a shift in key in Botticelli’s religious paintings with respect to his works on mythological subjects. We can feel the spiritual impact of Gerolamo Savonarola, the Dominican preacher who had enormous influence on Botticelli who gradually abandoned the themes that had endeared him to the Medici intellectual circles as a sophisticated allegorist. During the last years of his life he transferred his most intimate and anguished religious feelings to his paintins.
St. Augustine in His Cell
This St. Augustine was probably painted for an Augustinian Monastery in the Santo Spirito district of Florence, and the hypothesis would be confirmed by the saint’s double robes, clothing him as both bishop and hermit. The figure is seated in the middle of the panel. The green curtain that is shifted to the left permits a glimpse of a lunette with a bas-relief of the Virgin and Child, in the style of contemporary Florentine sculpture above the saint’s head. This is one of Botticelli’s later paintings on meditative, religious themes that developed in the wake of Savonarola’s preachings.
The Calumny of Apelles
Set in an ancient building, this painting reflects the literary model that so freely inspired Botticelli: Lucian’s De Calumnia. The portrait of the classic painter Apelles was done after his rival had unjustly accused him of betraying his patron, Ptolemy IV Philopator, king of Egypt. King Midas is seated on his throne, one the right, while Suspicion and Ignorance whisper into his donkey’s ears. King Midas extends his arm to Malice, the hooded man who holds Calumny by the wrist who, in turn, is dragging the slandered Innocence by the hair while Envy and Deceit comb her hair with ribbons and flowers. Further to the left, Penitence, the old woman in black, observes Truth who stands naked and looks up towards the sky.Iconography
The Last Communion of St. Jerome
The source of this painting is one of the three apocryphal letters written by the Blessed Eusebius recounting the final moments of St. Jerome’s life as he received Communion from Eusebius for the last time. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, was one of the four fathers of the Western Church, and after having dedicated his life to philosophical and theological studies he retired into the Syrian desert where he studied Hebrew in order to be able to read the Holy Scriptures in the original tongue. This iconography, that is less common than the traditional rendering of the saint reading in his study, seems to link the painting with the preachings of Savonarola and the fact that it may have been commissioned by one of his followers. It is likely that this painting is the one mentioned in the will of the wealthy Florentine merchant Francesco del Pugliese who wanted it placed in the chapel of St. Andrew at the castle at Sommaia under the condition that the castle be transformed into a Dominican monastery.Iconography
The Story of Virginia Romana
The panel with the Scenes from the Life of Virginia was the companion to The Tragedy of Lucretia, in a cycle of two paintings dedicated to famous women. The subject comes from Livy and Valerius Maximus. The first scene on the left shows Marcus Claudius forcing Virginia who had already been betrothed to another, to yield to the desires of Appius Claudius one of the decemvirs who wanted to marry her. While her fathers begs the decemvir for mercy, the young woman is condemned to slavery (top center). In the second scene, on the right, Virginia is killed by her father who cannot support the outrage and thus vindicates his daughter’s honor. The last event, in the center represents the revolt of the Roman nobility against the tyrant who will be killed. It has been hypothesized that Botticelli painted the two pictures for the marriage of Giovanni Vespucci to Namicina di Benedetto Nerli in 1500. The subjects permitted an elegy of female virtues in accordance with the customs of the times. However, these paintings can also be interpreted in another, political way. In the paintings of Virginia and Lucretia, the abuses the two Roman heroines suffered would be a symbolic condemnation of Medici tyranny and an exaltation of the ideals of republican liberty. But, this interpretation would distance the painting from the Vespucci family that had close ties with the Medici.
Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius
This is the first of four panels the recount the life of St. Zenobius, the first bishop of Florence who lived around 400 AD. The panels portray Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius, Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius, Four Miracles of Saint Zenobius, and The Last Miracle and the Death of Saint Zenobius. In the Early Scenes the saint – on the left – after having rejected marriage – is baptized by the bishop Theodosius together along with his mother who was a pagan. In the last scene on the right, Zenobius is consecrated bishop of Florence by Pope Damasus. Botticelli based these paintings on the 1475 biography of the saint written by the Florentine priest, Clemente Mazza.Iconography
The only painting that Botticelli signed and dated, the Mystic Nativity is filled with the restlessness of the historical moment it was executed: the “the tumults of Italy” as the inscription would reveal. The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 had triggered a bitter power struggle in Florence, and Cesare Borgia’s rise gave reason for the greatest concerns. And above all, there were rumors of yet another French invasion of Italy, following the 1494 invasion by Charles VIII. The Holy Family is at the center, while in the foreground three angels embrace three men. On the right of the shed there are two shepherds with branches on their heads, while on the left in another group of men and angels, one holds an olive branch and points to the infant Jesus. Three angels are kneeling on the thatched roof and hold an open book. Above, beneath a golden dome, there is a circle of angels. In the foreground, five little demons are falling into the crevice or are pierced by their own pitchforks. The ostensible archaism of the scene and the unusual iconographic motifs such as the angels and men embracing seems to suggest a sort of prophecy of the liberation of humanity.