Before the name Sandro Botticelli had taken the Renascimento period by storm, he was first known as Alessandro de Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. He was born in 1445 and died on May 17, 1510 when both life events took place in Florence. His brother, Antonio, was one of the first persons to influence Botticelli about the arts although his training with his brother was mainly focused on being a goldsmith.
Years later, as he advanced his professional career, he had made remarkable connections with esteemed artists and public figures such as Fra Filippo Lippi, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, and the Dominican priest Savonarola. Successful executions of paintings with these noble men did help Sandro Botticelli in establishing a solid career in fine arts. Few examples of his world-famous masterpieces include Venus and Mars, The Birth of Venus, The Mystical Nativity and Primavera.
Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi was one of the sons of a tanner and a housewife. Although less was known about the early and private life of the Florentine painter, he was popular among his peers through his quick wit, impatience, enthusiasm and humor. In addition to this, at a young age, his biographers believed that he displayed a level of smartness that went beyond his years.
For instance, Botticelli found going to school rather tedious, which was an attitude attributed to his smartness. Fortunately for him he had an artistic talent that would soon make Italy be known for so it only made sense when he decided to withdraw from school and then started nurturing his talent in painting and carving at different goldsmith studios.
After discontinuing his education, Botticelli apprenticed to Maso Finiguerra and Fra Flippo Lippi, respectively. He worked as a goldsmith for Finiguerra’s studio for a short career stint and then he found a new home to Fra Filippo Lippi’s studio. With Fra Filippo, Botticelli was able to develop his talent in painting, particularly in creating frescoes for cathedrals and churches in Florence. He was only around 14 to 15 years old at that time when he apprenticed to the said artists.
In 1470, Botticelli had established his own studio, bringing with him the experiences, knowledge, techniques and inspirations that he acquired by working with painter Fra Filippo Lippi and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo through the years.
Sandro Botticelli’s life-like paintings, supported with exquisite details that would “speak” to the audience, earned him a good reputation as a very promising painter. His paintings impressively evoke human feelings, primarily sadness and melancholia, which several art historians believe to be a technique that Botticelli might have learned from his master, Fra Filippo Lippi.
For an exceptionally talented painter like Botticelli, it was expected of him to develop his own unique style and technique. His ability to create striking low relief paintings with perfect contrast of light and dark colors got into the heads of his contemporaries, notable figures of society and art critics. He was particularly identified as a painter that utilized Neo-Platonism approaches, which meant painting works of arts that could be popular among Christians and pagans.
Two years after Botticelli had his own studio, he became a member of the Compagnia di San Luca, an association of painters in Florence. It was also during this year when he hired Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo, as his assistant. Although Filippino was the one that started working on The Adoration of the Kings, it was his Master Botticelli that finished it. And this literally broke the convention of Italian apprenticeship in fine arts, where a painting was completed by a master rather than be finished by an apprentice.
1472 onward had been a highly creative career stint for Botticelli. Thanks to his association with Fra Filippo Lippi that he was able to accumulate important contacts to some affluent families in Florence, including the well-known art patron; the Medici family. Most of his youth and advanced years were spent working for the Medici’s and their social circles. Thus, this paved the way for the birth of his first famous painting, Primavera that was executed in Uffizi, Florence for the Medici family.
The Primavera painting (circa 1480-1482) was then followed by a series of Mythology-inspired fine art pieces such as the Birth of Venus, Adoration of the Magi, The Mystical Nativity, portraits and several frescoes for cathedrals. Additionally, Vasari considered Botticelli’s works for the Medici’s, portraits of Cosimo, Giuliano, Piero, Giovanni and Lorenzo, as the golden age of his career, which may be correct as this achievement immediately caught the attention of Pope Sixtus IV.
One of the major highlights of Botticelli’s career was when he worked at the Sistine Chapel in Rome in 1481. He was asked by Pope Sixtus IV to fresco the said Chapel together with other notable artists from Florence and Umbria. And to be summoned by the Pope was the highest possible honor an artist can get during this period.
During the so-called “iconological program”, Botticelli frescoed depictions of the Trial of Moses, Punishment of the Rebels and the Temptations of Christ. Having a high reputation and fame to his name, the Florentine fine artist returned to his birth-town with great confidence to paint a portrait of Dante Alighieri and to illustrate the writer’s The Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno which became available for printing thereafter.
From mid-1480 to early 1490’s, Botticelli had been very busy with doing collaborations with Filippino Lippi, Perugino, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. This project was particularly for decorating the villa of Lorenzo the Magnificent which was located in Volterra. In 1491, Botticelli had begun working for the Cathedral of Florence, where he was responsible for painting wall decorations for its façade.
Until 15th century, Botticelli became closely attached to the Dominican friar Savonarola that this life-event of his deserves its own tell-tale by his biographers because of its intriguing effects on the painter’s professional and private life.
Varasi even commented on this matter although most scholars aren’t certain of the extent of the friar’s influence on Botticelli;
“…He (Botticelli) was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone he abandoned his work.”
Apparently, Savonarola was a significant figure in Botticelli’s life that he decided to devout himself to the Dominican teachings. Though this particular decision made by the painter did not leave him to be completely demotivated and uninspired to pursue painting, as he was still able to create The Mystical Nativity (1500-1501) and a number of Madonnas like The Madonna of the Book.
Through the abovementioned paintings scholars were able to somehow distinguish the influences that Savonarola had on Sandro Botticelli. The Mystical Nativity, which represent the birth of the Holy Child and apocalyptic in nature, was a strong representation of the painter’s changes in life. To be born anew, in simple terms, and this has been the recurring theme in most of his major art works.
Even though Botticelli never had a better-half because of his disinterest in marriage and by which the thought of it would have him flinched, he still had loved a woman. He fell in love for Simonetta Vespucci, a married woman; hence, a forbidden and unrequited love.
Popular belief would tell you that Vespucci was his inspiration for The Birth of Venus, which could be interpreted as the life-after-death transformation of Vespucci when she died in 1476. This was before the painting was even put into canvass. Botticelli must have loved the said noblewoman deeply that he requested to be buried near her feet in Ognissanti Church when he died.
A famous painter who had never gotten married to a woman must have left some negative impression about Botticelli’s sexuality. Modern art historian, Jacques Mesnil, discovered in 1938 that Sandro was accused of sodomy. The source of this information was retrieved from the Florentine Archives for November 16, 1502 under the file name of “Botticelli keeps a boy”.
In 1502, Botticelli was charged of committing sodomy at the age of 58, but this account was easily dismissed by Mesnil. He explained that this case could have been just a malicious attack on the painter made by the opponents of Savonarola. Many other historians supported this conclusion of Jacques Mesnil, and yet the said art historian believed that Botticelli did not exclusively look upon women as the subject and object of his paintings.
Due to his decision to devout himself more to the teachings of Savonarola and his followers, Botticelli was almost unemployed in 1502. He consequently became depressed, not to mention that his works were becoming unpopular due to the emergence of other Italian artists like Michelangelo.
Thus, Botticelli died in poverty and isolation in 1510. After Botticelli’s death, his works were given much attention by the Pre-Raphaelites and other 19th century artists, which continued to remind us of his major contributions to the arts overall.