1902 Encyclopedia > Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli
Florentine painter
(1445-1510)





SANDRO BOTTICELLI (for ALESSANDRO BOTTICELLI), one of the most original and fascinating painters of the school of Florence. Like many Italian artists, he is called not after his father but after the master under whom he learned his first lessons in art. He was the youngest of a citizen named Mariano Filipepi, and was born at Florence in the year 1447. It is related how is a child, though quick at whatever he chose to do, he was restless and wayward, and would not take kindly to "any sort of schooling in reading, writing, or arithmetic;" so that his father put him, in despair, to learn the goldsmith’s trade with a gossip of his own named Botticello. Thus his first training, like that of Ghirlandaio and many of the best artists of the time, was in jewellery and metal working. He showed talent and fancy, and was presently transferred from the school of Botticello the goldsmith to that of Lippo Lippi the Carmelite brother, then in the height of his practice and reputation as a painter. Under that master Sandro acquired a perfect proficiency, and on his death in 1468 appears to have begun independent practice. The special characteristic of Lippo Lippi’s style had been its union of a buoyant human spirit of life and enjoyment with the utmost simplicity and tenderness of religious feeling.

The Birth of Venus (detail) by Botticelli image

Detail from The Birth of Venus (1485)
by Sandro Botticelli



In Botticelli there was more than all the fire of his master, and more than all his delight in beauty, together with a sentiment which was altogether personal to himself. All his creations are coloured with an expression of eager and wistful melancholy, of which it is hard to penetrate the sense and impossible to escape the spell. Whether he paints a Madonna with her child surrounded by angels, or a Venus among her Graces and Cupids, the countenances which he shows us are of a kind kindred type, and have upon them the pale cast of the same nameless passion. He was an artist of immense invention and industry, and in the early part of his career painted in oil and tempera a vast number of pictures both in the classical and the Christian vein. No other work expresses the spirit of the time in a more interesting way, or with so much imaginative refinement and technical charm. He dejected types have an infinite beauty of their own, and through his figures are not designed with perfect science, and have some tendency to attenuation, and coarseness of the hands and feet, they are nevertheless drawn with a determination and finish in the contours, and modelled with a fullness and delicacy of relief, which belong only to the most accomplished art.





Of all the Florentine school, Botticelli is the richest and most fanciful colourist, -- often using gold to enrich the lights on hair, tissues, and foliage, with a very exquisite effect. That many be the consequences of his early employment upon goldsmith’s work, as is, more certainly, his minute solicitude in all the accessory details and ornaments of his compositions. The patterned and embroidered dresses, the scarves and head-gear of his figures, are often treated with an incomparable invention and delicacy.

No artist has ever painted flowers with a more inspired affection, and especially roses, with which he was wont to fill the backgrounds of his pictures.

He preferred, it would seem, the circular form for his compositions; and a large number of devotional pieces in this form, by his own hand and that of his scholars, are scattered through the museums and private collections of Europe, and are among the most poetical examples of religious art that Italy has left us.

He went even beyond his master Lippo Lippi, and the sculptors Luca della Robbia, Donatello, and Desiderio da Settignano, in the touching and engaging character of the children who minister, in the form of angels, to his sacred personages. He designed choirs of such or of grown-up angels dancing between earth and heaven, or circles of them ranged in the order of the celestial hierarchies, with a variety of grouping and a graceful fire of movement that was a new thing in his art. One of the best examples of this kind of work is a round numbered 33 in the gallery of the Uffizi at Florence.

Another very famous example of his devotional art is a picture of the Coronation of the Virgin executed for Matteo Palmieri, a Florentine man of letters and speculative philosopher, with whom the painter was intimate, and who gave suggestions for the design of the picture. It represents the Virgin and Christ surrounded by the celestial hierarchies according to the scheme (with some slight divergencies) of Dionysius the Areopagite, -- on the ground beneath, the donor and his wife kneeling at either side of the Virgin’s tomb, the Val d’Arno and the city of Florence in the distance. This picture is now the property of the duke of Hamilton.

But the grandest of all his alter-pieces is that numbered 47 in the Florence Academy, with a group of life-sized saints on the ground and a dance of angels above.

In the Uffizi is an Adoration of the Magi, in which Botticelli has introduced the portraits of Cosimo, Guiliano, and Giovanni de’ Medici.

By that house he, like all the artists of his time, was much befriended; and for Lorenzo’s villa at Castello he painted the most beautiful of his pictures of classical mythology, the Birth of Venus now at the Uffizi, and the Venus with the Graces now with the Florence Academy.

The National Gallery possesses two smaller but admirable works of the master in the same vein. An allegorical figures of Fortitude, designed for a series of which the rest were painted by the brothers Pollaiuoli, and now in the Uffizi; a picture composed from Lucian’s account of the Calumny of Apelles in the same gallery; a series illustrating Boccaccio’s story of in England -- these instances will suffice to show the variety of themes upon which Botticelli exercised his genius. A St Augustine, painted by him in rivalry with Ghirlandaio in the church of the Ognissanti, and still existingm, is said to have won great praise from his contemporaries for its exhibition, in the head of the saint, of "that profound cogitation and most acute subtlety which we are wont to find in persons who are of thoughtful habit and continually abstracted in the investigation of things the most deep and difficult."





In 1478 happened the attempt and failure of the conspirators of the Pazzi family and their followers against the house of Medici. It was the custom in Florence to have the likeness of such state offenders painted large upon the outside of the Public Palace, and in this case Botticelli was employed upon the task.

It will have been soon afterwards that he was summoned to Rome by Sixtus IV., to decorate the walls of his new chapel in the Vatican. Among the great scenes in fresco painted on those walls by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosseli, Signorelli, and Perugino, three subjects from the hand of Botticelli hold their place with the noblest. They represent the Life of Moses, the Destruction of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and the Temptation of Christ.

In 1482, probably after his return from Rome, he received a commission with paint in the Sala dell’ Udienza at Florence, together with Domenico Ghirlandaio. Many of the works already mentioned probably fall within the next ten years of Botticelli’s manhood. The Boccaccio series belongs to 1487. In 1491 upon some mosaic decorations in the cathedral of Florence which have unhappily perished.

Soon after this time there came into his life a new influences which greatly changed it. It is well known how the genius of the Dominican Savonarola swept like a storm over the affairs of Italy, and what a revolution, after the passage of the French king through Florence, he brought about in the temper and policy of the republic, -- driving out the merchant family who had been its untitled masters for half a century, establishing in place of their rule a new theocracy of which he was himself the oracle and minister, turning the hearts of old and young away from the world and from their lusts. Many of the first artists of the became his most ardent followers, and among them Botticelli.

What the actual effect of his conversion was upon him we have scantly means of judging, but it needs must have put an end to his painting of those old mythologies, over which in earlier days his imagination had been used to throw so singular a charm. Vasari, a devoted servant of the later Medici, and therefore a traducer of the greatest enemy that house had ever had, speaks of Savonarola’s influence upon Botticelli as altogether disastrous, saving that he was "obstinate upon that side," "a partisan of the sect of Savonarola in such a fashion that, abandoning painting and having no income to live upon, he fell into the utmost disorder;" and again how "playing the Piagnone (the name given to the followers of Savonarola), he fell out of the way of painting, and thereby at last found himself old and poor in such a sort that if Lorenzo Medici, as long as he lived, had not supported him, and afterwards his friends and many worthy men who felt an affection for his virtues, he would, we may say, have died of hunger."

We have few materials by which we can test the accuracy of this account. We know that in 1496 the young Michelangelo sent through his hands a letter addressed to this Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the younger, that is, -- the son of Guiliano); that in 1498 he was living with a brother in the quarter called Sta Lucia of Ognissanti; that in 1503 he was consulted along with other artists as to the best place for Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David. But more importance and significance than all this is a beautiful picture of a Nativity with mystical by scenes, in the possession of Mr Fuller Maitland, which bears an inscription in base Greek by the master himself. The inscription seems to construe thus:-- "This picture I, Alessandro, painted at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, in the half-time after that time, during the fulfillment of the eleventh of John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, in the losing of the devil for three and a half years. Afterwards he shall be chained according to the twelfth of John, and we shall see him trodden down as this picture." Hence it appears to be established that Botticelli, a year and a half after the downfall and execution of Savoranola, had his mind full of his instructions and prophecies; that he regarded the death of the Dominican reformer and his companions as the fulfilment of the Apocalyptic prophecies about the slaying of the witnesses; that he thought of the tribulations among which he lived as the "second woe" of Rev. xi., and as coincident with the "time, times, and half a time" of that and other prophetic writings; and finally -- such is the originality and excellence of the work -- that this imagination had at this time lost none of its fire nor his hand of its cunning.

We are quite without the means of deciding whether any proportion of the large existing mass of his undated works belong to the years following this; or whether we are really to think of him as failing in his wonted industry in his latter days, from regret and disappointment at his father’s fate and at public affairs, from pre-occupation over mystical theology (which had always had an attraction for him, and, in the case of the picture painted early in his life for Matteo Palmieri had brought upon him a charge of heresy), or, lastly, from another cause which Vasari alleges, but which we have designedly passed by till this place.

In the history of engraving there are no productions more precious, more interesting, or more problematical than a number of plates executed in a primitive style, which severe outlines and straight lines of shading lines of shading, by artists of the Florentine school towards the close of the 15th century. The engravings in this manner include some two hundred and fifty pieces, covering the whole range of subjects that interested the mind of Italy at this most active and fanciful moment of the early Renaissance.

The best known of these engravings are as follows:-- three designs to the earliest book published in Florence with engraved illustrations, called Il Monte Sancto di Dio (1471); a set of nineteen designs to an edition of the Divina Commedia of Dante (1481); a set of twenty-four Prophets; a set of twelve Sibyls; several subjects of Saints; several of mythology, such as the Death of Paris, Theseus and Ariadne, the Judgment of Paris, Loves in a Vineyard, and the like; a famous series (long falsely ascribed to Mantegna, whose manner in engraving is easily distinguishable from this) of the Ranks and Professions of Men, the Virtues, the Arts and Sciences, the Muses, and the Planets (fifty in all); a series of fifteen setting forth the lives of Mary and of Christ; a subjects of the deluge; another of the preaching of the Franciscan Fra Marco, and many more.

Between the various examples of this large class there are considerable differences, but they are all unlike the work of any other school, and all manifestly Florentine of the 15th century. Conjectures the most confident and at the same time the most conflicting have been put forward as to their authorship. All such conjectures alike have been based on a few passages in Vasari’s lives of Botticelli and of Marc Antonio.

According to Vasari, the first Florentine who took impressions on paper from engravings was Maso Finiguerra, and he, says our author, was "followed by Baccio Baldini, who not having much more power of designing, all that he did was with the invention and design of Sandro Botticelli." And again, Vasari says of Botticelli that, "from being a sophistical (i.e., thoughtful or ingenious) person, he commented a part of Dante, and made figures for the Inferno, and put them into print; upon which pursuit he spent a deal of time; so that not working" (i.e., at painting) "it was a cause of infinite disorder in his life. He put in print many more things of his own from designs which he had made, but in a bad manner."

On the strength of those passages this whole class of early Florentine engravings has generally been put down by connoisseurs, as, for instance, Young Ottley, Bartsch, and Passavant, as the work of Sandro Botticelli and Baccio Baldini, jointly or apart, -- each critic attributing separate subjects to the one or the other of the artists according to his private canon of internal evidence.

But a scrupulous examination shows this internal evidence to be both very meagre and very contradictory. Nor can much be built upon the external testimony of Vasari. The phrase "put into print" is ambiguous , and by it Vasari may mean us to understand either that Botticelli engraved the designs himself or else that he merely furnished them to be engraved by another hand. To him the chief part in the invention, to Baldini the chief part in the executive, is usually and with a fair measure of probability assigned. Vasari’s information on the whole subject was evidently loose; a Triumph of Faith of Savonarola, which extols as Botticelli’s best engraving, does not at present exist at all.

None of the designs bear the evidence of Botticelli’s manner in a sufficiently definite form to be undeniable. On the other hand, many of them, by their poetry, their refinement, their singularity, are quite worthy of his hand, nor do they resemble any other contemporary style more than his.

If he designed and executed, or in part executed, them, they are no slight addition of his fame, and a noble vindication of his industry during that old age of idleness, decay, and "disorder," which followed, if we are to believe Vasari, upon the splendid and inspired activity of his youth and manhood. But the question is which criticism, it is to be feared, will never have the means of fully settling.

(Vasari, ed. Lemonnier, vol. v. pp. 110-127; Crowe and Cavalcaselle, Hist. of Painting in Italy, vol. ii. pp. 414-430; W. H. Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance; and see all Ariadne Florentin, no. vi., by John Ruskin; art. "Baccio Baldini," by E. Kolhoff in 2nd ed. Of Nagler’s Künstler-Lexikon; and the Academy for February 1871.) (S. C.)


See also: Florentine School of Painting (School of Painting of Florence)



The above article was written by Prof. Sidney Colvin, M.A.; Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum from 1884; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Cambridge, 1873-85; edited the Edinburgh edition of R. L. Stevenson's works, Letters of R. L. Stevenson, and History of Painting, from the German of Woltmann and Woermann.




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