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Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c.1445 – May 17, 1510), known as Sandro Botticelli, was one of the greatest painters of the Florentine Renaissance. At the height of his fame, the Florentine painter and draughtsman Sandro Botticelli was one of the most esteemed artists in Italy. His graceful pictures of the Madonna and Child, his altarpieces and his life-size mythological paintings, such as ‘Venus and Mars’, were immensely popular in his lifetime. His The Birth of Venus and Primavera are often said to epitomize for modern viewers the spirit of the Renaissance.

Botticelli was born in the city of Florence in a house in the street still called Borgo Ognissanti. Sandro was one of several children to the tanner Mariano di Vanni d’Amedeo Filipepi, and the youngest of his four to survive into adulthood. Botticelli’s father was a tanner who apprenticed Sandro to a goldsmith after his schooling was finished. But, since Sandro preferred painting, his father then placed him under Filippo Lippi, who was one of the most admired Florentine masters.

It was from Lippi that Botticelli learned how to create intimate compositions with beautiful, melancholic figures drawn with clear contours and only slight contrasts of light and shadow. Botticelli probably left Lippi’s workshop by April 1467, when the latter went to work in Spoleto. Lippi died in 1469. Botticelli must have had his own workshop by then, and in June of that year he was commissioned a panel of Fortitude (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) to accompany a set of all Seven Virtues commissioned one year earlier from Piero del Pollaiuolo. Botticelli’s panel adopts the format and composition of Piero’s but features a more elegant and naturally posed figure and includes an array of “fanciful enrichments so as to show up Piero’s poverty of ornamental invention.”

Already by 1470 Botticelli was established in Florence as an independent master with his own workshop. These transitions in Botticelli’s style can be seen in the small panels of Judith (The Return of Judith) and Holofernes (The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes), both c. 1470, and in his first dated work, Fortitude (1470), which was painted for the hall of the Tribunale dell’Are della Mercanzia, or merchants’ tribunal, in Florence. Botticelli’s art from that time shows a use of ochre in the shadowed areas of flesh tones that gives a brown warmth very different from Lippi’s pallor.

In 1472, Botticelli joined the Compagnia di San Luca, the confraternity of Florentine painters. He also employed Filippino Lippi, his late teacher’s son, as his apprentice, and broke convention by completing Filippino’s version of ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ – it was far more usual for an apprentice to finish a painting by his master rather than the other way round. Botticelli and Filippino’s works from these years, including many Madonna and Child paintings, are often difficult to distinguish from one another.

At the start of 1474 Botticelli was asked by the authorities in Pisa to join the work frescoing the Camposanto, a large prestigious project mostly being done by Benozzo Gozzoli, who spent nearly twenty years on it. Various payments up to September are recorded, but no work survives, and it seems that whatever Botticelli started was not finished. Whatever the outcome, that Botticelli was approached from outside Florence demonstrates a growing reputation.

The Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella (c. 1475–76, now in the Uffizi, and the first of 8 Adorations), was singled out for praise by Vasari, and was in a much-visited church, so spreading his reputation. It can be thought of as marking the climax of Botticelli’s early style. Despite being commissioned by a money-changer, or perhaps money-lender, not otherwise known as an ally of the Medici, it contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni (all these by now dead), and his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano.

In 1480 the Vespucci family commissioned a fresco figure of Saint Augustine for the Ognissanti, their parish church, and Botticelli’s. Someone else, probably the order running the church, commissioned Domenico Ghirlandaio to do a facing Saint Jerome; both saints were shown writing in their studies, which are crowded with objects. As in other cases, such direct competition “was always an inducement to Botticelli to put out all his powers”, and the fresco, now his earliest to survive, is regarded as his finest by Ronald Lightbown.

About 1478–81 Botticelli entered his artistic maturity; all tentativeness in his work disappeared and was replaced by a consummate mastery. He was able to integrate figure and setting into harmonious compositions and to draw the human form with a compelling vitality.

Botticelli’s star was in the ascendant. Such was his reputation that, in 1481, he was summoned by the Pope to Rome to help decorate the walls of the recently completed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He painted frescoes depicting scenes from the Life of Moses and the Temptations of Christ and was also responsible for a number of papal portraits. The nature of this task demonstrates how highly regarded he was around this time, and it was the only occasion he is known to have worked outside Florence.

The period from 1478-90 saw Botticelli at his most creative. This was the period during which he produced his famous mythological works, such as ‘The Birth of Venus‘ (in the Uffizi, Florence) and ‘Venus and Mars‘. In these he successfully combined a decorative use of line (possibly owing much to his early training as a goldsmith) with elements of the classical tradition, seen in the harmony of his composition and the supple contours of his figures.

After the early 1490s his style changed markedly; the paintings are smaller in scale, the figures in them are now slender to the point of idiosyncrasy, and the painter, by accentuating their gestures and expressions, concentrates attention on their passionate urgency of action. This mysterious retreat from the idealizing naturalism of the 1480s perhaps resulted from Botticelli’s involvement with the fiery reformist preacher Girolamo Savonarola in the 1490s.

The years from 1494 were dramatic ones in Florence: its Medici rulers fell, and a republican government under Savonarola’s dominance was installed. Savonarola was an ascetic idealist who attacked the church’s corruption and prophesied its future renewal. According to Vasari, Botticelli was a devoted follower of Savonarola, even after the friar was executed in 1498. The spiritual tensions of these years are reflected in two religious paintings, the apocalyptic Mystic Crucifixion (1497) and the Mystic Nativity (1500), which expresses Botticelli’s own faith in the renewal of the church. The Tragedy of Lucretia (c. 1499) and The Story of Virginia Romana (1499) appear to condemn the Medici’s tyranny and to celebrate republicanism.

Although Vasari describes Botticelli as impoverished and disabled in his last years, other evidence suggests that he and his family remained fairly prosperous. He received commissions throughout the 1490s and was still paying his dues, if belatedly, to the Company of Saint Luke, the Florentine painters’ guild, in 1505. But the absence of any further commissions and the tentativeness of the very last Dante drawings suggest that he was perhaps overtaken by ill health. Upon his death in 1510 he was buried in the Church of Ognissanti. About 50 paintings survive that are either wholly or partly from his own hand. The Uffizi Gallery’s magnificent collection of his works includes many of his masterpieces.

After his death, Botticelli’s reputation was eclipsed longer and more thoroughly than that of any other major European artist. His paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they had been created, and his frescos in the Sistine Chapel were upstaged by those of Michelangelo.

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