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.
The son of a tanner, he was born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, but he was given the nickname 'Botticelli' (derived from the word 'botticello' meaning 'small wine cask'). Smart beyond his years, the young Botticelli became easily bored at school. He was known for his sharp wit and his love of practical jokes, and he quickly earned a reputation as a restless, hyperactive and impatient child. Fortunately, his precocious talent was recognised and he was withdrawn from school and sent to work as an apprentice.
It is thought that Botticelli first trained with Maso Finiguerra, a goldsmith, before entering the studio of the artist Fra Filippo Lippi. He began his career painting frescoes for Florentine churches and cathedrals, and worked with the painter and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo. By 1470, he had his own workshop.
To Rome and Back
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's apprenticeship with Fra Filippo gave him excellent contacts. His master had enjoyed the patronage of some of the leading families in Florence, such as the Medici. Botticelli in turn spent almost all his life working for the Medici family and their circle of friends, for whom he painted some of his most ambitious secular paintings such as 'Primavera' (in the Uffizi, Florence).
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.
A year later, Botticelli returned to Florence, to continue with the most prolific stage of his career.
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.
Religion and Politics
During the last 15 years of his life, Botticelli's work appeared to undergo a crisis of style and expression.
The 1490s was a turbulent decade - the Medici had been expelled from Florence and Italy's peace disrupted by invasion and plagues. Botticelli rejected the ornamental charm of his earlier works in favour of a more simplistic approach that seemed crude and heavy-handed by contrast. These later paintings, with their deep moral and religious overtones, also suffered a comparison with the sophisticated aesthetic of artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.
According to Vasari in his book 'The Lives of the Artists', in his latter years Botticelli became a follower of the fanatical Dominican friar Savonarola, and the pious sentiment of his later works would seem to suggest some involvement in the religious and political upheavals in Florence at the time. 'Mystic Nativity' is Botticelli's most ambitious painting from this period and reflects this sense of apocalyptic foreboding.
Vasari also suggests that, as his work fell out of favour, Botticelli became melancholic and depressed. He had never married, preferring the company of family and friends. Having always been known for his high spirits and quick wit, the image of Botticelli's final years as a rapid decline into poverty, isolation and mental anguish is a poignant one.
After his death, his name all but disappeared until the late 19th century, when a developing appreciation for Florentine arts and culture brought about a renewed interest in his work.