(b. 1445, Florence, d. 1510, Florence)


Self-portrait from the Adoration of the Magi

Italian painter, born Alessandro di Moriano Filipepi, Botticelli is one of the outstanding geniuses in the history of Western art. He began his training under Filippo Lippi, alongside Filippino, and seemingly worked for a time with Leonardo in Verrocchio's workshop. He was influenced by the Pollaiuoli for a short time around 1470, when he painted a Fortitude to go with a set of six other Virtues by Piero Pollaiuolo (all seven now in the Uffizi). His understanding of perspective and foreshortening, of architectural design and, indeed, of anatomy, were all that might have been expected of a man with such a background, but it is to the pure visual poetry of the outcome that he owes his fame. His manipulations of the visual facts for artistic purposes should no more be put down to ignorance or inability in these respects than in the case of Picasso in the 20 century. Although he was a superb colourist, delicate at times, strong at others, and capable, in his last years, of harsh and powerful effects, the essence of his art lies in the unsurpassed, singing quality of his line. This can be seen at its purest in the series of splendid outline drawings with which he illustrated Dante's Divine comedy (Staatliche Museen, Berlin; Vatican, Rome). These drawings, made probably in the 1490s, show his sensitive feeling for contour at its most subtle.

The chronology of his work is difficult to establish, since it ranges between the vigorous realism of the 1470 Fortitude and the languorous and anti-naturalistic ecstasy of his last dated (and only signed) work, the Mystic Nativity (1500, National Gallery, London).

A series of Adorations of the Magi painted in the 1470s and early 80s, notably those in the National Galleries in London and Washington and the Uffizi, Florence, show Botticelli experimenting with the new pyramidal, centralized form which was taken up by Leonardo. They also show the ability as a portraitist which he demonstrated in a number of full-scale works, for they contain, particularly in the case of the Uffizi panel, a whole gallery of Medici portraits. As with the technical aspects of his art, so in terms of the ideas which underlie it Botticelli moved in the highest circles: much of his work is imbued with the ideas of the Florentine neo-Platonists surrounding Lorenzo de' Medici, and particularly of Marsilio Ficino. But just as he was neither a 'perspectivist' nor an 'anatomist', so he was clearly not a neo-Platonist in the sense that his work could be taken as a straightforward transfer into visual terms of particular philosophical precepts.

In 1481/2 he was in Rome, painting frescoes in the Sistine Chapel along with Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, Signorelli and Perugino, but these do not seem to have been particularly successful (he painted few frescoes). During the last twenty years of the 15th century he ran a large shop for the production of Madonnas of a gently devout kind, well suited to the piety of the age: these made him prosperous and many of them are repetitions by different hands from cartoons by him.

His great series of mythologies, also of the 1470s and 80s, the Mars and Venus (London, National Gallery), the Primavera, the Birth of Venus, the Pallas and the Centaur (Florence, Uffizi), have been the subject of innumerable essays in interpretation without ever losing that essential, multi-faceted ambiguity which is characteristic of his approach to visual description. The central figure in the Primavera is as much a Christian Virgin as a figure from antiquity. The classic group of the Three Graces owes as much to Gothic as to antique linear sensitivity. Indeed, however deeply he may have been involved in the particular attempt at Christian-classical synthesis which was characteristic of the humanist Medici circle, he was later intimately involved with Savonarola.

By about 1500 his style was so obviously opposed to the new ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo that he suffered a decline in popularity, and the last ten years of his life are mysterious. It is probable that the clumsy, almost hysterical, style of works like the Pietàs in Milan (Poldi-Pezzoli) and Munich, the ruined Crucifixion in Cambridge Mass. (Fogg), or the St Zenobius series in London (National Gallery), Dresden and New York (Metropolitan Museum) is that of his last period.

You can find here the complete (not only a 75-word preview) Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Sandro Botticelli.