The master of Early Renaissance painting, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi was originally from Florence, Italy. He was born around the year 1445 and is most commonly known as Sandro Botticelli. During his lifetime, his hometown was overflowing with artists and intellectuals. Florence was building a reputation for celebrating the work of writers, philosophers, and visual artists, resulting in a large number of people immigrating from other parts of Europe. After a period of what some historians call dark times, peace and tranquility began to uprise. The Early Renaissance marked the start of one of the most famous and beloved Eras of the art world. Botticelli is known worldwide for his vivid depiction of the human body, harmonious compositions, and masterful color use.
Alessandro Filipepi was born in 1445, based on the tax returns submitted by his family. His father was a tanner, and his family was from a humble and poor background. He and his family lived in the Via Borgo Ognissanti, a neighborhood in which he lived in his whole life.
Alessandro would soon receive the nickname Botticelli from one of his older brothers, which can be translated as "little casket" or "little barrel". As a young boy in school, Botticelli already manifested his interest in art through drawings and enjoyed playing practical jokes on his friends. Determined to become an artist, he dropped out of school at fourteen to dedicate himself to studying art.
It is believed that Botticelli's first master was Maso Finiguerra. Finiguerra was an important Florentine engraver, and if, in fact, he was Botticelli's tutor, then it is possible to see his influence in Botticelli's drawing skills. Finiguerra was mostly known for his detailed work with Niello engraving and was praised by Benvenuto Cellini as one of the best artists of his time.
At about 1461, Botticelli's skill led him to learn under one of the most influential Renaissance painter, Fra Filippo Lippi, who worked for Florence's most wealthy family and the arts' main patron, the Medicis. Filippo Lippi, in turn, was influenced by the first generation of Renaissance artists, Masaccio and Fra Angelico. The graceful and delicate figures, the subtle and warm use of color, and the pleasant flowing aspects of the composition were all skills that Botticelli learned with and incorporated into his work.
Through Lippi, the young apprentice learned many drawing and painting techniques, including the art of fresco painting, considered the most challenging painting technique to accomplish. Fresco painting consists of working with pigments on wet plaster, and learning this method allowed Botticelli to receive his first string of commissions, mostly in Cathedrals and churches.
The Italian painter's first registered work was Fortitude, which was part of a series of paintings of the virtues. The job was originally commissioned for Antonio del Pollaiuolo, who concluded the other six paintings of the group. Pollaiuolo was another Florentine artist who also succeeded as a sculptor, goldsmith, painter, and engraver. Authors argue that this contact with Pollaiuolo influenced Botticelli's figure renditions since the sculptor had close contact with anatomy by studying dissected bodies.
Still, during the 1460s, it is speculated that the Renaissance painter worked in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, who was originally trained as a goldsmith and later became widely known by his works with sculpture. It is not unreasonable, according to historians, to assume that the sculptor and painter worked together since Andrea was also an apprentice of Fra Lippi during a certain period. After Donatello's death, he came under the grace of the Medici family. Not only did Verrocchio create sculptures and paintings for them, but he also designed costumes and decorative armors for important events.
Andrea del Verrocchio's work was marked by an until then unseen attention for detail, subtle use of light and shadow, and a three-dimensional sense of space in the figures, along with a perfect rendition of garments and accessories. The meticulous use of lightning and the amount of color tones in Verrochio's paintings elements that da Vinci embodied in his work and taking a step further, he eventually developed the sfumato technique. The young Botticelli, who was a skillful artist but was only at the beginning of his career, certainly took notes of the impressive abilities of del Verrocchio. Under his workshop, Andrea worked and educated Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino (Raphael's master), Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Lorenzo di Credi.
In 1470, Botticelli returned to the neighborhood where he grew up and began his art studio and workshop. Filippino Lippi, the son of Boticcelli's master, who also studied under him, became his assistant. Eventually, his workshop would be full of apprentices, many of them helping with the commissions that the famous painter received. Even though the Florentine painter learned and incorporated aspects of the masters from his time, he came to a very distinctive aesthetic with delicate elongated figures. This specificity made it easier for his assistants to learn and work on his paintings.
In 1472, Boticcelli became part of the confraternity of Florentine painters, named Compagnia di San Luca. It was through Lippi that Botticelli met the Head of the Medici Family, Cosimo de Medici, who became his main patron. The artist thrived under his patronage, creating breathtaking religious paintings and some artwork portraying mythological themes. One of the first major works of this period was his version of Adoration of the Magi (1476). The artwork was commissioned for Santa Maria Novella. Part of the facade was designed by famous Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti, and Vasari later became the architect of the church's remodeling.
In Adoration of the Magi, it's possible to feel Botticelli coming on his own as an artist. There is a sophistication of the color use that reminds the viewer of his master, Lippi, but with a more varied and sophisticated palette. There is a sense of natural flow and balance, with the presence of white columns on the upper left and chattering folks on a distant plane, then entering the open circle. On the left field, there are the heads of two horses, a bright white one and warm brown, similar to the color of the witnesses' hair. Both groups of people left and right, are placed in a way that our eyes follow the lines of their heads and the direction they're looking towards.
The center of the picture receives emphasis by the glowing yellow rays of light coming from the top. There, the older magus, with his hand approaching the feet of baby Jesus, is based on Cosimo' de Medici. Cosimo is the senior figure of the Medici family and the actual first ruler, a banker, and a politician. Kneeling in the center, right bellow Jesus is the second magus, Piero, who is looking at the third figure, Giovani, both sons of Cosimo. Looking at the viewer and pointing in his direction, there is a figure on the bottom left: an old man wearing a blue robe, who is believed to be the commissioner of the painting, Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama. On the extremity of the composition, highlighted by his yellow robe, is supposed to be Botticelli himself. The detailed painting is a primary example of Botticelli mastery and a synthesis of all he learned with the older Renaissance artists.
It is known that Botticelli was against marriage and never tied the knot in his lifetime. Despite that, art historians have speculated about a possible love interest: Simonetta Vespucci, a noblewoman known for her beauty and who tragically died at the young age of 22. Botticelli painted a couple of portraits of Vespucci, including Portrait of a Young Woman, but throughout the artist's career, she seems to appear as other characters in his work. She became Botticelli's muse and can be seen as Flora in The Birth of Venus - some say even Venus herself - or as one of the Three Graces in La Primavera, both artworks located in Uffizi.
Along with Venus and Mars and Pallas and the Centaur, the works La Primavera and The Birth of Venus are considered the most iconic of the Early Renaissance and have been studied and analyzed countless times by art historians. The Renaissance era thrived by renewing classical ancient Greek mythology. Botticelli's prime came by his thirties, and his workshop was receiving constant requests for Madonnas.
In 1481, the artist was commissioned to conclude one of his most prestigious works. Pope Sixtus IV summoned him to paint frescos in the newly built Sistine Chapel - about thirty years before Michelangelo painted the ceiling. There, the artist painted beautiful religious works like Scene from the Life of Moses and The Temptation of Christ. It is speculated that the Early Renaissance painter received a significant amount of money for this work, but that he spent his pay living lavishly during an extended stay in Rome.
While it is known that modern and Enlightenment historians took a prejudiced perspective on the Middle Ages, unabashedly labeling it as a dark period of ignorance, this turned an eye towards the intellectual and philosophical advances of its time. There is indeed a new sensibility at play during the Renaissance.
Many critiques can be made of the positivist and scientific developments that European society had after the French Revolution and until the First World War, aspects based on Humanist values. But the Humanist evaluation in itself became one of the most important tools against the dogmatism of the church. It would renew political theories and bring them closer to people's notion of democracy, placing the human being in the space that God - then an abstract and punitive concept - was occupying. Science as a field of discovery and a perspective to understand the world would regain its place.
The culture of the past, of the then called Classic age, would be studied again and be proven as a still impactful view on art and life. A few examples of this change of attitude can be found in the Medici family's influence and its actions on Florence. Cosimo de' Medici created the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy. He contacted scholars all around Europe, inviting them to come to Florence and engage in public debates. The academy was a place that tried not only to emulate the feeling of open discussions of Greek philosophy but to renew the city's intellectual habit. Poliziano, a precursor of philology, poet, and a fundamental humanist figure, was part of the academy.
Botticelli's paintings are probably one of the finer examples of how important this debate was not only to a circle of philosophers, artists. This period represents the moment in which artists were no longer seen only as artisans, but began carrying the same importance and impact as thinkers. The balance and vivid aspects of his paintings are the embodiment of a city that was trying to bring forward Neoplatonist values. The use of gods and goddesses, precise anatomy, and mathematical perspective were more than abstract values, but Humanist ways of dealing with the world. Even so, the artists and poets didn't agree about everything, like in many other artistic periods. For instance, Botticelli showed contempt towards landscape painting, in which Leonardo da Vinci noted in his notebooks that Botticelli created "very bad landscapes".
In the 1490s, Botticelli started living with his brother Simone in a small house on the outskirts of Florence. As the Italian painter reached mid-life, Florence wasn't as peaceful as before, and the city was taken by plagues as well as invasions. Because of the tumultuous situation, the Medici family were eventually expelled, leaving Botticelli without patronage. Girolamo Savonarola, an intensely moralistic preacher, came to power, which significantly influenced Botticelli's paintings, as he followed Savonarola's ideals.
By the end of his career, the Renaissance painter saw his work become less popular, until the point where he became virtually unknown. During the last year of his production, Botticelli depicted expressive and distorted figures and experimented with non-natural colors, which some historians link to early Mannerism. Botticelli passed away on May 1510 in Florence, apparently living as a poor citizen. The importance of his art was rediscovered only by the late XIX century.