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Artist – Sandro Botticelli

May you live in interesting times, goes the curse, and Sandro Botticelli's times were interesting indeed.  Born during the golden age of the Florentine Renaissance, he worked under the patronage of "II Magnifico" Lorenzo de' Medici, survived invasions and attempted coups, and trembled to the fiery preaching of the renegade friar Girolamo savanorola.

Born alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Sandro, as he was called, was one of four surviving children.  His acquired surname, Botticelli, is derived from his brother’s nickname, Botticello (meaning “little barrel”).  Today, Botticelli is best remembered for a painting that only gets weirder the more you know about it:  The Birth of Venus.  Experts still struggle to interpret it.  Is it a straightforward depiction of a classical myth? a complex philosophical treatise in art?  Venus, inscrutable on her half shell, offers no answer.

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Renaissance Florence formed the hub of a great wheel of commerce that extended northwest to Scotland and southeast to the Levant.  The city purported to be a republic, but one famous family ruled behind the scenes.  The Medicis grew astronomically rich by inventing international banking.  Lorenzo the Magnificent was only nineteen when, on the death of his father, he took control of both the bank and city of Florence.  Botticelli became part of Lorenzo’s charmed inner circle.  Strolling through his patron’s sculpture garden and dining on roast peacock, the artist must have acutely felt the contrast to his father’s tannery, stinking to high heaven from chicken dung and horse urine.

 

Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Sandro, as he was called, was one of four surviving children.  His acquired surname, Botticelli, is derived from his brother’s nickname, Botticello (meaning “little barrel”).  Today, Botticelli is best remembered for a painting that only gets weirder the more you know about it:  The Birth of Venus.  Experts still struggle to interpret it.  Is it a straightforward depiction of a classical myth? a complex philosophical treatise in art?  Venus, inscrutable on her half shell, offers no answer.

 

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Renaissance Florence formed the hub of a great wheel of commerce that extended northwest to Scotland and southeast to the Levant.  The city purported to be a republic, but one famous family ruled behind the scenes.  The Medicis grew astronomically rich by inventing international banking.  Lorenzo the Magnificent was only nineteen when, on the death of his father, he took control of both the bank and city of Florence.  Botticelli became part of Lorenzo’s charmed inner circle.  Strolling through his patron’s sculpture garden and dining on roast peacock, the artist must have acutely felt the contrast to his father’s tannery, stinking to high heaven from chicken dung and horse urine.

 

Botticelli received a basic education and apprenticed with a local artist.  By 1470 he was running his own workshop, and in 1475 he completed The Adoration of the Magi, the painting that would bring him fame.  Just as significant as his tender depiction of the Madonna and Child was his homage to his patrons, the Medici.  Since medieval times, artists had been slipping their sponsors’ portraits into religious compositions, and in his work Botticelli includes most of his client’s family.  Plus he tucked in yet another portrait, that of a young man dressed in a mustard-yellow grown, staring directly, almost challengingly, at the viewer:  It is the artist himself.

 

Not long after completing the Adoration, the Medici asked Botticelli to record a more gruesome subject:  a commemoration of the Pazzi conspiracy.  The Pazzi, a prominent Florentine family, partnered with fellow Medici enemies Pope Sixtus 5 and archbishop of Pisa to achieve a “regime change” in Florence.  Their plan:  Murder Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano.  On April 16, 1478, during high mass in the Florence Cathedral, assassins savagely attacked the brothers.  Stabbed several times, Giuliano died instantly, but a wounded Lorenzo managed to escape and barricaded him-self in the church’s baptistery.  The conspirators headed for the main square, intending to rouse the populace, but instead the Florentines dragged them off in chains. They were hanging that night.  Just to drive home the point that justice (or revenge—as if there were a difference) would be swift for those who dared attack the Medici, the family commissioned Botticelli to paint a fresco of the eight primary conspirators swinging to their deaths.

 

Venus On The Half Shell

After a brief stint in Rome painting frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (which are now mostly ignored by visitors craning to see Michelangelo’s ceiling), Botticelli returned to a Florence that was in a rage over classicism.  Florentines lit candles to Plato and talked earnestly about the soul, and it was in this atmosphere that Botticelli completed his “mythologies,” paintings including Primavera and The Birth of Venus.  Their style in a strange mix:  Though the figures represent classical gods and goddesses, the scenes are pure Renaissance inventions, strongly influenced by Neo-platonic philosophy.  In The Birth of Venus, the goddess of love perches on a seashell, having just been born from the foam of the sea.  In a philosophical interpretation, Venus personifies beauty, and since beauty is truth, the work becomes an allegory of truth entering the world.  Or maybe it’s a straight forward celebration of love and homage to feminine beauty—take your pick.

 

Changing Times

Lorenzo de’ Medici died in March 1492, despite receiving such medical treatments as pulverized pearls to cure a lingering illness (ah, good old Renaissance medicine).  Control of Florence then passed to his eldest son, Piero, who is remembered aptly as “The Unfortunate.” Piero brought on his own downfall two years later by handing over control of the city to the invading French army.  Outraged Florentines stormed the Medici place, and the family fled into exile.

 

Botticelli’s patrons abandoned him, but his easily found work making sacred art.  Lucky for him, religious fervor was on the rise in Florence.  A few years earlier, the friar Savonarola had stormed into town and made quite a stir, serving up fiery sermons denouncing the sins of, well, everybody.  After the French invasion, Savonarola persuaded the French king to leave the city, and a grateful populace handed over political control to the zealous monk.

 

Once-freewheeling Florence became a strict theocracy.  Troops of young men known as “little angels” wandered the streets, harassing women who wore brightly colored silks or showed too much bosom.  The angels broke into private homes searching for frivolous items such as playing cards, cosmetics, and pornography, which they confiscated and burned at the “bonfire of the vanities,” a sixty-foot-high conflagration in the main square.  How Botticelli reacted to all this brouhaha is unclear.  Sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari claimed the artist supported Savonarola and burned his own paintings, but no other evidence links the two men.  Yet, a new tone is evident in Botticelli’s work of the 1490s, one of increased simplicity, austerity even.  Paganism was out, Christianity was in.

 

Savonarola couldn’t rain hellfire and brimstone against the powerful forever.  He managed to ignore excommunication in 1497, but a year later, when Pope Alexander 5 threatened Florence with interdiction, city leaders realized further support of the friar would ruin the economy.  Savonarola and his closest associates were arrested, tortured, and executed.  Vasari falsely reported that Savonarola’s fall from grace so disturbed Botticelli that he never painted again, but in fact he completed several more works, both religious and mythological.  By the time Botticelli died of unknown causes in 1510, art had passed him by—his pale Madonna’s seemed passé compared to Michelangelo’s contorted nudes.

 

Botticelli remained forgotten for some three centuries.  Only in the mid 1800s was his work rediscovered and once again appreciated by the masses.  Though his religious paintings pass almost unnoticed today, his mythologies have assumed iconic status, although of a curious sort.  The Birth of Venus is found on coffee cups, as screen savers, and in episodes of The Simpsons, but we still don’t quite know what to make of it.  Perhaps the problem is that the painting’s full meaning has been lost over the centuries.  More than Leonardo da Vinci, more than Michelangelo, Botticelli was a man of the Florentine Renaissance.

 

 2009 Elizabeth Lunday - "Secret lives of great artists". All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2010 Barry. All rights reserved.