By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2021
Born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, Sandro Botticelli was an Italian-born early Renaissance artist who may have acquired his professional surname on account of a flippant association with one of two brothers. One brother (Antonio) was apparently barrel-shaped (in Italian a barrel is a ‘botticello’) and another (Giovanni) was a goldsmith as was their father (in Italian a goldsmith is a ‘battigello’). However it isn’t clear which was the case. Moreover we’re not even sure about when Alessandro (shortened to Sandro, obviously) was born but 1445 seems likely and he had the good fortune to be born in Florence which was, at that time, Europe’s cultural capital (and therefore the world’s cultural capital).
Only one of his paintings is inscribed with a date, so much of his history is uncertain but we know that he only left Florence briefly to paint in Pisa and in Rome.
What we can say about him with certainty is that he was a stand-out artist, a forerunner and standard-bearer in a location and era that also produced the likes of Leonardo da Vinci (who was 7 years younger) and Michelangelo (30 years younger). Botticelli’s portraits and depictions of religious and mythological subjects, with interpretations often thought to be created for a prurient audience (this being an early and thinly-disguised form of pornography), frequently featured well-rounded women though he had other fascinations (notably with the work of Dante).
By the time of his death Botticelli was washed-up, largely but nor simply because he was not a good businessman, but in subsequent centuries his work was reviewed and admired, notably by the pre-Raphaelites whom it inspired.
Sandro Botticelli was the son of a tanner-turned-goldsmith with whom he seems to have initially trained, but by the time he was 16 or so the lad was apprenticed - for maybe 5 years and possibly until his teacher became terminally ill - to Fra Filippo Lippi who painted for the Medici family. The details are hazy and he may also have spent time in the studios of both Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio, both of whom were painters and goldsmiths. In any event by 1469 when Lippi died Botticelli had his own studio and by 1472 he had his own apprentice too – Lippi’s son Filippino. Techniques
Botticelli painted in egg tempera and so the effect was essentially that of flat colour akin to what you get these days when you use poster-paints. He did add oils to his mixes, though, and cross-hatched the colour as he built up successive layers, but the result was always going to lack depth. Oil-paints, though they date back to the middle of the 7th century, were only used decoratively from the 12th century though they started to be used by artists in the early 15th century. So by not using them Botticelli failed to be in the vanguard of contemporary techniques, something that might well have undermined his popularity.
It’s worth mentioning that he also added gold, in a technique called ‘sgraffito’ (which is used with other colours and materials being added, not just gold) and something that he could have learned from his father, brothers or in the studios with which he was linked in his youth.
One of Botticelli’s notable patrons was the explorer from whom America takes its name, Amerigo Vespucci (Botticelli grew up with him as a neighbour when his dad’s goldsmithing took off). For a long time he also enjoyed the patronage of the Medici family which essentially ran Florence, though in 1494 (when Botticelli was about 50) the head of the family became Piero and he upset the locals through his links to the French (politics at the time were complex) and so the whole family had to flee.
Unfortunately the Medici family left a power vacuum occupied by a religious nutcase called Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar who curiously had also links with the French, who was responsible for the extremism exemplified by the so-called ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ in 1497 when art and books that had been created during what was essentially the beginnings of the Renaissance were destroyed (along with anything else associated with vanity, including cosmetics). In a sense this sort of cultural vandalism might be compared with the 20th century’s murder of people for wearing glasses, which intellectuals often have to do if they spend too much time reading, or speaking a foreign language which idiots consider to be pretentious, during the reign of Cambodia’s infamous Khmer Rouge.
Fortunately Savonarola was burned at the stake with his two henchmen a year later, but during this era - 1494 to 498 - Botticelli was understandably careful about what he painted and tended to execute religious rather than gratuitously erotic work. That said it seems Botticelli was actually a bit of a fan of Savonarola, to the extent that Botticelli’s capitulation to such an uncultured oaf got the artist referred to as a ‘sniveller’, and he may well have taken to burning his own art. Though, in the mists of time, we can only speculate on what motivated him to do that and there may have been an element of doing so to survive. Yet Botticelli’s associations with what Savonarola stood for, coupled with his reduced output, may have contributed to a fall from favour that led to him becoming impoverished in his final years.
Botticelli devoted much of his professional life to portraying beautiful women and appears to have fallen for Simone Cattaneo who was already married and, worse, married to one his patrons - Marco Vespucci. But the artist claimed to be vehemently anti-marriage and may have been homosexual, with that perhaps being borne out by a record that states he ‘kept a boy’ although such accusations were common and often simply mischievous. He also seemed to enjoy painting male nudes. But his homosexuality was something that he would have hidden in that era were it true. We may well never know the truth though, in any event, he seemed to remain celibate. Yet the clincher as to his sexuality might be that he was entombed at the foot of Simone at his request.
In summary Botticelli had some detractors, but he is one of the few masters considered to be good enough to have been entrusted to work on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. And that says it all.
You can easily and affordably buy unframed prints of his work. The National Gallery site at Botticelli Prints | National Gallery Shop is one place to obtain these.
Originals are pricey. In 2021 Sotheby’s sold ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel’ for US$ 92.2 million.
You'll want to frame whatever you buy. Any good framers will be able to show you a vast range of different solutions and advise on what might be the most suitable given the work and its proposed location.
Article Posted: 09/04/2021 06:30:21