Skip to main content

Sandro Botticelli and his Bonfire of the Vanities

'The Birth of Venus' probably Botticelli's most famous painting.

'The Birth of Venus' probably Botticelli's most famous painting.

Sandro Botticelli, a self-portrait.

Sandro Botticelli, a self-portrait.

A close-up and example of the grace, beauty, light and shadow that Botticelli used in his paintings and which made him a popular and much sought out painter during the Early Renaissance

A close-up and example of the grace, beauty, light and shadow that Botticelli used in his paintings and which made him a popular and much sought out painter during the Early Renaissance

What is fresco painting?

Botticelli 1445 - 1510

I have written several articles on the Italian Renaissance and its different periods and artists, but one artist I have neglected to write about is actually one of my favorites. So here I offer you that article on one of my favorites, of course, right after Micheangelo, the master of all masters.

One of the most esteemed and masterful painters during his lifetime in Florence, Italy during the Early Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli has painted some of the most elegant, graceful and beautiful paintings during "the golden age" of the Renaissance.

Botticelli was born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi in Florence, Italy in 1445. The name Botticelli comes from his elder brother Giovanni who was playfully called Il Botticelli (the little barrel) because of his rotund figure. His brother playfully attached his nickname to Sandro as he became known. Although, Sandro Botticelli was not of rotund figure as he had a strapping muscular and very masculine body. He put forth a handsome figure.

Sandro Botticelli was a draftsman as well as a painter and belonged to the Florentine school of painters during the Early Renaissance period. He worked under the patronage of the wealthy and powerful Lorenzo de' Medici (The Magnificent) of the de' Medici dynasty. They were wealthy, upper class merchants and as a family ruled Florence with an iron hand.

He was born to parents, Mariano di Vanni d'Amedeo Filipepi and his wife Smerlda who were poor Florentines. Bottichelli displayed a sharp wit and loved practical jokes as a child and was quite rambunctious. He was, therefore, apprenticed out to a goldsmith at a young age and by the age of fourteen he was apprenticed out to painter Fra Filippo Lippi in 1462.

He was influenced by the monumentality and largeness of Masaccio's paintings and from Lippi he was influenced to paint in a more intimate and detailed manner. Botticelli's own work is seen to represent the linear grace and lines of the Early Renissance painting.

It is believed Botticelli's first fresco painting was done in Esztergom, Hungary when the arch-bishop of Hungary, Janos Vitez, commissioned he and other Florentine Renaissance painters to complete this job on a church or cathedral.

By 1470, Botticelli had his own artists' workshop and this became the most creative and prolific time of his career. During this time his work was characterized by figures seen in low relief, drawn with clear contours with minimal contrasts of light and shadow which portrayed fully modeled forms.

It is also during this time that he painted his two most famous paintings, The Birth of Venus and La Primavera (The Spring). These two paintings are his most popular and best known works today.

The Adoration of the Magi, seen below, is also one of his paintings completed during this early period of his painting career and the roundness and fullness of his figures can be seen

'Adoration of the Magi' (1475-1476) today hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  To the far right is the self-portrait of Botticelli.

'Adoration of the Magi' (1475-1476) today hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. To the far right is the self-portrait of Botticelli.

Botticelli's Workshop

Not only did Botticelli paint himself in The Adoration of the Magi, but it also contains the portraits of Cosimo de' Medici, his sons Piero and Giovani and his grandsons, Lorenzo (The Magnificent) and Giuliano. This painting is considered painted by Botticelli at his pinnacle as a painter and creative genius.

Although, many of Botticelli's earlier work is of a pagan nature and subject, he did paint many religious paintings and also painted many frescoes in churches throughout Florence. In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli and other Florentine and Umbrian artists to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Botticelli's part was to fresco Temptations of Christ and Trial of Moses. His frescoes were later eclipsed by Michaelangelo's but Botticelli's are beautiful nonetheless. When Botticelli returned to Rome he wrote a commentary on Dante in 1481 and illustrated the Inferno.

Next, he painted his famed, La Primavera (The Spring, c.1482) and The Birth of Venus (1485). Both were seen hanging at the villla of Lorenzo di Pierfranceso de' Medici at Castello in the mid-16th century. Both of these paintings are said by art historians to epitomized the spirit of the Renaissance and Botticelli to be the most intelligent, creative and recognizable voice of that Early Renaissance.

La Primavera was originally painted for Lorenzo's (The Magnificent) townhouse in Florence and was later placed at Castello sometime by 1499. The Birth of Venus was commissioned by someone else for a different site and was kept behind closed doors for nearly fifty years because of its nude Venus. It was considered too provocative even by Renaissance standards to be properly viewed. Both of works were influenced by a Gothic realism tempered by Botticelli's study of the antique. Both are also fantasy fueled by his clever imagination and are visual poetry in motion.

Scroll to Continue

Primavera became so popular a painting because it represented the festive spirit that flourished under the de' Medici rule of Florence. It represented also the mood of revival and sense of vision that existed throughout the Renaissance. At the time he painted this, Botticelli was thirty years old and Lorenzo (The Magnificent) was twenty-five years old. Youth ruled in Florence and Botticelli painted a generation before Michaelangelo. In this painting, Botticelli is rediscovering classical antiquity in all its glory.

These are the best examples of Botticelli's humanist philosophy and beliefs of the Renaissance times put into painting. There is a beauty and a grace of linear rhythm. And, during this time, Botticelli also worked on a major fresco with Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi for Lorenzo (The Magnificent) at his villa near Voterra.

Botticelli's patronage by the de' Medici's brought him fame, wealth and artistic greatness in Florence and Rome during the Early Renaissance. He was well liked by the Florentine public and his paintings and art work were well sought after.

La Primavera (The Spring) c. 1482

La Primavera (The Spring) c. 1482

Statue of Girolamo Savonarola.

Statue of Girolamo Savonarola.


Botticelli and Savonarola

From 1490-1498 all of Florence fell under the spell, influence and pious teachings of Girolamo Savonarola, a moralistic Italian Domincan friar and preacher. He preached prophesies of civic glory for Florence and called for Christian renewal. He denounced church corruption, despotic rule (by the de' Medici's) and exploitation of the poor. He urged the people of Florence to establish a popular republic.

Savonarola was able to whip-up the Florentines into a frenzy through his public preachings and Savonarola and the Florentines ran the corrupt de' Medici family out of Florence into exile for approximately eight years until Savonarola fell into unfavor, was excommunicated by the pope in Rome and executed.

Botticelli, in his later life, was no different from the rest of the Florentines. The de' Medici's had been exiled from Florence for their corrupt business dealings and this left Botticelli without their patronage. For these years, Botticelli basically deserted painting, had no income and fell into great distress. He was so influenced by Savonarola, that it is believed he burned many of his paintings with pagan themes in the "bonfires of the vanities," which had become so popular throughout Florence during these times.

The few paintings he painted during this time were of the religious subject. Savonarola's influence is seen in his Madonna paintings in which Botticelli painted spiritual and emotional
Virgins. After Savonarola's execution in 1498, the de' Medici's returned to Florence, reinstituted their patronage of Botticelli and he continued to paint; however, his later work was on a much smaller scale. His figures were distorted and his use of color was reminiscent of the earlier work of Fra Angelico.

After his death, Botticelli's work was eclipsed by all the other painters of the Renaissasnce, especially by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. From his death until the mid-19th century, Botticelli's Renaissance paintings were forgotten and pushed aside.

It was not until the mid-19th century that art historian, Alexis-Francois Rio, recognized the greatness of Botticelli and his paintings and reintroduced Botticelli and his paintings to the general public.The Pre-Raphaelite's (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) favorably embraced Botticelli's paintings and work and began incorporating elements of his work in their own paintings.

From 1900-1920, several books were written about Botticelli and his paintings and so ironically, Botticelli's works experienced a 'renaissance' in the modern art world. Today his paintings are heralded for their beauty, graceful lines, and lighting.

Botticelli never married and was rumored to have said that the idea of marriage gave him nightmares. In reality, it is believed he experienced an unrequited love for a Simonetta Vespucci, a married noblewoman from Florence. It is said she was the model for the painting, The Birth of Venus, and her face recurs throughout many of his paintings.

Botticelli asked when he died (1510) that he be buried at her feet in the Church of Ognssanti in Florence, Italy and his wishes were carried out.

'Madonna of the Pomegranate' (c. 1487)

'Madonna of the Pomegranate' (c. 1487)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on May 25, 2014:

Tracy: Hi and welcome to my hubs! LOL! Yes, Botticelli is one of my favorite painters from the early Renaissance era. This era is my favorite in world history. Thanks so much for reading this and for your comments. Most appreciated.

Tracy Halman from Ravenna, Ohio on May 25, 2014:

This is a wonderful piece. The first picture is just amazing, it is my kind of Art. Thanks for sharing so much of your knowledge, it is much appreciated by many.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 11, 2014:

VVanNess: Thanks so much and I am pleased you enjoyed this. I have to chuckle at your last comment. I don't know about these hubs making anyone smarter, but just the favorite pieces I love and enjoy.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 11, 2014:

Thank you Audrey! I appreciate your comments and so glad you enjoyed reading this.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 11, 2014:

ologsinquito: So glad you enjoyed reading this. I like that one also, but love Venus and Primavera. Those two are my favorite. Thanks so much for the visit!

Victoria Van Ness from Fountain, CO on March 11, 2014:

What a beautiful explanation of this beautiful portrait! :) I love reading your articles. I feel smarter with each one. :)

Audrey Howitt from California on March 11, 2014:

Beautifully done!!

ologsinquito from USA on March 11, 2014:

I especially love the Adoration of the Magi.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on October 05, 2013:

mckbirdbks: Thank you for your keen interest in my hubs! I know, we all need a patron and our writing lives would be so sublime! I have seen his paintings in Florence. The Uffizi Gallery is one of my favorites in the world and I have been there several times. Oh, to be so talented artistically on canvas. Beats my stick figures! LOL

mckbirdbks from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas on October 04, 2013:

Yes, the great painters needed patrons. Oh, heck we all could use a patron. This again is an article full of interestingly presented information. I hope you were able to see some of his paintings first hand while in Florence.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 30, 2013:

Mike: Thank you so much for reading this and for your lovely comments. Most appreciated!

Mike Robbers from London on September 29, 2013:

Great hub, Suzette. Educative and with a wonderful imagery. Voted and pinned!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 29, 2013:

Faith: Thanks so much for your lovely comments. I am so glad you enjoyed this. I can't help it - it is the teacher coming out in me. LOL Yes, I was visited and received comments from the Renaissance man himself, Leonardo da Vinci - How honored I am!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on September 28, 2013:

Another great write on here. Love Sandro Botticelli too! We learn so much by reading your awesome and enjoyable hubs dear suzette.

haha when I read Leo's comment, I could tell it was Colin too. hehe

Up and more and sharing


Faith Reaper

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 28, 2013:

Jackie: THank you so much and I;'m glad you enjoyed this.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on September 28, 2013:

Very interesting and enjoyable study.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 28, 2013:

Eric: Thank you so much and I'm glad you enjoyed this!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 28, 2013:

Very interesting. And well written.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 28, 2013:

Leonardo DaVinci: well you are the Renaissance man. Is this you Colin? LOL Well, I wasn't trying to outdo Mona, but I'm sure you find Venus alluring! LOL Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for stopping by Leo.

Leonardo DaVinci on September 28, 2013:

....and here I was under the impression that my 'Mona' was the most beautiful woman in the world but she and I have met our match in the divine persona that is the 'sensational' Suzette. Another world class hub presentation which is both enlightening, educational and entertaining.

Will share on my FB wall , oh yeah, that one can be found at the Louvre.

Related Articles