Sandro Botticelli (alessandro Filipepi). 1447-1510.
( Originally Published 1915 )
" He was the chief exponent of the double mind of the Renaissance — divided between Christian and Hellenic ideals." Symonds.
Sandro, the son of Mariano Filipepi, a well-to-do citizen of Florence, known always as Botticelli, was first apprenticed to a goldsmith, later to Fra Lippo Lippi, with whom he went to Prato in 1459. Later he was associated with the Pollajuoli, painting Fortitude in the series of the Virtues for the Mercatanzia; Verocchio and Leonardo were friends and associates; he was with Benozzo in Pisa in 1474.
Much of his most interesting work was done for Lorenzo de' Medici, who had gathered about him the scholars and humanists of the day, keenly interested in the classical manuscripts brought from Constantinople after its fall in 1453, an influence reflected in the allegorical pictures by Botticelli.
In 1481 he was called to Rome to direct the decoration of the new chapel built by Pope Sixtus IV, working there with Ghirlandajo and Perugino.
His many pictures of the Madonna reveal a quality of religious sentiment as individual as are the poetic fantasies of his allegories and myths. He developed the tondo, earlier used by Fra Filippo, a form much copied by his followers. His best work was done between 1475 and 1490. He was a devoted follower of Savonarola, whose influence seems to have been to keep him from his art. A Nativity, now in London, dated 1500, bears a mystical inscription which connects itself with Savonarola's overthrow. His last work was the illustration of Dante's Divine Comedy for a later Lorenzo of the Medici family. Eighty-five drawings believed to be from this series are now in Berlin.
About eighty well authenticated paintings by Botticelli are known. Their dates are largely conjectural, and it seems wisest, therefore, to consider them in groups of allied subjects, except in the cases of Judith and Calumny, known to be respectively early and late.
Note. Mr. Home gives 1444 as the date of birth. Both dates depend upon the figures of Botticelli's age given in later years.
NOTES ON THE PICTURES.
No. 183. Judith with the Head of Holofernes.
On wood, ten by eight inches. This small panel and its companion piece are early work of exquisite finish.
Judith, the Jewish heroine, rescued her people from Assyrian oppression by going to the camp of the enemy and entertaining their leader Holofernes until he fell into a heavy sleep, when she killed him with her own hand. She is seen here returning in the cool dawn to her home in Bethulia, the olive branch in her hand, her maid-servant bearing the head of Holofernes. (See Apocrypha.)
Study the faces, note the difference of type, interpret the expressions. Study the elements that contribute to the sense of motion; compare with earlier attempts.
The study of drapery is of especial interest and importance. Nothing except the human face has such power of artistic expression. Few artists have made such varied use of it as Botticelli.
No. 167. Birth of Venus.
Tempera on canvas, figures life size. This and the Allegory of Spring were painted for the Medici family during the brilliant period from 1475 to 1485, this one probably after 1480. The subject may have been suggested by Politian's poem " La Giostra " (The Tournament), but it follows closely the classic myth, Venus, born from the sea, wafted to land by Zephyrus, and received by the Hours. The color is pale and cool.
Compare with classic representations of Venus. What elements of beauty are lost, and what are added? Study the picture in its details, noting elements of beauty in execution and in sentiment. Note the rhythm of the lines which lead the eye lightly over the picture, and the gentle gaiety which they suggest. Notice the enjoyment,yet the timidity, of the artist in the theme. Consider the difficulties in his way. Estimate the balance of influences here at work, the classic, the religious, the personality of the artist.
No. 168. Allegory of Spring.
On wood, figures life size. Painted undoubtedly before 1478. There are several interpretations of this composition, based upon poems by Politian and Lorenzo. The following is perhaps as consistent as any: The three Graces dance in a ring before Venus, while Mercury waves away the clouds before them with his wand. The goddess of Spring in a flowered robe scatters flowers before Venus. Beside her, Flora flees from the advances of Zephyr, the March wind with gusts of rain, and, as in Ovid's description, flowers spring from her mouth at the touch of the god. Venus is sometimes thought to be " la bella Simonetta," whose praises were sung by the poets of the time. The olive branches directly behind her were a favorite device in Medicean pictures.
The colors are those of old tapestry; the greens of the background have probably darkened with the years.
Consider this picture as a composition, the balance of figures and masses, concentration of interest. Study it as representative art, its success in telling a story, its truth to nature, in figures and draperies, in flowers and other details. Consider it as a product of classical or Christian interest, as an idyll or fairy-tale.
Study its aesthetic quality, the detachment of its various characters, removing it from the field of story telling, its balance without symmetry, the rhythm of line in form and drapery, the subtle suggestion of sentiment, of joyous movement and springing life.
The art quality of this picture may perhaps be better understood if we liken it to such poems as " The Ancient Mariner," or " The Raven," which would quite lose their charm if explained in plain prose; or to the music of Chopin, full of the personality of the artist, speaking its own language and defying explanation.
Read Kenyon Cox, The Classic Point of View, 123-128.
No. 169. Pallas and the Centaur.
Royal Palace, Florence.
Tempera on canvas, figures life size. After the failure of the Pazzi conspiracy, a cabal including all Italy was formed by the Pope against Tuscany and the Medici. In order to break this league Lorenzo went alone, in 1480, to visit his arch enemy the king of Naples, returning in safety with a treaty of peace and union signed by Ferdinand.
This picture, lost sight of for many years and only discovered in 1895, commemorates the success of Lorenzo's audacious enterprise. The victory of Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom, over the centaur, emblem of lawlessness, is symbolic, as is the light touch with which she conquers him. The interlaced rings and the olive branches are Medicean devices.
Compare with the preceding pictures of classical allusion, in technical skill, in sentiment, in intelligibility, in esthetic enjoyment. Consider the nature of classical influence on Botticelli's art.
No. 170. The Leper's Sacrifice.
No. 171. Life of Moses: central group.
No. 172. Punishment of Korah : group of heads. Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome.
Compare C 104, interior view of the Sistine Chapel. B 194, 202, 220, and 263 were painted at the same time. B 244 is also of interest.
The Sistine Chapel, built by Pope Sixtus IV, is a lofty rectangular room 132 feet long, 45 wide and 68 high. Between the windows, set high on either side, are painted the figures of twenty-eight martyred popes in simulated niches, by Botticelli, Ghirlandajo and others. Below the windows, like a frieze, runs this series of frescos, scenes from the life of Moses, the prophetic type of the parallel scenes from the life of Christ on the opposite wall, painted 1481—1483 by Botticelli, Ghirlandajo, Cosimo Rosselli, Piero di Cosimo, Perugino, Pinturricchio, and possibly Signorelli.
The Assumption, with the Birth of Christ and the Finding of Moses on either side, painted by Perugino, occupied the altar wall. The ceiling was painted by Michelangelo 1508—1512. Below the paintings hung the tapestries designed by Raphael 1515-1516.
170. The Leper's Sacrifice (see Leviticus xiv) commemorates the restoration by the Pope of the hospital of S. Spirito, the façade of which appears in the background. It is crowded with incident, and contains many portraits.
171. Moses is seen drawing water for Jethro's daughters, the central group of seven incidents introduced into the single composition.
172. The group of portraits from the Destruction of Korah shows the simplicity and directness of Botticelli's manner in dealing with such a theme. The second from the right is the artist himself.
The three reproductions illustrate Botticelli's general traits in the frescos, his weakness in large composition, his grace, variety, and beauty in the treatment of separate groups, his strong and interesting characterization of individual heads.
No. 174. Portrait of a Man with a Medal.Uffizi, Florence.
On wood, 18 inches high. Generally considered a portrait of Giovanni or Piero de' Medici. The head of Cosimo Pater Patrice is on the medal.
Compare with the portraits of 172; with those of the Adoration of the Magi, 175.
No. 175. Adoration of the Magi.
No. 176. Group of Heads.
On wood, 41 by 3 1/2 feet. The date is uncertain. Vasari says that it was Botticelli's success in this most admirable work that led to his commission for the Sistine Chapel.
It is a Medici family group, paying homage to the Madonna and Child. Some of the portraits are unmistakable, others merely conjectural. The eldest of the three kings, who kneels to kiss the Child's foot, is Cosimo, " the most faithful and animated likeness of all now known to exist of him," Vasari tells us. In the center kneel Piero and Giovanni, his sons. The standing youth with the mass of dark hair is believed to be Giuliano, killed in the Pazzi conspiracy. The youth in the left foreground may be Lorenzo. At the extreme right stands Botticelli himself, wrapped in a heavy mantle. The picture originally hung on the entrance wall of S. Maria Novella.
Notice the dignity of the figures, the care and scientific accuracy of their arrangement, the interesting character of the faces, their aristocracy. Compare with 172, noting differences of technique between tempera and fresco. Compare the same characters in Benozzo's similar theme, 161.
It is interesting to compare this composition, in which we see Botticelli as the able draughtsman of actual faces and forms, a close student of character, a sober realist in matter and manner, with 167 and 168, painted in the same decade, where he is the poet, living in the realm of fancy, disregarding the literal shape of things, not from ignorance but from choice.
No. 177. Madonna of the Magnificat.
Painted about 1485. On wood, tondo 3 feet 8 inches in diameter, a favorite form with Botticelli. The name comes from the passage which the Madonna writes in the open book, " My soul doth magnify the Lord." It is often called a " Coronation."
Compare with the tondo by Fra Filippo, noting the entire change in principle of design, and the artistic development of the pupil.
Study the lines of ,Botticelli's composition, the centering of physical as of emotional interest. Symonds compares this composition to an open rose in the beauty of its curves. Note the character of the landscape.
Notice the evidences of the goldsmith's training. Compare with other work by Botticelli in this. Study the sentiment expressed in the faces, the sadness of the Madonna even while she writes her song of praise, the rapt expression of the Child.
This is the best beloved as it is the most perfect of the many pictures by Botticelli. The charm of the composition, the perfection of execution, above all the exquisite sentiment that pervades the group, places this first among the many Madonna pieces of the early Renaissance.
No. 179. Madonna and Child.
Painted on wood, perhaps between 1475 and 1480. Exquisite in workmanship, though somewhat restored. The Child holds in his hands the nails and crown of thorns, symbols of the Passion.
Compare with the central figures of the Magnificat.
No. 181. Madonna, Child, and St. John.
On wood, 3 by 2 feet. A recent critic does not at-tribute this panel to Botticelli; it is, however, too beautiful to be omitted, by whatever artist it may have been painted.
Again study the lines of the design, noting how beautiful they are in themselves, and how perfectly they lead the eye to the heart of the picture. Note the relationship of the Mother and Child.
No. 178. Madonna with Angels and St. John.
No. 180. Madonna with Angels bearing Lilies.
Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin.
No. 182. Madonna, Child, and Angels.
National Gallery, London.
These tondi are from the workshop of Botticelli, if not by his own hand. They are a few among the many pictures that bear the master's name.
No. 186. Angels. Academy, Florence.
The Coronation of the Virgin, from which these angels are taken, was ordered by the Guild of Silk Weavers for San Marco. The angels scatter roses as they dance about the scene of the Coronation; on the earth below stand four saints.
The angels well illustrate the artist's interest in joyous movement expressed by means of fluttering garments.
No. 184. Allegory: Lorenzo Tornabuoni presented by Dialectic to Philosophy, at whose feet sit the other Liberal Arts.
No. 185. Allegory: Giovanna degli Albizzi receives gifts from the four Cardinal Virtues.
Frescos about 9 feet long. Painted to celebrate the marriage of Lorenzo Tornabuoni to Giovanna degli Albizzi, members of distinguished Florentine families, in 1486, in their country home near Fiesole, later known as the Villa Lemmi. In 1873 the frescos were discovered under whitewash.
Compare with the allegories previously studied; note the different temper in which these are painted, their homely gravity, the quiet and ordinary character of the draperies, absence of the fantastic. Follow the play of line.
Compare the portrait faces with the others. Compare 185 with the foremost figure in the right-hand group in Ghirlandajo's Visitation, 204, also thought to be Giovanna.
No. 173. Calumny.
On wood, 2 by 3 feet. Given by Botticelli to his friend Antonio Segni. Painted about 1490; some incline to place it after Savonarola's execution in 1498.
Botticelli has followed Lucian's description of a lost picture by the Greek painter Apelles. According to Alberti's Italian translation, with which Botticelli was familiar, there was a man with very long ears, close to whom stood two women, Ignorance and Superstition. Before him appears another woman, Calumny, whose face is very beautiful, but exceptionally intriguing.
In one hand she holds a flaming torch, with the other she drags forward by the hair a youth who raises his hands in supplication. She is guided by a man, pallid, repulsive in countenance, whose name is Envy. Calumny is accompanied by two serving maids, Hypocrisy and Deceit, who deck her with ornaments. At a little distance stands Remorse, clad in dark sordid raiment and convulsed with despair. Near her appears Truth, modest and beautiful, appealing to Heaven.
This work is of marvellous finish, and noticeable in its proportions, producing a sense of largeness despite its small size. The tortured draperies and the agitation of the scene are characteristic of Botticelli's later work. The interest of the picture is too largely intellectual and requiring explanation. It is, however, a vivid rendering of the theme; the figure of Truth is a beautiful example of the nude, and is well contrasted with the sinister Remorse. Especially impressive is the antithesis between the troubled group of the foreground and the stately Renaissance architecture, with the tranquil sea beyond.