“His world is a strange one – a world not of hills and fields and flowers and men of flesh and blood, but one where people are embodied ecstasies, the colour tints from evening clouds or apocalyptic jewels, the scenery a flood of light or a background of illuminated gold.” John Addington Symonds.
Alessandro Filipepi, later known as Botticelli was born in the Ognissanti region of Florence. He learnt his craft from Filippo Lippi, who was to be the most important influence on his work. By 1472 Botticelli had found an assistant in Lippi’s son, Filippino. Many of his earliest works such as ‘Madonna and Child in an Archway’ (c.1470) and ‘Madonna and Child with Two Angels’ (c.1470) show traits picked up from Filippo Lippi, most noticeably the innocent visages of the women. Yet as well as Lippi, the Pollaiuolo brothers and Verruchio also made a strong impression on the artist. As Botticelli’s work became more assured, the de Medici family in Florence took notice and were to become one of his most consistent patrons, commissioning many family portraits, many of which have been lost. Amongst the three paintings that did survive, however, ‘Primavera’ (1478) and ‘The Birth of Venus’ (c.1481) are often regarded as Botticelli’s most accomplished works.
Botticelli spent a considerable amount of time working for the Church. For example he produced ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (c.1481). Heavily detailed with elaborate architectural representations and also featuring highly expressive figures set in a religious context, this painting contains many of the themes that were to recur in much of Botticelli’s work. He built up a great reputation for his religious work and he was invited to work on the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, painting alongside Perugino, Rosselli and Ghirlandaio in 1481 to 1482. Back in Florence he painted ‘The Bardi Altarpiece’ (1485) in the Santo Spirito church. In it one can see the decorative quality that Botticelli mastered so completely, with the artist focusing on the ornamentation as much as the actual content of the painting.
Botticelli produced a great number of decorative frescoes, for example ‘Venus and Mars’ (1487). In 1491 he was commissioned to decorate the vault of the Chapel of St. Zenobius in Santa Maria del Fiore and four years later painted a fresco of St. Francis in the dormitory of Santa Maria di Monticelli. By the turn-of-the-century Botticelli had returned to the Gothic principle in that the most important character of the composition was largest in scale, and he also abandoned modern architecture in favour of rural elements used to frame the subjects. Thus ‘The Mystic Nativity’ (1500) is non-realistic and, although bringing together various stylistic themes from earlier works, the painting is unusual in that it was painted in oil on canvas rather than tempera on panel. It is seen as one of his most personal works, indeed it bears a cryptic inscription that implies Botticelli felt the apocalypse was close.
Botticelli’s output was enormous for a painter of his time. As well as his large-scale paintings and frescoes he also produced many drawings, for example a manuscript of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. He seemed to have a considerable reputation during his lifetime, but was largely forgotten until the Pre-Raphaelites rediscovered his technique, particularly his depiction of women.