Botticelli: The Renaissance Between Opulence and Restlessness
Sandro Botticelli is widely regarded as one of the most esteemed artists in the history of art. However, his masterpieces continue to captivate interest, admiration, and provoke debates even long after his passing. In recent decades, new discoveries and restoration efforts have prompted a reevaluation and deeper comprehension of his works. Advancements in technology have allowed for an exploration of Botticelli’s mental and artistic “laboratory,” uncovering hidden drawings beneath the paint and providing glimpses into the invisible details that lie beneath the surface. Furthermore, documentary studies have yielded fresh insights into his family, social circles, and patrons.
Botticelli’s significance lies precisely in this ongoing process of discovery and reassessment of his internationally renowned works, in stark contrast with an artist who almost never ventured beyond Florence. In other words, as an ancient Florentine saying goes, he was “un uomo uscio e bottega”, tending to his doorstep and workshop.
This attitude is perfectly in line with his character: for Botticelli, the city of Florence embodied his one true love, as exemplified by his steadfast refusal to marry and instead surround himself with the camaraderie of his workshop colleagues and numerous friends.
It was precisely through a friend, Tommaso Soderini, that Botticelli began to forge a connection with the immensely influential Medici family, who was at the pinnacle of its power under the rule of Lorenzo the Magnificent. From that moment, Botticelli’s artistic output became inextricably intertwined with the historical events of his beloved Florence.
Adoration of the Magi
The patronage of the Medici family can be traced back to the creation of the “Adoration of the Magi,” a work commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama specifically as a tribute to the rulers of Florence. This painting prominently features key members of the Medici dynasty, including the patriarch Cosimo the Elder, Piero the Gouty, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the late Giuliano. Its completion greatly contributed to Botticelli’s growing relationship with the Medici and established him as the family’s esteemed portraitist.
Botticelli was given the task of creating three posthumous portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici, who had been assassinated during the Pazzi Conspiracy. These portraits were intended for Lorenzo, the surviving brother, to propagate the image of the late Giuliano and garner consensus, sympathy, and solidarity in a city that had suddenly found itself in the middle of the Pazzi War. Florence was standing alone against the papacy, the King of Aragon in Naples, and Federico di Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, who, under the guise of friendship with Lorenzo, likely had a hand in instigating the conspiracy with hopes of seizing Florence.
In this critical context, Lorenzo needed to rally as many allies as possible to his cause. Amidst the turmoil, Botticelli was also responsible for painting the likenesses of the conspirators, whom Lorenzo had apprehended and subsequently hanged within the Palazzo Vecchio, on the customs gate of the palace.
Furthermore, Botticelli played a pivotal role when Lorenzo the Magnificent decided to dispatch him, along with his finest fresco painters, to Rome to adorn the Sistine Chapel, in an attempt to reconcile with the Pope. This marked the only instance where Sandro ventured beyond Florence, and it was perhaps the physical distance from his beloved hometown that unleashed a propensity for drama in his fresco “Trials of Moses.” This work deviated from his more renowned masterpieces, characterized by a harmonious and stable composition, and instead exhibited an animated and emotionally charged narrative.
The esteemed master of the Renaissance was thus an ever-present witness, and at times an active participant, in the transformations of his city, even during the most tumultuous periods. He managed to reflect not only the anxieties and apprehensions of his era, but also its opulent splendors.
It is precisely the splendor that we encounter in one of his most renowned paintings, “Primavera” or “Spring.” This artwork has captivated art historians of recent generations due to its intricacy: the figures portrayed are recognizable, yet the scene depicted remains a subject of multiple interpretations.
According to art historian Cristina Acidini, author of the most recent monograph on Botticelli as part of the Volumi d’Arte Menarini series, “Primavera” may symbolize the celebration of peace restored in Florence after the Pazzi War, thanks to Lorenzo the Magnificent, portrayed as Mercury, the Peacemaker. In the painting, Mercury disperses a cloud using his caduceus, a symbol of recognized medical significance, thereby dispelling great discord. The Graces resume their dance, Cupid launches his arrow, and Spring returns with blossoming flowers in the form of Flora, the personification of the city of Florence. Flora appears triumphant and joyful. It is worth noting that Flora was the Latin name of Florence, used by humanists to honor and glorify the city. “Primavera” represents the city’s triumph in the newfound peace, allowing civilization to thrive under Lorenzo the Magnificent’s patronage.
The Birth of Venus
Another iconic masterpiece by Botticelli, known for its harmony and beauty, is “The Birth of Venus.” According to Cristina Acidini’s recent interpretation, despite the title suggesting the birth of Venus, the painting may actually depict her arrival on the Tuscan coast. Venus is portrayed in a poised position on a shell, seemingly prepared to disembark and receive a welcoming reception, once again from Flora/Florence. Under Lorenzo the Magnificent’s patronage, Florence endeavors to safeguard Hellenic culture that had been displaced due to the Turkish conquest.
As events unfolded in Florence, we witness a transformation in Botticelli’s art. A versatile storyteller, capable of harmony, excitement, and drama, he found inspiration in the words of Savonarola and his ability to incite apocalyptic expectations. Consequently, Sandro turned his attention to sacred art and embraced a passionate and emotive narrative, transgressing the established rules of perspective.
Madonna of the Magnificat
An excellent illustration of his versatility can be seen in the “Madonna of the Magnificat.” This work presents an innovative sacred iconography, wherein the Madonna is crowned akin to a heavenly queen by two angels. Two young men assist the Madonna by offering her an inkwell, while an elder angel encourages them. Botticelli demonstrates great mastery in capturing the intricacies of the veils, endowing them with extraordinary subtlety.
Another notable masterpiece that exemplifies Botticelli’s later period and his ability to convey drama and emotion is “La Calunnia” (Calumny), which draws inspiration from a 4th-century BCE work by the Greek painter Apelles.
Through works like this, we gain insight into the depth of Botticelli’s cultural knowledge. He was well-versed in the works of Dante Alighieri, whom he had illustrated both in his youth and adulthood. Additionally, he was familiar with Boccaccio and the histories of ancient painters. Botticelli immersed himself in a humanistic culture that he made his own through his significant connections, including Poliziano and Cristoforo Landini, the latter being the author of the proem to the Divine Comedy, which celebrated Florence.
Portrait of Esmeralda Brandini
The final phase of Botticelli’s life is characterized by his decline. After enjoying a prominent position as the unrivaled protagonist of the Florentine art scene for a considerable time, the artist gradually faded into obscurity, overshadowed by new rising stars. Leonardo, already established and respected, Michelangelo, on the ascent, and Raphael, still in his early days but already highly esteemed, took the spotlight. Botticelli’s presence mainly persisted within biographies (such as Vasari’s dedicated account), but during the Baroque period, he was largely disregarded. His paintings were scattered among the villas of Florence, adorning corridors and receiving little recognition.
However, against all expectations, it was a lesser-known work, relatively obscure on a global scale, that rekindled Botticelli’s enduring allure. The “Portrait of Esmeralda Brandini” arrived at the National Gallery in London during the mid-19th century, igniting such fervor that it inspired the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his cultured family. Esmeralda became a figure of myth who shaped the features of the women represented by the Pre-Raphaelites: they all have sharp, pale faces, curly red hair, and an extraordinary assertiveness that highlights the figure of the model. This painting determined Botticelli’s fate in the Anglo-Saxon world and gradually revived interest in him elsewhere. Even in Italy, Botticelli’s fortunes experienced a resurgence primarily when the English began to rekindle their fascination with him.
Botticelli left an enduring legacy in the art world. His ability to capture the essence of his era, from the grandeur of Medici Florence to the apocalyptic anxieties of the Savonarolian period, continues to captivate and intrigue audiences. The timeless appeal of his multifaceted persona, encompassing both dramatic and serene elements, has established him as a symbol of Renaissance Florence, balancing between opulence and restlessness.