Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, who has gone down in history under the name of Botticelli, was born around the year 1445 in the neighborhood of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, located next to the Church of the Ognissanti and near the houses of the powerful Vespucci family, with whom his father had a good relationship. A few years later, in 1454, Amerigo (the future explorer destined to give his name to the New Continent), would be born into the Vespucci family. The Vespucci would be regular patrons of Botticelli. Alessandro’s father, Mariano di Vanni d’Amedeo Filipepi, was a tanner and had several sons. In 1457, in his declaration to the cadastre office (the Treasury office in which the citizen’s financial situation had to be declared periodically), Mariano’s children were: Giovanni, a 37-year-old trade broker, nicknamed Botticello (meaning “little barrel”) perhaps because he was short and of round stature; Antonio, gold-beater, 27 years old; Simone, 14 years old, and our Alessandro, 13 years old.
About the latter his father declared: “My son, Sandro, 13 years old, stà a legere ed é malsano“. This is often interpreted as “he’s going to school” (he’s learning to read) and “he’s sickly”. However, it should be noted that in the declarations to the treasury, children tended to be shown as if they constituted a burden and not yet working, as well as to suffer from illnesses or family misfortunes in order to have the taxes reduced. However, some scholars instead of legere interpret legare, which would indicate that Sandro was an apprentice goldsmith, that is, he legava (casted) jewels.
If young Sandro was still studying at the age of 13, his instruction must have been —for that time and among the underprivileged class— remarkable and prolonged, which only occurred when a boy showed particular genius and aptitude for studies. On the other hand, if Sandro was not very healthy, perhaps his father would take him away from the noxious atmosphere of his workshop, where he tanned his skins, to place him next to the eldest son, Botticello, the reason for which he would later be called Sandro di Botticello and later, with the Latin genitive of Botticelli. However, it must be remembered, that it was Mariano’s second son Antonio, who by his trade as gold-beater and gilder of frames and other ornaments was in constant relationship with artists. Indeed, Antonio is remembered in the books of Neri di Bicci (a Florentine painter of the time) dated 1467, as a “Florentine artist” and thus we find him enrolled in the Academy of Saint Luke in 1472.
Nevertheless, Vasari mentioned Fra Filippo Lippi as Botticelli’s teacher, and his apprenticeship in Lippi’s workshop can be dated to between 1460 (when Lippi was working on his fresco paintings in Prato) and 1467, when Lippi left Florence to go to Spoleto. Some Madonnas are attributed to this first period of Botticelli: the Madonna and Child with an angel from the Museum of the Hospital of the Innocents in Florence, an imitation of a Lippi masterpiece; a Madonna and Child Supported by an Angel in a Garland from the Fesch Museum in Ajaccio, with the Virgin’s figure standing; the very robust Madonna of the Loggia of the Uffizi; two Madonnas that are in the Louvre; a Madonna and Child with Two Angels and the Young St. John the Baptist, from the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze in Florence, originally from Santa Maria Nuova, where we can guess in the angel, next to the Virgin, a self-portrait of Sandro, still in his teens. Of a more assured artistic quality is the Madona of the Rose Garden (Uffizi) a much more lyric work and the Madonna and Child (Madona Corsini) from the Mellan Collection in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. These works, still from his apprenticeship years and experimental, moreover reveal not only the influence of Lippi, but also those of other artists such as Baldovinetti and Verrocchio.
The flourishing workshop of Verrocchio, where Leonardo, Perugino and Signorelli were then together, was able to attract Boticelli around the year 1468, although it cannot be assured with absolute certainty that he was part of it. On the other hand, in 1470, a document shows that there already existed and independent “workshop of the master Sandro Botticelli, Florentine”, who in that same year obtained, with the patronage of Tommaso Soderini (a statesman of the Republic of Florence), the commission of two Virtues for the Tribunale della Mercatanzia (a court where crimes of an economic nature were judged) located in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, while the other Virtues were executed by Pollaiuolo and the drawing of one of them was made by Verrocchio. Botticelli made, however, a single figure, that of the Fortitude (today in the Uffizi) where the linear tension shows influences from Pollaiuolo, while the clean decorative richness recalls Verrocchio. This is the first work by Botticelli of which we know its exact manufacturing date (1470), painted when he was 25 and of an already much certain and more refined artistic quality. From this same period probably is a Portrait of a Young Man (perhaps a self-portrait) that is kept in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, a work that was previously attributed to Andrea del Castagno, and that, indeed, shows a particularly energetic approach.
In 1472, Botticelli’s name appeared cited in the Books of the Company of Saint Luke (“Compagnia di San Luca” the painters’ confraternity in Florence) where, in that same year, Filippino Lippi (son of Fra Filippo) was listed as a disciple in Botticelli’s workshop. In effect, Filippino manifested a distinctly Botticellian first phase in his painting, so much that his early works were once attributed to Botticelli by critics, although attributing them to an anonymous “follower of Sandro”. Filippino was born in 1457; therefore, he was then 15 years old. For almost a decade Filippino appeared as Sandro’s collaborator in his workshop.
In 1473 we find new references to Botticelli in the Company of Saint Luke. In early 1474, the artist finished a panel of Saint Sebastian (formerly in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence, and today in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Against a background with a landscape, the thin but gallant figure of the saint leans on the trunk of a tree, isolated, his martyrdom has been consummated and the soldiers appear in the distance, he looks sad, but not too disturbed by pain. The line tension inspired by Castagno and Pollaiuolo thus loses its raw drama to acquire, instead, the sensation of a winged, sharp, hypersensitive but uncompromising and melancholic beauty.
In the same year, 1474, Botticelli went to Pisa where he had been commissioned to continue the series of frescoes begun by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Camposanto Monumentale. As a sample, he made an Assumption, a fresco, in the Cathedral of Pisa (during the summer of 1474), but this work was never finished and the commission was not fulfilled: evidently the Pisans were not satisfied with the master’s work. This Assumption was destroyed in 1583. In 1473, Botticelli painted a Banner with a Pallas Athena on the commission of Giuliano de’ Medici on the occasion of the lavish celebration of the Giostra (fair or tournament) on January 28. At the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent (1492) such banner was still cited in the inventory of the Medici palace; then it disappeared during the dispersal of the first Medicean collection.
In effect, Botticelli had come to enjoy the protection of the Medici, as shown by the Madonna and Child with Six Saints (Altarpiece of the Converts, Uffizi, Florence) from a monastery for repentant prostitutes, where the two Saints Cosmas and Damian are the portraits of the young Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici. This painting, in which Botticelli dares to make a monumental composition with numerous figures, reflects certain coldness in its composition. This last work can be dated approximately from around 1470. The Scenes from the life of the Magdalene (Philadelphia Museum of Art), from the predella, show more sensitivity.
At this time Botticelli appears especially devoted to the execution of several portraits of the Medici or of people associated with them. Thus the Portrait of a Man with the Medal of Cosimo the Elder (Uffizi, Florence), an unidentified character that Botticelli represents with great vigor; the Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, of whom the artist painted several panels, the most suggestive of all being the one in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A Portrait of a Young Woman in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, with the sitter portrayed in half-length, fully in profile, with a deliberate yet refined simplicity, and that perhaps depicts a “mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici”; and a Portrait of a Lady with the Attributes of Saint Catherine (Lindenau-Museum in Altenburg), which is attributed (although without absolute certainty), to Botticelli, perhaps it represents a lady of the Sforza family, on the occasion of Galeazzo Maria Sforza’s visit to Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1471. Also very original in his approach is another portrait, that of Smeralda Brandini (grandmother of the sculptor Baccio), which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Several members of the Medici house also appear in the sumptuous Adoration of the Magi (today at the Uffizi), originally from Santa Maria Novella, and painted for a certain Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a businessman, broker and money-changer very close to the Medici family. Among the many portraits in this painting, we recognize those of Cosimo the Elder, Giuliano and Lorenzo (which in our opinion, however, are changed, since we identify Lorenzo with the character on the right next to the two kings, and Giuliano with the one on the left), as well as a self-portrait of Botticelli at the far right. A wide and noble architectural setting with classical ruins in the background lends breath to this composition, which can be dated to around 1476. It seems unlikely, given the friendly tone of this painting, that it may have any relation or commemorative purpose to the Pazzi conspiracy occurred in 1478, from which Lorenzo de’Medici was able to come out alive but in which Giuliano, instead, was assassinated. In this painting, the calculated and clear distribution of the groups of people, in comparison to the “tondo” (circular painting) Pucci with the Adoration of the Kings (Epiphany, today in the National Gallery in London), as well as the preciousness of the details, perhaps show the influence of Mantegna‘s art, as he was known in Florence when he arrived in Tuscany in 1466-1467.
In addition to the influence of Pollaiuolo’s restless linearism, Mantegna‘s is also evident (in the brilliant preciousness of details) in two Botticelli’s paintings at the Uffizi that represent the Discovery of the body of Holofernes and the Return of Judith to Bethulia (around 1475). In this last painting certain basic lines turn on themselves from the figure of the maiden towards Judith’s arm holding a sword, and then go towards her other arm with the olive branch, to finally return to the heads. This constitutes the visual equivalent of a feeling that goes backwards, nostalgic and melancholic; a melancholy that’s accentuated by the contrast between the surviving women and the serenity of the indifferent morning landscape, between Judith’s beauty and the cruel act to which she has been forced to be part of.
Between 1475 and 1478 there’s no certain data, with their corresponding dating, about Botticelli’s whereabouts. Some scholars, though, place some of his works in these years. The Madonna and Child with Eight Angels (Raczinsky Tondo) in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin is easily identifiable with one cited by Vasari in the church of San Salvatore al Monte, near that of San Miniato, in the outskirts of Florence. This painting according to Vasari included eight angels. Indeed, eight teenagers appear as angels, holding lilies in their hands, around the central image of the Madonna with the Child. This work can be considered as one of the first great examples of Botticelli’s Madonnas painted in “tondo“, a style in which Botticelli produced some masterpieces.
The drawings for some figures later made in marquetry (intarsia) for the Ducal Palace of Urbino are also attributed to Botticelli, as well as an Apollo and a Pallas Athena, in a portico in the Room of the Angels, in which the Apollo reminds the figure of Mercury of Botticelli’s Spring; while the armed Athena, still fierce in the style of Pollaioulo, may also correspond to the figure of the Athena of the Banner (1475) cited by Vasari as seen in the house of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and that he also described as arising on burning branches, as it can also be seen in the figure of this Athena in the Ducal Palace of Urbino. It is possible that Botticelli sent to this city a drawing that was very similar to the figure he made before for the Medici.
Other intarsias attributable to drawings prepared by Botticelli are found in the same Ducal palace, as well as those in the studiolo of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, dated 1476. This would undoubtedly constitute a chronological point of reference in Botticcelli’s chronology. If Botticelli traveled to Urbino to carry out these commissions, the contact he most probably had with Piero della Francesca must certainly have been for him a great cultural experience outside of his native Florence, even so though the artistic temperaments of both masters were very different: Piero’s perspective, spatial, severe and impassive; Botticelli’s, on the contrary, hypersensitive, refined and dreamy, of a mobile and often musical artistic line.
And is precisely in musical terms, that Botticelli’s first great masterpiece has been interpreted: The Spring.