BOTTICELLI (Early Life and First Paintings, from 1445 to 1477)

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.

Madonna and Child with an Angel, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1465-1467, 87 x 60 cm (Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence). It is possible that Botticelli painted this panel while he was still working in the workshop of his teacher, Filippo Lippi. The painting seems inspired by Lippi’s famous Madonna and Child in the Uffizi. Botticelli replaced the landscape of the background with an arched architecture that frames the heads of the mother and child and emphasizes the two main figures as the center of the composition. The painting, one of Botticelli’s earliest, reveals his close artistic relationship with his teacher,
Virgin and Child Supported by an Angel in a Garland, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1465-1467 or 1467-1468, 152 x 77 cm (Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, Corsica, France). This painting is also a reflection of the extent to which the young Botticelli imitated the Madonnas painted by his teacher Fra Filippo Lippi.
Madonna della Loggia, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1467, 72 x 50 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). As a novelty in the traditional depictions of the Madonna and Child embracing, Botticelli here introduces a new motif represented by the loggia. In several similar paintings of the Madonna and Child, the young Botticelli was trying the different motifs associated with this particular theme.
Virgin and Child with Young St. John the Baptist, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1470-1475, 90 x 67 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Again, in his early Madonna paintings, Botticelli shows strong influences of the style of his teacher, Filippo Lippi.
Madonna and Child, oil on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1465 or 1470, 92.5 x 69.5 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
The Virgin and Child with Two Angels and the Young St. John the Baptist, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1465-1470, 85 x 62 cm (Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, Florence). Helped by an angel on the left of the painting, Mary holds her child on her knees. Her eyes are inaccessibly lowered. Mary is flanked by another angel (to her right) and the young Baptist, who was added to the composition in a somewhat helpless manner. Mary’s translucent veil and gold braid trimming cloak are signs of Botticelli’s love of ornamentation.
Madonna of the Rose garden (Madonna del Roseto), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1469-1470, 124 x 65 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). In this painting, Botticelli presents us with the monumental seated figures of the Virgin and the Child filling the entire pictorial space, thus giving a powerful three-dimensional quality to the figures. The arched architectures frame the group who sits on a stone bench. A rose bush is clearly visible behind Mary, a traditional symbolic image referring to her. The pomegranate, which Mary holds in her right hand and which the Child is tasting, symbolizes fertility, royalty, and with its red color, alludes to the blood of the Passion of Jesus. This work shows incisive use of chiaroscuro reminiscent of Verrocchio, in whose workshop Botticelli may have trained. The type of child portrayed in this panel (with a large oval head and a joyful lively expression), can also be seen in Verrocchio’s sculpture Putto con delfino from around the same period. Due to its composition, shape and stylistic elements, this panel is close to another painted by Botticelli in his youth, the Fortitude (see picture below), from ca. 1470.
Madonna and Child, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1470, 74.5 x 54.5 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.).

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.

Fortitude, tempera on poplar panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1470, 167 x 87 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This was Botticelli’s most prestigious work of the 1470s and shows influences of Pollaioulo, in the treatment of the figure, and of Verrochio, in the decorative motifs of the throne and the way the clothing is represented. Botticelli’s placed the figure of Fortitude seating on a high throne with elaborately carved arms. Fortitude appears seated in a slight contrapposto: her upper body weight is leaning on one arm while she also has one foot slightly shifted forward than the other. This posture creates a forward-moving energy that seems as if she will rise up from her throne and join the observer viewing her from below. The blue enamel work on the armor and the highlights on the metal are particularly interesting as they indicate a thorough knowledge of the goldsmith’s art. The contrast of the soft, flowing folds in Fortitude’s clothing to the harshness in her metallic armor creates an interesting play on themes of masculinity versus femininity: though she appears to be regal and delicate, she is also maintaining vigor and bravery. The model used by Botticelli to represent Fortitude could be Lucrezia Donati, an Italian noble woman, mistress of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Fortitude (detail), tempera on poplar panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1470, 167 x 87 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The energy and vitality of the girl in armor, expressed in her face and pose, is an original creation of Botticelli and shows clearly the very personal way in which he developed and enriched the styles of his contemporaries. Upon first glance, the eye of the viewer is drawn to the most illuminated point of the painting: the face of Fortitude. Her gaze is turned down and away from the observer and because of this, her expression is perceived as passive and uninterested. This was a characteristic feature of Botticelli’s female figures.
Portrait of a Young Man, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1469 or 1470-1475, 51 x 33,7 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). Botticelli painted this portrait in a three quarter view (one of the firsts in western European art) like a silhouette against a pale blue sky. The young man, who is looking very slightly down towards the observer, is wearing a red jerkin and the characteristic headgear of the Florentine Quattrocento, the mazzocchio. The hat band which is casually draped across his shoulder provides an artistic frame for the young man’s face.

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.

St. Sebastian, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1474, 195 x 75 cm (Staatliche Museen, Berlin). This panel was originally placed in 1474 on one of the pillars in Florence’s Santa Maria Maggiore church on 20th January, the feast day of the saint. This explains the painting’s unusually long format. Saint Sebastian is serenely enduring the six arrows shot into him. Clothed only in a loincloth, he is standing on the stumps of a tree that has been cut to the shape of a stake and which rises suddenly in the center of the composition, in front of the landscape and sky. Sebastian’s tormentors have already moved on and are hunting for herons (left of the painting). If we leave the portrayal of the dead Holofernes (see picture below) out of consideration, then this St. Sebastian may be regarded as Botticelli’s first male nude. Here, the artist followed classical ideas in his harmonious proportions and balanced “contrapposto”.

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.

Madonna and Child with Six Saints (Sant’Ambrogio Altarpiece), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1470, 170 x 194 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This altarpiece takes its alternative name from the Florentine convent of Sant’Ambrogio, where it was placed in 1808 before it was transferred to the Uffizi galleries. This work is considered to be the first monumental piece commissioned from Botticelli, as well as one of his first altarpieces. Botticelli here depicts a Sacra Conversazione, showing the enthroned Madonna surrounded by saints. To the left are Mary Magdalene with the ointment jar and St. John the Baptist wearing furs, and to the right are St. Francis of Assisi in the Franciscans’ habit and Catherine of Alexandria with her wheel. The two kneeling saints, Cosmas and Damian, were patron saints of both the Medicis and doctors and pharmacists.
Scenes from the Life of the Magdalene, predella panels from the Sant’Ambrogio Altarpiece, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1470 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, USA). These three small panels tell some key episodes in the life of Magdalene, from left to right: Noli me tangere, The last moments of St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Mary Magdalene listening to Christ preach. These panels are characterized by a careful rendition of perspective, both of the architecture and the landscape.

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.

Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1474-1475, 57,5 x 44 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The picture of this unidentified young man is one of the most unusual portraits of the Early Renaissance. The man is gazing at the observer and holding up a medal bearing the profile of the head of Cosimo de’ Medici, who died in 1464. Botticelli set the medal into the painting as a gilded gesso plaster cast. The sitter was represented in half length and appears placed in front of an expansive landscape with a river. The light, which falls on the subject from the left, clearly shapes his striking features, and there are stronger shadows on the side of his face closer to the observer. This is one of the earliest Italian portraits to make the hands a part of the portrait’s theme. The identity of the man depicted has been directed to someone supporter of the Medicis, or perhaps the man who created the medal, though some scholars note that the sitter’s identity is almost as mysterious as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1476-1477, 76 x 53 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). This is perhaps the most authentic portrait of Giuliano, assuming that it was painted during his lifetime. However, the death symbols (the dove sitting on the dead branch and the half-open door) on the picture seem to contradict this assumption. Giuliano, the younger brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, is turned to the right and there are no less than three known version of it. Giuliano was assassinated on 26 April 1478, while mass was being celebrated in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, during the course of an attack made by the Pazzi family, who were the Medicis’ rivals for power and banking business. In the background, one window shutter is open, allowing us to see the blue sky, while the other is behind the subjects’ bowed head. The dove by the window jamb is a symbol of loyalty, and for this reason it is thought that Giuliano commissioned this portrait following the death of his courtly love, Simonetta.
Portrait of a Young Woman, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1485, 61 x 40 cm (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). There are several candidates for the identity of the young woman portrayed in this panel, between them Simonetta Vespucci, Clarice Orsini, Fioretta Gorini, etc. The lock of hair coming loose from the sitter’s bun gives a more spontaneous feeling to this severe profile portrait. The half length figure is slightly to the left of the center of the painting. Behind her is a dark window frame that contrasts with the gentle flow of her contours.
Portrait of a Lady with the Attributes of Saint Catherine (also known as “Catherina Sforza”), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1475 (Lindenau-Museum, Altenburg, Thuringia, Germany).
Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Brandini, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1470-1475, 65,7 x 41 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). If the inscription on the windowsill at the bottom of the painting jamb, possibly dating from the 16th century, is to be believed, this is a portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli (Brandini), who was a member of a respected Florentine family, the grandmother of the Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli. A sign of her rank and respectable status is the handkerchief which she is holding in the hand placed across her body. As a novelty, Botticelli introduced the sitter’s hand placed on the window frame.

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.

Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1475-1476, 111 x 134 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This painting established Botticelli’s fame in Florence, and may rightfully be considered the high point of his early artistic output. Commissioned by the broker and money-lender Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, the painting was destined for a chapel in Santa Maria Novella that he endowed in order to obtain a high social standing which he lacked. Del Lama’s portrait may be seen among the crowd of people on the right-hand side of the picture, an elderly man with white hair and a light blue robe looking at the observer and pointing in the latter’s direction with his right hand. Botticelli depicted the Adoration scene on a ground that rises gently, so that the faces of almost everyone present can be seen, as can the great variety of postures and gestures of the characters. The most famous members of the Medici family are portrayed together with del Lama; controversy rages as to their precise identification, although there is no doubt that the eldest king, kneeling before the Virgin and the Christ Child, is a representation of Cosimo the Elder, founder in the 1430s of what would be the dynasty of the Medici family. Other members: Cosimo’s sons Piero, called the Gouty, as the kneeling king with red mantle in the center, and Giovanni (the third Magus), and Cosimo’s grandsons Lorenzo the Magnificent as the young man at the right, in profile, with a black and red mantle, and Giuliano (the figure in first plane to the left). The three Medici portrayed as Magi were all dead at the time the picture was painted, and Florence was effectively ruled by Lorenzo. Botticelli also allegedly included a self-portrait as the blonde man with yellow mantle on the far right. The attention to details, such as the ornate garments, shows the influence of the Flemish school in the art of Botticelli.
Adoration of the Magi (detail, probable self-portrait), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1475-1476, 111 x 134 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1470-1475, diameter 131,5 cm (National Gallery, London). In this painting, Botticelli not only painted the figures clothed in highly imaginative robes, but also captured them in the most varied of postures, gestures and facial expressions. There is such a wealth of figures in this composition that the overall effect can seem quite confusing, but in the center is the child sitting on Mary’s lap, the focal point of the composition and of the subject-matter. The scene is set in a ruined, pseudo-classical temple building. It was considered to be the symbol of the destruction of the heathen world by Christ’s arrival, for according to medieval legend an ancient temple of peace collapsed in Rome when Christ was born.

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.

The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes, tempera on wood, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1472, 31 x 25 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The picture was probably created in pendant with The Return of Judith to Bethulia (see picture below); both of them are documented at the end of 16th century in medicean collections. In Renaissance art the biblical story of Judith, the heroine who killed Holofernes, the oppressor of her people, was frequently selected to symbolize liberty and victory on tyranny. The soldiers are standing in dismay around the bed on which the headless body of their commander Holofernes is lying. They had expected to find him in Judith’s arms, who, however, is already hurrying home. When compared to the other painting with Judith, however, the youthful well-formed body we see here presents us with a contradiction: in Judith’s painting, the cut off head of Holofernes has the features of an older bearded man.
The Return of Judith to Bethulia, oil on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1472, 31 x 24 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The picture was probably created in pendant with The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes (see picture above). The Biblical tale of Judith, who slew Holofernes, the Assyrian king’s commander-in-chief, because he represented a deadly threat for the Hebrews in Bethulia, was one of the favorite subjects of the Florentine Renaissance. Judith was considered the prototype of female strength, since she alone had summoned up the courage to murder the tyrant. In this painting, Botticelli shows us Judith together with Abra, her maid, the two of them striding out in a well-nigh furious manner. Abra is carrying Holofernes’ severed head on her own head, while Judith has an olive branch in her hand as a symbol of peace, which she is bringing to the Hebrews. Botticelli has succeeded here in capturing both movement and stillness in a unique balance. Judith is pausing a moment in her striding forward to turn towards the observer, self-assured if not without a touch of melancholy.

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.

Madonna and Child with Eight Angels, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1478, diameter 135 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The so-called Raczynski Tondo was named after the private collection of which it was part before being acquired at the end of the 19th century by the Berlin Gemäldegalerie. It is possible that this is the painting that Vasari said hung in the church of San Francesco (now San Salvatore al Monte). There is a strict symmetrical structure to the composition with its life-size figures, and the finely toned down colors are very charming. Surrounded by eight wingless angels, Mary is breastfeeding her Child. There is direct eye contact with the observer, involving him in the intimate scene. The angels are holding lilies, the sign of Mary’s purity, and are engaged in antiphonal singing: while some of them are calmly waiting to start (the group of angels to the left with one of them directly observing the viewer), the others are singing and reverently looking at a hymn book (the group on the right).

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.

Door with intarsia wood inlaying, ca. 1474, 364 x 210 cm (Palazzo Ducale, Urbino, Italy). The drawing design is attributed to Sandro Botticelli, particularly the figures of Apollo and Pallas Athena on the upper part of the doors.

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.

6 thoughts on “BOTTICELLI (Early Life and First Paintings, from 1445 to 1477)

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