In 1491, Botticelli, together with Lorenzo di Credi, Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Baldovinetti, was appointed jury of a project competition for the façade of the Florence Cathedral, a competition sponsored by Lorenzo the Magnificent. He also had a commission, together with Ghirlandaio, to decorate with mosaic an area of the vault of the chapel of Saint Zenobious in the same Cathedral, a commission that was never carried out. But from 1490, the city of Florence was under tension listening to the voice of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, his preaching against the desecration and corruption of the Renaissance, his incitement to penance, his announcements of apocalyptic punishments, it was all a call to a severe medieval religiosity. The hypersensitive Botticelli couldn’t escape to this suggestive preaching which also reached other artists such as Lorenzo di Credi, Bardo della Porta, Il Cronaca and, finally, even the young Michelangelo. But there were facts in Savonarola’s preaching and his party that Botticelli couldn’t share: thus the anti-Medici position, the hatred of classical culture, the condemnation of the entire refined civilization hitherto dominant in Florence, all accompanied with bonfires of vanities, including books and paintings. Certain family-related reasons must also contribute to Botticelli’s psychological crisis.
In 1493, Botticelli’s older brother Giovanni, from whom he had taken the nickname Botticelli, died. Meanwhile, his other brother, Simone, almost the same age as Sandro, was returning from Naples and was going to live in Botticelli’s house. Simone and his other brother Antonio, the gilder, convinced Sandro, who was single and whom they had judged unpredictable and disorderly as artists are usually believed to be, to acquire in the name of all the men of the family, a property located outside the city walls on the area near the gate of San Frediano, a property that included a house and vineyards, olive and fruit trees. Sandro paid for this property that he bought in 1494 from the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, 156 gold florins. Because of this property, between 1497 to 1498, Botticelli had disputes with an adjoining owner, a certain Filippo di Domenico del Calzolaio, a dispute that ended with a reciprocal declaration before a notary not to offend each other again. The declaration was guaranteed by a certain Antonio di Migliore Guidotti, an ardent follower of Savonarola.
In this decision to make Sandro buy something solid such as that property, his brothers could also be influenced by the fact that the artist, having lost the great patronage of the Medici and even being frowned upon by this precedent, would see his commissions decrease and as a consequence, fall in misery. At the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, his son Piero was, in effect, deposed from power in 1494 and his relatives Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco rose up against him, calling themselves Popolani (partisans of the people), but with the sole purpose to find a way to succeed him in power. Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco also were enemies of Savonarola and ultimately contributed to his downfall and execution. Botticelli continued to have a patron in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici, but his brother Simone, an ardent Piagnone (or “weeper” as the Savonarola’s followers were called) reproached him for maintaining this association with the opposing party.
Meanwhile Botticelli had made some smaller works such as Saint Augustine in his cell (Uffizi), a painting owned by the Vecchietti in the 16th century and in which preciousness is combined with a shocking feeling of tormented loneliness. Also in the Portrait of Lorenzo Lorenzi (today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), the incisive and insightful definition of the portrait does not exclude a subtle insight into the personality of the learned professor of the University of Pisa, who was an acquaintance of Pico della Mirandola (a nobleman and philosopher) and even with Savonarola, and who ended up committing suicide in 1502. Severe in appearance is the Portrait of Michelle Marullo (Cambó Collection, Barcelona) a professor from Naples, who in Florence was the guest of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici from 1489 to 1494. With an angular, convulsive rhythm, it’s a Madonna and Child and the Young St. John the Baptist that is in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, while the Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, recalls the work of Rogier van der Weyden in the most painful arch drawn by Christ’s body. An equally dramatic, anguished vision, although now in vertical format and more closed, emerges from other Lamentation over the Dead Christ of the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, perhaps identifiable with a Pieta remembered as being located in Santa María Maggiore in Florence. We must also mention the mystical tension in the Last Communion of St. Jerome at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as well as the grandiose, excited convergence of the groups in the unfinished Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi.
We find in the latter a sense of powerful movement of the masses that recalls the Dantean visions; Botticelli was, in fact, a passionate admirer of Dante, whose “DivineComedy” he began to illustrate ca. 1481 commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici. The drawings on parchment (today in Berlin and in the Vatican Library) prepared to be illuminated in color, certainly translate Dante’s virile sobriety through the very distinct sensitivity of Boticelli’s art, but they are, indisputably, of a high illustrative quality.
In 1495, thanks to a letter from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici’s wife, dated November 25, we know that Botticelli was expected at the Villa del Trebbio, in Mugello, to execute some paintings (perhaps frescoes), but we know nothing more about it. In 1496, Botticelli painted a Saint Francis in the dormitory of the convent of Santa María di Monticelli (Florence), which has now disappeared. In July of that year, when Michelangelo (who at that time was considered suspicious in Florence) had to write a letter from Rome to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, he addressed it to Sandro Botticelli. In 1497, Botticelli made, in collaboration with assistants, certain decorative paintings in the Villa di Castello a property of Lorenzo; but nothing is known about them either.
From that same period is the splendid Calumnyof Apelles of the Uffizi, acquired by a certain Antonio Segni. This painting is an allegory of a famous ancient painting by Apelles described by Lucian and later by Alberti. On the other hand, other scholars relate this work to the calumnies that led to Savonarola’s excommunication (1497) and, later, to his martyrdom. Be that as it may, in this painting the serene beauty of the rich porticoes adorned with statues and bas-reliefs contrasts with the dramatic meaning of the allegory. The figure of the King, badly advised by Ignorance and Suspicion whom fill his ears with bad calumnies, has before him the beautiful but false Calumny (served by Fraud and Perfidy), which drags an innocent man, while the whole group is preceded by the grim Envy. Then comes, represented as a witch, Remorse and, finally, the naked, abandoned Truth. The agitated linearism of the figures represented in a rhythm that either encircles and harasses, or on the contrary delays and abandons, stands out even more in contrast to the static beauty of the environment, with its pilasters and powerful arches, up to the green see expanse under an immaculate blue sky. In this painting, we return to the old contrast, already admired in Botticelli’s Judith, between the serene and eternally imperturbable nature, and the painful human drama; although, once again, all of this is projected in the fantastic distance and the allegorical beauty of the myth.
The same happens in The Outcast, from the Pallavicini Collection in Rome, a mysterious allegory in which the aching sense of the human nature is clear against the firmness of the background stage. This is much more solemn, with architectures appropriate to preside over hectic scenes, in the Story of Virginia (Carrara Academy, Bergamo) and in the Story of Lucretia (Isabella Stewart Museum, Boston), which are identified with the panels painted by Botticelli in 1495 for a new house acquired by the Vespucci.
Meanwhile, Sandro had gone to live with his brother Simone in the house of his nephews Benincasa and Lorenzo, in the Santa Maria Novella neighborhood. Times were agitated and referring to the Mystical Nativity in the National Gallery in London, a writing by Sandro dated 1501 mentions “the tumults of Italy” with other prophetic references (perhaps referring to Savonarola). In this Nativity, where men and angels embrace, peace is fostered after the reign of the Antichrist. It is a stylistically agitated painting, of a hurtful and exasperated quality, an expression of a violent religious pathos. Also in the Mystical Crucifixion of the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we find a complex allegory not entirely decipherable, but always inspired by Savonarola, with a Magdalene hugging the Cross while the city of Florence appears in the background.
During the last years of his life, Botticelli produced much less; perhaps his art, now so disturbed, no longer attracted customers; perhaps he was feeling tired. In 1502, as Elizabeth d’Este, Duchess of Ferrara, was looking for a great painter in Florence, she got the news that Perugino and Filippino Lippi were too busy, but that Botticelli was available and did not have so much work, and he himself declared willing to serve her. Botticelli’s charges for sodomy date from November of that same year, which didn’t seem to have been carried out. Botticelli, cited in 1494 by Luca Pacioli as skilled in perspective, was remembered in 1503 by Ugolino Yerino in the poem De illustratione urbisFlorentiae among the most famous painters, along with Giotto, Taddeo Gaddi, Pollaiuolo, Filippino, Ghirlandaio and Leonardo. In 1503 Botticelli appeared in the Books of the Company of Painters as a debtor of some social contributions, which he paid in 1505, undoubtedly with the payment he received from the Scenes from the Life of Saint Zenobius (today in London, New York, Dresden). In 1504 he participated, with some of the best artists, in discussions about where Michelangelo’s David should be placed. There is no further news about Botticelli until the year 1510, when he was buried, on May 17, in the cemetery of the Church of the Ognissanti in Florence.