Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sandro Botticelli (ca 1445-1510)

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known to us as Sandro Botticelli, was born around 1445 in Florence. Little is known with any certainty about his childhood and early adulthood. By 1470, however, he was working on his own in Florence as a professional painter.

Around 1475 an unscrupulous banker wished to atone for his sins, so he paid Sandro to decorate a chapel by painting the Adoration of the Magi. In this painting Sandro included important members of the Medici family. Cosimo, for example, is the magus kneeling before Mary. Tradition tells us that Sandro even included himself in the painting. He’s the young blond man on the far right who is looking right at us.

Of the dozens of paintings created by Sandro over his career, most featured the Virgin Mary and usually showed her holding the baby Jesus. He also painted stories taken from both Old and New Testaments. In his portraits of saints he included Francis of Assisi (ca 1475) and Augustine of Hippo (1480). We could call most of his paintings Christian, then, because they express a point of view formed primarily by the Bible and the Church.

Some of his paintings, however, were just as clearly Olympian. During his lifetime Florence, after all, was the center of the rebirth of classical Olympian culture. In fact, Sandro’s two most famous paintings, Spring (Primavera) (ca 1482) and The Birth of Venus (ca 1485), draw on ancient Olympian stories and characters for their meaning.

In Spring (80 x 124 inches [203 x 314 cm]), all nine characters, including Venus herself in the center, symbolize creativity and renewal. In this painting, Sandro uses Olympian stories to affirm the renewal of cultural vitality in a Florentine spring based on the rebirth of the classical culture of Greece and Rome.

In The Birth of Venus (67 x 109 inches [172.5 x 278.5 cm]) Sandro gave us an ideal of feminine beauty represented by Venus, goddess of sex, herself. With his Venus he gave us a stunning portrait of one of the six Olympian gods that still dominate our world. In 1483 he also created a less known but still significant painting entitled Venus and Mars. According to Olympian tradition, Venus was married to Vulcan, god of technology, but the lover of Mars god of war. Venus and Mars, sex and violence, remain box-office bestsellers today.

Beginning in 1480, and for the next 20 years, Sandro drew illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy). He also painted a portrait of Dante in 1495. In 1483 Sandro also honored another Florentine writer, Giovanni Boccaccio, by creating four paintings illustrating a story from The Decameron (Day 8, Story 5). Again, his drawings based on Dante were Christian while his paintings based on Giovanni were Olympian.

In 1490 a Dominican monk named Girolamo Savonarola started preaching in Florence. His preaching soon appealed to so many people that he had to use the pulpit in the cathedral, the largest church building in Florence, to satisfy public demand. One theme of his preaching was the need of Christians to repent of their support of the rebirth of classical Olympian culture. One consequence was an annual Bonfire of the Vanities: the public burning of a huge collection of objects like cosmetics, playing cards, books, and paintings deemed contrary to wholesome Christian practice.

Tradition tells us that one year Sandro threw some of his beautiful Olympian paintings into the flames.

Even after the death of Girolamo in 1498, Sandro painted much less frequently than before and stuck to paintings on Christian themes.

Sandro loved a woman named Simonetta. She was the most beautiful woman in Florence but married to another man. Sandro used her face and figure whether he was painting Venus or Mary. She died young, only 23, in 1476. Sandro asked to be buried at her feet when he died. Following his own death in 1510, he was.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
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