10 Things To Know About Sandro Botticelli

The paintings of 15th century artist, Sandro Botticelli, paved the way for the European Renaissance. Read on to discover more about his artistic inspirations, magnificent creations and tumultuous life.

Jan 12, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
Primavera, one of Botticelli's most famous paintings
Primavera, one of Botticelli’s most famous paintings

The artist known as Sandro Botticelli was born in 1445 as Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, and is thought to have received the nickname Botticelli’, or ‘Little Barrel’ by the older brother who raised him. Growing up in Florence, the young Botticelli witnessed the genesis of the European Renaissance first-hand and would go on to shape its early decades.


10. From A Young Age, It Is Clear That Botticelli Had An Artistic Talent

Later biographies recall that Botticelli distinguished himself as a boy by his intelligence, creativity and also his naughtiness. As well as his practical jokes, Botticelli was known for his artistic talents, and as a result he soon began to work as an apprentice, after leaving school.

Apprenticeships were by no means unusual for young men during the 15th century, but Botticelli was unusually lucky to find himself under the guidance of one of the period’s most important artistic figures.


Portrait of Young Man with Red Cap could very well be a self-portrait


9. Botticelli Learnt His Craft From Filippo Lippi

Botticelli was apprenticed to Filippo Lippi, a Florentine friar and artist who had similarly spent his childhood paying more attention to his sketches than his lessons. After being released from his religious obligations to pursue painting, and subsequently being kidnapped by pirates, Lippi eventually rose to prominence as an artist. He is said to have been so popular that Cosimo de Medici imprisoned him to force him to produce paintings, but Lippi escaped by climbing out of his window.

Whether or not the more sensational stories about Filippo Lippi’s work are exaggerated, it is certain that he played a key role in the seminal years of the Italian Renaissance. He practiced the new principles of linear perspective that gave his work depth, and was an early proponent of grand portrait that came to be a hallmark of the period. Botticelli learnt many techniques from Lippi, including the art of painting frescoes, and his master’s influence is visible throughout the student’s oeuvre.


Fra Filippo Lippi’s Madonna with child and two angels. The face of Mary is thought to have been based on that of Lippi’s lover, Lucrezia Butti, a nun who had run away with the Friar after he came to her convent to find a model, via The Uffizi Gallery.


8. Botticelli Soon Developed His Independent Style

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Filippo Lippi’s paintings were largely characterized by a soft, light and delicate style, and the initial work of Botticelli shares this approach. Once his apprenticeship was over, however, Botticelli adapted what he had learnt and began to incorporate the sense of sculptural definition and strong curvature that was in fashion among his peers. This meant adding new vigor and drama to his paintings, replicating the colors and dynamism of nature on canvas or wood. By 1470, Botticelli had established his own workshop in Florence, and began to be recognized as a master artist.


The style exemplified in his personification, Fortitude, captures Botticelli’s unique adaptation of the lessons he learned as an apprentice, via Wikiart.
The style exemplified in his personification, Fortitude, captures Botticelli’s unique adaptation of the lessons he learned as an apprentice

In the early years of his independent career, Botticelli fully embraced the ongoing tension of the Renaissance: tradition and innovation, the Medieval and the modern, Christianity and mythology, symbolism and realism all meet in his work. So well did he capture the spirit of the age that in 1481, he was commissioned by the Pope to manage the interior decoration of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.


Botticelli’s The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron adorns the walls of the Sistine Chapel, via Web Gallery of Art.
Botticelli’s The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron adorns the walls of the Sistine Chapel, via Web Gallery of Art.


7. But He Was Nonetheless Still Indebted To His Master

By training under such a prominent artist as Filippo Lippi, Botticelli inherited a circle of valuable connections. For one, the Medici family, who had insisted that Lippi produce work for them, in turn became interested in Botticelli, who spent nearly his entire life working under their patronage. It was for the Medici that Botticelli painted his famous ‘Primavera’, an allegorical scene abundant with natural and symbolic imagery.

His contacts at the Vatican also proved useful, as Botticelli was commissioned to paint the official portraits of several Popes throughout his lifetime, a great honor that convinced the artist to relocate, albeit briefly, away from his beloved Florence.

It was in his native city that most of his work took place; Botticelli adorned the Santa Maria Novella his renowned Adoration of the Magi. In this painting, the faces of the three wise men are based on those of Cosimo, Piero and Giovanni de Medici. The piece also contains the only known self-portrait of Botticelli. 


The Adoration of the Magi, via Wikiart.
The Adoration of the Magi


6. In True Renaissance Style, Botticelli Embraced The Ideas And Stories Of The Classical World

Arguably, Botticelli’s most important pieces were not the devotional altarpieces, symbolic frescoes or papal portraits with which he decorated Italy’s churches, but instead his depictions of classical myths and legends.

Among these paintings are ‘Venus and Mars’, in which the pale, lucid figures of the gods languish before three satyrs brandishing a lance and an opalescent helmet, and ‘The Birth of Venus’, which is now ubiquitously famous. In these works, Botticelli evokes the harmony and balance which was associated with classical art, and which later characterized the neoclassical movement.


Venus and Mars, via Wikiart.
Venus and Mars

5. Botticelli’s Life Was Interrupted By Political Turmoil In Florence

Throughout the final decade of the 15th century, the city state of Florence was rocked by political division and conflict, while Italy as a whole was thrown into turmoil by a French invasion combined with the ongoing plague.

At the heart of all this tumult was the infamous friar, Savonarola, whose demands for ecclesiastical reform resulted in his ex-communication by the Pope. Savonarola played an important role in the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, and the establishment of a temporary republic.

Even though the friar was responsible for the exile of his most important clients, Botticelli is believed to have become one of Savonarola’s followers. It is even said that the artist burned some of his more risqué paintings on his orders.


A striking contemporary portrait of Savonarola
A striking contemporary portrait of Savonarola

4. The Turbulent Environment Was Reflected In His Work

Botticelli’s work subsequently became more reflective, dark and brooding. The paintings he produced during the period of Savonarola’s influence and its aftermath are characterized by a feeling of angst, echoing the fanatical friar’s prophesies. 

Gone is the ornate and indulgent richness of his earlier work, and in its wake appears a straightforward, often melancholy, style. Celebratory depictions of Bible stories and lavish mythical images are replaced with somber reflections on religion and morality.


The haunting Mystic Crucifixion, via History Link 101.
The haunting Mystic Crucifixion

The turn of the century saw Botticelli produce two important paintings, ‘Mystic Crucifixion’ and ‘Mystic Nativity’. Scenes from the beginning and end of the life of Christ, these pieces are devoid of any sense of exaltation.

Instead, Botticelli frames them as apocalyptic moments, which he presents with a deep emotional intensity. It is evident from his output that Botticelli had been profoundly affected by the political and religious upheaval that he witnessed.


The influence of the strict new Florentine regime can be seen in Botticelli’s Christ Crowned with Thorns, via Wikiart.
The influence of the strict new Florentine regime can be seen in Botticelli’s Christ Crowned with Thorns

3. There Is Sadly Little To Say Of Botticelli’s Private Life

Although there is little solid evidence about any of Botticelli’s personal life, it seems that his later years saw him slip into a spiral of isolation, depression and poverty. In 1502, Botticelli had been accused of conducting illicit relationships with a young boy, but apart from this aspersion, there are no records of any other sort of relationship.

He never married and there is no record of any children, but he instead lived with his brother on a small farm just outside of Florence. He lived in the city almost his entire life, never moving very far from the street on which he had grown up.

Despite being handsomely rewarded for his work for the Medici and the church, the artist appears to have died a poor man, leaving nothing in the way of wealth or property.


This man in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi is supposed to be based on the artist himself

2. His Talents Only Came To Be Appreciated Again Many Centuries Later

It may have been due to the strict religious nature of his later pieces, but Botticelli’s art was often dismissed during the High Renaissance and throughout the following centuries. His paintings and his name slipped into obscurity after his death, and it was only four hundred years later that the respect and admiration of his work flourished.

The Victorian age saw renewed interest in Early Renaissance art, and particularly the output from Florence, which inspired many of the Pre-Raphaelites. The movement’s founder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, penned a poem about the ‘Primavera’ and was the proud owner of an original Botticelli painting. The first monograph dedicated to the artist was published in 1893, demonstrating that he had joined the ranks of those deemed worthy of study by later art historians.


The Birth of Venus is widely regarded as the most important of Botticelli’s work, and a hallmark of Renaissance painting, via Wikiart.
The Birth of Venus is widely regarded as the most important of Botticelli’s work, and a hallmark of Renaissance painting


1. Paintings By Botticelli Are Now Among The Most Admired Works Of The Italian Renaissance

Despite being largely forgotten for hundreds of years, Botticelli’s resurgence resulted in worldwide popularity. In fact, between 1900 and 1920, there were more books published on Botticelli than on any other painter.

His pieces increased in value proportionately and in 2013 his ‘Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist’ sold at auction for the sum of $10.4 million. ‘The Birth of Venus’, held in the Uffizi Gallery, is generally counted among those masterpieces considered ‘priceless’.


‘The Rockerfeller Madonna’ sold at Christie’s for $10.4 million, via Christie’s
‘The Rockefeller Madonna’ sold at Christie’s for $10.4 million, via Christie’s

Author Image

By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.