Botticelli in Netflix’s ‘Medici: The Magnificent’ Facts vs. Fiction

One of the most famous artists in Netflix’s 'Medici: The Magnificent' is Sandro Botticelli. Read on to learn how accurate Botticelli's storyline is.

Sep 21, 2021By Adrienne Howell, BA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel Design
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Sebastian De Souza as Botticelli in the Netflix show Medici: The Magnificent, via IMDb; with the self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli from Botticelli’s the Adoration of the Magi, via National Gallery of Art, Washington; with La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, via Uffizi Gallery, Florence; and Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli, via National Gallery of London

 

Netflix’s Medici: The Magnificent series features a number of famous Renaissance artists from Filippo Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci. However, Sandro Botticelli, played by actor Sebastian De Souza, becomes a significant and recurring character of Medici: The Magnificent. This show is not meant to be a factual reenactment or documentary of these events. It is purely a drama, telling the stories of people during the Renaissance for entertainment. In this article, I will try to explain the show’s handling of Botticelli’s artwork and life, as well as the difference between fact and fiction.

 

Botticelli’s Relationship with the Medici Family in Medici: The Magnificent

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The first scene from Medici: The Magnificent with Botticelli (far right, in red) and Lorenzo de’Medici (in the middle), via IMDB

 

Throughout the series, The Medici brothers and Botticelli are seen as brothers in arms, defending each other till the end. In the very first scene, Botticelli is seen striding down the streets with Lorenzo de’ Medici, swords drawn and fires ablaze, setting the tone for the series to come. Botticelli is portrayed as a friend, brother, and important member of the Medici family. The first time you hear of Botticelli’s backstory is in a conversation between Galeazzo Sforza and Lucrezia de’ Medici (mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano) in episode one. During this scene she claims that he was an orphan and that the Medici family raised him alongside their own, recognizing his artistic talent.

 

In reality, Botticelli was the son of a tanner and was not an orphan. He was given an apprenticeship by Filippo Lippi, who was a Medici artist himself. This was how he met the Medici family. While this part is inaccurate, it is used as an important establishing point between Botticelli and the Medici family.  Botticelli serves almost as a conscience for Lorenzo throughout the series and acts as a concerned friend. Not much is known about Botticelli’s early life or childhood. He lived his entire life in Florence with his family. The fact that the series does not delve into his past is not because it is irrelevant; it is because there is simply not much fact to go on in the first place.

 

Love Triangle: Botticelli, Giuliano de’ Medici, and Simonetta Vespucci

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Sebastian De Souza as Botticelli and Bradley James as Giuliano de’ Medici, via IMDB; with Idealised Portrait of a Lady by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480, via Städel Museum, Frankfurt

 

The series combines myths about the relationships between Botticelli, Giuliano de Medici, and Simonetta Vespucci. In episode 2, ‘Standing Alone,’ both Botticelli and Giuliano are star-struck by Simonetta’s beauty upon first laying eyes on her. Botticelli immediately wants to immortalize her in art while Giuliano falls in love with her. The series makes use of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars painting as the central focus of their story. All three characters become intertwined because of this commission for Vesupcci’s husband. Botticelli uses Simonetta and Giuliano as models for the painting, and it becomes a device for both Simonetta and Giuliano to hide their love affair. The painting depicts Venus (Simonetta), goddess of love, looking lovingly at Mars (Giuliano), god of war.

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In reality, these romance rumors were never confirmed. Simonetta was known in Florence for her beauty and admired by many people, including the Medici brothers. Although there is no factual evidence for the events surrounding Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, its placement is completely intentional and not random. It fits well into the story of a romance between Simonetta and Giuliano, and it also plays a central role in other large events of the series, including the Pazzi conspiracy.

 

Botticelli and the Influence of Simonetta

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Matilda Lutz as Simonetta Vespucci in Medici: The Magnificent, via Pinterest; with a close-up of Venus from Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli, 1483, via National Gallery of London

  

Myths surrounding both Vespucci and Botticelli are numerous, some claiming he was in love with her, while others suggesting she was his principal muse. In episode 5, ‘Ties That Bind,’ you can catch glimpses of sketches in Botticelli’s workshop. They feature sketches of Profile Portrait of a Young Woman to The Birth of Venus. Medici: The Magnificent insinuates that he sketches out all of these different versions of her before her death in order to use them for future paintings. Simonetta dies from an illness, likely tuberculosis, in the show, and in real life. For Botticelli, she becomes his reason for creating art to serve God’s purpose. The series hints at these rumors of his obsession with her by placing multiple different sketches of her in his workshop. This even leads the character of Simonetta’s husband to suspect Botticelli of having an affair with her instead of Giuliano.

 

In real life, most of the paintings seen in the sketches were created after Simonetta’s death. Artists did paint portraits posthumously, but it is still a stretch to insinuate that she was featured in the majority of these works. Her beauty was considered the highest and most achievable type of beauty during her time. It is still debated today how many of Botticelli’s paintings portrayed her.

 

The Fate of the Venus and Mars Painting

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Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli, 1483, via National Gallery of London

 

The finale in part one of the series shows Venus and Mars being burned on a bonfire after the events of the Pazzi conspiracy. We see Botticelli devastated, and this symbolizes the deaths of the two loves of his life – his friend Giuliano and his muse Simonetta. While Medici: The Magnificent has Venus and Mars destroyed in the finale of the first part of the series, the painting actually still exists and is owned by the National Gallery of London. It was painted around 1485, which was after the deaths of Vespucci in 1476 and Giuliano in 1478. They died exactly two years apart from one another to the day.

 

No one knows for certain who this painting was commissioned for. Some people speculate that the painting was indeed commissioned by the Vespucci family. This is because there are wasps in the painting. The word for wasp in Italian is ‘vespe,’ which sounds similar to the name Vespucci.

 

The end of the season also shows the Botticelli painting Primavera as both a symbol and memorial. He says it features a “different type of Venus and Mars,” and is a symbol of rebirth after death. It can also be viewed as a new age for both the Medici family and Botticelli’s art. After the events of the Pazzi conspiracy, the Medici family became stronger in influence and power while Botticelli was on the cusp of some of his greatest works. In reality, most art historians argue that Botticelli’s mystical paintings, such as Venus and Mars or Primavera, were created to celebrate marriages or weddings as decorations for the home.

 

Botticelli and the Pazzi Conspiracy Frescoes

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Sean Bean as Jacopo De’ Pazzi in Medici: The Magnificent, via IMDB; with Hanging of Bernardo Bandini dei Baroncelli by Leonardo da Vinci, 1479, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

The next part of the series begins with the Medici’s established rule over Florence after the Pazzi conspiracy. One of the first scenes includes Botticelli painting the conspirators on the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio. The figures include the three conspirators, including Jacopo de’ Pazzi, Francesco de’ Pazzi, and Francesco Salviati. Botticelli was in fact commissioned by Lorenzo in real life to paint these. It was common for traitors to be further humiliated and used as an example to detract others from committing the same mistakes.

 

The original frescoes, however, were destroyed in 1494 after the Medici were expelled from Florence. These frescoes are used in Medici: The Magnificent to display the beginning of Botticelli’s distrust and confusion over Lorenzo’s decisions. Instead of seeking forgiveness, Lorenzo searches for revenge against those who conspired to overthrow his family, much to Botticelli’s dismay. Above is a sketch of Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation of Bernardo Bandini dei Baroncelli of the Pazzi conspiracy.

 

Botticelli’s Fortitude

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Fortitude by Sandro Botticelli, 1470, via Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

The very first Botticelli painting seen in Medici: The Magnificent is Fortitude, hanging in the dining hall of the Medici Palace. Its place there makes it appear that it was made for the Medici family when, in fact, the painting was actually commissioned by Tommaso Soderini. It was part of the public work done for the Tribunal Hall of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Fortitude was a part of a series of paintings meant to show the human virtues including fortitude, prudence, and temperance. The use of this piece at the beginning of the series is important because it was painted very early in Botticelli’s career. It is also credited as being one of his breakthrough paintings in the style that he is so well-known for today.

 

The next time we see the painting Fortitude is in Part Two. Here Lorenzo has moved the painting, and this is seemingly troubling to Botticelli. The house is being decorated in a more Roman style with frescos and a bust of Alexander the Great. It is one of the first tell-signs of the diverging paths of Botticelli and Lorenzo. During Part Two of Medici: The Magnificent, Lorenzo starts heading down the path of being an aristocratic ruler of Florence rather than its protector and leader. Placing these Roman decorations to replace Botticelli’s symbolizes the change in Lorenzo’s personality. The painting itself also serves as a metaphor for this change. Fortitude is a human virtue that symbolizes the pursuit of accomplishing good. Moving the painting also symbolizes that Lorenzo’s intentions are straying away from his original goal of saving and protecting Florence.

 

A Change of Taste: Botticelli’s Divine Comedy Drawings

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Daniel Sharman as Lorenzo de Medici in Medici: The Magnificent, via IMDB, with Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli, 1485, via The Vatican Libraries, Rome

 

In a brief scene in the episode ‘The Ten,’ Botticelli is seen drawing a colored version of the Map of Hell from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Medici: The Magnificent, Botticelli states that it is for the publisher Niccolò di Lorenzo della Magna. In real life, Botticelli did complete this work as part of a printed edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, however, they were not colored. The one seen in the series was actually commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici as an illuminated manuscript of Divine Comedy. This version of the Map of Hell was created around 1485, but Medici: The Magnificent shows it in the early 1480s. Botticelli possibly continued working on the manuscript until the 1500s, so the timeline of this particular work is inaccurate. It is a part of Botticelli’s largest body of work including silverpoint drawings as well as a few fully colored renditions (as seen above).

 

Art and Politics: Botticelli and His Work in Rome

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Daniel Sharman as Lorenzo de Medic and John Lynch as Pope Sixtus IV in Medici: The Magnificent, via IMDB, with Temptations of Christ by Sandro Botticelli, 1480, via sandro-botticelli.org

 

Medici: The Magnificent briefly shows Botticelli working in Rome and the beginning stages of the Temptations of Christ fresco commissioned for Pope Sixtus IV. In Medici: The Magnificent, the Pope and Lorenzo are still in conflict with each other after the events of the Pazzi conspiracy. Lorenzo goes to Pope Sixtus IV with the help of Botticelli in order to reconcile with him. Botticelli’s art is used as a tool in a political power play. In reality, Botticelli was asked by Pope Sixtus IV to come to Rome along with other artists in order to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli going to Rome was seen as a move toward peace between both men.

 

This move Botticelli made to Rome showcases how an influential and powerful person has the ability to invest in art for the future. If one has the money to commission art, he himself becomes just as important as the artist. Lorenzo de Medici himself is greatly remembered for fostering the emerging artists of his time, something he is still defined by. In the episode ‘Innocents’, The Pope declares that Botticelli’s work on the Sistine Chapel frescoes will be one of “his greatest works” and something both will be remembered for. Both of these men realized the lasting impact art would have as well as how the world would remember them in the future.

 

Botticelli’s Later Career in Medici: The Magnificent 

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Francesco Montanari as Girolamo Savonarola in Medici: The Magnificent, via IMDB

 

Throughout Medici: The Magnificent Botticelli’s character struggles with glorifying the image of God and not his own image. His religious inspiration grew after he began to follow Girolamo Savonarola. In real life, Savonarola had a major influence on Botticelli and his artwork. Some have speculated that Botticelli’s mystical paintings were destroyed in actions such as ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ in favor of displaying religious ones instead. They do not show this in the Netflix series, but instead, the show focuses on Botticelli’s spiritual and moral reckoning rather than any specific painting or commission. So while the show does show Botticelli’s transition towards creating religious artworks, it acts as a result of the Pazzi conspiracy and his relationship with Lorenzo rather than the preaching of Savonarola. In real life, it is presumed that it was the voice of Savonarola that made Botticelli focus more on these religious works.

 

Throughout it all, Botticelli bore witness to some of the most exciting, tragic, and revolutionary moments of Florence’s history, both in fiction and reality. In these moments of strife, he plays a central role in being a compassionate and forgiving person to the Medici family. While his character openly disagrees with the decisions of Lorenzo or Giuliano, in the end he is always there for them at their most desperate times of need.



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By Adrienne HowellBA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel DesignAdrienne currently works as a photographer and visual artist in the Midwest. She earned degrees from Iowa State University with a BA in Integrated studio arts, focusing on drawing & painting, and a BS in Apparel Design with an emphasis on fashion and textiles.