Sandro Botticelli Biography
SANDRO BOTTICELLI, or, to use his original name, Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, was born at Florence in the year 1447. His father was a citizen in comfortable circumstances; and Vasari tells us that Sandro, the youngest of Mariano's four sons, was educated with great care, and ' ' instructed in all such things as children are usually taught before they choose a calling. " But the boy's strong will first showed itself in a violent distaste to learning. He was constantly discontented and absolutely refused to give his attention to reading, writing, and accounts, says Vasari; until at last his father, despairing of ever turning him into a scholar, placed him in the shop of a goldsmith named Botticello, a great friend of his and an excellent workman, who prom- ised to teach the boy his trade.
Sandro was destined for higher things, and soon showed the artistic bent of his genius; but this early training in the goldsmith's shop was not thrown away. He took from his first master not only the name by which he has become famous, but the precision of line and patient attention to detail which marked all his work in after-life. From him too he learned that use of gold which he turned to such good account hi his painting, as we see in the foliage of his backgrounds, in his boy-angels' rippling hair, and the embroidered tissue of his Virgin's robes. But he did not remain many years with Botticello. At a time when Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea Verrocchio were goldsmiths as well as painters, there was natur?lly a good deal of intercourse between the men of both crafts. Before long Sandro was seized with so passionate a desire to embrace the profession of an artist that his father, knowing the force of the boy's inclinations, placed him with the Carmelite monk, Fra Filippo Lippi, then one of the first masters in Florence. This time Sandro had found his vocation. He devoted himself earnestly to his new studies, and soon attained a degree of perfection which no one had expected from the wayward, eccentric boy." By the time of Fra Filippo's death Sandro, although only twenty-two years of age, had already acquired the reputation of being the best painter in Florence. .""". .
The same year that Filippo died the young Lorenzo de' Medici succeeded to the government of Florence, and from the first showed Botticelli a generous and liberal patronage, which was never afterwards withdrawn. Through his friendship Sandro was now introduced to the eminent scholars whom Lorenzo loved to collect around him. We are inclined to wonder how the youth who would not learn to read and write fared hi this company. But at whatever time of his life Sandro acquired that knowledge of classical learning which his works unfold, he possessed in a rare degree the feeling for beauty that was sufficient in itself to form a close link with the scholars of the Renaissance. . . .
Besides the Madonnas, with which we are accustomed to 1 associate Botticelli's name, he executed at this period other works on a larger scale. Commissions came to him from all sides, and the fifteen years which elapsed between Fra Filippo's death and Sandro's return from Rome mark a period of great productive energy in his life, during which many of his finest works, both hi painting and engraving, were executed.
Botticelli's love for his scholars, and for all devoted to art, is mentioned by more than one writer. Filippino Lippi, in whom he saw the son of the master to whom he owed his own training, was the best beloved of all his pupils, while this same sympathy fbl rising artists drew him to one many years younger than himself, but already famous, Michelangelo Buonarrotti. . . .
It is curious to learn from Vasari that Botticelli, who seems to us so intensely in earnest, delighted in jesting, and indulged in wild practical jokes at the expense of his scholars and friends which made the walls of the workshop ring with laughter. But for all that a vein of deep melancholy runs through his works, and even when he most wished to be gay, he is sad, as it were, in spite of himself. . . . He loved everything that was fair, the shape of the opening rose, the changing ripples on the waves, the grace of the human form; and yet his imagination is ever beating against the walls of this life, asking what lies without, and whither we are tending. This it was which led him to the study of Dante, this which in later years made him lend a willing ear to Savonarola's warnings. This element of sadness becomes more evident in his mythological paintings than in his Madonnas, where its presence is more in harmony with the subject before him. He had breathed new life and meaning into the old forms of mediaeval art, and now he was called upon to illustrate those classic myths that were the delight of Renaissance scholars. The beauty of both worlds was equally clear to him, and Lorenzo, quick at discerning the capabilities of the men around him, employed Botticelli to decorate his palace with Greek myths, of which the most generally known is the " Birth of Venus " -now in the Uffizi. Besides allegorical subjects he was ordered by Lorenzo to paint several altar-pieces, many of which are still to be seen in the churches and galleries of Florence. Probably most of these works were painted before his visit to Rome, but the only one which bears any date is the fresco of St. Augustine hi the church of Ognissanri, painted in 1480. Soon afterwards he was summoned to Rome, together with Ghirlandajo and Perugino, by Pope Sixtus IV., to adorn his newly erected chapel in the Vatican.
The wide reputation which Botticelli had by this time attained appears from his appointment as chief superintendent of the works. His share in the actual execution of the frescos, however, was limited to three of the large subjects, and the earlier portraits of the series of twenty-eight Popes, which are still to be seen on the upper part of the wall. Of the twelve frescos in which scenes from the life of Moses on one wall and from the life of Christ on the other are represented, the three which fell to Sandro's share were "Moses in the Land of Midian," the "Temptation of Christ," and the "Destruction of Korah." But while he was employed on these frescos of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Sixtus IV. died, the works were interrupted, and Sandro returned to Florence.
Before his visit to Rome he had made his first essay in the art of engraving, and be sides supplying designs for the illustrated edition of Dante published at Florence in 1 482 by Baldini, had himself executed several of the plates. His devotion to the study of the Divine Poet was a remarkable feature of his character, and the engravings show how thoroughly the painter entered into the poet's thoughts. . . .
The last years of Lorenzo de' Medici's life witnessed a marked change in the thoughts and feelings of the Florentines. In 1 490 the Dominican friar, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, came to Florence, and, by the eloquence of his preaching and the boldness of a zeal which knew no respect of persons, commanded general attention. The chosen friends of Lorenzo's circle, and most renowned scholars of his court, were among the multitude who flocked to hear him, and of all classes in Florence none embraced the new doctrines with greater enthusiasm than the artists. Sandro threw himself heart and soul into the work of the great revival, and, in Vasari's words, became "a zealous piagnone." [A name given to Savonarola's followers, signifying weeper, mourner, or grumbler.]
A striking proof of his constancy to the memory of Savonarola, and his firm belief in the ultimate accomplishment of the friar's prophecies, remain in his famous picture of the " Nativity," which he painted in 1500, and which plainly refutes Vasari's assertion, that in this religious frenzy he gave up painting altogether. If, after that, he painted other pictures, we hear no more of them; soon, we know, he sank into premature old age, worn out by the ceaseless toil of hand and brain. We have Vasari's melancholy picture of the old man forced to go on crutches, unable to stand upright, and depending for his bread on the charity of others. So he lingered on till the 5th of May, 1510, when death at length brought him his well-earned rest, and he was buried in his father's tomb in the old parish church of Ognissand.
Such, so far as our uncertain knowledge can show, were the chief features of Sandro Botticelli's life. In the breadth and richness of his culture, in the varied character of the subjects which he chose, in the greatness of his aims, and the mystical bent of his genius, he is in an especial manner the representative in art of the age of the Medici, and embodies for us the varied elements and conflicting ideas of that memorable period.
BOTTICELLI was the only painter of Italy who understood the thoughts of heathens and Christians equally, and could in a measure paint both Aphrodite and the Madonna. So that he is, on the whole, the most universal of painters; and take him all in all, the greatest Florentine workman.
IT is very difficult to write impartially of Botticelli. Those whom he pleases at all are apt to love him to excess and see in his works all possible and impossible perfections; while those who are not touched by his peculiar charm are disposed to look upon him as merely quaint and curious. The truth lies between these two extremes. He is not a great master like Raphael and Leonardo, but he has a singular and personal fascination that marks him as one apart, and gives him a niche in the temple of fame that is all his own. His works are like certain music that strikes a responsive chord only in particular hearts, but a chord that vibrates with an intense and special harmony. He who has caught its singular charm has a joy of his own forever, but he must not blame his neighbor upon whose ear it jars. . . .
No artist has had greater vicissitudes of fame. In his prime he was the favorite painter of the brilliant court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, but with the death of his illustrious patron he sank under the influence of Savonarola, so inimical to his genius, and in his old age he was eclipsed by the glories of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. He was almost forgotten when at length he passed away in poverty and neglect, and he seemed consigned to hopeless oblivion when Mr. Ruskin and the English preRaphaelites proclaimed his greatness and made him the object of a cult that is extending every day. His pictures, little prized forty years ago, are now sought for with infinite eagerness, and are numbered among the most precious gems of the richest galleries.
One reason of the high regard in which he is now held is the prevailing practice of studying art historically. No artist represents so perfectly a particular moment in history. He stands at the exact point where the mediaeval is aspiring toward the classical with infinite but ineffectual desire. In him the Middle Age stretches out its arms with unutterable yearning toward the goddess of Grecian beauty rising again resplendent from the sea, but she still eludes its grasp. He belongs to the time when men kept lamps burning before the bust of Plato as before the Virgin's shrine, yet failed to grasp the essence of Hellenic culture. In a little while the full day is to burst upon them, revealing shapes of classic purity that are to be preserved by Raphael's and by Titian's brush. But Botticelli's contemporaries are still in the early dawn, lit up by a dim and misty light through which the radiant forms of the Grecian goddesses look thin and pale. . . .
Though one of the worst anatomists, he is one of the greatest draughtsmen of the Renaissance. This may seem a contradiction in terms when applied to a painter who dealt so largely with the nude, yet it is true. The anatomy of his figures is usually wretched.
Yet he is one of the greatest masters of the single line that ever lived. He treats the human body simply as a pattern for a living arabesque. As a lineal decorator he stands supreme. In point of color he is perhaps the best of the Florentine school, sometimes bright, usually harmonious, nearly always charming. Yet he subordinates coloring so thoroughly to the line that his pictures have been described as tinted drawings. The tendency of color is usually toward the obliteration of the outline. With him it serves only to accentuate it. In these days when it is the fashion to confound the distinction between the arts, his pictures may be described as symphonies of lines. And all of them are lines of grace. Such harmonious curves it would be difficult to find elsewhere. Frequently they are false to nature, an outrage upon the human anatomy, and to appreciate them we must forget how men are made, and look upon them merely as parts of an arabesque design. We shall then perceive that as lineal decorations they are endowed with a wonderful beauty.
Another merit which he possesses in an extraordinary degree is the presentation of movement. His figures are all in motion or ready to move. It is not a strong movement dependent upon muscular power, it is the light, quick, graceful movement whose seat is in the nerves. His walking figures nearly all rest lightly on the ball of the foot in a position that they could not retain for a moment. They are like instantaneous photographs taken when motion is at the highest point of its curve. And this motion is always graceful. However bad the figures may be in point of anatomy, they always move with an exquisite rhythm. Indeed, the grace of their movements is enhanced by their very imperfection. When we see motion in a body of perfect outline, its grace is only what we expect, and our attention is attracted most by the plastic beauty of the form itself. But when we see these thin, ill-drawn bodies moving so gracefully, it strikes us with all the force of a surprise, and there being no plastic loveliness to charm the eye, we surrender ourselves entirely to the sense of grace. . . .
He is the painter of the breeze. In his pictures it blows continually, sometimes quaintly represented as issuing from the wind-god's mouth, sometimes as only revealed in the flutter of garments a flutter in which is expressed all the buoyant joy and vitality of the zephyr. No one has ever depicted so faithfully or so daintily the effects of the breeze playing with a woman's vestments.
And what vestments they are! Sometimes heavy, sometimes light, sometimes mere gauzy draperies that only serve to enhance the rhythmic grace of the moving limbs, they fall or flutter in delightful folds, and are usually adorned with those delicious embroideries which were only produced in their perfection during the Middle Ages, when time was a matter of no importance, and when a handmaid would spend years in the beautifying of a garment, as a monk would pass his life in the illumination of a missal. Embroideries so fanciful or so charming have never been depicted by the brush. And however classical the subject, it is clothed in these quaintly beautiful draperies of the Middle Ages undreamed of by the Greeks.
He was the painter of small groups and of single figures. In a large field he lost himself. His great frescos in the Sistine Chapel are charming in many of their details, but the composition is confusing a confusion heightened by the insertion into one picture of successive episodes of the same story, so that it is only with great labor that we can make out the meaning; and they can scarcely be said to have a general plan. He is like many writers who can tell a short story well, but cannot handle the complicated threads of a long romance. Within his narrow limitations his composition is pleasing, but when he attempts it on too large a scale we see that he has overpassed his powers. . . .
He is one of the most poetical of all painters, with a quaint, sweet poetry that we love sometimes beyond its merits, like some of the old lyrics of Elizabethan and Stuart days, so naive, so touching, so full of delicate fancies and pleasing affectations, and possessed of a haunting rhythm and a delightful freshness that can never be forgotten. They, too, sing of Grecian gods with the same spirit of mediaeval phantasy, striving with the same unsuccess to grasp the spirit of Ovid or Theocritus. The painters of his day were mostly realists, but Botticelli was a poet and a dreamer, living apart in a fairyland of his own creation.