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The Life of Sandro Botticelli, by Gorgio Vasari

Self-portrait of Botticelli

(detail from The Mystical Nativity, 1475)

Gorgio Vasari

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects


The Life of Sandro Botticelli, Florentine Painter


In the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ‘Il Magnifico’ (the Elder), truly a golden age for men of talent, there flourished an artist named Alessandro, shortened to Sandro according to our custom, with the second name of Botticelli, for reasons we shall soon discover. He was the son of Mariano Filipepi, a Florentine citizen, who raised him very conscientiously and had him instructed in all those things usually taught to young boys during the years before they were placed in the shops. And although the boy learned everything he wanted to quite easily, he was nevertheless restless; he was never satisfied in school with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Disturbed by the boy’s whimsical mind, his father in desperation placed him with a goldsmith, a friend of his named Botticello, a quite competent master of that trade in those days.

In that period, very close relations and almost a constant intercourse existed between goldsmiths and painters, and because of this, Sandro, who was a clever boy and had taken a fancy to painting, turned completely to the art of design and decided to devote himself to it. Thus, he confided in his father, who recognized the boy’s aptitude and took him to Fra Filippo, an illustrious painter of the period, at the Carmine, and arranged for him to teach Sandro, just as the boy himself desired. Sandro therefore put all of his energies into learning this craft; he followed and imitated his master in such a way that Fra Filippo grew fond of him and taught him so thoroughly that he soon reached a level no one would have expected.

When he was still a young man, Sandro painted a figure symbolizing Fortitude in the palace of the Merchants’ Guild of Florence which was included among the paintings of the virtues done by Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo.

Fortitude, 1470

In the church of Santo Spirito in Florence, he did a panel painting for the Bardi Chapel, which was done most conscientiously and beautifully finished, and which includes some olive and palm trees executed with loving care. Then Sandro did a panel for the nuns of the Convertite Convent, and another similar one for the nuns of Saint Barnabas.

In Ognissanti on the choirscreen by the door leading to the choir, he painted a fresco of Saint Augustine for the Vespucci family, on which he worked very hard in his effort to surpass all those who painted in his day, but most especially Domenico Ghirlandaio, who had done a Saint Jerome on the other side. The work turned out very well, for Sandro had shown in the head of the saint that profundity of thought and sharpness of mind typical of people who constantly reason and reflect upon complex and elevated questions. As we mentioned in the life of Ghirlandaio, the painting was removed, safe and sound, from its location, during this very year of 1564.

Because of the credit and reputation he acquired from this painting, he was asked by the Guild of Por Santa Maria to execute in the church of San Marco a panel painting of the Coronation of the Virgin with a chorus of angels, which he designed very well and also completed. Sandro worked on a number of projects in the Medici home for Lorenzo, ‘Il Magnifico’ (the Elder), the most important of which were a figure of Pallas painted life-size upon a coat of arms containing a large bough with many flaming branches, and a Saint Sebastian. In Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence, there is a very beautiful Pietà with tiny figures beside the Panciatichi Chapel.

In various homes throughout the city, he himself painted tondi and numerous female nudes. Two of these paintings are still at Castello, Duke Cosimo’s villa: one depicts the Birth of Venus, and those breezes and winds which blew her and her Cupids to land; and the second is another Venus, the symbol of Spring, being adorned with flowers by the Graces. In both paintings Sandro expressed himself with grace. Around a room in Giovanni Vespucci’s home on Via dei Servi (which today belongs to Piero Salviati), he did a number of paintings on the walls and bedframes enclosed in decorated walnut panels, which contained many beautiful and lifelike figures. Likewise, for the Pucci home, he illustrated Boccaccio’s novella of Nastagio degli Onesti, in four paintings with tiny figures, which are most lovely and delightful, along with a tondo depicting the Epiphany.

For the monks of Cestello, he painted a panel of the Annunciation in one of their chapels. In the church of San Pietro Maggiore, at the side door, he painted a panel for Matteo Palmieri with a vast number of figures depicting the Assumption of the Virgin and including the heavenly spheres as they are represented, the Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Doctors of the Church, Holy Virgins, and the Hierarchies of Angels, all taken from a drawing given to him by Matteo, who was a learned and worthy man. Sandro painted this work with masterful skill and minute attention. At the foot of the work, he included portraits of Matteo and his wife kneeling. But in spite of the fact that this painting was so beautiful it should have overcome all envy, there were nevertheless some slanderers and detractors who, unable to condemn the work in any other way, accused Matteo and Sandro of having committed the grievous sin of heresy. Whether this is true or not, I am not the person to pass judgement, but it is enough for me that the figures Sandro painted here are truly to be praised, both for the effort he expended in drawing the heavenly spheres, and for the different ways in which he used foreshortenings and spaces between the figures and angels, all of which he executed with a fine sense of design.

During this period, Sandro was commissioned to do a small panel with figures three-quarters of an armslength high which was placed in Santa Maria Novella between the two doors in the main façade of the church on the left as one enters through the middle door. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, and in it the first old man, overcome by tenderness as he kisses the foot of Our Lord, expresses so much emotion that it is clear he has reached the end of his long journey.

Sandro Botticelli - The Adoration of the Magi, 1475

The figure of this king is the actual portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, ‘Il Vecchio’, and is the most lifelike and natural of all such portraits that have survived to our day. The second king, actually a portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, the father of Pope Clement VII, is shown paying reverence to the Child with the most willing and attentive devotion as he offers Him his gift. The third man, who is also kneeling and appears, as he adores Him, to be giving thanks and to be proclaiming Him the true Messiah, portrays Cosimo’s son Giovanni. Nor can the beauty Sandro revealed through the heads in this painting be described: they are turned in various poses — some full-face, some in profile, some in three-quarter profile, and some gazing downward — with a wide variety of attitudes and expressions on the faces of young and old alike, including all those imaginative details that reveal the artist’s perfect mastery of his craft. He distinguished between the three retinues of each king so that it is clear which servants belong to each king. This is truly a marvellous painting: every artisan of our day is still amazed by the beauty of its colouring, design, and composition.

At that time, this work brought Sandro so much renown both in Florence and elsewhere that after completing the construction of the chapel in his palace in Rome and wishing to paint it, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Sandro to head the project. There Sandro himself did the following scenes: the Temptation of Christ, and Moses slaying the Egyptian and accepting a drink from the daughters of Jethro the Midianite. He also painted the fire falling from heaven during the sacrifice of the sons of Aron, and a number of canonized popes in the niches above.

Acquiring from this work even greater fame and reputation among the many competitors who painted there with him, both Florentine artists and those from other cities, Sandro received from the pope a good sum of money, all of which he immediately squandered and wasted during his stay in Rome, in living his customarily haphazard existence, and when he had completed and unveiled the part of the project for which he had been commissioned, he immediately returned to Florence. There, since Sandro was also a learned man, he wrote a commentary on part of Dante’s poem, and after illustrating the Inferno, he printed the work. He wasted a great deal of time on the project, and while completing it he was not painting, which caused countless disruptions in his life.

Sandro also printed many of his other designs, but they were poorly printed because the engravings were poorly done; the best drawing we have by Botticelli is the Triumph of the Faith of Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara. He was apparently a follower of Savonarola’s faction, which led him to abandon painting; unable to make enough to live on, he fell into the direst of straits. Nevertheless, he obstinately remained a member of this faction and became a piagnone (as they were called in those days), which kept him away from his work.

Thus, he eventually found himself both old and poor, and if Lorenzo de’ Medici (for whom Sandro, among many other projects, had done a great deal of work at the Villa dello Spedaletto in Volterra), along with his friends and other prominent men who were admirers of his talent, had not assisted him financially during the rest of his life, he would almost have starved to death.

Sandro was a very pleasant person who played many practical jokes on his pupils and friends, and the story goes that one of his dependants named Biagio painted a tondo for sale similar to the one mentioned above, and that after Sandro sold it for six gold florins to one of the citizens of Florence, he found Biagio and said to him: ‘I finally sold that picture of yours, but this evening it would be good to hang it up high so that it can be seen better, and then, tomorrow morning, you should go to the buyer’s house and bring him here — this way, he can see it displayed in the right light and the right place; then he’ll count out your money for you. ‘Oh,’ exclaimed Biagio, ‘how well you’ve done, Master.’ And then, going to the shop, he placed the tondo in a spot which was rather high up and left.

Meanwhile, Sandro and Jacopo, another one of his pupils, made eight paper hoods (like those worn by the townspeople), and with white wax they fastened them on to the heads of the eight angels surrounding the Virgin in this tondo. When the next morning came, there was Biagio along with the citizen who had bought the painting and was aware of the joke, and after they had entered the shop, Biagio raised his eyes and saw his Virgin surrounded not by angels but by the Signoria of Florence, all seated and wearing those paper hoods. He wanted to cry out and to beg the pardon of the man who had struck the bargain with him, but Biagio noticed that the man said nothing; on the contrary, he began to praise the painting, and so Biagio, too, remained silent. Finally, after Biagio had accompanied the man home, he received his payment of six florins according to the agreement Sandro had struck when he had sold the painting.

Then, returning to the shop, just as Sandro and Jacopo had removed the paper hoods, he saw that his angels had become angels again and were no longer citizens in hoods. So completely dumbfounded he hardly knew what to say, Biagio finally turned to Sandro and exclaimed: ‘Master, I don’t know if I’m dreaming or if this is real; when I came here those angels had red hoods on their heads and now they don’t — what does this mean ?’

‘You’re losing your mind, Biagio,’ Sandro answered. ‘That money has gone to your head: if what you say were true, do you think the man would have bought the painting ?’

‘That’s true,’ Biagio remarked, ‘He didn’t say anything to me, and yet it seemed very strange.’ Finally, all the other boys in the shop, gathering around Biagio, talked to him and convinced him that he had suffered from a dizzy spell.

On another occasion, a cloth-weaver once came to live near Sandro and set up no less than eight looms which, when they were in operation, not only deafened poor Sandro with the noise of treadles and the clanging of the spindle boxes, but also rattled the entire house, whose walls were not as sturdy as they should have been, and between one thing and another, Sandro was unable to work or to remain at home. He begged his neighbour any number of times to do something about this source of irritation, but after the neighbour declared that in his own home he could and would do as he pleased, Sandro was very annoyed, and he balanced an enormous stone — larger than a cart could carry — upon one of his walls which was higher than his neighbour’s wall and not very sturdy, and it seemed that every time the wall moved, it was about to drop and to crush the roofs, joists, fabrics, and looms of his neighbour. Terrified by this danger, the neighbour ran to Sandro, but was answered with his own words — Sandro told him that in his own home, he could and would do as he pleased — and unable to come to any other conclusion, the weaver was obliged to reach a reasonable agreement with Sandro and be a good neighbour to him.

People also tell the story that, for a joke, Sandro went to the Vicar and denounced a friend of his for heresy. When the man appeared and demanded to know who had accused him and on what charge, he was told that it had been Sandro, who claimed that he held the opinion of the Epicureans — that the soul died with the body. The man asked to see his accuser before the judge, and after Sandro appeared, the accused man declared: ‘It’s true that I hold this opinion in so far as this man’s soul is concerned, since he’s an animal, but aside from this, don’t you think that he is a heretic, since without having any learning and scarcely knowing how to read, he did a commentary on Dante and took his name in vain ?’

Sandro Botticelli - Portrait of Dante, 1495

It is also said that Sandro was extraordinarily fond of people who were serious students of painting, and that he earned a great deal of money but wasted all of it badly through poor management and carelessness. Finally, after he had grown old and useless and had to walk with two canes (since he could no longer stand upright), he died, sick and decrepit, at the age of seventy-eight, and he was buried in the year 1515 in Ognissanti.

In the Lord Duke Cosimo’s wardrobe, there are two female heads in profile drawn by Sandro’s hand which are very beautiful: one is said to represent the mistress of Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano de’ Medici, while the other is Madonna Lucrezia de’ Tornabuoni, Lorenzo’s own wife. In the same place, there is also a Bacchus he did, an extremely graceful figure raising a barrel with both his hands and lifting it to his lips, and in the Duomo of Pisa in the Impagliata Chapel, he began an Assumption with a choir of angels, but when it dissatisfied him he left it unfinished. In San Francesco di Monte Varchi, he painted the panel on the high altar, and in the parish church of Empoli, he painted two angels on the same side as Rossellino’s Saint Sebastian.

Sandro was one of the first painters to discover how to work on pennants and other draperies by piecing the material together, as they say, so that the colours do not run and show on either side of the material. Employing this method, he himself created the baldacchino for Orsanmichele which is filled with images of Our Lady, all different and beautiful. This work clearly shows how his method conserves the material better than dyes, for they damage the fabric and shorten its life — even if the use of dyes today is more common due to its lesser expense. Sandro drew far better than was usually the case, so that after his death, artisans used to go to a great deal of trouble to obtain his sketches. And in our book we have some of them, all executed with great skill and good judgement.

He decorated his scenes with plenty of figures, as can be seen in the inlay on the frieze of the processional cross done for the friars of Santa Maria Novella, which was based completely on his design. Sandro therefore deserved high praise for all his paintings, because he put all of his energy into his works and did them with loving care, just as he had the previously mentioned panel of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella, which is truly wondrous.

A small tondo he painted that can be seen in the Chamber of the Priors in the Angeli of Florence is also most beautiful, with tiny but very gracious figures rendered with admirable care. A Florentine gentleman, Messer Fabio Segni, owns another panel by Sandro of the same size as the panel of the Magi, upon which he depicted the Calumny of Apelles — which is as beautiful as anything can possibly be. Sandro himself gave this work to his very close friend Antonio Segni, and underneath the painting, these verses by Messer Fabio can be read:

This little picture warns rulers of the earth

To avoid the tyranny of false judgement.

Apelles gave a similar one to the king of Egypt;

That ruler was worthy of the gift, and it of him.

The Virgin and Child with Three Angels (Madonna del Padiglione), c. 1493

(The Virgin and Child with Three Angels is called Madonna of the Tent or Ambrosiana Tondo. It may perhaps be identified with the one seen by Vasari in the chamber of the Prior of the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence.)

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