Botticelli Amid the Splendor and Demise of the Medici Family

Botticelli paintings are among the most recognizable works in art history. But who is Botticelli? Botticelli, whose given name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, was one of the many brilliant painters of the Medici era and, by extension, Renaissance in Florence, when various forms of art, including architecture and statues, reached the peak of their development.

What Is Botticelli Known for

Born in 1444/1445, when the Medicis’ power was nearing its apex, Botticelli was an extremely bright student who became easily bored at school; soon he earned the nickname of Botticelli, which is the word for a small wine cask, by which he would become renowned throughout the world.

Under the patronage of the Medici, art flourished in Florence and Botticelli and other artists that created numerous timeless masterpieces earned their place in the history of art and the world.

What Is Botticelli Known for?

Sandro Botticelli was one of the most esteemed artists in Italy. Aided by the patronage of the immensely powerful Medici family, Botticelli, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, became part of the glorious Renaissance of painting, sculpture, architecture, and academic scholarship that was made possible by these benefactors.

The Medici and Art

The Medici, whose ancestors were originally physicians, became extremely wealthy bankers; they came to wield enormous political power within the Republic of Florence, reigning over it almost like royalty by the middle of the fifteenth century. Later scions of the family came to establish themselves as some of the greatest patrons of art the world has ever known; however, the first politically prominent Medici devoted themselves to consolidating the family’s power within the Florentine Republic. 

Although Cosimo de Medici was forced into exile in 1433, he returned to establish complete control of the political entities in Florence, including the all-powerful Signoria, or council of the Republic, just one year later. It would not be until 1494 that the Medici would lose power in Florence; but by that time its rulers had made possible the flourishing of the Renaissance itself, with Botticelli occupying a singular place within it, with his magnificent altarpieces, naturalistic Madonnas and exquisite scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.

Cosimo expanded his power base in Florence over the span of several decades, passing away in 1464 and leaving the family fortunes and political position to his son, who was known as Piero the Gouty. Experiencing several political setbacks, including an attempt to depose him as ruler, Piero did not leave much of a mark on Florentine society. 

However, his son Lorenzo, who went down in history as “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” was not only a brilliant politician but the greatest patron of the the arts the world may ever have known. He almost singlehandedly made possible the explosion in the arts that became known as the Renaissance, with his support of such luminaries as Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and others. Lorenzo de Medici painting commissions are responsible for some of the world’s most famous masterpieces. A portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent was also done by Botticelli.

What Type of Art Is Botticelli Known For?

By the year 1470, Botticelli had established his own workshop, with understudies who would complete his work under his direction. He first rose to great prominence four years later, when he painted his Young Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo de Medici, a portrait that was commissioned by the powerful ruling family of the city.

In 1475, he painted a banner for a jousting match held to mark the coming of age of Lorenzo Medici’s brother Giuliano in 1475, when the artist was approximately 30 years old. Botticelli, later known for his many paintings depicting mythological figures and scenes, depicted the Roman goddess Minerva on the banner. In the same year, he showed his devotion to — and patronage of — the Medici family in his monumental work The Adoration of the Magi. He portrayed himself gazing directly at the viewer in this painting, while he gave the three Wise Men the visages of several members of the Medici family, including Cosimo, Piero, Giovanni, who was exiled from Florence for 9 years, Lorenzo and Giuliano.

Just three years later, Botticelli was chosen by Lorenzo the Magnificent to paint the images of conspirators who had assassinated his younger brother Giuliano in a brutal attack on April 26, 1478 inside the great Duomo, or Cathedral, of the city. 

According to the common practice of the day, he depicted the corpses of the men as they had been hanged or decapitated for their crime, painting these images on the facade of the city’s Porta della Dogana as a warning to others who might be thinking of engaging in such violent, traitorous acts. 

Lorenzo then commissioned Botticelli to paint a portrait of Giuliano. The work was completed in 1480, and it is only one of the eight portraits created by the Florentine master at a time when the genre was just beginning to become popular in Europe. 

Botticelli was further rewarded for his allegiance to Lorenzo the Magnificent when the great Florentine leader promoted him as one of the painters who would adorn the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, along with Michelangelo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Pietro Perugino, among other brilliant artists. Under the direction of Pope Sixtus IV, Botticelli created The Temptation of Christ,  a monumental work showing Jesus being tempted by a disguised Satan, in 1481. 

In that same year, Botticelli created his much smaller tondo, or round painting, titled Madonna of the Magnificat; some scholars believe he depicted the faces of Piero de Medici’s wife Lucrezia, along with Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, in the figures for this piece.

What Was Botticelli’s Most Famous Piece?

The great Florentine master created two of his greatest paintings, Primavera, or Springtime, in 1482 and The Birth of Venus, in 1485. Both works are exhibited today beside each other in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, so that viewers may best experience the impact of the monumental pieces. 

Commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, and featuring Venus, Cupid, Mercury, Zephyrus, the Three Graces and Flora (who is transformed into the goddess of Spring), this masterpiece represents the apex of the Renaissance in that it commingles naturalistic painting with figures from Greek and Roman mythology, who were brought to life again with the rediscovery of classical literature. 

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, completed in 1485, also portrayed the goddess in the naturalistic manner developed during the Renaissance. Her portrait, more than any other, exemplifies the great rebirth of classical literature, science and philosophy in the West that was made possible by the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent. 

Scholars believe that Botticelli continued to work for the younger members of the family until 1497, although the Medicis, who brought the entirety of Renaissance into being, fell from power and were expelled from Florence in 1494. They did not return until 1512.

How Did Botticelli Make the Paint He Used in Primavera? 

He used a piece of wood instead of a canvas, and it was painted tempera paint. At the time, the paint was typically made out of egg yolk, and strong pigments, although other materials such as vinegar were sometimes added to the mix.

Why Did Botticelli Burn His Paintings?

To understand what led to the destruction of Botticelli’s paintings by his own hand, we have to mention Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar and puritan fanatic who made powerful enemies, not least because of his animosity towards profiteers, over the course of his austere moral dictatorship. Savonarola came to prominence after the Medici were temporarily driven away from the city in 1494. 

He was known to give sermons on the wicked, materialism-driven ways and moral corruption of the city of Florence. He preached strict adherence to religious, conservative values and stood firmly against greed, lust, pleasure and other acts that he believed would inevitably provoke the wrath of God. Botticelli was convinced. 

This caused him to burn his paintings, especially his more secular works which depicted nudity and vice. Savonarola, along with his two most ardent followers, was executed in 1498 through hanging and burning at the stake.