The works of Sandro Botticelli are among the most revered of renaissance painting. The sweeping curves of his women and the ethereal beauty of their gazes are recognized instantaneously: from a grandmother in a small town to the cognoscenti of New York or Paris, few can claim to be unmoved by his work. Patronized by the Vatican as well as one of the most rich and powerful Florentines of his time, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, Botticelli was hugely popular in his own day. His most magnificent work, the Primavera, as well as The Birth of Venus, Camilla and the Centaur, and Mars and Venus contain entirely mythological figures whose significances have been debated by various art historians for centuries.
Born as Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni (Filpeppi was his real last name, but it is said to only really have been used by his brother Simone) in 1444 or 1445, Sandro Botticelli was the youngest of four siblings. The name Botticelli later was used after a nickname given to his brother meaning keg or barrel. At the time of his birth, his family lived in the Santa Maria Novella area of Florence with his mother, Smerelda, and his father Mariano, who worked as a tanner. When Sandro was about fourteen or fifteen years old, his family moved into a house next to (and owned by) the Rucellai family, who later commissioned work from Leon Battista Alberti who was a great influence to the young Sandro. As a student, he had potential; however, he was "restless," according to Vasari. Sandro's father was patient and moved him from one school into another before he had him apprentice with a goldsmith in hopes that that might be of interest. However, while visiting other workshops, Sandro discovered that painting was more to his liking and decided to take that up instead (Venturi 15-17). Sandro's apprentiship in the shop of Fra Filippo Lippi began around 1461. He was so lucky to be placed with such an accomplished and renowned master, it would be hard to argue that fate did not exist. Lippi was already known across Italy and had been frequently commissioned by the Medici family. Botticelli learned a wide array of his future technique and style from Lippi. The detail Lippi was known for we can see Botticelli using on the clothing and horticultural aspects of the Primavera, one example being Venus' garb. Geometry and perspective, all being rediscovered and remastered in Lippi's day were also an addition to Botticelli's arsenal of skills which he would nurse into his own very naturalistically flowing, ethereal, and idealistic style (Venturi 17-19). Figure 1
What is it about mythological figures that conjure up questions and accusations of anti-Christian paganism amongst conspiracy theorists? Botticelli seems to have completed far more religious works than secular; however, people like Dan Brown insist that Botticelli and some of his contemporaries were using pagan iconography to expose something about Mary Magdalene and the "sacred feminine (Brown 270)." Whatever the case may be, Botticelli was fully able to capture the true grace and beauty of the sacred feminine through both his secular and religious works. In Botticelli's paintings, the Mary and Jesus pair as well as the Venus and Cupid pair bear striking resemblances to one another in the Primavera, which is to be expected, seeing as most artists' style of painting is not completely unique from one work to the next. However, the roles they play in the works of Botticelli parallel each other. Even though Venus and the Virgin Mary stem from two completely different sets of historical and religious traditions, both figures (in the context of Botticelli's paintings) stand for the similar ideals of virginal purity, matronly ideals, and unconditional love (see figure 1)(Venturi 70). It is the understanding of the diversity of Neo-Platonic ideals which lets us put the use of mythological figures into context. These characters were found in countless works of great poets...
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