Old Master Paintings

Botticelli in the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent

By Bruce Edelstein
SANDRO BOTTICELLI’S YOUNG MAN HOLDING A ROUNDEL. ESTIMATE UPON REQUEST. The artwork will highlight Sotheby's upcoming auction, Master Paintings and Sculpture Part 1, taking place live on 28 January at 10:00 am EDT in New York.

A lessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli, was born in Florence around 1444 or 1445 and died there on 17 May 1510. He was thus born just before the end of the Council of Florence, which attempted to reunite the Eastern Orthodox Churches with the Catholic Church, an event that brought great prestige to the city and to the Medici in particular. His death occurred in a city from which the family had been exiled over fifteen years before, just before their restoration in 1512. He reached his maturity during the period of greatest splendor of the Medici family, and his career was intimately intertwined with their patronage.

The Medici had undergone a meteoric rise from relative obscurity at the beginning of the fifteenth century, establishing exceptional wealth and political clout on an international scale. The family’s achievement of the status of primus inter pares in Republican Florence was frequently contested, starting with the exile of Cosimo the Elder in 1433. Cosimo’s return less than a year later in 1434 marked the beginning of ever-increasing Medici control of government institutions. On Cosimo’s death in 1464, the family’s political and financial interests passed to his eldest son, Piero the Gouty. Piero’s dominance over Florence was short-lived, however, as he too died in 1469. Botticelli’s independence as a master thus coincided precisely with the rise of Piero’s eldest son, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo’s authority in Florence was so explicit that he is often thought of anachronistically as a prince surrounded by a court. However, as Lorenzo himself observed in his Ricordi, “It is ill living in Florence for the rich unless they rule the State.”1

Lorenzo had received a sound humanist education as a child, but little attention seems to have been given to his training to manage the family bank. The Medici bank had grown to become the largest such financial institution of its time, but it declined under Lorenzo’s direction and collapsed after his death.2 He was groomed to be perceived as an aristocrat, which is especially clear from his mother’s choice of bride for him. In fifteenth-century Florence, patrician families rarely married outside of the close-knit circles of Florentine elites. Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Lorenzo’s mother, chose instead Clarice Orsini, from a prestigious Roman noble family.3

Fig. 1. Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence / Bridgeman Images

To mark Lorenzo’s coming of age in 1469, a joust was held. Jousting was an activity associated with the medieval chivalric tradition, and its revival in Florence at this time points to the ongoing process of gentrification of the Medici and their circle.4 Lorenzo’s joust featured spectacular ephemeral decorations made by the leading artists of the day: his banner for the occasion was painted by Andrea Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci’s master. A similar event was held for Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano in 1475. Giuliano’s banner, featuring Minerva, was painted by Botticelli, a powerful affirmation of the favor that he enjoyed with the Medici during these years.5 His own desire to be perceived as an intimate member of their circle is evident from the Adoration of the Magi that he painted for the Del Lama family altar in Santa Maria Novella (fig. 1).6 Gaspare del Lama declared his adherence to the Medici’s political consortium by having Botticelli paint the Magi with the features of the three generations of the Medici starting with Cosimo the Elder, descending through his sons Piero and Giovanni, and including both “Magnifici,” Lorenzo and Giuliano.7 On the far right, Botticelli famously included his own self-portrait looking out at the observer, inviting us to join the Kings in worshiping the new-born Child, but also to admire the princely splendor of the crowd and the artist’s privileged rapport with them.8

Giuliano would be killed only three years later, during the Pazzi conspiracy, one of the most dramatic attempts to overturn Medici power in Florence. On 26 April 1478, assassins set upon the two “Magnifici” during High Mass in the Cathedral. Giuliano was murdered at the high altar. Lorenzo, although wounded, managed to escape into one of the sacristies, where he barred himself inside until it was safe to emerge. The Pazzi conspirators, including the Archbishop of Pisa, were hunted down and hanged or decapitated. In Florence, it was traditional to make an example of traitors to the state by having the images of the hanged men painted on public buildings as a warning to other like-minded rebels. Botticelli was hired to paint these portraits over the Porta della Dogana, in the central civic arena of Florence, adjacent to the Palazzo della Signoria.9 This was not the only commemorative portrait that Botticelli was asked to paint at the time: the artist was also commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of Giuliano, which survives in three versions.10

Fig. 2. Sandro Botticelli, Temptation of Christ, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City / © Raffaello Bencini, Bridgeman Images © Luisa Ricciarini/Bridgeman Images

Botticelli’s prestige reached its greatest heights in the 1480s, a decade of phenomenal activity for the artist. By far, the most prestigious commission of this period was his inclusion among the painters brought to Rome to decorate the Sistine Chapel. Sixtus IV, who had ordered the construction of the chapel, was a Della Rovere from the Ligurian city of Savona. An exceptional patron of the arts and architecture who sought to return Rome to its ancient splendor, Sixtus had not exclusively favored Tuscan artists following his elevation to the papacy in 1471, employing other central Italian artists active in Rome and the surrounding areas as well. He was also the most significant Pazzi conspirator not to have been brought to justice for the assassination of Giuliano de’ Medici. The arrival of Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli in Rome to join Pietro Perugino in the decoration of the chapel was almost certainly a direct effect of Lorenzo’s cultural diplomacy in the wake of the Pazzi conspiracy, as he sought to insure that foreign influences, like the King of Naples and the Pope, would stay out of Florentine affairs in the future.11 Botticelli’s personal success following his arrival in Rome is suggested by the fact that, among the narrative subjects he was asked to paint, was the Temptation of Christ (fig. 2). The scene, positioned almost directly opposite the throne that Sixtus occupied when he was in the chapel, contained a portrait of one of his nephews, Giuliano della Rovere, whom Sixtus had hand-picked as his successor. Some twenty years later, Giuliano realized his uncle’s dream for him, assuming the papacy as Julius II.

The team assembled for the Sistine Chapel in 1481 was commissioned on its return to Florence to execute frescoes in one of the great halls in the Palazzo della Signoria, but only Ghirlandaio would actually complete the wall awarded to him there.12 One of the reasons that the others may not have completed their works was that they were also requested by Lorenzo the Magnificent to paint the decorations in a villa that he owned at Spedaletto, near Volterra.13 Botticelli completed this work but the fresco cycle was unfortunately destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century, and we have little indication about their subjects, apart from the likelihood that they were mythological.

(from left) Fig. 3: Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, Uffizi Gallery, Florence / © Raffaello Bencini, Bridgeman Images; Fig. 4. Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, Uffizi Gallery, Florence / Bridgeman Images

Botticelli is in fact most famous today as the painter of mythologies, especially the Primavera (fig. 3) and the Birth of Venus (fig. 4). These works are generally identified with the culture of Lorenzo the Magnificent and frequently attributed to his patronage, although no documentary evidence suggests that he commissioned either work.14

Fig. 5. Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, Uffizi Gallery, Florence / Luisa Ricciarini, Bridgeman Images Bridgeman Images

These great mythological subjects embody many of the ideas now most commonly associated with the early Renaissance, particularly the revival of classical antiquity. They are especially evocative of the sophisticated literary culture of Lorenzo and his circle. Lorenzo was raised with a singular passion for poetry.15 His childhood tutor, Gentile Becchi, was a poet of modest talent. However, his mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, was an accomplished poet.16 Lorenzo inherited this passion and became one of the most significant poets of his time in Florence, arguably perhaps second only to Poliziano, who was the tutor to Lorenzo’s children. Poliziano devoted several years to writing a long epic poem known as the Stanze about the joust held in honor of Giuliano, filled with allusions to ancient texts, but left unfinished, possibly after his protagonist’s murder in the Pazzi conspiracy.17 These same sources lie behind the imagery of Botticelli’s great mythological paintings, including the Pallas and the Centaur (or Camilla and the Centaur) (fig. 5).18

Perhaps more important than the specific ancient or contemporary poetic sources for Botticelli’s mythologies is the concept that the paintings themselves are forms of poetry.19 This fits into an emerging debate in the Florentine culture of his time regarding the status of artists. Painters and sculptors were traditionally considered the practitioners of mechanical arts but in the fifteenth century they began to marshal arguments in favor of being considered the equivalent of poets, who practiced one of the liberal arts. Over time this competition, known as the Paragone, devolved into a rivalry between painters and sculptors over whose art had a better claim to this higher status. The Birth of Venus would seem to offer powerful arguments on behalf of painters. The figure of Venus herself in the painting is directly inspired by ancient sculptures of the Venus pudica, but Botticelli demonstrates what painting can do that sculpture cannot: suggest the movement of wind.20 As the goddess is blown to shore on her island home of Cythera, her hair billows out, as does that of her handmaiden and the cloak that she holds to attire Venus once she arrives on shore. The impression is made even more strongly through the fluttering roses blowing towards her and the white-capped waves of the sea below her feet.

Fig. 6. Sandro Botticelli, Calumny of Apelles, Uffizi Gallery, Florence / Luisa Ricciarini, Bridgeman Images Bridgeman Images

The literary interests of Botticelli and his patrons were not limited to ancient texts. His works suggest familiarity with Leon Battista Alberti’s On Painting, one of the earliest manifestos of the new art. The Calumny of Apelles (fig. 6) may indicate specific knowledge of this text, since the subject is one that Alberti explicitly describes in the treatise, although the ultimate source for both is the ancient author Lucian, whose works were translated into the vernacular during the fifteenth century. Botticelli exploited the sophisticated architectural setting to display a riot of sculpture, suggesting both marble statuary and gilt bronze reliefs, again perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of painting to sculpture. This work, too, points to the cultural milieu of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was a particularly devoted reader of Alberti, with whom he had visited the ancient ruins in Rome.21 Indeed, the first edition of Alberti’s treatise On Architecture was published under Lorenzo’s aegis with a dedication to him written by Poliziano. Lorenzo was so eager to have this text in hand while overseeing construction at his new villa at Poggio a Caiano that he requested the unbound quires be sent to him from Florence, arriving practically with the ink still wet on the pages.22 Lorenzo was considered to be a great expert on architecture, consulted for advice by other patrons and possibly capable of making his own architectural drawings.23 The villa at Poggio a Caiano, designed by Lorenzo’s favorite architect Giuliano da Sangallo, is the greatest expression of his taste for classicizing architecture in accordance with Alberti’s theoretical principles. Sangallo’s architectural designs, like Botticelli’s paintings, combined ancient sources with local tradition in a manner that finds its strongest analogy in the contemporary vernacular poetry of Lorenzo and Poliziano.24

Throughout his career, Botticelli executed far more devotional subjects than mythological ones. The Calumny of Apelles is probably his last mythological subject, painted shortly before he embraced the spiritual fervor of the charismatic Ferrarese preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Given Botticelli’s close association with the Medici, this may surprise us today. However, Savonarola had been brought back to Florence in 1490 by Lorenzo himself and made prior of the Friary of San Marco, a religious institution founded by Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo and still under direct Medici patronage. Savonarola even attended Lorenzo at his deathbed in the Medici villa of Careggi in 1492. The division between Medici supporters and the so-called “Weepers” (Piagnoni) is not so clearly demarcated as we now generally think. For example, the humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who had lived in Florence under Lorenzo’s direct protection, had suggested that Savonarola be brought to Florence and became a Piagnone following his patron’s death. Even Poliziano, who died just two years after Lorenzo in 1494, was buried as a penitent attired in a Dominican habit.25 Ultimately, Savonarola would seize the occasion of the French King Charles VIII’s entry into the city of Florence in 1494 to urge for the expulsion of the Medici. This began their longest period of exile, which lasted until 1512, although Savonarola himself was excommunicated by Alexander VI in 1497 and burned at the stake on 23 May 1498.

Botticelli thus ended his career in an entirely different Florence from the one in which he had lived for most of his life. Fears of apocalyptic events accompanied the arrival of the year 1500, and in the spirit of his religious devotion, he dedicated himself to devotional subjects, such as the arcane Mystic Nativity in the National Gallery in London. He may well have continued to work on his long-unfinished project to create a fully illustrated edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a work begun years earlier for Lorenzo’s younger cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Although Vasari would later claim that Botticelli died poor and forgotten, he remained a figure of prestige in Florence and continued to work for the younger branch of the Medici as late as 1497.26 The continued respect that he enjoyed as a discerning artist is confirmed by the fact that he was among those called to serve on the committee assembled to decide where Michelangelo’s David should be placed in 1504.27 Botticelli was among those in favor of placing the David in front of the Cathedral, and proposed that a Judith be created as a pendant. The suggestion recalls Donatello's bronzes of this precise pair of Old Testament and civic heroes that had once adorned the Medici Palace. Even in the changed political climate of Florence in that moment, Botticelli apparently could not escape the strong imprint that his years as a “Medici” artist had left on his conception of art.


1. J. Ross, The Lives of the Early Medici as Told in Their Correspondence, Boston 1911, p. 154.

2. R.A. Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600, Baltimore 1993, p. 107, 243-244. The classic account of the bank’s history is R. De Roover, The Medici Bank: Its Organization, Management, Operations, and Decline, New York 1948.

3. J.R. Hale, Florence and the Medici, London 2001, p. 52. For a contemporary account of the lavish wedding festivities held in Florence, see Ross 1911, pp. 129-134.

4. R.C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, Ithaca 1991, pp. 233-235; Goldthwaite 1993, pp. 163-164.

5. A.W.B. Randolph, Engaging Symbols: Gender, Politics, and Public Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, New Haven 2002, p. 194, calls the banner “one of the most important public paintings of the fifteenth century.”

6. According to Vasari, this painting “brought him such fame, both in Florence and abroad, that Pope Sixtus IV, having accomplished the building of the chapel of his palace in Rome, and wishing to have it painted, ordained that he should be made head of the work […];” G. Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, G. C. de Vere (trans.) and D. Ekserdjian (eds.), vol. I, New York 1996, p. 538.

7. Del Lama was a “modest broker in the bankers’ guild;” Goldthwaite 1993, p. 47.

8. Cf. S. Fermor, “Botticelli and the Medici,” in The Early Medici and their Artists, F. Ames-Lewis (ed.), London 1995, pp. 170-172.

9. These portraits, which remained visible until they were destroyed following the exile of the Medici in 1494, were accompanied by inscriptions in verse written by Lorenzo himself; R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work, New York 1989, pp. 72-73. On the Pazzi conspiracy, see L. Martines, April Blood: Florence and the Plot against the Medici, London 2003.

10. On the three panels in Washington, Bergamo, and Berlin, see now: E. Walmsley and A.J. Noelle, “The Portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici by Botticelli,” in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, vol. IV, New Haven 2019, pp. 2-33.

11. See C. Elam, “Art and Diplomacy in Renaissance Florence,” in Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, CXXXVI, no. 5387, (October 1988), especially p. 817.

12. N. Rubinstein, The Palazzo Vecchio 1298-1532: Government, Architecture, and Imagery in the Civic Palace of the Florentine Republic, Oxford 1995, p. 62.

13. Elam 1988, p. 819.

14. C. Dempsey, The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Princeton 1992, pp. 20-24; Fermor 1995, pp. 179-183.

15. See, for example, the letter written by Lorenzo at age seventeen to Federico, the prince of Naples, demonstrating his sophisticated knowledge of the Tuscan vernacular tradition and documenting his own activities as a poet; Ross 1911, pp. 88-92. Poliziano may have assisted Lorenzo in drafting this letter, a preface to the first anthology of Italian vernacular poetry, the Raccolta Aragonese; J. Thiem (ed.), “Introduction,” in Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lorenzo de’ Medici: Selected Poems and Prose, University Park 1991, p. 7.

16. Lucrezia was an important influence on her son in many other ways as well. On her death, Lorenzo wrote to the Duchess of Ferrara, Eleonora d’Aragona, “I have lost, not only a mother, but the only person I could turn to in many vexations and who aided me in many troubles;” Ross 1911, p. 244. For Tornabuoni’s poetry, see L. Tornabuoni, Sacred Narratives, J. Tylus (ed. & trans.), Chicago 2001.

17. A. Poliziano, The Stanze of Angelo Poliziano, D. Quint (trans.), University Park 1993: see especially Quint’s “Introduction,” pp. vii-xxiv.

18. For the ancient and contemporary literary sources, see C. Dempsey 1992.

19. Pater already recognized this as a hallmark of Botticelli’s art in 1870; W. Pater, The Renaissance, Chicago 1977 (reprint of London 1910), p. 52.

20. Cf. P. Barolsky, “Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and the Poetic Imagination of Italian Renaissance Art,” in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 3rd. ser., VIIII, (Fall 2000), p. 10, regarding the Primavera, “The disposition of the three Graces is essentially the rotation in space of the same figure seen from different angles all at once, as if the artist were artfully displaying the manner in which the painter, unlike the sculptor, can simultaneously present a body from different points of view.”

21. R.A. Goldthwaite 1993, p. 223. Botticelli himself was almost certainly aware of Alberti’s importance as an architectural innovator from a very young age, since by 1458 his family lived next door to the Rucellai and rented their house from them; R. Lightbown 1989, p. 18.

22. F.W. Kent, Lorenzo de’ Medici & the Art of Magnificence, Baltimore 2004, p. 88.

23. Lorenzo submitted a proposal for the competition he sponsored in 1491 to complete the façade of the Duomo; R.A. Goldthwaite, The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History, Baltimore 1980, pp. 95-96.

24. Cf. D. Hemsoll, “Giuliano da Sangallo and the New Renaissance of Lorenzo de ‘Medici,” in The Early Medici and their Artists, F. Ames-Lewis (ed.), London 1995, pp. 198-199.

25. D. Quint 1993, p. viii.

26. J. Shearman, “The Collections of the Younger Branch of the Medici,” in The Burlington Magazine. CXVII, no. 117, (January 1975), p. 17. H.P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, London 1908, p. 269, had already questioned the veracity of Vasari’s account. For the 1505 contract to Botticelli for a massive altarpiece, see L.A. Waldman, “Botticelli and his Patrons: The Arte del Cambio, the Vespucci, and the Compagnia dello Spirito Santo in Montelupo,” in Sandro Botticelli and Herbert Horne: New Research, R. Hatfield (ed.), Florence 2009, pp. 105-135.

27. S. Levine, “The Location of Michelangelo’s David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504,” in The Art Bulletin, LVI, (March 1974), pp. 31-49.

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