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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Botticelli and Renaissance Florence

The Botticelli and Renaissance Florence exhibit has 46 Italian Renaissance paintings, drawings, and sculpture shipped from the Uffizi in Florence to my hometown in Minneapolis. It is a terrific opportunity to see Florentine Renaissance art in the Midwest. Sandro Botticelli was a go-getter and lived in a time when Florence had no lack of talent and innovators. Competition was intense. Some artists chose to stay the course and produce middling studio work that met client’s demands. Others, like Botticelli, chose a bolder path to differentiate themselves.

I have seen the exhibit (more than once), read the catalog, and participated in some lectures from curators and subject matter experts from the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and Italy. What follows are some noteworthy highlights from the exhibit. Visitors go through five areas, starting out with a panoramic reproduction of Florence in his time, then move through a series of rooms juxtaposing ancient art with fifteenth-century art. Botticelli’s art is not arranged chronologically, but thematically, including the influence of ancient art, Florentine sacred art, the Renaissance home, and portraits of Florentines.

A little background helps to sense where Botticelli is situated in the fifteenth century. Florence had a well-earned reputation as a textile and banking town with merchants who traveled throughout Europe to market textiles. Florence was known for fine wool and silks, which are skillfully painted in Florentine art. The gold florin was a standard currency exchange in Europe. In Botticelli’s time Florence was just past its economic prime but still a powerful center. It was artistically at its peak.

The trades and families were key to making a living. Families were well connected in various and often inter-related trades, including Botticelli’s family. If a family made brocaded fabric, they might marry a son to a banker’s family, or a tailors, or a daughter to a family associated with silk or pigments. There was a mutual benefit through family connections. Florentine tax records from 1480 tell us about 650 heads of families worked in the artisan trades. The Medici family were de facto rulers under a pseudo republic, but not without opposition. Guilds were powerful and controlling, and there were many of them divided up by various trades. They controlled membership, quality of work, and training.


Sandro Botticelli, Self-Portrait, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Sandro Botticelli, Self- Portrait, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) came from a lower to middle class family where he was the eighth of ninth children. He was born Alessandro Filipepi. His father’s trade was transforming raw animal hides into leather, a physically demanding and malodourous job. The large family changed rental houses frequently until the parents could purchase a home in the Ognissanti neighborhood in 1464. We know that he attended school when he was thirteen, but we don't have complete records of his early years.

Three of his brothers most likely played a role in forming his career. The eldest Giovanni worked in banking and was a member of the Arte del Cambio, the banking guild. Antonio worked as a goldsmith, and Sandro briefly apprenticed with him. Another brother worked in the textile industry and belonged to the Arte della Seta guild, for those working in silk. The name Botticelli is derived from his brother Giovanni, nicknamed botticello, a derivative of botte, a barrel. Either Giovanni was built like a barrel or drank frequently from one, however, we do not know which. His little brother became the plural version of the word, botticelli.

Sandro’s next step in his career was with Fra Filippo Lippi’s studio for five to seven years, from age 14 on. This was an ace apprenticeship as the Carmelite friar was in high demand and produced lots of religious paintings. Lippi’s tender representations of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus, as well as his color palette, made an impression on Botticelli. He first learned how to do basic tasks like grind pigments and prepare surfaces, improve his drawing skills, and probably painted some minor characters or backgrounds. His raw talent must have been apparent.

Andrea del Verrocchio was the master to next employ Botticelli. Verrocchio was skilled as a goldsmith, sculptor, and painter. Botticelli could not have had a better foundation in skills and studio management. He was with Verrocchio for a few years until he opened his own studio and took on his independent commissions, probably in 1467. He was in his early twenties. It was now his turn to hire, train, or fire assistants, sign contracts, and manage commissions and supplies. He was at the beginning of a forty-three-year career painting for the rich and powerful of Florence.


Art all’Antica: Ancient Art

Like many artists of his time, Botticelli was linked to the Medici for commissions. The Medici were avid collectors of ancient art, as were other families, including gems, statues, and coins. Roman and Greek histories, poems, and texts were translated and collected. The Medici amassed an impressive collection of art. The desire to acquire and admire ancient art is evidenced in the style and subject matter of secular Florentine art. Inspiration was found in many found or rediscovered statues and texts that told the tales of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. We do not know if Botticelli saw the Medici collection, but he undoubtedly saw ancient art in the studios of his employers or other artists.


Visitors to the Botticelli exhibit will find that mythological centaurs appear more than once, both in the ancient sculpture and Renaissance adaptations. Centaurs are half man, half beast and represent wild uncontrolled testosterone filled urges. They are aggressive and strong. Centaurs are usually depicted fighting each other, or juxtaposed with a female, as it took a woman to control the centaur and restore balance. In Botticelli’s 1482 Pallas and the Centaur we see a warrior woman grab the centaur by his hair in an act of domination. He looks disheveled and suddenly compliant. She is most likely Pallas Minerva, the Roman goddess of war. Although there continues to be some dispute as to her classical identity, she is a warrior nonetheless.

Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur, c. 1482, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

View of Pallas and the Centaur and Centaur c. 150 CE, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
View of Pallas and the Centaur and Centaur c. 150 CE, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Botticelli paints the classical subject matter with a Florentine twist. The maiden is a contrast between her softer side with loose flowing hair yet holding a deadly weapon. The centaur holds a bow with a quiver of arrows while she holds a diamond studded halberd, a two-handed pole battle axe. The halberd was the weapon of choice for infantry when confronting mounted enemies. She wears a white silk gown with a pattern of intertwined diamond rings, a symbol of the Medici clan. Acanthus leaves loop over the silk, and envelop the green flowing mantle. Her loose wavy hair bears a wreath of olive or myrtle. Her breasts are encircled by the leaves with two large diamonds in the centers. This was most likely commission by the Medici for a wedding. Viewers at the time would understand the allegorical implications of temperance, and not letting oneself getting out of control. Viewers would also see that the goddess alludes to the power of the Medici, the cool and calm figure in control.

Another sculpture models how artists looked to Greco Roman art for inspiration. The Relief with Dancing Maenads was made from Greek marble in the late first century BCE. As part of a wild and rapturous dance as followers of Dionysus, the god of wine, the three women, known as maenads, danced in a frenzy, probably intoxicated. They also consumed the raw flesh of animals. On the left a woman holds part of a goat, and the middle woman carries a staff topped with a pinecone and holds the other part of the goat. On the right, the dancer turns and faces the other way while holding a tambourine. These were devoted followers to Dionysus the god of wine (Bacchus in Roman mythology), who left their home and families to live in forests and wild areas in ecstatic dance.

The visual history of maenads dates back to fifth century BCE and many Roman copies were made of this subject. It is possible there was a Roman copy of the Greek original in Florence during the Renaissance. The movement created by their poses and especially their garments are examples of how Renaissance artists imitated ancient art. The sculpted lines and waves of their garments suggest activity and even fall off their bodies as they dance. Similar treatments of flowing fabric are evident in Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus. Pallas’ gown also ripples gently in the wind on the lower right of the painting. Although we don’t know if Botticelli saw these exact ancient pieces in Florence, he was undoubtedly aware of similar pieces in various collections.


Relief with Dancing Maenads, late first century BCE, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Relief with Dancing Maenads, late first century BCE, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Sacred Beauty

Although Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera are his most recognizable paintings, most of his commissions were for sacred art, either for churches or private devotion. His brother Antonio’s banking connections brought Sandro into contact with patrons who could afford his art.


His Madonna and Child in Glory with Angels is an early work remarkable for its frame and mystical qualities. Completed not long after he opened his own studio, he presents a Madonna and Child who defy space and time. She is seated, but there is no throne, no background to define a horizon or gravity. Angels surround mother and child in a grey haze. The golden rays around her head and at the edges form a mandorla – a heavenly glow.


The frame, although it is not datable exactly to the 1460’s probably corresponds to the original. The gold discs represent the Florentine gold florin and are associated with the Arte del Cambio. The Madonna follows a pattern Botticelli established and used frequently with female subjects. Her oval shaped head is tilted downward and to the side. This posing strategy is also used in the Birth of Venus and Primavera. Although tending towards the formulaic, it signals a modest demeanor in his female subjects.

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child in Glory with Angels, c. 1467-69, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child in Glory with Angels, c. 1467-69, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Round shaped paintings, called tondi (singular tondo), are unique to Florence. Many fifteenth-century Florentine artists painted tondi of sacred subjects. They most likely derive from a specialized gift of a painted round tray given to the mother following the birth of a child. Botticelli did a few tondi of the Madonna and Child and although the sizes (43-inch diameter or larger) seem big, the tondo was meant for a married couple’s bedroom in a palace with high ceilings. Bedrooms usually had a private devotional painting of this sort. This painting was completed towards the end of his career and although studio hands were involved in painting it, their efforts are well adapted to the master’s style.

The Adoration of the Child with Angels, also known as Madonna of the Roses, is impressive for its color palette and clarity. The four angels are placed close to the Madonna and Child. Her blue mantle spills onto the ground and has gold thread on the edges. The lush garden has details of green plants with a circle of flowers in the lower center. A spray of red roses provides a canopy over the figures. The sacred child does not touch the ground as two angels suspend him in fabric. The red roses refer to Jesus’ passion. The scene is portrayed with tenderness and a quiet tranquility. Botticelli’s use of color provides harmony and unites the composition under a clear light.


Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Child with Angels, 1490-1500, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Child with Angels, 1490-1500, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

The Florentines

The final section in the exhibit was impressive. Devoting a space to paintings of Florentine people, many of whom we can identify, gives an intimate view of its fifteenth century citizens. Botticelli was a gifted portraitist. Renaissance artists aimed to subtly convey the psychological nature of their clients. Their aim was not to portray an exact physical likeness but rather their best features as well as their dispositio, their character and nature of their interior selves. Allegorical references often present in portraits help the viewer understand which desired elements and virtues the subject wishes to emphasize. Portraiture was image management. Because Renaissance art is by nature an emphasis of the ideal, the best physical and character traits were depicted. Botticelli excelled in painting the Florentine dispositio.

Botticelli had ample competition in Florence. Antonio (1431-1498) and Piero (1441-1496) del Pollaiuolo were artisan brothers with a successful and large shop in Florence. Goldsmithing, sculpture, and painting were their many talents. Piero may have been more of a painter while his brother produced more sculpture, and this Portrait of a Young Woman is probably by Piero. The Pollaiuolo brothers brought female portraiture to the forefront of Florentine art. Portraits of women were done to honor their role as wife and mother or as a calling card for potential brides to gift to future grooms. The profile pose was derived from ancient coins and gems, still used today on some currency.

Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Young Woman, c. 1480, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Young Woman, c. 1480, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Although her name is unknown to us, this young woman is shown in outlined profile and wears a brocade sleeve. Brocade fabric was time consuming to make and expensive. The pomegranate pattern visible on the sleeve signifies fertility and with her crimson velvet overgown hanging loosely, it may indicate she is with child. Pearls adorn her neck and on the headband with rubies at the top and on her overgown.

Hair continued to be a distinctive feature in many female portraits. Her blonde hair is painted with great detail differentiating between the smooth texture on her crown and the curls and waves in the bun. A finely woven snood keeps everything in place as a married woman would not let her hair hang loose. Full length portraits were not the norm at this juncture; an emphasis on representing comely facial features was key. High foreheads, creamy white skin, and a demure and reserved character were preferred.

Pollaiuolo’s subject has a clear complexion and rosy cheeks which indicate health. Jewels and expensive fabrics are the means to an end in this portrait to denote family wealth. Lighting is bright and uniform, with brilliant colors. The bright blue background contrasts with her pale skin and dress. She conforms to the beauty ideals and virtue standards of her time. The Pollaiuolo style of profile portrait was standard for many decades.


Botticelli changed portraiture by shifting the sitter slightly to turn towards the viewer. It is a simple change that had an immense impact. Portrait of a Young Man, completed ten years prior to the Pollaiuolo, expresses his innovation in portraiture. Not only is the young man turned towards us, but he engages with the viewer.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, 1470, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, 1470, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Botticelli began modifying his portrait style in the 1460s, not long after starting out on his own. It might have been a risky move to break with the norm when just establishing himself as an independent artist. This is the first portrait securely attributed to his hand. The man not only looks at us but also securely occupies a sense of space by positioning him slightly higher. It is as if Botticelli painted him from a lower vantage point and the man was standing. He is portrayed in top fashion as an elite member of Florentine society. Red clothes were a status symbol. He wears a pleated dark violet cap called a mazzocchio, which has a long scarf-like fabric, called a becchetto, placed over his shoulder. Botticelli eliminates any extraneous background and only uses blue to contrast with his red garment and violet headgear.

Botticelli continued to transform portraiture and painted the first known portrait of a woman turned towards us, not in profile. Once other artists caught on, the profile portrait ceased to be popular.

A great way to manage one’s image is to include yourself in a religious painting adoring baby Jesus. Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (1470-75) is a large-scale painting completed for the church of Santa Maria Novella for Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama (1411-81). Claiming a chapel or altar space for the honor of one’s family was competitive, especially in a major church. Commissioning a sought-after artist to paint a scene including multiple Florentines in the guise of a religious story was a chance to pay tribute to the Medici and show the city your family’s wealth. Better still, paint the Medici as the Magi for extra respect.


Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Exhibit label, Adoration of the Magi, Minneapolis Institute of Art, photo Gerriann Brower
Exhibit label, Adoration of the Magi, Minneapolis Institute of Art, photo Gerriann Brower

Religious ceremonies were taken with great seriousness in Florence with not just processions through the streets, but costumed citizens dressed as the characters and performing scenes to mark the significance of the day. The Epiphany, celebrating the three kings arriving to give gifts to the newborn, was an important feast day in Florence. On the day men’s lay religious society members would parade through Florence in luxurious garments and re-enact the scene. It was a performative experience for citizens and the laymen. This street theatre became memorialized in paintings.

The Adoration was a common painted subject that acted also as a tribute to the Medici. Benozzo Gozzoli’s lavish Adoration frescoes in Palazzo Medici include many of the family in the procession. The Medici commissioned other Adoration or religious paintings with themselves as the central characters or as bystanders. The Medici and Guasparre Lama both had a connection to the feast day. Guasparre bears the name of one of the Magi, Caspar, or Gaspare in modern Italian. Lorenzo de’ Medici was born on January 1, 1449 and baptized on the Epiphany, which made this scene an important tribute to Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92), who was about twenty-one when Botticelli painted this panel.

We can identify about nine people in this painting, and while we cannot be certain which is Lorenzo, he may be on the right-hand side, standing, in a red garment. Directly above this figure is a laurel leaf, associated with the Medici dynasty. Kneeling in white to his left is either Giovanni de’ Medici as Balthasar or possibly Lorenzo. Giuliano de’ Medici, who will be assassinated in 1478, is in the lower left corner with a sleeveless red velvet tunic trimmed in blue. Melchior is presenting Mary and Jesus with his gift of gold as he kneels with his hands outstretched. He is Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, the head of the clan who died in 1464. Artists were not confined to including only living people. The public would have easily recognized these Medici, and others, who are lost to us today, who held important civic positions or were well-known families. Botticelli skillfully handles many figures in a scene innovating the composition by elevating the holy family in order to allow for more bystanders. His use of color gives order to the scene.


Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower
Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1470-75, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Photo Gerriann Brower

Besides political reasons, and showing honor and deference, depicting citizens as participating in a religious event that took place nearly 1500 years prior reinforced the teaching aspect of the image. Other symbols which reinforce the religious meaning include the peacock on the upper right, which refers to the incorruptibility of Jesus’ flesh and the resurrection. To the right of Botticelli there is a river which refers to baptism and would remind viewers of the Arno. It might seem odd that the holy family sits among ruins, but that is a frequent reference to a pagan past that has been supplanted by Christianity. The green plants springing from rock signify renewal.

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, while positioned at the top of the painting seem almost incidental to the crowd of men on either side. There are three men who look directly at us, one unidentifiable on the left-hand side and two identifiable on the right-hand side. The grey-haired man in light blue turning towards us is the patron Guasparre. The other is a rare self-portrait of Botticelli. He is in his mid to late twenties and turns to show us a three-quarters view of his face, with reddish blonde hair. He is the only figure with a gold-colored cloak.

One of the most striking elements in the painting is Botticelli’s direct gaze at us, the way his arm positions his cloak to cover his body, and the turn of his head. By including himself with the Medici, he signals his status in the Medici inner circle. Equally memorable is Giuliano’s haughty demeanor as he clutches his sword with his right weight bearing leg allowing his left to bend forward.


Giuliano and Botticelli have a way of looking as if they exude a confident ease, something hard to capture in paintings, but done so well by the artist. The Italians call it sprezzatura. There isn’t any equivalent word in English. Perhaps cool and slightly arrogant would be close. These different facial expressions, gestures, and sentiments of the figures make this painting worthy of a long look.


The Mia exhibit continues through January 8, 2023.


Sources

Debenedetti, Ana and Caroline Elam, editors. Botticelli Past and Present. UCL Press, London, 2019.


Debenedetti, Ana. Botticelli Artist and Designer. Reaktion, 2021.


Frosinini, Cecilia and Rachel McGarry, editors. Botticelli and Renaissance Florence: Masterworks from the Uffizi. Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2022.

Hui, Andrew. “The Birth of Ruins in Quattrocento Adoration Paintings.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, vol. 18, no. 2, 2015, pp. 319–48.

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