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.