Progression of Art
Adoration of the Magi
This important early work by Botticelli was commissioned by Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker who had built a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novelli in Florence. It is possible that del Lama chose this subject to decorate his chapel because one of the Magi, traditionally known as "Caspar", or "Gaspare", is his namesake. According to Vasari's Lives of the Artists, the work depicts several members of the Medici family, including Cosimo the Elder, and his sons Piero and Giovanni, who were all deceased at the time the painting was made, as the three Magi. The Medici family often associated themselves with the Magi or Three Kings from the Nativity story, even riding through the streets of Florence dressed as them every Epiphany. The Medici were friends of the del Lama family, and important patrons for Botticelli himself. Although del Lama's intentions in commissioning these portraits as part of the painting are not known, it was common for religious scenes painted at the time to contain portraits of nobility, and points to the important connection art had with money and power in Renaissance Florence.
Botticelli was probably the first artist to depict the Adoration of the Magi with the holy family at the center, set back "deep" into the painting, with the other characters arranged symmetrically on either side. Previously, the scene had always been depicted as a linear narrative flowing across the space of the canvas, as in the Gothic painting by Gentile da Fabbriano (1420) or Benozzo Gozzoli's famous fresco in the Palazzo Medici (1459).
Intriguingly, the painting also contains a self-portrait of Botticelli - the only one known to be in existence. The artist stands on the right edge of the painting and looks directly out at the viewer. Although he was probably only around 30 years old when this was painted, Botticelli depicts himself as confident and masterful, and his confidence is justified by the accomplished style of this work, which compares to some of his more mature masterpieces.
Tempera on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence
One of the most famous paintings in Western art, the Primavera depicts a series of figures from classical mythology in a garden or woodland. Rather than representing a scene from a specific story, it is believed that Botticelli either presents the figures in this arrangement purely for aesthetic reasons, or if there was a narrative, it is unknown to us today. Either way, the mysteriousness of the painting is part of its great appeal.
It is generally agreed that the painting is an allegory about the season of Spring, as suggested by its title, but there is no agreement as to the exact message being conveyed. It is likely that the central character is Venus, the goddess of love, while the three graces dance beside her, and Chloris, the goddess of flowers, is chased by the figure of the West Wind before transforming into Flora, echoing a myth described in Ovid. The messenger god Mercury stands to the left, as the figure of Cupid floats above the scene, about to fire an arrow.
The Primavera is particularly significant as it is one of the earliest examples in Western post-Classical painting of a non-religious scene. As The Guardian's senior art critic Jonathan Jones puts it, "Botticelli's Primavera was one of the first large-scale European paintings to tell a story that was not Christian, replacing the agony of Easter with a pagan rite. The very idea of art as a pleasure, and not a sermon, began in this meadow." To see this in a painting of this scale (80 x 124 inches) makes Primavera a particularly exciting milestone for the development of Western art.
Tempera on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Venus and Mars
In this panel painting, Botticelli turns once again to a mythological subject. Venus, the goddess of love, reclines on the grass while her lover Mars, the god of war, lies asleep and disarmed before her, presumably tired out by love-making. Several young fauns are playing in the scene, attempting to wake Mars by blowing in his ear with a conch shell. The painting also features some wasps ('vespe' in Italian), which may be a reference to the Vespucci family, who lived near to Botticelli, or may refer to the stings of love. The basic message of the work could be read as 'love conquers war'.
The painting, which was probably intended to be incorporated into a piece of bedroom furniture, is essentially a joke at the expense of men. Mars is undone by his sexual encounter, disarmed and vulnerable, while Venus looks calmly on, fully clothed and awake. Mars is wearing only a small swathe of fabric, leaving his almost-bare body on view to both his lover Venus and, implicitly, the viewer, becoming the object of desire in the painting.
Though Venus is fully clothed having "conquered" Mars, the portrayal of her powerful sexuality is equally as enticing. As art historian Patricia Rubin points out, "Botticelli's Venus, posed with her exhausted lover Mars, is, by definition, the pagan adulteress. The emphatically sensuous curves and sculptural surfaces of her body signify her physical desirability and use tactics studied from ancient sculpture." In this way, Botticelli emphasizes Venus' power, but also eroticizes her, showing her divine beauty and drawing attention to the feminine body underneath her dress.
Tempera and oil on poplar - National Gallery, London
Map of Hell
Dante, the most famous of Italian poets, wrote his Divine Comedy between c. 1308 and 1320 while living in Florence. A century and a half later, it was widely read and its importance was recognized. In the 1480s, Botticelli began working on a series of drawings to illustrate the poem, 92 of which survive, including the Map of Hell. This is a detailed depiction of Dante's nine circles of hell, the types of people sent to each, and the punishments inflicted there. It is one of four fully-colored images in the collection; the rest are mostly in silverpoint or worked over in ink.
The work was conceived to have a different image depicting the entire sequence of events for each canto of the Divine Comedy, of which there are 99 in all. This was an unprecedented way of approaching illustrations to a text. Usually, an artist would choose a particular scene or episode, whereas Botticelli captures the entire canto, sometimes repeating key figures in different formulations to express the narrative's progress. This approach can be seen in the Map of Hell, which ambitiously attempts to capture the entire configuration of the underworld.
Art historian Barbara Watts argues that the illustrations are often overlooked in Botticelli's oeuvre, claiming that "Botticelli's Dante drawings are of such vision and beauty that, no less than the Primavera, they are central to his artistic achievement."
Silverpoint and ink with colored tempera on goatskin parchment - Vatican Archives
The Birth of Venus
This painting is one of the best-loved works of art in the world. Although Botticelli lost favor after his death, his reputation was revived in the late 19th century and since then The Birth of Venus has risen to international fame. The painting depicts the goddess of love, Venus, sailing to shore from the sea on a giant shell. She is blown into land by Zephyr, the god of the west wind, while a female attendant waits with a cloak.
Like the slightly earlier Primavera, The Birth of Venus is groundbreaking for presenting a non-religious scene from classical mythology on such a large scale. Moreover, the inclusion of such a prominent female nude at near-life-size was virtually unprecedented in Western painting. The work plays an obvious homage to classical art, emulating the "Venus Pudica" style of a nude female figure attempting, but not quite succeeding, to preserve her modesty with her hands and in this case her erotically charged long hair.
Botticelli's reference to classical sculpture in Venus' pose is overt, as she stands in the contrapposto stance with her weight on one foot, which was favored by Greco-Roman art and emulated by early Italian Renaissance artists. Intriguingly, the stance is so exaggerated that it is anatomically impossible, and the figure stands improbably on the edge of the floating shell. In this way, Botticelli also refers back to the Gothic tradition that preceded the Renaissance, where emphasis was placed on symbolism and status rather than on realistic depiction. It is interesting, therefore, that Botticelli's most famous work has come to stand for Italian Renaissance art in the popular imagination, even though it eschews many of the key tenets of the later movement in favor of aesthetic beauty and an overall idea.
Tempera on canvas - Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Calumny of Apelles
This unusual late scene by Botticelli has an almost surrealistic quality to it, with its ornate setting, blank skies and allegorical figures. The work is the result of Botticelli's attempt to recreate a lost painting by the Ancient Greek artist Apelles, as described in a well-known text by the Roman writer Lucian, pointing to Botticelli's admiration of classical art.
The scene is an allegory depicting slander, with all the figures representing vices or virtues, apart from the King and the accused man, who could be seen as representing the balance of power. A figure closely resembling the nude central character of The Birth of Venus (c.1486) can be seen to the left of the scene, this time symbolizing the allegorical figure of Truth. Once again, she stands in an exaggerated contrapposto stance, with one hand recalling the 'Venus Pudica' trope and one pointing towards heaven.
Botticelli's painting emphasizes how wrong slander is through both the allegory he depicts as well as the setting. The elaborate architecture, designed to perfect Renaissance proportions, is punctuated by sculptures of both Christian and pagan virtuous figures, all of whom appear to be looking down on and judging the scene below. As the art historian Guido Cornini argues, "Botticelli transforms the literary notion into a bizarre elaboration, revitalizing and at the same time exhausting the classical allegory. The marble elegantly decorating the hall and the grandeur with which the arches define the space in which the allegory unfolds in Botticelli's representation, no longer frame delicate mythological compositions alluding to defined virtues or moral objectives. On the contrary, they clearly show the abject wickedness of the slanderous act."
Tempera on panel - Uffizi, Florence