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Distributed for Reaktion Books

Botticelli

Artist and Designer

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Botticelli

Artist and Designer

A revealing look at the commercial strategy and diverse output of this canonical Renaissance artist.
 
In this vivid account, Ana Debenedetti reexamines the life and work of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli through a novel lens: his business acumen. Focusing on the organization of Botticelli’s workshop and the commercial strategies he devised to make his way in Florence’s very competitive art market, Debenedetti looks with fresh eyes at the remarkable career and output of this pivotal artist within the wider context of Florentine society and culture. Uniquely, Debenedetti evaluates Botticelli’s celebrated works, like The Birth of Venus, alongside less familiar forms such as tapestry and embroidery, showing the breadth of the artist’s oeuvre and his talent as a designer across media.

232 pages | 73 color plates, 1 halftone | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2

Renaissance Lives

Art: European Art


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Reviews

“The great merit of this book is to recontextualize Botticelli’s personality and oeuvre in his social and cultural milieu in a lively and captivating narrative, providing the reader with a detailed account of the latest scholarship on the subject with ease and clarity.”

Alessandro Cecchi, author of "Botticelli"

Excerpt

When considering the artistic personality of such a famous figure as Botticelli, it is necessary to step back in time and try to understand his milieu and what his birthplace might have looked like.

Wandering through the city of Florence in the 1460s must have felt not too dissimilar to what people may experience today, especially in the historic centre of the city. Along the busy banks of the Lungarno river, one would have encountered hordes of people of every class, from the common populace, popolo minuto, to the ottimati, the highest stratum of Florence’s cultural and wealthy elite. While penetrating the dense network of streets and chiassi of the city, one would have mixed with craftsmen and merchants of all sorts, such as tanners (galigaio), poultry farmers or sellers (galigai and pollaioli), stockbreeders, brokers and shopkeepers, as well as many other characters who maintained the city in an intense state of animation. These included maids, nuns, elegant ladies and patricians, priests and monks. Closely connected professions gathered in specific zones, giving rise to street names that are still in use today: via dei Cacioli (cheesemongers), via de’ Banderai (clothworkers), via dei Pellicciai (tanners and furriers), via dei Brigliai (rein-makers) and via dei Calzaiuoli (shoemakers). These streets were filled with open-topped shops, for the curiosity and the admiration of all, as represented in a famous engraving attributed to Baccio Baldini, a close collaborator of Botticelli.

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445–1510), more famously known as Sandro Botticelli, was the son of a Florentine tanner, Mariano di Vanni di Amideo Filipepi (d. 1482), and his wife, Mona Smeralda. The last born of a family of eight children, Alessandro owes his nickname ‘Botticelli’ (little barrel) to his elder brother Giovanni, who was a successful broker. The reason for this nickname remains unknown: was Giovanni dealing in barrels at some point, was it a reference to his physical appearance, or was he just a jovial character? The latter may have been more likely if the ‘Botticello’ to whom Lorenzo de’ Medici refers in his poem titled I Beoni (The Drinkers) is Sandro’s brother.

No documents so far have unveiled this mystery, but that Sandro was known as related to Giovanni specifically (di Botticelli, ‘from the family of Botticelli’) shows the extent of Giovanni’s popularity in Florence. Sandro had three brothers who were all to influence his destiny somehow (another brother, Cosimo, died at a young age, and we hardly know anything about the fate of his three sisters, Lisa, Beatrice and Maddalena). His extended family lived in nearby houses in via Nuova d’Ognissanti, now via del Porcellana, in the quarter of Santa Maria Novella near the church of Ognissanti. His father Mariano ran a small shop with his two brothers, Francesco and Jacopo, a stone’s throw away from his house, then on via della Gora, today called via Montebello. As was sometimes the case in fifteenth-century Florence, Sandro would later open his workshop at his father’s house. When his eldest brother Giovanni inherited the house upon their father’s death in 1482, Sandro carried on living and working there, but not always on good terms with his brother and sister-in-law Nera, and their five children, Maddalena, Benincasa, Fiammetta, Amideo and Jacopo. Sandro would even file a case against his nephew Benincasa in order to regain some peace and quiet. The painter himself would eventually inherit the house together with his other brother Simone after Giovanni’s death in 1494. An early account reports that he died there, in misery, on 17 May 1510, but he might have been admitted to a nearby hospital (Spedale de’ Vespucci) whose founders, the Vespucci family, had long been his close neighbours and occasional patrons. The family tomb is still visible today in a small chapel on the right-hand side of the nave of the church of Ognissanti.

We know very little about Botticelli’s life. Apart from a few archival documents, the main source of information is the biography written by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), the father of modern art history. In the two editions of his monumental Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects—the first published in 1550, and a revised and augmented edition in 1568—Vasari gives a short biography of Botticelli some forty years after his death. He was probably relying on the recent oral tradition and documents that unfortunately have not survived. This account was to prove a model for later biographers, until the new archive-based art history was born as a discipline in the late nineteenth century. As valued as Vasari’s testimony may be, it is distanced by almost two generations from Botticelli’s time and is therefore not entirely reliable. As we shall see, his account is nonetheless one of the primary important sources for the study of his oeuvre and those of his fellow artists. Another important account of Botticelli’s life is an anonymous codex kept in the Florence central library (Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Firenze) described as the Anonimo Magliabechiano, which includes a short biography dated, by consensus, to the late 1530s and early 1540s. For centuries these two texts have been the main sources available. Complementing them are accounts and stories that appear almost randomly in a series of texts written during Botticelli’s lifetime but not directly focused on him. In addition, towards the end of the nineteenth century, art historians started to explore the surviving contracts, inventories and tax returns in the archives. Today these have still not been fully accounted for and analysed. This relatively recent campaign of research within the Florentine archives has revealed many important details of Botticelli’s life and cultural milieu.

Botticelli was not born into a family of artists, but he relied on his family’s skills and network to reach this professional category, as often happened in Florence. From the turn of the fifteenth century the Florentine republic had fostered a truly meritocratic system that, together with regular falls in population following recurrent episodes of plague and wars, promoted a great fluidity between professions. We find artistic dynasties such as the Della Robbia, who maintained a family workshop over three generations for nearly a century, and others with no previous artistic connection, such as the brothers Antonio (1429–1498) and Piero (1443–1496) Benci, called Pollaiolo, who were the sons of a poultry seller (hence their name ‘pollaiolo’, which derives from pollo, meaning ‘chicken’). They ran one of the most successful workshops in Florence in the second half of the fifteenth century (Quattrocento) and were, on a few occasions, direct rivals to Botticelli. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was the son of a solicitor, while Michelangelo’s (1475–1564) father would occasionally act as the chief magistrate (podestà) of a small town outside Florence. As for many of his contemporaries, Botticelli’s success results from a combination of factors. His brother Giovanni, who was 24 years older than him, occupied a successful position in the mercantile city of Florence, which positioned him at the heart of a dense network of clientage, and most likely enabled him to protect and recommend his younger brother early on in his career. Giovanni was a marriage-broker (sensale e faccendiere) at the Monte delle doti, founded by the government of the Republic of Florence in 1425 to provide suitable dowries (doti) to Florentine brides. Artistic commissions were mainly made on the occasion of weddings and births; their rhythm was generally determined by the cycle of social and domestic events of the Florentine people.

Vasari presents Botticelli’s artistic vocation as the result of intellectual dissatisfaction: Sandro ‘was ever restless and could not settled down at school to reading, writing and arithmetic. Accordingly, his father, in despair at his waywardness, put him with a goldsmith, who was known to him as Botticello, a very reputable master of the craft.’ According to the biographer, the discovery of drawing and painting was the revelation that the young boy was looking for. Under the guidance of this master that Vasari identified as one ‘called Botticello’, seemingly ignoring that Sandro in fact owed his nickname to his elder brother Giovanni ‘Botticello’, ‘he devoted himself to drawing, became attracted to painting, and resolved to take it up’. As attractive as these beginnings may sound, such a story is commonplace throughout Vasari’s Lives. We find similar tales about the great masters of his time. For instance, Vasari narrates that Michelangelo was born under an ‘artistic’ lucky star and always found himself distracted as a young boy, until he discovered the art of drawing, to which he then dedicated all his free time. Similarly, Vasari’s Leonardo is as restless as Botticelli, drawing (and sculpting) being the only occupation that he never gave up despite paternal complaints and occasional caning.

In those years, the idea of the artist being inspired by an inner force had just emerged: Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), a key figure in the Medicean cultural world as shall be seen, used a Neoplatonic concept—‘furor divinus’, a passion inspired by the divine – to explain this artistic predisposition....

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