Botticelli, Artist and Designer

Ana Debenedetti, formerly Curator of Paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has written a book on Botticelli, paying particular attention to him as head of a workshop and producer of designs for embroideries, tapestries, wood inlays and other non-painted art. It is the latest in the attractive series of artist monographs from Reaktion.

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), called Botticelli, was born in Florence into what we would describe today as a middle-class family. One brother (Antonio) was a goldsmith, another was a marriage broker. Botticelli was possibly apprenticed to Maso Finiguerra (1426-1464) as a teenager. Finiguerra was a goldsmith but part of a goldsmith’s activities included designing in stucco before gilding. It was a task that straddled metalwork, bas relief and painting and was one of multiple of decorative disciplines that could be employed on production of furniture, frames, altarpieces and liturgical objects. Botticelli painted a portrait of man (Antonio?) holding an actual gilded medallion attesting to his trade. Either of the brothers would have been capable of producing that element.

Botticelli seems to have received instruction on goldsmithing, stucco-work and drawing from Finiguerra. In 1459 or 1460 Botticelli became assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), already an established master of a higher calibre and status to Finiguerra. Debenedetti suggests that this may be because of the Botticelli family’s social or business connections with Fra Filippo. His reputation was high and his studio was busy, so it may not have taken much persuasion for the master to take on the talented young Botticelli. (Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo), upon the death of his father completed his apprenticeship under Botticelli.)

Under Fra Filippo, Botticelli learned panel and fresco painting in tempera. He was one of the last painters to be trained in tempera on panel and not to adapt to the incoming medium of oil painting on panel and canvas. By the time of his death, Botticelli’s style had fallen from fashion and his materials seemed hopelessly archaic. Botticelli used lighting to make his figures clear rather than to imitate light and shade in naturalistic fashion. In his early paintings some of his figures cast no shadows. There is no hint of reflected colour in Botticelli’s art. Note how the figures of Leonardo and Raphael are integrated into their surroundings, quite unlike Botticelli’s paintings. In other respects, Botticelli was advanced painter, observing nature and including details to heighten the richness of his scenes. “This wealth of detail echoes the rich apparatus of Fortitude [(1470)], and reveals Botticelli’s obsession with naturalistic features that would soon become a distinctive trait of his art. it is his capacity to depict the natural world as a veritable spectacle of marvels that made Botticelli one of the most successful translators of the Florentine devotional and mythological scenes alike.”

Botticelli’s painting bottega (shop, workshop) was one of the largest in Florence in the 1470s and 1480s. Apparently, his prices were not notably higher than those of other masters. It was in the family home. He lived in his brother’s family over the period 1482-94; after his brother’s death he lived there alone. Filippino Lippi, now fully trained, acted as Botticelli’s junior collaborator. Filippino may have inherited his father’s model books (or pattern books), which contained exemplary drawings used as designs for compositions, figures and details in paintings. There is a lot of crossover in terms of treatment and imagery in the many paintings of Virgin and Child made by Fra Filippo, Filippino and Botticelli. The facial type of the Virgin (the sweet countenance, pale skin and rounded forehead) rarely changes, though we see development of treatment of space and iconography. Likewise, in the portraits we see versatility and a degree of innovation. There is not space enough for the author to do more than discuss The Divine Comedy illustrations in brief.

Debenedetti assesses the reception and commissioning of art by the Botticelli’s workshop, doing some close reading of particularly notable works. Attention is paid to Botticelli’s contribution to a commission for symbolic paintings for the Merchants’ Guild court, executed in 1470. The original commission had gone to Piero del Pollaiolo for seven paintings, perhaps as the painted backs of chairs for the judges. For some reason, a senior politician intervened and had one of the paintings was made by Botticelli. It was the artist’s first public commission. It may be that the guild was irritated by Piero’s slow work. He was also young and inexperienced. Debenedetti says that technical analysis shows that Piero’s older brother Antonio may have stepped in to complete at least one painting to save the remainder of the commission.  

The author disagrees with the truth – or at least the totalising explanation – of a move to archaising influence of Girolamo Savonarola (during his influence on Florence, 1489-1498) upon Botticelli’s style. “Although this observation is undeniable, it cannot go unnoticed that Botticelli changed his style several times before this dark period.” It was Savonarola’s messianic preaching and message of devotion through civic renewal that made him popular and feared. The destruction of worldly luxuries that Savonarola called for resulted in the Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi both allegedly gave paintings to be burned.

The author analyses Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She considers that the revival of theatre by the court of Lorenzo Medici may have influenced Primavera (c. 1480) and The Birth of Venus (1478-82). His last recorded commission was made in 1505. By the time of his death, five years later, he was neglected and his possessions and copy books were considered of little monetary value. Debenedetti believes that his copy books did posthumously reach other artists before being broken up and the sheets almost all lost.

Illustrations of the relevant pictures are handy. The images of contemporaneous applied art using the painter’s designs are not often found and they prompt us to reconsider the master as collaborator and designer. The full endnotes, chronology, bibliography and index are a welcome addition for a relatively short book. Debenedetti’s Botticelli: Artist and Designer is a well-researched book that takes advantage of new scholarship.

Ana Debenedetti, Botticelli: Artist and Designer, 2021, Reaktion, hardback, 232pp, 73 col./1 mono illus., £15.95, ISBN 978 1 78914 438 3

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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