In 1447 was born in Florence one of the most unique and fascinating of the Italian painters. His name was Alessandro (Alexander) Filipepi. His father wished to educate him, but Sandro (Alex) had no pleasure “in reading, writing or accounts.” In despair his father turned him over to his friend, Botticelli, a goldsmith, begging him to try and teach the boy his craft. Botticelli had no trouble in doing this, for it was in art Sandro found his vocation. He takes his art name from his master. He soon tired of working in gold and silver and wanted to study painting; his father placed him with Fra Filippo Lippi. Sandro was so diligent, so enthusiastic, and showed such remarkable talent, that Fra Filippo became devotedly attached to him and gave him the most careful instruction. Usually the pupil is influenced in his style by his master, but in all Botticelli’s works there is not to be found the faintest suggestion of Fra Filippo. Sandro’s style is his own, and is both unique and original. His figures walk with mincing step and fluttering drapery, while Fra Filippo’s sit or stand in calm repose. He was admired and patronized by the Medici, but perhaps there is a better appreciation of Botticelli today than in his own time. He must have been an extensive reader in spite of his not caring for school. He seems to have had a knowledge of the classics, and he knew his Bible, knew it thoroughly too, else he could never have designed those pictures in the Sistine Chapel. He died in Florence in 1515 and was buried in the church of Ognissanti.
There is no artist in the long list of Renaissance painters about whom there is such a difference of opinion; not one that tries the standards of criticism so severely. Artists as a rule admire him greatly. Ruskin praises the pictures in the Sistine Chapel. They are treated with great power, and that appealed to him.
Just above where the tapestries used to hang are twelve large pictures all designed by Botticelli. Three of them were painted by him. Ruskin says: “Not one person in a million in the Sistine Chapel takes the pains to study the conception, the design of the painter Botticelli. He is as much a theologian as a painter. Sandro endeavors to show us on the two walls of this chapel the power of inherited honor, the universal claim of divine law in the Jewish and the Christian church the law delivered first by Moses, then in final grace and truth by Christ. He designed twelve great pictures, each containing some twenty figures the size of life, and groups of smaller ones scarcely to be counted ; twelve pictures, six to illustrate the giving of the Law by Moses, and six the ratification and completion of it by Christ.” Event by event, the jurisprudence of each dispensation is traced from dawn to close in this correspondence.
1. Covenant of Circumcision Covenant of Baptism.
2. Moses entering on his ministry Christ entering on his ministry.
3. Moses by the Red Sea Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee.
4. Moses receiving the law on Mt. Sinai The sermon on the Mount.
5. The destruction of Korah Christ giving the charge to Peter.
6. Death of Moses The Last Supper.
One of Botticelli’s most enthusiastic admirers is George Moore, an English artist and critic. He says : “Know ye the land where Botticelli and Filippo Lippi dreamed immortal dreams? Know ye Italy in the fifteenth century? An enchanted land, a land of angels and aureoles ; of crimson and gold, and purple raiment; of beautiful youths crowned with flowers; of fabulous blue landscapes and delicate architecture. Botticelli is king there, king of clasped hands and almond-eyed Madonnas.
Filippo Lippi is prince there, prince of angel youths, with fair hair crowned with fair flowers. It was he who filled those angel eyes with passion such as awakens in heaven at the touch of wings, at the sound of citherns and viols. Know ye the land?
“There, art seemed for all men, and life only for architecture, painting, carving, and length of time for monks to illuminate great missals in the happy solitude of their cells, and for nuns to weave embroideries and to stitch jewelled vestments.”
It is generally conceded that the “Allegory of Spring” is Botticelli’s greatest work. The picture was painted for Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Edmund G. Gardner, in his “Story of Florence,” believes that it was inspired in part by Poliziano’s lines in honor of Guliano di Medici and his Bella Simonetta.
Botticelli nevertheless has given to his strange not altogether decipherable allegory a vague, mysterious poetry far beyond anything Poliziano could have suggested to him. Through this weirdly colored garden of the Queen of Love, in “the light that never was on land or sea,” blind Cupid darts upon his little wings, shooting, apparently at random, a flame-tipped arrow which will surely pierce the heart of the central maiden of those three, who, in their clinging white raiment, personify the Graces. The eyes of Simonetta for it is clearly she rest for a moment in the dance upon the stalwart Hermes (Mercury), an idealized Giuliano, who has turned away carelessly from the scene. Flora advances from our right, scattering flowers rapidly as she approaches ; while behind her a wanton Zephyr, borne on his strong wings, breaks through the wood to clasp Fertility, from whose mouth the flowers are starting. Venus herself, the mistress of Nature, for whom and by whom all these things are done, stands somewhat sadly apart in the center of the picture; this is only one more of the numberless springs that have passed over her, since she rose from the sea, and she is somewhat weary of it all.
W. J. Stillman in his “Old Italian Masters,” says : ” ‘The Spring’ is one of those allegories which fascinate by the insolvable puzzle they offer to the student. A representation of Springtime it is not. One side of the picture seems to have given the name to the whole. The interpretation of the allegory must be left to the ingenuity of the student. The central figure has no attribute which justifies the calling her Venus, or Juno, as some have done. The three figures are to be considered as the Graces only because they are three, and finally what has Mercury to do with Spring, rather than any other season? The trees loaded with fruit are not a possible attribute of the spring-time. I believe it is rather a record of a pageant made for some one of the Medici and that this person is represented by the central figure, with allusions of an allegorical nature rep-resenting the virtues and beneficences attributed to her, or to the family. Mercury indicates her commercial prosperity; Cupid her fascination; the Graces her personal charm; the spring group, the awakening life and Renaissance of the regime ; and the orchard the prosperity of the realm.”
In the Uffizi is Sandro’s “Magnificat,” which, if not his strongest picture, is one of the most beautiful. The distribution of line through the picture is as perfect as the distribution of color. The Virgin is in the act of writing the Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” Angels cluster round to crown their Queen. Pictures in which the Madonna is holding her child, while angels place a crown on her head, do not represent the Coronation, properly so-called, but merely show the Virgin honored as Mother of Christ and Queen of Heaven. Angels offer her ink and book or look to see what she has written, while the Dove hovers above her. But all these beau-ties are subordinate to the Virgin’s head. How beautiful it is. The heavy coils of her fair hair are covered with filmy gauze, edged with lace, and Sandro has painted it in such delicacy of fold that it seems but the magic of an instant’s hallucination. The Christ child holds a pomegranate with the seeds displayed. This was the ancient emblem of hope, and more particularly of religious hope. It is often placed in the hands of the child who presents it to his mother. In the background of the picture is seen a lovely landscape.
The Virgin seems to be anticipating the Passion of her child so unmistakably divine and the angel faces are said to be idealized portraits of the Medici children. The head of the figure behind the Virgin is the portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent in his youth.
Mrs. Jameson says : “As I walked through the Uffizi day after day, I never failed to stop in admiration before this picture.”
( Originally Published 1912 )
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