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An exhibition of the work of Sandro Botticelli (circa 1445–1510) is planned to open at the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Virginia on February 11. The show, “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting Between the Medici and the Bonfire of the Vanities,” which will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in April, will bring Botticelli’s famed Venus to the US for the first time. In homage to the Renaissance master, we take a closer look at his life and career.
Sandro Botticelli, The Rockefeller Madonna: Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist. Courtesy of Christie’s New York.
These transitions in Botticelli’s style can be seen in the small panels of Judith (The Return of Judith) and Holofernes (The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes), both c. 1470, and in his first dated work, Fortitude (1470), which was painted for the hall of the Tribunale dell’Are della Mercanzia, or merchants’ tribunal, in Florence. Botticelli’s art from that time shows a use of ochre in the shadowed areas of flesh tones that gives a brown warmth very different from Lippi’s pallor. The forms in his paintings are defined with a line that is at once incisive and flowing, and there is a growing ability to suggest the character and even the mood of the figures by action, pose, and facial expression.
Botticelli worked in all the current genres of Florentine art. He painted altarpieces in fresco and on panel, tondi (round paintings), small panel pictures, and small devotional triptychs. His altarpieces include narrow vertical panels such as the St. Sebastian (1474); small oblong panels such as the famous Adoration of the Magi (c. 1476) from the Church of Santa Maria Novella; medium-sized altarpieces, of which the finest is the beautiful Bardi Altarpiece (1484–85); and large-scale works such as the St. Barnabas Altarpiece (c. 1488) and the Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1490). His early mastery of fresco is clearly visible in his St. Augustine (1480) in the Church of Ognissanti, in which the saint’s cogent energy and vigour express both intellectual power and spiritual devotion. Three of Botticelli’s finest religious frescoes (completed 1482) were part of the decorations of the Sistine Chapel undertaken by a team of Florentine and Umbrian artists who had been summoned to Rome in July 1481. The theological themes of the frescoes were chosen to illustrate papal supremacy over the church; Botticelli’s are remarkable for their brilliant fusion of sequences of symbolic episodes into unitary compositions.
In the past there was speculation that he had also had a period in a more progressive workshop, and both that of the Pollaiuolo brothers and Verrochio have been suggested, based on some undoubted influence these had on Botticelli’s style. Current thinking is that no actual period in a different workshop is needed to account for this. 
The Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella (c. 1475–76, now in the Uffizi, and the first of 8 Adorations),  was singled out for praise by Vasari, and was in a much-visited church, so spreading his reputation. It can be thought of as marking the climax of Botticelli’s early style. Despite being commissioned by a money-changer, or perhaps money-lender, not otherwise known as an ally of the Medici, it contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni (all these by now dead), and his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano. There are also portraits of the donor and, in the view of most, Botticelli himself, standing at the front on the right. The painting was celebrated for the variety of the angles from which the faces are painted, and of their expressions. 
The earliest work attributed to Botticelli is a Madonna and Child (about 1465), at the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Florence). By 1470, he had his own workshop. Thanks to Medici patronage, in 1481 he was called to Rome by the Pope to contribute scenes to the wall decoration of the Sistine Chapel alongside other artists from Tuscany and Umbria. Back in Florence, “he there wrote a commentary on a portion of Dante and illustrated the Inferno which he printed, spending much time over it, and this abstention from work led to serious disorders in his living.” (Giorgio Vasari).
His most famous works by far are, of course, the Primavera and the Birth of Venus. The Primavera (or Allegory of Spring) was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de ‘Medici (cousin to Lorenzo the Magnificent) and the subject of the painting is not fully clear: there are mythological characters implying various neo-platonic academy theories, and probably also some references to the client and his marriage (1482). The Birth of Venus is not mentioned in the Medici inventories of 1498, 1503 and 1516, but, thanks to Giorgio Vasari, we know that the work was definitely in the Villa di Castello in 1550, where Vasari was able to admire it, along with the Primavera.
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).