Painter of Florence

IN these same days of Lorenzo de' Medici the Magnificent,which was a veritable golden age for men of genius, flourished Alessandro, called Sandro according to our custom, and di Botticelli, for reasons which I shall give presently. he was the son of Mariano Filipepi, a citizen of Florence, who brought him up with care, teaching him everything which children are usually set to learn before the age when they are first apprenticed to trades. Although Sandro quickly mastered anything that he liked, he was always restless and could not settle 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 called Botticelli, a very reputable master of the craft. Very close and friendly relations then existed between the goldsmiths and the painters, so that Sandro, who was an ingenious lad and devoted to drawing, became attracted to painting, and resolved to take it up. When he had told his wish to his father, the latter, who knew his whims, took him to Fra Filippo of the Carmine, an admirable painter of the day, and it was agreed that he should teach Sandro, as the boy desired. Devoting himself heart and soul to his art, Sandro followed and imitated his master so well that Fra Filippo became very fond of him and taught him so carefully that he soon attained to an excellence that no one would have thought possible.

While still young he painted for the Mercatanzia of Florence a Fortitude for the Series of the Virtues done by Antonio and Piero del Pollajuolo. 1 In the Chapel of the Bardi in S. Spirito, Florence, he painted a panel 2 which is diligently executed and well finished, containing some olives and palms produced with whole-hearted delight. For the Convertite nun she did a panel, and another for those of S. Barnaba. 3 On the screen of Ognissanti, by the door leading into the choir, he painted a St. Augustine 4 for the Vespucci, in which he endeavoured to surpass all his contemporaries, but especially Domenico Ghirlandajo, who had done a St. Jerome on the other side. This work proved very successful, the head of the saint being expressive of profound thought and quick subtlety, such as are usually possessed by those who are always examining into difficult and abstruse questions. As I have said in the Life of Ghirlandajo, this painting was removed without suffering damage in 1564. Having thus won name and fame, Sandro was employed by the art of Porta S. Maria to do a Coronation of the Virgin 5 for S. Marco,with a choir of angels, and he executed this commission admirably.

In the Casa Medici he did many things for Lorenzo the Magnificent, the elder, notably a life-size Pallas 6 above a design of vine-branches flaming fire, and also a St. Sebastian. In S. Maria Maggiore, at Florence, there is a fine Pieta 7 of small figures beside the Chapel of the Panciatichi. For various houses in the city he did round pictures, and a goodly number of nude female figures, two of which are now at Castello, a villa of Duke Cosimo. One is a Birth of Venus 8 wafted to land by the breezes, with cupids; the other is also a Venus in company with the Graces and flowers, denoting Spring, 9 expressed by him with much grace. In the house of Giovanni Vespucci in the via de'Servi, now Piero Salviati's, he did a number of pictures round a room, framed in an ornamental border of walnut, and figures full of life and beauty. In the Casa Pucci he did Boccaccio's story of Nastagio degli Onesto, 10 in small figures, the series consisting of four pictures of great beauty and grace.

He further did a round picture of the Epiphany. In a chapel of the monks of Cestello he did an Annunciation. By the side door of S. Piero Maggiore he did a panel for Matteo Palmieri, with a large number of figures representing the Assumption of Our Lady, 11 with zones of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, doctors, virgins, and the orders of angels, the whole from a design given to him by Matteo, who was a worthy and learned man. He executed this work with the greatest mastery and diligence, introducing the portraits of Matteo and his wife on their knees. But although the great beauty of this work could find no other fault with it, said that Matteo and Sandro were guilty of grave heresy. Whether this be true or not, I cannot say, but I know that Sandro's figures are admirable for the pains which he has taken and the manner in which he has made the circles of the heavens, introducing foreshortening and spaces between the groups of angels, while the general design is excellent.

At this time Sandro was commissioned to paint a small panel, with figures three-quarters of a braccia high, which was placed in S. Maria Novella on the main wall of the church between the two doors, on the left-hand side of the middle door on entering. The subject is the Adoration of the Magi, 12 remarkable for the emotion of the elderly man, who overflows with love as he kisses the foot of Our Lord, clearly showing that he has attained the end of his long journey. This king is a portrait of Cosimode Medici, the elder, and is the finest of all that are now extant for its life and vigour. The second is Giuliano de' Medici, the father of Pope Clement VII., doing reverence with absorbed devotion and offering his gift. The third, who is also kneeling and appears to be adoring and giving thanks while he confesses the true Messiah, is Cosimo's son Giovanni. The beauty of the heads in this scene is indescribable, their attitudes all different, some full-face, some in profile, some three-quarters, some bent down, and in various other ways, while the expressions of the attendants, both young and old, are greatly varied, displaying the artist's perfect mastery of his profession. Sandro further clearly shows the distinction between the suites of each of the kings. It is a marvellous work in colour, design and composition, and the wonder and admiration of all artists. It brought Sandro-such a reputation in Florence and abroad that Pope Sixtus IV. entrusted him with the direction of the painting of the chapel which he was building in his palace at Rome.

Here Sandro painted the following subjects: Christ tempted by the devil; Moses slaying the Egyptian and receiving drink from the daughter of Jethro the Midianite; the sacrifice of the sons of Aaron and the fire from heaven which consumed them, with some of the canonised popes in the niches above. 13 By these he won yet greater renown among many rivals who were working with him, Florentines and natives of other cities, and he received a goodly sum of money from the Pope. But he spent all during his Stay at Rome in his usual thoughtless way, and after finishing his section of the work he uncovered it, and straightway left for Florence. 14 Being of a sophistical turn of mind, he there wrote a commentary on a portion of Dante and illustrated the Itiferno, 15 which he printed, spending much time over it, and this abstension from work led to serious disorders in his living. He printed many other drawings, but in an inferior style, because the plates were badly engraved, his best work being the triumph of the faith of Fra Girolamo Savonorola of Ferrara. Of this sect he was an adherent, and this led him to abandon painting, and, as he had no income, it involved him in the most serious trouble. But remaining obstinate in his determination and becoming a Piagnone, as they were called, he gave up work, and owing to this he became so poor in his old age that if Lorenzo de'Medici the Magnificent, while he lived, had not assisted him, for he had done many things for that prince at the Spedaletto at Volterra, and if he had not been helped by friends and many wealthy men who admired his genius, he would practically have died of hunger. In S. Francesco, outside the S. Miniatogate, there is a circular picture by Sandro of a Madonna andangels, of life-size, which was considered very beautiful.

Sandro was a merry fellow and played many pranks on his pupils and friends. It is related that he once had a pupil named Biagio, who made a picture for sale like the one just mentioned, and Sandro disposed of it to a citizen for six gold florins. Finding Biagio, Sandro said, "I have sold your picture at last, but the purchaser wants it set up this evening to have a better view of it. Go to the citizen's house to-morrow, taking it with you, so that when he has seen it well placed he may pay you the price.” Biagio was delighted, and thanked his master, and hastened to the workshop, setting the picture fairly high up, and departed. Thereupon Sandro and another pupil called Jacopo made eight hoods of paper, such as the citizens use, and fastened them with white wax to the heads of the angels surrounding the Madonna. The next morning up came Biagio with the citizen who had bought the picture and who was aware of the joke. When Biagio entered the shop and looked up, he saw his Madonna seated not in the midst of angels, but of the Signoria of Florence, with their hoods. He was about to excuse himself to his patron, but as the latter said nothing but praise of the picture, he kept his counsel. Finally Biagio went home with the citizen and received the payment of six florins as settled by his master. Meanwhile Sandro and Jacopo had removed the paper hoods, and on Biagio's return he saw his angels were as they should be and no longer hooded citizens. Lost in amazement, he knew not what to say. At length he turned to Sandro and said, "Master, I do not know if I am dreaming or awake. When I came here these angels had red hoods on their heads and now they have none; what does it mean?'' “You must be mad, Biagio," said Sandro; "this money has turned your brain. If they had been like that do you think the citizen would have bought it?" "That is true," replied Biagio, "he said nothing tome about it, and I certainly thought it strange." All the other boys in the shop surrounded him, and together they succeeded in making him believe that his head had been in a whirl.

A cloth-weaver once came to live next door to Sandro, and put up eight looms, which made such a noise when they were at work as to deafen poor Sandro, making the whole house shake, the walls not being so strong as they might have been, so that for one reason and another he was unable to work or remain in his house. He several times begged his neighbour to remedy this nuisance, but the man declared that he could and would do what he pleased in his own house. This aroused Sandro's ire, and his wall being higher than his neighbour's, he balanced a huge stone upon the top of it, which looked as if it would fall at the slightest movement and break the roofs, ceiling and looms of the man below. Terrified by this danger, the weaver had recourse to Sandro, who, adopting his own phrase, replied that he would do as he pleased in his own house. Unable to obtain any fuller satisfaction, the man was forced to come to terms and to act like a good neighbour. It is also related that for a jest Sandro accused a friend of his of heresy to the vicar. The friend appeared and demanded who accused him and of what. Learning that it was Sandro who said that he held the opinion of the Epicureans that the soul dies with the body, he asked to see his accuser before the judge. When Sandro arrived he said, "It is true that I hold this opinion of this man, for he is a brute. Do not you yourselves think him a heretic, since without any education, and scarce knowing how to read, he writes a commentary on Dante, taking his name in vain?"

It is said that Sandro was extraordinarily fond of those whom he knew to be students of the arts, and that he made a good deal, but wasted all through his carelessness and want of control. Having become old and useless, he fell to walking with two crutches, as he could not stand straight, and in this state of decrepitude he died at the age of seventy-eight, being buried in Ognissanti in 1515. There are two female heads in profile by his hand in the wardrobe of Duke Cosimo, one of whom is said to be the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, Lorenzo's brother,and the other Madonna Lucrezia de' Tornabuoni, Lorenzo'swife. 16 The same place has a Bacchus of Sandro raising a cask with both hands and putting it to his lips, a very graceful figure.

In the Chapel of the Impagliata, in the Duomo of Lisa, he began an Assumption, with a choir of angels, but as it did not please him he left it unfinished. In S. Francesco at Montevarchi he did the picture of the high altar and two angels in the Pieve of Empoli, on the same side as Rossellino's St. Sebastian. He was one of the first to find a way of making standards and other draperies by joining pieces together, so that the colours do not run, and show on both sides. He also did the baldachino of Orsanmichele, full of Madonnas, all different and beautiful. It is clear that this method of making standards is the must durable, as they do not suffer from acids, which quickly eat them away, although the latter method is most often used because it is less costly. Sandro's drawing was much beyond the common level, so much so that artists strove to obtain examples for some time after his death, and there are some in our book done with great judgment and skill. He was prodigal of figures in his scenes, as may be noticed in the embroidery of the frieze of the processional cross of the friars of S. Maria Novella, all by his design. Sandro then deserves high praise for his paintings, into which he threw himself with diligence and ardour, producing such works as the Adoration of the Magi in S. Maria Novella already described, which is a marvel. Another very remarkable work is a small round picture in the chamber of the prior of the Angeli at Florence, the figures being small but very graceful and beautifully composed. A Florentine gentleman, M. Fabio Segni, has a picture of the same size as the Magi, representing the Calumny of Apelles, 17 of the utmost beauty. He gave this picture to his close friend Antonio Segni, with the following lines of his own composition beneath it:

Indicio quemquam ne falso laedere tentent Terrarum reges, parva tabella monet. Huic similem Aegypti regi donavit Apelles Rex fuit et dignus munere, munus eo.
  • 1 Done about 1468, now in the Uffizi.
  • 2 A Madonna between St.John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, now in the Berlin Gallery.
  • 3 Now in the Accademia, Florence.
  • 4 In 1480.
  • 5 Probably painted in 1481; now in the Accademia, Florence.
  • 6 This seems to be the picture discovered in the Pitti palace in1895, painted in 1490.
  • 7 Now in the Pinacothek, Munich.
  • 8 Uffizi
  • 9 Accademia, Florence, painted about 1478.
  • 10 Decameron Day 5, Novello 8. The panels appear to be those now in the National Gallery, London.
  • 11 About 1490.
  • 12 Painted about 1472, now in the National Gallery, ascribed to Botticini.
  • 13 Uffizi, painted 1477.
  • 14 Comissioned in 1481. Vasari is at fault in some of the subjects; he misconstrues the gallantry of Moses, and the "sacrifice of the sons of Aaron really represents the purification of a leper as prescribed in Leviticus XIV. 2-7.
  • 15 In 1482.
  • 16 The drawings were done between 1492 and 1497.
  • 17 The first "La bella Simonetta" is now in the Pitti Gallery, the second at Berlin, and represents the wife of Piero de' Medici.

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