Up and downs of a painter: from the Quattrocento to the present day, art historians have evaluated the works of Florentine Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) in dramatically differing ways.

By Costanza Beltrami

Up and downs of a painter: from the Quattrocento to the present day, art historians have evaluated the works of Florentine Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) in dramatically differing ways. First came Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), who praised the indescribable beauty of Botticelli’s faces, but criticized his frivolous lifestyle. Two centuries later, the eighteenth-century Romantic painter Henri Fuseli berated the “barbarous taste and dry minuteness” of Botticelli’s works in Rome. More criticism followed in the eighteenth century. As late as the 1860s, Botticelli’s pictures were considered “coarse and altogether without beauty” by Ralph Nicholson Wornum, secretary of the National Gallery.

But just a few years later, Botticelli’s fate had changed completely. For the famous critic and art historian John Ruskin, Botticelli was “the most learned theologian, the most perfect artist, and the most kind gentlemen whom Florence produced.” This image of Botticelli as the genius of the Renaissance was cemented in 1870 by Walter Pater: despite describing Botticelli’s Madonnas as “peevish-looking,” his figures as sickly grey-fleshed, and his flowers as wilted and pale, he concluded that Botticelli painted “men and women in their mixed and uncertain conditions, always attractive, clothed sometimes by passion with a character of loveliness and energy, but saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Botticelli emerged from Pater’s words as triumphantly as Venus from her shell: since then, he was hailed as a genius before his time, who had captured the essence of modernity’s spleen in his eerily erotic bodies.

From the pre-raphaelites to Lady Gaga and Kyle Minogue, Botticelli continues to speak to our time. The exhibition Botticelli Reimagined, which opens today at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK), explores the painter’s powerful legacy over 500 years. 50 works by the artist will be displayed beside 19thand 20th century creations, including haute couture by Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

But the myth of Botticelli is not only a “modern” creation. As Vasari first noted, the artist was a sublime draftsman whose supple lines could conjure entire worlds out of thin air. This skill is demonstrated in a set of 92 drawings for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. While the drawings illustrating the cantos of Hell are complex and anecdotal, the spirituality of Paradise is rendered with pared-down compositions which invite protracted contemplation. With the exhibition Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection closing on 15 March at the Courtauld Institute of Art (London, UK), you have just enough time to observe and meditate…


Reference: Brian Dillon, “The Beauty of Botticelli Lives On,” V&A Magazine, no. 39 (Spring, 2016).

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn, c.1470-5, pen and ink. London, British Museum.

Idealized portrait of a lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as nymph), ca. 1475, tempera on panel. Frankfurt am Main, Stäedel Museum.

Portrait of a Young Woman,c. 1475, tempera on panel. Florence, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

Calumny of Apelles (detail), 1494-95. tempera on panel. Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

Venus, 1490s, tempera on panel. Berlin: Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Woman’s Evening Dress, 1938, silk crepe, plastic sequins, and silk thread embroidery. Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Woman’s Evening Dress, 1938, silk crepe, plastic sequins, and silk thread embroidery. New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Violent Against Themselves, from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno) c.1480-c.1495, manuscript (Ms. Hamilton 201). Berlin, Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Dante’s ascent to the fixed stars, from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradise), c.1480-c.1495, manuscript (Ms. Hamilton 201). Berlin, Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The Empyrean, from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradise), c.1480-c.1495, manuscript (Ms. Hamilton 201). Berlin, Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

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