Renaissance and Reformation Sandro Botticelli
Jonathan Kline
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0495


The Italian Renaissance artist known as Botticelli was born Alessandro Filipeppi in or about 1445. He began training as a painter in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi in the 1460s and carried on his master’s general style and content following Lippi’s death in 1469. Botticelli worked primarily in Florence. From his association with multiple branches of the Medici family and their contemporaries, he has come to represent certain key moments in the history of the city. His work up to the death of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence from c. 1469 to 1492, often seems entangled in Medici politics and in the culture of their era. Botticelli’s primary biographer, Giorgio Vasari, claimed that the artist espoused more conservative religious ideals following Lorenzo’s death and with the subsequent rise of Fra Girolamo Savonarola as a political and religious force. His work after 1492 does seem to have changed in both style and content. The degree to which this is due to affiliation with Savonarola or any development of intensely religious feelings is still a subject of scholarly debate. The fact remains that the great majority of his paintings are religious in subject matter. Botticelli began his career as a painter of religious tondi and earned respect and commissions later in life as the master in a workshop producing large altarpieces. Together with Pietro Perugnio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Luca Signorelli, he was called to Rome in 1481 to paint frescoes for Pope Sixtus IV on the walls of the newly constructed Sistine Chapel. He was also a very accomplished portraitist. Indeed, his work is notable for the degree to which he blended these seemingly distinct genres by introducing contemporary portraits into religious scenes, as in his Sistine Chapel frescoes and, most notably, the Adoration painted for Guasparre dal Lama, in which Medici family members appear as the three Magi. Nevertheless, Botticelli is perhaps best known and most celebrated for his mythological works, including the Primavera and Birth of Venus, both painted around the year 1482, about which see works cited under the Primavera and Birth of Venus. His late drawings of Dante’s Comedia, left unfinished at his death in 1510, were disparaged by Vasari but instrumental in the rediscovery of the artist in 19th-century England, after centuries of being largely ignored by the general public and scholars alike.

General Overviews

Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Botticelli is the foundation for all subsequent scholarship on the artist. As a primary source, the original Italian of the 1550 edition, published in Vasari 1986, is essential, as is the text of the expanded 1568 edition, available online in Vasari 1568. A suitable English translation is provided in Vasari 1912–1914. Stapleford 1995 established that Vasari, himself, drew from the Anonimo Magliabechiano, and it provides a comparison of the lists of works given in each. Crowe and Cavalcaselle 1864 provides a modern list of attributed works by location. Commentary on Botticelli really began, though, with Horne 1908, a volume that remains indispensable for Horne’s discovery, including archival materials. Horne remains a significant collection of archival sources on Botticelli. Lightbown 1978 has become a standard for the biography given in Volume 1 and is essential for the critical catalogue provided in Volume 2, though this is becoming dated. Zöllner 2005 contributes an updated bibliography of scholarly sources and detailed studies of Botticelli’s work in each respective genre—as a painter of religious works, a portraitist, painter of classical and/or literary subjects, etc. Of the more recent volumes on the artist, Körner 2006 stands out for its structure and many scholarly contributions.

  • Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovanni Batista Cavalcaselle. A New History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. Vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1864.

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    The authors’ chapter on Botticelli is brief and most significant, perhaps, as a representation of the 19th-century view of the nature of the artist and his work. The authors include a list of known or attributed works by location.

  • Horne, Herbert. Alessandro Filipeppi Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence. London: George Bell & Sons, 1908.

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    An early publication on Botticelli, Horne’s volume remains a valuable resource for its discovery of archival materials, biography, and attribution of paintings.

  • Körner, Hans. Botticelli. Cologne: DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 2006.

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    Arguing that one can know the artist’s bibliography only through his works, Körner presents a monograph on the artist organized by works of art, grouped chronologically and then by type or subject, interspersed with significant commentary on a wide range of related topics. A significant resource for the study of Botticelli and his work, as yet available only in German.

  • Lightbown, Ronald. Sandro Botticelli. 2 vols. London: Elek, 1978.

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    Vol. 1, Life and Works; Vol. 2, Complete Catalogue. Lightbown’s two-volume set includes a biography of the artist in the first volume and critical catalogue in the second. His catalogue entries remain a fundamental resource for the study of individual works.

  • Stapleford, Richard. “Vasari and Botticelli.” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 39.2–3 (1995): 397–408.

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    Stapleford identifies the Anonimo Magliabechiano as Vasari’s primary source text for the life of Botticelli and the list of his works. The author highlights similarities between the texts to establish their relationship.

  • Vasari, Giorgio. Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori scultori, e architettori. Florence: Apresso I Giunti, 1568.

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    The text of Vasari’s revised, 1568 edition, available online.

  • Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects. Vol. 3, Filarete and Simone to Mantegna. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. London: Macmillan, 1912–1914.

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    English translation of Vasari’s Vite available as full text online.

  • Vasari, Giorgio. Le vite de’ piú eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insinio a’ Tempi nostril: Nell’edizione per I tipi di Lorenzo Torrentino, Firenze 1550. Edited by Luciano Bellosi and Aldo Rossi. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1986.

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    While Vasari errs in numerous and significant instances, his description of Botticelli’s life and work, in the original Italian, is essential to study of the artist and his oeuvre. This set reproduces Vasari’s text of the 1550 edition.

  • Zöllner, Frank. Sandro Botticelli. Munich: Prestel, 2005.

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    An oversized volume that must not be overlooked in its importance. Zöllner treats Botticelli’s work in nine chapters that follow the artist’s biography, yet also considers his paintings by genre or subject and with sensitivity to the concerns of the discipline in its contemporary practice—the function of a work of art in social context, gender roles, social hierarchies, and so forth. Includes a catalogue of paintings, an appendix on drawings, and an updated bibliography.

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