Planning to improve your knowledge of Rennaisance art by admiring artworks by Botticelli, but unsure what famous artwork you should see? Don’t worry: we are Botticelli experts, so we have you covered. Here are the most famous paintings you should not miss when trying to understand Botticelli!
The 11 Most Famous Artworks By Botticelli
First of all, let’s introduce Botticelli and his career. For starters, his real name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. He was born in 1444/5 in Florence, where he lived for the majority of his life. According to art historian Barbara Deimling, he trained as a goldsmith between 1459/60. However, 2 years later, he decided to become a painter under the tutelage of Fra Filippo Lippi in Prato, which ended in 1467. Fra Filippo was a Carmelite monk, so the influence of religious art was constant during Botticelli’s formative years. In 1470 he starts his studio.
But perhaps the most important moment in his career happens in 1475. This is when the Medici family starts its patronage. In fact, this will sustain his career for many years to come. Then, in 1481 he leaves Florence for Rome to work on the Sistine Chapel and return shortly to his studio. We knew he carried on painting until his 60s because he paid fees at artisan guilds. However the last of this payment happens in 1505. It seems old age didn’t treat him well and by the time of his death in 1510, he is rather poor and in bad shape.
His sudden decline accompanied by other historical circumstances has made him a hard artist for historians to understand. Botticelli’s style was deeply impacted by late gothic art. However according to Jean Gillies that made him quite forgettable during the 1500s due to shifting artistic tendencies. So, just a few years after his death he fades to the background. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the pre-raphaelites rediscovered him that his work became popular again amongst art historians.
With this in mind, let’s look at his paintings.
11. St Sebastian
1474 | Tempera on panel | Staatliche Museen (Berlin)
The image of this saint is very precarious. Botticelli painted a very tall, slender, and sort of scrawny figure clearly in suffering. According to Emile Gebhart and Victoria Charles, Botticelli here references Donatello’s canon of proportions. This meant creating a slightly exaggerated slender figure, which is the opposite of what his master taught him of full rounded bodies. By doing this, he achieves a sense of majesty in the depiction of the human figure.
It is important to understand the historical context to appreciate why Botticelli would have painted this saint. According to Barbara Deimling, during this time St Sebastian was one of the most venerated saints in Italy as patron of those infected by the plague. Barbara Deimling suggests this painting probably was an expression of gratitude for being spared from the plague. It is not a very common motif, so hopefully, you will remember it in this collection!
1490 | Tempera on panel | Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (Glasgow)
This painting by Botticelli presents a variant of the Annunciation where the virgin mary is reading, and the angel appears to bring the news that she is pregnant with the child of God. We think that Botticelli took inspiration in this painting from Verrochio, who was Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher. However, this motive of mary and the angel was likely something he learned from his master Fra Filippo, who also created an annunciation with this same style.
Finally, the most striking part about this painting is the use of architectural features to frame the narrative. You can see this in the position of the columns, the arches, and the flooring creating a very interesting perspective and giving the impression this could be a real building. The Annunciation has been one of the most common religious Christian art motives since the middle ages. Almost every single grandmaster has a piece of the Annunciation. So we can understand this piece as one of the stepping stones in Botticelli’s artistic career.
He also created other versions of the Annunciation. And you can see one of these, the Cestello Annunciation which is a more simplified composition at the Uffizi (Florence), and another one in the Metropolitan in New York.
9. Callumny of Apelles
1494-5 | Tempera on panel | Uffizi (Florence)
This is one of Botticelli’s most famous paintings because it is his best depiction of the ekphrasis genre. An ekphratic painting is a rhetorical device that tries to relate to another art medium and recreate its essence and form. It is a mixture between adaptation and synergy. And Botticelli here is trying to recreate a lost painting from the ancient Greek artist Apelles based purely on a description found on commentaries by Pliny the Elder and Lucian.
The figures represent vices and virtues. This is a very complex painting full of many meanings and many allegories still difficult for art historians to digest as we do not know exactly who it was intended for. Unfortunately, as the original painting is also lost we cannot draw many comparisons between the two.
Planning a trip to Florence? Don’t go with a big group to the Uffizi. Instead, check out our small group tours that allow you to connect with your guide and really understand the artwork!
8. Portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli
c. 1470 | Tempera on panel | Victoria and Albert Museum (London)
Botticelli was amongst the first wave of artists in the renaissance to change portraits. The change encouraged artists to work on three-quarter portraits.
This was a trend started by Flemish artists. In the 1470s Botticelli worked on several projects where he innovated with his artistic facial expressions. But for this portrait specifically, he added a new feature.
Patricia Zambrano explains that he presents the portrait as if it is seen through an opening and in an architectural setting. This was a type of feature that he mastered used frequently, so Botticelli gave it a new space in portraiture.
Moreover, according to Zambrano, this is the first known female portrait of this kind. In addition, Costaras and Richardsonexplain that this painting was repaired by Rossetti in the 19th century and somehow altered. They also state Botticelli added oil to his tempera paintings to give them more of a sophisticated range of effects, and that is visible in this painting.
7. Madonna of the Magnificat
1481 | Tempera tondo | Uffizi (Florence)
This is a painting of Madonna and the child, with the virgin holding a pomegranate which is the symbol of resurrection, according to Carlo Montresor. This painting shows that Botticelli had a great knowledge of movement which can be seen both on the bodies of the Madonna and Jesus, and on the landscape at the back (i.e the river). The name of the painting comes from the page that baby Jesus is holding over his mother’s arm – if you squint and look in here you can see the words for the Magnificat.
In fact, according to Schibanoff, the Madonna appears represented here not as a passive reader as most virgins with child and book are, but if you look closely, she is holding a pen and writing this Magnificat text. Again, another mysterious and unusual touch of Botticelli in this painting has created much debate amongst historians.
6. The Tragedy of Lucretia
1496-1504 | Tempera and oil on wood | Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston)
The painting is a dramatic representation of the raping of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome. The ravaging of Lucretia starts on the panel on the left. The centre panel represents the burial of Lucretia and the men of Rome taking arms and rebelling against the powers of the city for such felony. This eventually leads to the founding of the roman republic. On the right-hand panel, Lucretia appears taking her own life after she reveals what has happened to her. He uses the building to set the scene almost as if it was a tryptic in 3 sections which is a very clever way of displaying perspective and storytelling.
It is unclear whether the building represents old Rome or a landscape contemporary to Botticelli. According to Barbara Deimling, Botticelli use this story to allude to contemporary historical events, particularly the ousting of the Medici, who were his patrons, and the introduction of the Florentine republic. Therefore this was a very political painting for him, particularly considering how general standing in mythology and religious art.
5. Youth of Moses
1481-2| Fresco | Sistine Chapel (The Vatican)
Also known as The Trials of Moses. This is part of a series of frescos showing several scenes from Exodus commissioned by the Renaissance popes to adorn the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli was one of many artists who participated in this project.
This was also one of the very few times where he actually worked outside of Florence. Because the project was so big, he actually used his apprentices to help him create the scenes much as Michelangelo did also for the Sistine Chapel.
Moreover, he and his team created a total of 3 frescos telling the stories of Moses and Jesus. You can always tell who is Moses in these frescos because his tunic is yellow and he wears a green cloak. The importance of these paintings resides mainly in the magnitude of the work and their location in this room.
There is more than meets the eye in the Sistine Chapel. Don’t visit it with a big group of 50. Instead, join one of our small group tours which average 15 people. You’ll be able to connect with your guide, have fun, and appreciate the art & history!
4. Adoration of the Magi
1476 | Tempura on panel | Uffizi (Florence)
According to Carlo Montresor, this is a crucial artistic step in Botticelli’s career as a painter, as it helped him find his way and voice as an artist. However, the reason why this painting is most famous is because of the depiction of some famous people of the time. According to Isabella Alston, the magi are painted as Cosimo de Medici and his sons, Piero, and Giovanni, all of whom were already dead at the time of the painting. It was his first introduction to the Medici family and, therefore, the prospect of a lucrative future ahead.
Finally, Barbara Deimling states that the retinue of the magi is painted in very luxurious clothes. Moreover, this is reflective of the parades of the Florentine brotherhood of the magi who imitated the procession of the magi from the Bible. So this painting helps us understand some cultural celebrations in Florence during this period.
3. The Mystical Nativity
c. 1500-1| Oil on canvas | National Gallery (London)
This is the only painting Botticelli signed. Moreover, as a depiction of the nativity scene, it shows some unusual iconography. Anyone familiar with a nativity scene of any medium would know the three wise men brought Jesus gifts. However, there are no presents here. Moreover, christ seems rather distressed. According to art historian Jonathan nelson, the depiction of the angels and demons also has a resonance with paintings of the last judgment and the apocalypse. So perhaps Botticelli was alluding to the fact that Christ would return and judge our souls.
This coincides perfectly with the timeframe that Botticelli was associated with a radical Christian preacher called Girolamo Savonarola. He was very vocal against the ruling despots of Italy the treatment of the poor and secular art and vanities. His calls to a new renovation of Christianity had a feeling of doom looming over. Moreover, they seemed to come true as the first Italian War of 1494-98 took place which eventually lead to the removal of the Medici as the ruling family in Florence. Interestingly Savonarola was later on excommunicated by the Pope and hanged. His radical preaching is definitely something Botticelli sympathized with and is exemplified in this painting.
c. 1479-80 | Tempera on panel | Uffizi (Florence)
This is the largest mythological painting created in the early Renaissance. According to Isabella Alston, perhaps this was conceived as a painting to commemorate a wedding. The thematic of love and marriage seem to resonate with this. However, Jean Gillies suggests this is one of the most debated paintings in history. In fact, scholars often considered it rather enigmatic.
Nevertheless, art historians can concur that this painting represents the deep impact humanism had on the renaissance artists such as Botticelli. Moreover, if we accept the traditional interpretation that the painting was commissioned by the Medici, we can also see traces of these patrons and their ideologies. The Medici were firm believers of Neoplatonism: which merged Christian ideology with Plato’s philosophies. This could have added to the mysticism of the iconography used in the painting.
Furthermore, according to Jean Gillies, recent inventories discovered suggest the painting was done for Lorenzo de Medici, or at least that it was in his possession for a long time. Therefore it must have had some meaning to him. According to Carlo Montresor, these inventories referred to it as the garden of Atlantis or the garden of the Hesperides. This makes sense if we consider that Botticelli never gave a name to this painting. The name Primavera comes from the accounts written by Vasari where he calls it such.
1. The Birth of Venus
1484-6 | Tempera on canvas | Uffizi (Florence)
The most iconic of his paintings thanks to the popularity it has gained in recent years. According to Isabella Alston, it is historically the first work in tempera of canvas created in Tuscany. Another incredible addition that Botticelli did in this painting was to add the alabaster powder to his paints to make the colors pop and act as a preservative at the same time.
According to Isabella Alston, the body of this venus and its sensuality simulates marble statues of the goddess. This explains the emphasis on making it as pale ad marble-like as possible. The modest stance she has trying to cover herself is a direct reference to the venus pudica of classical art.
Most art historians believe this is a very allegoric painting that draws inspiration from Ovid’s metamorphosis stories. Isabella Alston suggests that the model for this painting may have been Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who was his love interest. Unfortunately, she died young (21) of suspected tuberculosis. The fact that he never married, and ask to be buried at the foot of her grave, emphasises that his adoration for this woman may have been behind this Venus.
Now that you understand Botticelli better, you can trot around Europe and the United States to see all these wonderful pieces of art!