Botticelli was born in the city of Florence in a house in the street still called Via Borgo Ognissanti. He was to live within a minute or two’s walk of this all his life, and to be buried in the Ognissanti (“All Saints”) parish church. The name Botticelli, meaning “little barrel” came from his brother Giovanni’s nickname of “Botticello”, “apparently from an unfortunate resemblance”. By 1470 a document referred to the painter as “Sandro Mariano Botticelli”, and it became his customary surname.
In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Botticelli and other prominent Florentine and Umbrian artists to fresco the walls of the newly completed Sistine Chapel. This large project was to be the main decoration of the chapel; most of the frescos remain, but are now greatly overshadowed and disrupted by Michelangelo’s work of the next century.
Botticelli differs from his colleagues in imposing a more insistent triptych-like composition, dividing each of his scenes into a main central group with two flanking groups at the sides, showing different incidents. In each the principal figure of Christ or Moses appears several times, seven in the case of the Youth of Moses.
The thirty invented portraits of the earliest popes seem to have been mainly Botticelli’s responsibility, at least as far as producing the cartoons went. Of those surviving, most scholars agree that ten were designed by Botticelli, and five probably at least partly by him, although all have been damaged and restored.
The masterpieces Primavera (c. 1482) and The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) are not a pair, but are inevitably discussed together. They are among the most famous paintings in the world, and icons of the Italian Renaissance. As depictions of subjects from classical mythology on a very large scale they were virtually unprecedented in Western art since classical antiquity. Together with the smaller and less celebrated Mars and Venus and Pallas and the Centaur, they have been endlessly analysed by art historians.
Botticelli painted a number of portraits, although not nearly as many as have been attributed to him. There are a number of idealized portrait-like paintings of women which probably do not represent a specific person (several closely resemble the Venus in his Venus and Mars).
With one or two exceptions his small independent panel portraits show the sitter no further down the torso than about the bottom of the rib-cage. Women are normally in profile, full or just a little turned, whereas men are normally a “three-quarters” pose, but never quite seen completely frontally. Even when the head is facing more or less straight ahead, the lighting is used to create a difference between the sides of the face. Backgrounds may be plain, or show an open window, usually with nothing but sky visible through it. A few have developed landscape backgrounds. These characteristics were typical of Florentine portraits at the beginning of his career, but old-fashioned by his last years.
After his death, Botticelli’s reputation was eclipsed longer and more thoroughly than that of any other major European artist. His paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they had been created, and his frescos in the Sistine Chapel were upstaged by those of Michelangelo.