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Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
A. Early life
Son of a Florentine tanner
Nicknamed “Little Barrel” or Botticelli
Displayed promising artistic talent
Aprrenticed to Filippo Lippi, a renowned Florentine master
Set up his own workshop
B. The Medici family were regular patrons of Botticelli
1. Medici had established a Neo-Platonic academy for discussion Plato’s ideals
(Greek philosophy), in which Botticelli participated
2. Neoplatonic ideals affected Botticelli’s depiction of ideal beauty in his
C. Adoration of the Magi (1475)
1. A famous scenes involving the Magi or Wise Men bringing gifts to the child
2. These are no ordinary wise men
Cosimo the Elder – the elderly man who kneels at Christ’s feet
Piero the Gouty – the Wise Man with the red cloak seen from behind
Lorenzo the Magnificent is seen in profile on the right (he is wearing a
short black garment)
3. Botticelli included Lorenzo’s brother, Giuliano the Handsome as one of the
4. Botticelli also included the Neoplatonist poet Poliziano, who wrote a poem
about the birth of Venus!
5. Notice the balance and symmetrical composition – Renaissance artists
preferred this classical composition in their paintings
To enhance the balance, Renaissance artists often used a pyramidal
6. Botticelli also included a self-portrait on the right hand side of the painting
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
D. Birth of Venus (G-595)
1. Who’s who?
Venus – Goddess of love and beauty. Venus is standing on a giant gilded
scallop shell. The painting show the moment when Venus landed on the
Mediterranean island of Cyprus
Zephyr (the West Wind) – male figure whose breath, the wind causes
flowers to grow. He is accompanied by the earth nymph Chloris. Roses,
each of which contains a golden heart and are sacred to Venus and
symbolizeVenus fall around Zephyr and Chloris.
Flora – goddess of flowers stands on the island of Cyprus preparing to
cover her with a richly patterned robe. Her lavishly decorated dress and
the gorgeous robe she holds out to Venus are embroidered with red and
white daisies, yellow primroses, and blue cornflowers – all spring flowers
appropriate to the theme of birth. Flora wears a garland of myrtle – the
tree of Venus – along with a sash of pink roses.
According to the myth, when Zephyr marries Chloris and blows wind
upon her, she is transformed into Flora
2. The painting is based on a poem by Poliziano.
“And born within the white foam
In rare and joyous acts
A maiden with a heavenly face
By playful zephyrs
Is pushed to the shore
She travels on a sea-shell
And it seems that the heavens rejoice.”
3. The pose is based on the Medici Venus, a Venus statue in the Medici
collection in which she is in a modest pose.
4. Botticelli drew Venus’ proportions according to a canon of Classical beauty
going back to Praxitieles.
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
5. If Venus’ features seem elongated, that is because Botticelli wanted to depict
Venus as a graceful beauty. Botticelli left outlines on the body of Venus as
well as the other figures to enhance this feeling of gracefulness and elegance.
6. The face
 The model for Venus may have been an renowned Florentine beauty
named Simonetta Vespucci.
 Simonetta was so sweet and charming that all men praised her and no
woman blamed her.
 In 1475, she was Queen of Beauty in a great tournament held in Giuliano
de Medici’s honor. Tragically, she died just one year later after a sudden
illness. Simonetta died in April. The death of one so young amid so much
beauty made even the most dignified citizens weep openly.
7. But what does it all mean?
 Look closely at Venus’ face. What words would you use to describe her
The love Venus (ie. Simonetta) brought to earth was the gift of life. But
life also means inevitable loss, heartbreak, and death. Similarly,
Simonetta’s life brought great love and joy. But, this proved to be
EPHEMERAL (fleeting, brief). And that is why Botticelli gave Venus no
joy in her birth, and why he filled her face with compassion.
E. Primavera
1. The Nine Figures
The nine figures all originate in ancient Greek and Roman myth. They
are almost life-size in scale.
Mercury – the messenger of the gods. Mercury uses his snake-wrapped
wand, the caduceus, to dispel a patch of gray clouds.
The Three Graces – goddesses of charm, grace, and beauty – dance in a
circle. They are shown “with hands interlocked – smiling and youthful,
clad in loosened transparent gowns,” just as the ancient author Seneca
described them.
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
Venus – goddess of love and beauty. She raises her hand in a traditional
gesture of welcome. She appears like a beauty at a Renaissance fair.
Cupid – Venus’ son hovers above, playfully aiming an arrow at the
Zephyr (on the far right) – the west wind in pursuit of the nymph Flora.
Chloris – nymph. Zephyr’s breath causes Chloris to sprout flowers (“the
roses of Spring”) from her mouth.
Flora – goddess of flowers and feritility. Chloris is transformed into Flora
by Zephyr’s embrace. Zephyr married Flora.
2. What does the painting mean?
Primavera is not only one of the supremely beautiful pictures of the
Renaissance, but also one of the most discussed paintings in the history of
Giorgio Vasari described the subject as “Venus as a symbol of spring
being adorned with flowers by the Graces.”
The oranges were called “mela medica” in the 15th century. Oranges may
refer to the Medici, who used the mela medica as a symbol on their family
Here is another interpretation by the art historian Marilyn Stokstad:
Primavera was painted at the time of a Medici wedding, so it may have
been intended as a painting on the nuptial theme of love and fertility in
marriage. Venus, clothed in contemporary costume and wearing a
marriage wreath on her head, here represents marital love. She stands in
a grove of orange trees weighted down with lush fruit suggesting human
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
F. Whatever happened to Botticelli?
1. Botticelli was the first artist since Classical Civilization to paint mythological
scenes on a large scale.
2. Botticelli’s paintings for the Medici established him as one of Italy’s foremost
artists. His career reached a new height when Pope Sixtus commissioned
Botticelli to decorate the side walls of the Sistine Chapel.
3. Botticelli returned to Florence and enjoyed a period of great productivity
and prosperity. He painted about 150 paintings and employed 3 assistants in
his busy studio.
4. But Botticelli’s fortunes changed in the 1490’s. Lorenzo the Magnificent died
in 1492 and his son Piero proved to be inept. Five years later, Botticelli’s
lifelong patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was forced to leave Florence for
political reasons.
5. A religious leader in Florence named Fra Savonarola had been preaching
against the spread of humanism in his city. He urged the Florentines to turn
their backs on the sin of pride and enjoying worldly pleasures. He also
decried the return of mythological, pagan imagery. For a short time,
Savonarola became the dictator of Florence and the Florentines held a
“bonfire of the vanities,” into which they threw their wigs, fancy clothes, and
any references to paganism. Even Botticelli became very religious and may
have burned some of his paintings!
6. Botticelli’s personal fortunes declined rapidly. Vasari describes Botticelli in
his last years as “old and useless, unable to stand upright and moving about
with the help of crutches.” By the time he died in 1510, he was both out of
date and neglected. Botticelli died an old and forgotten man and no sign of
his grave remains.
7. The eclipse of Botticelli’s reputation was for centuries almost total. It was
only in the second half of the 19th century that there was a renewed
appreciation of his genius. Today, few Renaissance painters enjoy such
widespread appeal. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence houses the world’s
greatest collection of Italian paintings, but even in competition with a galaxy
of masterpieces, it is usually the room containing Primavera and Birth of
Venus that is the most crowded in the museum!
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
A. Introduction
1. Tommaso Guidi was nicknamed Masaccio (Sloppy Tom)
2. “Most art historians recognize no other painter in history to have
contributed so much to the development of a new style in so short a time
as Masaccio.”
3. Masaccio’s teacher painted in the International Style. Masaccio, however,
went in his own direction.
4. Masaccio’s paintings include:
 Good CHIAROSCURO (dramatic contrasts of light and shadow
which give the figures a greater sense of body mass) including
the use of a singular light source.
 Good illusion of depth. Masaccio incorporated discoveries of
LINEAR PERSPECTIVE (all forms receding in size toward a
single vanishing point). Masaccio also included
the distance a bluish – grayish tone to convey distance)
 Masaccio’s figures are muscular and idealized (influence of
classical statuary)
 Masaccio’s figures express emotion
5. Masaccio’s career was tragically cut short when he died at the age of 27.
6. His paintings influenced other artists such as Michelangelo.
B. Frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, Florence
1. Masaccio was commissioned to paint frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in
the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
2. The frescoes form an extensive narrative cycle about the life of Saint
3. Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
Notice the convincing depiction of human emotion. This is just
after the God has reprimanded Adam and Eve for committing the
Original Sin. They are now banished from the Garden of Eden
headed for a life of hard work, struggle, and mortality. We feel
their pain.
Notice the CHIAROSCURO. Masaccio’s treatment of shadow and
his smooth transition toward areas of light is convincing and very
natural. The figures also cast shadows. Masaccio’s chiaroscuro on
the Archangel Michael is also effective, in which he models the
folds quite nicely.
Notice the illusion of depth. Adam and Eve’s shadows on the
ground as well as the diagonal angle of the arch from which they
emerge convey depth as does the background. Carrying on in the
tradition of GIOTTO, Masaccio paints realistic figures in space.
Notice the classical references in the body types. Masaccio paints
both figures as classical nudes. Adam is muscular like classical
statues and Eve’s pose is derivative of Venus statues. The inclusion
of classicizing nude figures in a Christian chapel shows the
Florentine acceptance of humanism.
When Italy became more conservative religiously, in the 17th
century during the Counter-Reformation, artists were hired to
paint leaves over the private areas of Adam and Eve.
4. Tribute Money, ca. 1427
Shows an episode from the New Testament. Jesus and the Apostles
arrived in the town of Capernaum. A tax collector told them that
they needed to pay taxes when they entered town. Jesus told Peter
to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee and that the first fish he caught
would contain the tax money in its mouth. Peter obeyed Jesus and
used the money to pay the tax collector.
Center scene: Arrival in town (tax collector shown from behind.
Jesus in center. Peter – gray haired bearded figure who appears
Left scene: Peter obtaining the money
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
Right scene: Paying the tax collector
What narrative technique did Masaccio use for this fresco?
Notice the diagonals on the architecture to the right (also notice
that the architecture appears classical – round arches, etc.) – the
diagonals are called ORTHOGONAL LINES – these orthogonal
converge at a single vanishing point in the distance. This is
Notice the sculptural treatment of the human form. Masacco
models the figures muscular bodies with CHIAROSCURO. The
figures also cast shadows on the ground. Shading is also very
convincing on the architecture. The light appears to come from a
single source to the right (There is actually a window in the wall of
the chapel. Perhaps, Masaccio was trying to make the fresco look
illuminated by real light from the window.
C. Holy Trinity, fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence
1. Who’s who
 God the Father – depicted as an aged and bearded patriarch
standing behind his crucified son. He is shown supporting both
ends of the crossbar of the crucifix, thus echoing His Son’s
 God the Son (Jesus) – a real, suffering Jesus showing compassion
for His fellow men and women as He dies
 God the Holy Spirit – a dove shown between the head of God the
Father and Jesus
 Mary – the only one of the people who looks directly out at us. She
stands upright and dry-eyed and points toward her crucified
Child. She seems to be reproaching us for our sinfulness.
 Saint John – Apostle of Jesus, according to tradition, Jesus told
John during the Crucifixion to take care of Mary as if she were his
own mother and for Mary to regard John as her son
 Lorenzo Leni and Mrs. Leni – the donors of the fresco. Their
money paid for it.
 Adam’s skeleton – a MEMENTO MORI (reminder of death) –
shows the reason why Christ came to Earth, an inscription above
the skeleton reads “I was once what you are and what I am you
Italian Renaissance 1400 – 1500: Botticelli and Masaccio
will also be.” This reminds the viewer of the transience of life (the
shortness of life).
2. The narrative
 Painting is DIDACTIC – provides instruction, teaching
Shows the journey that Christians must take to overcome eternal
death (Hell) – first we must rise from our mortal limitations (Mr.
and Mrs. Leni) to become holy and close to Christ (Mary and
John), coming to have a personal relationship with Christ,
receiving the Holy Spirit in our life, to reach God the Father.
3. Contains all of Masaccio’s hallmark painting techniques
4. Christ’s body is somewhat idealized like classical statuary.
5. Composition
 Pyramid composition – one of the hallmarks of Renaissance art
 Four triangles with the vertex pointing upward, link the human
figures to the divine
 The Crucifix is contained in a triangle with its vertex pointing
6. Linear Perspective: “There seems to be a hole in the wall.” (Vasari)
Wow! It really does look like a “hole in the wall.”
How did Masaccio do it?