Guide To Botticelli's Must See Paintings in Florence
Updated: May 20
Are you on the Botticelli Trail in Florence Italy? If so, here's my guide to 12 famous paintings by Sandro Botticelli in Florence. I give you an overview of these Botticelli masterpieces and tell you where to find them.
Botticelli was the greatest painter of the early Renaissance period. He was a true son of Florence, living there his entire life, except for an 11 month stint working on three Sistine Chapel frescos in Rome.
Botticelli's art represents the pinnacle of the cultural flourishing during the rule of Florence's Medici dynasty. The Medici encouraged the progress of art, philosophy, and literature -- ushering in the Renaissance. The stiff, flat, and ultra-religious piety of the International Gothic style became passe.
Botticelli's work was groundbreaking -- pure visual poetry and elegance. He was the first artist to break from tradition and depict large scale, non-religious mythological themes. He cemented the Renaissance humanist idea that art could be fantastical and for pleasure, not just to serve religious purposes.
Botticelli was also one of the first artists to paint beautiful women in an ideal way. His paintings had an ethereal, supernatural quality that departed from strict realism. His Birth of Venus is among a handful of iconic images that define and embody the Renaissance.
A Short Biography of Botticelli
1. Early Life and Workshops
Botticelli was born in 1444. His birth name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. "Botticelli" was a nickname that stuck, meaning little barrel or wine casket.
Botticelli's father was a tanner. But Botticelli had little interest in business or education. Initially, as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith (likely his older brother). This was a typical path for artists in the early Renaissance.
Around 1462, he was in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi. He likely would have been exposed to the works of Masaccio. A few years later, Botticelli studied art alongside a younger Leonardo da Vinci in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. By 1470, Botticelli opened his own workshop, churning out tender madonnas and portraits for clients.
Botticelli was on his way to becoming a well known Florentine artist. But he had not yet met his muse. That is, until Marco Vespucci and his pretty new wife, Simonetta, moved next door.
2. Botticelli's Muse: Simonetta Vespucci
Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci is the stuff of legends. She actually helped shape Renaissance painting. Nicknamed "la bella Simonetta," she was an Italian noblewoman from Genoa. She was the wife of Marco Vespucci and a distant cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the renowned Italian explorer.
Simonetta arrived in Florence in 1469 when Lorenzo the Magnificent was in power. Simonetta was wildly popular in Lorenzo's court at the Medici-Ricardi Palace.
Simonetta was revered as the most beautiful woman in Florence. Although she was married, besotted noblemen lavished the living nymph with gifts.
Poets and musicians wrote about her and for her. The most famous poem was by Florence's premiere poet, Angelo Poliziano, the man who saved Lorenzo the Magnificent's life during the Pazzi Conspiracy. He described her as a near magical apparition.
READ: History of the Medici
Artists competed for Simonetta's time as a model. With her golden cascading hair, she was the original blonde bombshell, an early Renaissance "it girl."
Legend holds that Botticelli fell hopelessly in love with La Bella Simonetta, who reportedly posed for him in the nude. Simonetta's swan-like neck, straight aristocratic nose, flowing golden hair, and sinuous figure do seem to be the basis for many of Botticelli's masterpieces.
Some historians claim that Botticelli never married because of his infatuation with Simonetta. But that's unclear. It may have been entirely platonic love.
Botticelli did have a documented aversion to marriage. He claimed the institution gave him "nightmares." He also may have been gay, having had one sodomy charge laid against him but dropped.
Simonetta, however, reputedly only had eyes for Giuliano de Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent's brother. Though it's not known if they were really lovers or not.
Tragically, Simonetta died early at just age 22 from tuberculosis. Even Lorenzo the Magnificent wrote four sonnets in homage to her beauty.
But is the riveting myth-muse legend really true? Was Simonetta really Botticelli's muse? Some art historians dispute the connection between Simonetta and Botticelli as romantic nonsense. There were plenty of other famously beautiful women in Florence at the time.
It's hard to separate the myth from reality without written evidence. But let's give it a go.
Several facts mitigate in favor of Simonetta being Botticelli's muse. Based on documented evidence like the poems, Simonetta was indisputably revered as a beauty.
Botticelli's own teacher, Fra Flippo Lippi, had a muse he painted over and over. Botticelli lived right next door to Simonetta (150 feet apart). So he would have seen her frequently. And Botticelli is buried at the foot of Simonetta's family tomb.
There are two known portraits that are titled "Simonetta Vespucci," one by Piero de Cosimo in Chantilly France (1480-90) and one by Botticelli in Frankfurt Germany. I show the two below.
They don't actually look terribly similar. Very differnent noses. The inscription on the Chantilly work was added later as well, which muddies the attribution.
Despite some slight variances, the woman in the Frankfurt portrait looks quite a bit like Venus in Botticelli's masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. True, the Venus in the painting is more beautiful. But Botticelli painted it 10 years after Simonetta's death and may have idealized her image.
The Frankfurt portrait image resembles Flora and possible one of the three graces in Botticelli's Primavera. In fact, in Botticelli's works, you seem to see the same unmistakable face and transcendent features over and over again.
So, I tend to believe Simonetta was an inspiration, if not a muse, for Botticelli. Why wouldn't Botticelli be inspired by someone who was the iconized rage of Florence?
3. Savonarola's Influence on Botticelli
In the late 1480s, Botticelli came under the influence of the mad monk of Florence, Savonarola. Savonarola's fame also coincided with the death of Botticelli's greatest admirer, Lorenzo the Magnificent, in 1492.
Savonarola was an ascetic Dominican friar living in San Marco Monastery. Deeply moralistic, he preached the end of the world in passionate and apocalyptic sermons.
Savonarola decried the excesses of clerical and despotic power, aligning himself against both the Medici and the Catholic church. He told Florentines the apocalypse was coming and to save themselves through godliness and self-censorship. He denounced many paintings, which he claimed made the Virgin Mary appear as a "whore."
In 1497, Savonarola hosted the "Bonfire of the Vanities." In an attempt to expunge vice from Florence, he rounded up and destroyed profane works of art and other "vanities" (wigs, perfume, cosmetics, tapestries, manuscripts, fine clothing) in a great fire in the Piazza della Signoria.
In his Lives of the Artists, historian and artist Giorgio Vasari claims holds that "ardent partisan" Botticelli threw some of his own pagan works on the fire. But a gossipy Vasari was an unreliable narrator, with some portions of his novel disproven. Plus, Vasari never knew Botticelli. He was only born the year after Botticelli died.
The historic record is murky. So there's a sniff of doubt about Botticelli's association with Savonarola. Botticelli did paint some Savonarola-themed paintings. But that could be due to the fact that his commissions were from Savonarola followers or simply reflected the tumult of the times.
4. Later Life and Legacy
But the zealot Savonarola pushed it too far. When he proclaimed himself god's only messenger, the pope excommunicated him. In 1498, Savonarola was executed for heresy in the Piazza della Signoria.
The loss of his purported spiritual leader, along with Lorenzo's earlier death, has been interpreted to have a negative effect on Botticelli. Afterwards, Botticelli focused mostly on religious paintings.
These late paintings were characterized by dark themes, a certain austerity, and harsh colors. Some painting topics were clearly drawn from Savonarola's published sermons. They were a major departure from Botticelli's lyrical mythological masterpieces.
Botticelli produced works like Calumny of the Apelles (Uffizi), Mystic Nativity (London's National Gallery), and Tragedy of Lucrezia (Isabell Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston). Some scholars consider these work retrograde, as Botticelli seems to completely abandon naturalism and use an old fashioned flat perspective.
Eventually, Botticelli stopped painting altogether toward the end of his life. This may have been due to his religious fervor or simply poor health. Vasari reports that Botticelli descended into poverty and only survived on a stipend from the Medici. But other evidence suggests he remained fairly prosperous.
In 1510, Botticelli died at age 64. He was buried in the Church of Ognissanti, in a circular tomb at the feet of Simonetta's tomb. This placement may testify to his infatuation, though the rational for the burial site is still a matter of speculation.
Though famous in his lifetime, after his death, Botticelli fell out of favor and into obscurity. He was eclipsed by the holy trinity of the High Renaissance -- Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael.
Botticelli was only discovered by the English Pre-Raphaelite artists in the 19th century, much like Piero della Francesca was rediscovered. The Pre-Raphaelites adopted Botticelli's signature style -- haunted faces of languid madonnas and mythological fantasy worlds.
Today, Botticelli is revered principally for his Medici-commissioned pagan works. The mythos surrounding him -- the pining lover craving religious consolation who destroyed his own works -- only helped solidify his fame. Like Van Gogh's ear, the Botticelli story was the perfect, perhaps fictive, yeast for his future fame.
Approximately 50 of Botticelli's works survive today. In 2021, one of the last privately owned Botticelli's paintings sold for over $92 million at a Sotheby's auction. A blockbuster exhibition at the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris is one of the most anticipated shows of Fall 2021.
Florence's Botticelli Trail: 12 Famous Must See Botticelli Paintings
Let's explore Botticelli's greatest art works in Florence. Here are 12 Botticelli paintings that you can't miss in Florence, for your Florence art bucket list.
1. Birth of Venus, Uffizi
Botticelli's Birth of Venus is the Uffizi's most famous art work, akin to the Mona Lisa in Paris. It's one of the most celebrated images in Western art, a symbolic depiction of beauty. The beautiful Birth of Venus is a dreamlike celebration of sensual beauty and love, created to be shown above a marital bed in a country villa.
Birth of Venus is a lush, richly symbolic, and groundbreaking Botticelli masterpiece. The painting was the first large scale painting of a nude woman in almost 1000 years. The nudity wasn't religious either; it was pagan. Botticelli's work brought mythology back into the mainstream.
In the painting, Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, is born fully grown from the foam of a wave. She stands in a contrapposto stance from ancient antiquity.
We see an ethereal Venus, half awake and fragile, blown by Zephyr and the breeze nymph Aura. With windblown long hair, Venus floats on an oversize shell tended by her maid, who is handing her a cloak. Naturally, the model for Venus was reputedly Simonetta Vespucci.
Botticelli was a highly skilled painter and had an understanding of human anatomy. But he also made objectively beautiful paintings with luminous pastel colors.
Even Venus' gold flecked hair is gleaming and highlighted. Venus' nakedness is idealized and innocent, not erotic. The beautiful painting was restored in 1983 and 1987 and is now on display in the Botticelli Room of the Uffizi.
2. Primavera, Uffizi
Botticelli's next most famous work (and my personal favorite) is Primavera, also known as the Allegory of Spring. Likely commissioned by the Medici, it's one of the most beautiful works of the early Renaissance -- a weightless frieze of gorgeous erudition. It was art created for art's sake.
Primavera is much more complex than Birth of Venus. It's a veritable treasure map of symbology. We don't know the real title of the painting. It was named by Giorgio Vasari in The Lives of the Artists.
Primavera is enigmatic. Its meaning is uncertain and has stumped scholars for centuries. Most believe the painting depicts the realm of Venus, as sung by the ancient poets. It could also depict a springtime wedding. It may have created for the wedding of Lorenzo the Magnificent's cousin.
In the painting, nine mythological figures appear in an orange grove. The choice of an orange grove is significant because the Medici, Botticelli's chief patron, adopted the orange tree as their family symbol. The figures are surrounded by hundreds of varieties of flowering plants.
A beautiful Venus stands in the center of the grove looking directly at the viewer. She's surrounded by a vegetal half circle enveloping her like a halo, or perhaps an architectural apse. She's reminiscent of portraits of the Virgin Mary, thereby equating Venus and Mary.
Above her, and helping to identify her as Venus, is a winged putto representing Cupid. Cupid is blindfolded, alluding to the saying that "love is blind."
On Venus' left, the Three Graces (who represent chastity, beauty, and love) dance in celebration. Mercury fends off some clouds to keep paradise perfect. One theory holds that Mars is a depiction of Giuliano de Medici. Simonetta, the middle grace, looks longingly at him, perhaps just having been hit by Cupid's arrow.
The translucent drapery and detail of the Three Graces' clothing is incredible. Even their hair is interwoven with pearls. This may be Botticelli's most beautiful image.
On the right, Zephyrus is in hot pursuit of his intended, the woodland nymph Chloris (perhaps another depiction of Simonetta?). After he captures her, Chloris metamorphosizes into the goddess Flora. In a gown covered in flowers, she scatters petals over the world.
Typical of Botticelli, his figures are elongated, weightless, and stand in odd positions. The painting is decorative, almost the opposite of the naturalism that most Renaissance painters championed. But it may have been what the Medici demanded.
3. Madonna of the Magnificat, Uffizi
Botticelli painted Madonna of the Magnificat in a tondo, or circular form, which was popular at the time. In it, the Virgin Mary writes the opening of the Magnificat, a Christian hymn, on the righthand page of a book. Two wingless angels hold a starry crown above her head.
The painting shows the love and spiritual intimacy between mother and child. Baby Jesus is grabbing a pomegranate, a symbol of his passion. Dressed in red and blue, Mary is depicted as serious, knowing the importance of her role.
The painting is almost too pretty to be religious. Gold paint was used extensively to detail many aspects of the work, including Mary’s crown, the divine rays, and the hair color of the figures. As a result, this was probably the most costly tondo ever created by Botticelli.
The painting garnered enormous fame at the time. At least five contemporaneous replicas were created. There's a copy of this piece in the Louvre by his workshop.
4. Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi
Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi is a fairly early work dating from 1475 or 1476, which established Botticelli's fame in Florence. The piece was commissioned by Gasparre del Lama and intended for his chapel in Santa Maria Novella, a must see site in Florence.
The naturalistic painting depicts one of the Bible’s most important scenes. Three Magi, or wise men, kneel in worship before the Holy Family (Christ, Mary and Joseph), offering them gifts.
Aside from its religious theme, the painting portrays a few prominent figures from the Medici family and Florentine society, set back deep in the center of the painting (a then unusual flourish). Cosimo the Elder, the first Medici to rule Florence, is the Magi in black kneeling in front of Mary. His son sons are the other duo of the three Magi.
On the far right side of the painting is Botticelli’s alleged self-portrait -- the blonde man looking directly at the painting’s viewer. Contemporaries described Botticelli as "handsome but sickly."
5. Allegory of Fortitude, Uffizi
Fortitude is the first recorded work by Botticelli. The painting was originally part of a cycle of seven panels meant to decorate the high chair backs in a Tribune Hall of the Medici palace.
Each panel was intended to depict one of the seven virtues – the three Christian values of faith, hope and charity, along with the four worldly values of temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude. This was the young artist’s first opportunity to show his talent, as the works were highly publicized and accessible to the general public.
With Fortitude, the 25 year old Botticelli had his first breakthrough. The figure looks to the side, almost emphatically. She is seated in an ornately carved semicircular throne niche. A richly decorated scepter is on her lap.
Gleaming armor covers her chest, emphasizing the military character of her personification. Like other Botticelli women, her body is sinuous and elongated (and with the then popular domed stomach.) Fortitude wears the familiar languid and slightly melancholy look so typical of Botticelli's women.
6. Madonna of the Pomegranate, Uffizi
Botticelli painted this Madonna in 1487. The title of the tondo derives from the pomegranate held by baby Jesus and Mary. The pomegranate is a symbol of Christ's passion. The large fruit, with seeds gaping, is meant to show the greatness of his suffering.
Mary bows her head in sadness, surrounded by symmetrically-arranged angels. This rendering has taken some criticism for a rather lifeless depiction of the figures. But Botticelli was trying to avoid the compositional complexity of the Magnificat.
Some art historians have speculated that the peeled pomegranate resembles the chambers of the human heart. This would be consistent with the Renaissance fascination with anatomy. Some Renaissance painters, like Leonardo and Michelangelo, even dissected cadavers.
7. Male Portrait with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder, Uffizi
Portrait of a Man with a Medal is one of the most unusual half length portraits of the early Renaissance. The man's identity is still a mystery, though he looks rather like Mercury in Primavera. Some suspect it is a portrait of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The man looks directly at the observer, holding up a medal. This was uncommon for Florentine portraits of the time, which were typically in profile.
Botticelli's piece is one of the earliest Italian portraits to include the subject’s hands as part of the painting. The poor drawing of the hands may reveal the experimental nature. Another unique aspect of the work is that the medal is painted in relief, like a gilded and plastered cast. This was to evoke real metal.
The man holds the medal close to his heart, suggested a connection to the Medici family. His features aren't idealized. Rather, they're rather angular and rugged, typical of the Medici men.
8. Calumny of Apelles, Uffizi
This highly animated (almost graphic) work is a reconstruction of an antique painting lost to posterity. In an almost surrealistic way, Botticelli depicts a group of figures gathered around an enthroned ruler. The painting is intended to be an allegory of calumny, i.e., the making of slanderous statements.
It was based on a poem by the classical author Lucian. In the poem, Lucian describes a revenge painting by the ancient Greek artist Apelles. In it, Apelles tells the story of being wrongfully slandered by a rival court painter.
Botticelli's sinister version of the ancient tale is lavishly decorated. The tense scene represents a dramatic plot against the innocent, set in a Florentine loggia. The naked victim in prayer is hauled before a judge with the ears of an ass. Both Ignorance and Suspicion try to influence the judge.
Calumny holds a torch, accompanied by Treachery and Deceit (in the guise of two maidens). Repentance is dressed in black clothing. The naked Truth points to heaven. Statues on the wall appear to be listening. The painting has a nightmarish quality.
9. The Annunciation, Uffizi
The annunciation is the biblical event where the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she'll be a mother. Most annunciations are set in a Renaissance palace overlooking a garden.
In this Botticelli scene, the archangel Gabriel appears through a portico, leading to Mary’s room. Behind the Virgin is a wooden bed, surrounded by chests. Despite the everyday setting, the painting is rich with symbolic references to the Virgin.
Botticelli created this fresco in 1481, shortly before he left for Rome to paint three frescos in the Sistine Chapel. This large mural was originally under a loggia on the facade of the Church of San Martino. Architectural changes to the building hid the fresco. Hence, it was removed from the wall and restored in 1920.
10. The Cestello Annunciation, Uffizi
In another more famous rendering of the annunciation, Botticelli’s used Brunelleschi’s single point perspective. The viewer sees a far-off landscape behind Gabriel and Mary. The room’s color scheme enhances this perspective. The blood red floor contrasts sharply against the gray wall.
Gabriel is shown in a draping gown with beautiful gossamer wings. His mouth is slightly agape, as if he's just revealed what is to come. Mary's reaction is psychological, not spiritual. In a moment of tense apprehension, her arms are outstretched, seemingly in both refusal and acceptance.
The painting was commissioned as an altarpiece for a chapel in the Church of the Florentine Convent of Cestello in 1489, which is now known as Santa Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi. This piece, like many altarpieces, was removed for safe keeping.
11. Female Portrait | La Bella Simonetta, Pitti Palace
In this famous Botticelli portrait, a young married woman stands in the corner of a room near a rectangular window or door frame. Her gaze is directed beyond the picture frame.
The woman's close fitting gown is a simple design of luxe material, with virtually no decoration other than a slashed shoulder and laced opening. The model, possibly Simonetta, has carefully coiffed hair concealed beneath a bonnet and wears no jewelry. This was typical "indoor" dress for the nobility.
The demure woman has a serious, almost dreamy, countenance. It's only tempered by the strand of loose hair, which also emphasizes her delicate features. Some art historians speculate that the humble portrait depicts Clair Orsini, the wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
12. St. Augustine, Church of the Ognissanti
In 1480, the Vespucci family commissioned Botticelli to paint a fresco of St. Augustine for their church, the Ognissanti. It stands opposite Ghirlandaio's fresco of St. Jerome on the opposite wall.
Both frescos show the church fathers preoccupied by pursuit of knowledge in their studies. The wall behind the St. Augustine contains a still life arrangement of books and scientific instruments, depicted in great detail. They refer to the disciplines of astronomy, mathematics, and astrology.
St. Augustine is shown lost in thought. His expression might be interpreted as an allusion to the vision he had of St. Jerome's death, the subject of Ghirlandaio's painting.
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to Botticelli's most famous paintings in Florence. You may enjoy these other guides to the best art in Italy:
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