Left: Sandro Botticelli, Study of the head of a woman in profile (La Bella Simonetta)(recto); Study of the figure of Minerva (verso), c. 1485. Metalpoint, white gouache on light-brown prepared paper (recto), black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white gouache (verso). 13 ⅜ x 9 in (34.2 x 23 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 1834. ©️ Ashmolean Museum. Sandro Botticelli. Right: Sandro Botticelli, Head of a Youth, Turned to the Left, ca. 1480. Silverpoint, grey wash, heightened with white, on gray prepared paper, 8 × 7 in (20.5 × 17.9 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Adelaide Beaudoin
Botticelli Drawings is the first exhibition ever dedicated to the drawings of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445 – 1510). Exploring the foundational role drawing played in Botticelli’s work, the exhibition traces his artistic journey, from studying under maestro Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406 – 1469) to leading his own workshop in Florence. Featuring rarely seen and newly attributed works, the exhibition provides insight into the design practice of an artist whose name is synonymous with the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s drawings offer an intimate look into the making of some of his most memorable masterpieces, including Adoration of the Magi (c. 1500), which will be reunited with its preparatory drawing, surviving only in fragments. From Botticelli’s earliest recorded drawings through expressive designs for his final painting, the works on display reveal the artist’s experimental drawing techniques, quest for ideal beauty, and command of the line.
Alessandro (Sandro) Filipepi was born in Florence around 1445. He was already known as Botticelli during his lifetime, having inherited the nickname from an older brother called “Botticello” — meaning “small bottle” or “cask,” the name probably alluded to a love of wine, a large belly, or both. In the early 1460s, when Botticelli was about 15, his father had him begin to train with Fra Filippo Lippi, the favorite painter of the Medicis (the ruling family in Florence). Botticelli’s earliest surviving drawings attest to his strong reliance on Fra Filippo’s formal and technical methods.
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Florence ca. 1445–1510 Florence), The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (“Madonna of the Rose Garden”) (detail), ca. 1465–1470. Tempera and gold on poplar panel, 35 11/16 × 26 3/8 in. (90.7 × 67 cm). Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures. © RMN-Grand Palais. Photo: Tony Querrec
Where Botticelli begins to differ from his teacher is in his portrayals of the human figure. His depiction of the male body, whether nude, seminude, or draped, reflects Humanism’s affirmation of the individual, as well as the renewed interest in the beauty and proportions of classical antiquity occurring in 15th-century Florence.
One of Botticelli’s lasting artistic legacies was the creation of portrait techniques that affirmed the individual. Drawn in preparation for either stand-alone portraits or figures in larger narrative scenes, Botticelli’s head studies address the following concerns: how to convincingly model the face, how to represent the play of light, and how to achieve psychological individualization.
Sandro Botticelli, Head of a Man in Near Profile Looking Left, c. 1468–1470. Metalpoint, traces of black chalk, gray wash, heightened with white, on yellow-ocher prepared paper. 5 ⅛ × 4 ⅜ in (13.2 × 11 cm). By permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford.
The late 1470s and 1480s marked a career high for Botticelli. He was successfully managing a large workshop and producing works in a variety of media. His linear drawing style was easily adapted into other materials: paintings, prints, book illustrations, decorative woodwork, embroideries, and tapestries. Such diversification helped Botticelli’s workshop adapt to the ever-changing market.
Coinciding with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492, and for the rest of his career, Botticelli progressively shifted away from an emphasis on physical beauty and anatomical accuracy. Instead, he created powerful images of raw emotion. In his late designs, figures are compressed and moved to the foreground, faces are distorted, and gestures are excessively animated. The spiritual messages outweigh the balanced proportions of earlier decades.
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Florence, ca. 1445–1510), Portrait of a Lady at the Window, Known as Smeralda Bandinelli, ca. 1475. Tempera on poplar panel, 25 7/8 × 16 7/16 in. (65.7 × 41.7 cm). Victoria and Albert Museum, Bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides.
The impenetrable style of Botticelli’s late paintings, his heavy reliance on his workshop, and the repetition of his formulas led to a decline in appreciation for his work, and the artist died in near poverty in May 1510. His legacy was rejected by his own family, who did not want to be responsible for his debts. Possibly left uncompleted in his studio, the poignant Adoration of the Magi is a work of strong spiritual power. In the last room of the exhibition, this work is reunited with its preparatory drawings for the first time. Drawn on linen, they survive only in fragments.
November 19, 2023 – February 11, 2024
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Florence, ca. 1445–1510), Head of a Youth, Turned to the Left, ca. 1480. Silverpoint, gray wash, heightened with white, on gray prepared paper, 8 1/16 × 7 in. (20.5 × 17.9 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Adelaide Beaudoin
Sandro Botticelli, Study of the head of a woman in profile (La Bella Simonetta)(recto); Study of the figure of Minerva (verso), c. 1485. Metalpoint, white gouache on light-brown prepared paper (recto), black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white gouache (verso). 13 ⅜ x 9 in (34.2 x 23 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 1834. ©️ Ashmolean Museum.
Workshop of Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Florence ca. 1445–1510 Florence), A Saint Kissing the Foot of Christ with an Angel Holding a Candelabrum (detail), ca. 1490. Pen and brown ink, brown wash heightened with white, black chalk, on paper tinted with brown wash, 7 11/16 × 5 3/4 in. (19.5 × 14.6 cm). Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts-graphiques.
Sandro Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1497-1500. Tempera and oil on panel. 14 ⅜ x 7 ⅞ x 2¾ in, (36.5 x 20 x 7 cm). Rijksmuseum. J.W.E. vom Rath Bequest, Amsterdam. Image courtesy Rijksmuseum.
Sandro Botticelli, Onlookers (fragment of Adoration of the Magi), c. 1500. Brush and two hues of brown ink, over black chalk, heightened with white (with a later addition), on prepared linen. 17 ⅜ x 14 ⅝ in (44.2 x 37.1 cm). The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Art Resource, NY
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Florence, ca. 1445–1510), Adoration of the Magi (detail), ca. 1500–1506. Tempera on poplar panel, 42 5/16 × 68 1/8 in. (107.5 × 173 cm). Gallerie degli Uffizi.
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, Florence ca. 1445–1510 Florence), The Nativity of Christ (Mystic Nativity), 1501. Oil on canvas, 42 ¾ x 29 ½ in. (108.6 x 74.9 cm). The National Gallery, London, Bought, 1878, NG1034 © The National Gallery, London.
Sandro Botticelli, Devout People of Jerusalem at Pentecost, c. 1505. Black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, highlighted with white gouache on paper. 9 ⅛ x 14 ⅜ in (23.1 x36.5 cm). Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Photograph by Wolfgang Fuhrmannek
Sandro Botticelli, Two standing men, one draped (recto), A standing young man with his arm raised (verso). Silverpoint, heightened with white gouache, on yellow-ocher prepared paper (recto and verso), inscribed ‘Piero Pollaiuolo’ (lower right, recto), 7 ¾ x10 ⅜ in (19.8 x 26.5 cm). Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence