Botticelli: From the Birth of Venus to a Bonfire of the Vanities

Most of the Western world is familiar with the image of Venus rising from the sea on a clamshell in the famous Italian Renaissance painting by Sandro Botticelli. With its lyrical, graceful beauty, the work we know so well is properly named The Birth of Venus and sometimes affectionately known in contemporary culture as “Venus on the Half Shell”, Botticelli’s work continues to inspire contemporary art, literature, and film. Botticelli’s mythological painting and its sister painting, Primavera, were commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici for his villa in Castello in 1485. More probable though is that the paintings were commissioned by Lorenzo for his teenaged sons, Piero and Giovanni.

After the death of his father, Lorenzo de’ Medici with his brother Giuliano assumed power in Florence in 1469 at the age of twenty. Giuliano died in 1478, but Lorenzo went on to become known to posterity as ‘Il Magnifico’ or ‘The Magnificent’ during the twenty three years that he ruled Florence. Despite Lorenzo’s patronage, however, Botticelli’s bright star was soon to fade.

As the High Renaissance was ushered in at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Botticelli had already fallen into disfavor, at times barely surviving on the brink of starvation. Highly successful at the height of his career, Botticelli’s life ended with more of a whimper than a bang, as he died in quite a tragic manner in relative obscurity.

How did this happen? Botticelli fell under the spell of a Dominican monk, a fanatical, religious reformer named Girolamo Savonarola, and the primary target of Savonarola’s sermons was Lorenzo the Magnificent himself. The Florentine Republic was officially ruled by the Signoria, a council comprised of qualified guild members, but its de facto ruler was Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Lorenzo was a consummate diplomat and politician, surrounding himself with men of excellence and learning, poets, humanist scholars, and artists like Botticelli and Michelangelo. The lifestyle of Lorenzo the Magnificent with his elite gatherings made him a large target for Savonarola.

Medieval and Early Renaissance authorities had passed a number of laws designed to curb the ostentatious display of wealthy aristocrats. No where was this more evident than in Italy with its wealthy merchant class. Medicean money and thus patronage stemmed from the family banking business, and Lorenzo, like his predecessors, used his money to enjoy life.

Lorenzo was generous, lavishing his money and gifts on both friends and the church. He was a man equally at ease writing hymns and licentious poetry. From his artists, he commissioned both altarpieces and pagan-inspired nudes.

It was a time of turmoil, both political and religious, so Lorenzo provided elaborate entertainments for the masses. It has been suggested that such activities were perhaps intended to divert attention from Lorenzo’s own extravagant lifestyle. Pageants and festivals were a favorite Florentine custom, and Lorenzo wrote poems to be sung during the festivities extolling the pursuit of pleasure and encouraging female promiscuity. One such vocal performance penned by Lorenzo was delivered to the people in front of the cathedral during his pageant “The Triumph of Bacchus”.

Florence prospered economically under Lorenzo’s rule and his political machinations provided a peaceful interlude from war during his reign for most of the Italian city-states. It appears that Lorenzo was a benevolent tyrant, but there was still the issue of Savonarola with which to deal, a thorn in his side, no doubt, but in truth, one which hindered his lifestyle very little.

Preaching fire and brimstone against the immorality of the people, the general corruption of the Catholic Church and wealthy aristocrats, Lorenzo de’ Medici in particular, Savonarola developed quite a following in Florence. His sermons played to packed audiences from the pulpit of San Marco itself, a Medici-sponsored church. Summoned to Rome in 1481 to work on three Sistine Chapel frescoes for Pope Sixtus IV, Botticelli returned to Florence in 1485 where he attended the sermons of Savonarola. Michelangelo read them as well through the new invention of mass publication with the printing press. Savonarola had a profound affect on both artists as evidenced in their art works.

From the Birth of Venus to the Bonfire

Botticelli turned his mind back to religious themes on his return to Florence, but his Medicean patronage dried up with the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492. Surprisingly, it was Savonarola from whom Lorenzo sought absolution in his final hours. Two years after Lorenzo’s death, the Medici family was expelled from Florence in 1494. The Medici palace was sacked and countless valuable items and works of fine art were stolen.

Savonarola was summoned in 1495 to Rome to defend his religious preaching, but he unwisely declined the pope’s invitation. Times were hard for Botticelli at this time, but caught up in his religious fervor, he followed the lead of Savonarola who organized what has come to be known as “The Bonfire of the Vanities”. Prior to the festival at the Lenten season in 1497, Savonarola ordered his followers to gather up “vanities” going from house to house.

These vanities were objects Savonarola deemed immoral, such as costumes, masks, wigs, amorous songs, festival paraphernalia, musical instruments, cosmetics, and many others things. On the last day of Carnival, he ordered the “vanities” to be stacked on top of a great pile of incendiary material and set afire. Tossed on the bonfire were also precious manuscripts and various works of art. Botticelli willingly participated in the bonfire, sacrificing many of his own paintings to the flames.

A year later in 1498, Savonarola suffered a similar fate when he was officially excommunicated, arrested, tortured, hanged, then burned at the stake for heresy, having offended the Florentines and the pope one too many times. Devastated by the loss of his spiritual leader, Botticelli ceased to paint after 1500 and lived in poverty until his death in 1510. Botticelli was sustained in his final years by the charity of the Medici who were then back in Florence waiting to resume the reins of power.

Botticelli’s final work of 1500 is The Nativity, now in The National Gallery in London. Much to the delight of the art world, an interest in the life and work of Sandro Botticelli was resurrected in the 19th century by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. If not for their efforts, the works of Botticelli might have forever remained obscure. And so, it seems that Botticelli and his Venus have once again risen from the deep to the prominent place they so richly deserve in the world of art.


Sandro Botticelli, the beloved Italian Renaissance artist we know so well today, died tragically several years after throwing many of his own works onto a bonfire at the urging of a fanatical religious reformer. If not for his resurrection by an unusual group of Victorian painters in the 19th century, we might not know him at all.

About the Author

By: Brenda Harness. Brenda Harness is an art historian and former university lecturer writing about a variety of topics pertaining to art and art history. She owns Fine Art Touch, a website devoted to the exploration of Italian Renaissance art, featuring articles on works from Renaissance giants such as Michelangelo and Leonardo to lesser-known artists such as Verrocchio and Perugino.

Visit her at

Article Source: A&CNet Art & Craft Article Directory


  1. Perhaps you might be interested in the alternative interpretation of Botticelli’s the Birth of Venus and La Primavera:

    Birth of Venus and La Primavera Conjoined

    David Bowman

  2. Thank you, David, for this interesting alternative.
    Looking forward to hearing more from you.

    A Lee

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