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Art for art’s sake: “The Virgin and Child with Two Angels” (c.1490) by Sandro Botticelli (image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Kunste Wien)

Sandro Botticelli (c.1445-1510) has one of the purest bloodlines of all Renaissance artists. He was born in Florence and worked there almost all his life — apart from a visit to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel and one to Hungary. He was at the centre of the republic’s artistic community during its most influential period. He trained as an artist under one major painter, Filippo Lippi, and later worked with numerous others, including Ghirlandaio and Raphael’s master Perugino. His patrons included the Medici and Pope Sixtus IV and he was profoundly influenced by Savonarola.

By the end of his life, however, Michelangelo’s sculptural grandeur, Leonardo’s subtleties and Raphael’s perfection had left him looking a relic of the past. Vasari claimed that Savonarola’s influence “led him to abandon painting” (legend has it too that he burned some of his own paintings on the “Bonfire of the Vanities”) and while this was untrue his fortunes certainly declined. “He earned much,” said Vasari, “but wasted everything through negligence and lack of management.” His poverty was matched by declining health and his final years found him “old and useless, unable to stand upright and moving about with the aid of crutches”.

Posthumously he fared little better. His reputation sank rapidly and he remained virtually unknown until the 19th century, when art historians interested in Raphael discovered him as a predecessor. The key figure in Botticelli’s revival was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who bought his Portrait of a Lady (Smeralda Bandinelli) — now in the Victora & Albert Museum — for £20 and used it as a model for his own work. What attracted Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite peers such as Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and the theorist Walter Pater were the art-for-art’s-sake qualities in Botticelli’s paintings. They saw in his clear outlines, allusive and poetic classicism, limpid colour and refined draughtsmanship a fellow aesthete avant la lettre.

Pater astutely noted that Botticelli’s women — from his portraits and Madonnas to Venus emerging from the waves and the dancing graces of Primavera — were “in a certain sense like angels, but with a sense of displacement or loss about them — the wistfulness of exiles”. This wistfulness, the “shadow” on his paintings, matched perfectly the Victorian fad for “dreams of fair women” with its overtones of wanness and melancholy.

Rossetti and Burne-Jones are two of the artists inspired by Botticelli who are featured in the V&A’s Botticelli Reimagined (March 5-July 3); others include Magritte, Warhol, Degas, and the photographers Cindy Sherman and David LaChapelle. There are also 50 works by Botticelli himself, in Bernard Berenson’s words “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had”.
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