who is botticelli
4. Botticelli’s work comes up at auction more often than you might think
If you’re hitting up the Old Master sales at the major auction houses, it’s not unheard of to find a work or two by Botticelli, or his workshop, on offer. Just this week, for instance, Sotheby’s New York sold two Madonna and Child tondo paintings on January 25. The Renaissance great can also be less expensive than you might think—both works, created in collaboration with the artist’s workshop, brought in just $792,500.
Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna With Child and Two Angels. Courtesy of the Uffizi Gallery.
During Botticelli’s era the Papacy was the most respected of art critics. Papal sanction was the ultimate endorsement for any burgeoning artist and an opportunity to paint one of Rome’s greatest monuments, The Sistine Chapel, was the highest of honors.
The Medici influence propelled Botticelli’s fame to meteoric proportions and as a direct result he was asked by the Papacy to travel to Rome to paint parts of the Sistine Chapel. Such an honor was shared by some of the Renaissance’s greatest artists, such as Ghirlandaio, Perugino and even Michelangelo. Botticelli’s work in Rome included three large pieces and several portraits in the Sistine Chapel itself.
After Lippi left Florence for Spoleto, Botticelli worked to improve the comparatively soft, frail figural style he had learned from his teacher. To this end he studied the sculptural style of Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painters of the 1460s, and under their influence Botticelli produced figures of sculptural roundness and strength. He also replaced Lippi’s delicate approach with a robust and vigorous naturalism, shaped always by conceptions of ideal beauty. Already by 1470 Botticelli was established in Florence as an independent master with his own workshop. Absorbed in his art, he never married, and he lived with his family.
Sandro Botticelli was born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi to a father who was a tanner. Sandro had an elder brother, Giovanni, a pawnbroker who was called Botticello (“Little Barrel”), from which Sandro’s nickname was derived. Sandro never married, and he lived with his family throughout his life.
As well as the more famous works, his workshop during this period was the most popular supplier of Madonnas to private and public patrons in Florence, and Botticelli soon became so well-known that in 1481 Pope Sixtus IV asked Botticelli to oversee the decoration of the recently completed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. For this project, Botticelli created a series of frescoes, often overlooked by visitors whose eyes are drawn straight to Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. Giorgio Vasari notes that, “having therefore acquired still greater fame and reputation among the great number of competitors who worked with him, both Florentines and men of other cities, he received from the Pope a good sum of money, the whole of which he consumed and squandered in a moment during his residence in Rome, where he lived in haphazard fashion, as was his wont.”
Very little is known about the artist’s early life, but it is thought that he grew up on the Via Borgo Ognissanti in Florence. Botticelli lived in this relatively poor area of the city all his life. According to legend, one of the artist’s four older brothers gave him the nickname “Botticelli”, meaning “little barrel”, and the moniker stuck; as early as 1470, he was referred to in a document as “Sandro Mariano Botticelli”.
In 1480 the Vespucci family commissioned a fresco figure of Saint Augustine for the Ognissanti, their parish church, and Botticelli’s. Someone else, probably the order running the church,  commissioned Domenico Ghirlandaio to do a facing Saint Jerome; both saints were shown writing in their studies, which are crowded with objects. As in other cases, such direct competition “was always an inducement to Botticelli to put out all his powers”, and the fresco, now his earliest to survive, is regarded as his finest by Ronald Lighbown.  The open book above the saint contains one of the practical jokes for which Vasari says he was known. Most of the “text” is scribbles, but one line reads: “Where is Brother Martino? He went out. And where did he go? He is outside Porta al Prato”, probably dialogue overheard from the Uumiliati, the order who ran the church. Lightbown suggests that this shows Botticelli thought “the example of Jerome and Augustine likely to be thrown away on the Umiliati as he knew them”. 
The Adoration of the Magi for Santa Maria Novella (c. 1475–76, now in the Uffizi, and the first of 8 Adorations),  was singled out for praise by Vasari, and was in a much-visited church, so spreading his reputation. It can be thought of as marking the climax of Botticelli’s early style. Despite being commissioned by a money-changer, or perhaps money-lender, not otherwise known as an ally of the Medici, it contains the portraits of Cosimo de Medici, his sons Piero and Giovanni (all these by now dead), and his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano. There are also portraits of the donor and, in the view of most, Botticelli himself, standing at the front on the right. The painting was celebrated for the variety of the angles from which the faces are painted, and of their expressions.