If you know nothing whatsoever about art, it remains a safe bet that you know at least three works by sight. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa would certainly be one, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling would be another, and Boticelli’s Venus would be the third. (The Last Supper and the statue of David could also be included on this list but that would spoil the elegance of my argument, so I won’t mention them.) All three of these artists flourished at about the same time and in the same place, creating a resonance of beauty and intellect and meticulous artistry that radiated from Florence, Italy so brightly it blinded the whole world for centuries after.
We don’t really know all that much about Boticelli personally, which leads me to believe he was likely a rather timid soul completely different from the enormous personalities of his titanic contemporaries. He never married, but was believed to suffer love for a married woman whom he took as the ideal for his Venus. She died while still young, and it was Boticelli’s wish that he be buried at her feet. Despite the odd impertinence of this request, her family consented and when he died many years later, he got his desire to rest forever ‘neath her corns. The privilege of greatness, I suppose. He was also believed to “keep a boy” but then, who doesn’t?
Much of his work remains in various chapels and churches, but to me his work for the Church is the least interesting. He became, eventually, a follower of Savonarola (as did a great many Florentines) and was thought for many years to have destroyed many of his pagan-themed paintings in a Bonfire of the Vanieties. If this is true, then we can only guess at what we have lost yet again to religious zeal. On the other hand, we are lucky to have had him at all.
Boticelli was funded, both directly and indirectly, by Lorenzo de’ Medici, as were da Vinci and Michelangelo and almost all of the great Renaissance painters and sculptors and writers and composers and actors and hookers and bartenders and barrel racing cowgirls. (These fifteenth century folk were a very naive people—proto-humans really— who believed in a tired principle called noblesse oblige. You might have trouble looking it up. I don’t think it exists anymore except in the PR sense.) De’Medici’s generosity did not arise solely from his good nature; this was not some milk-sop scion of a great man, but a stern and mighty force in his own right. Rather, his patronage reflected his sense of place, which in turn sprang from the pride and love he held for his own people. He believed that by giving people the means to live and create and then getting out of their way they will do something to enrich their community.
He was wrong, of course, and the best the Florentines managed to do was to change the whole world.
The whole world.
We have been trying to live up to that level of artistry and patronage ever since. So we’re a little more self-centered now, a little greedier…so what? We have worlds inside us, don’t we? Isn’t that what the cool kids tell us? No worries, mate. Just be patient. You’ll get yours, too.