An Intimate Look at Botticelli’s Rarest Artworks 

Botticelli Drawings opens on November 19 at the Legion of Honor. Visit the exhibition for a rare view into the design practice of an artist whose name is synonymous with the Italian Renaissance.

Beauty and virtue. The body. Mythology. These are some of the themes intrinsic to the celebrated works of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. But what lies below the surface of Botticelli’s masterworks? First, an idea. Then, a rough sketch. Another. Begin again.

Botticelli’s drawings are characterized by changes and reworking, reflecting the artist’s interior development of overflowing ideas and dynamic sense of movement. See them for yourself this month at the Legion of Honor, where the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are hosting the first-ever dedicated exhibition of Botticelli’s rarely seen drawings. Such drawings are so rare that only two live in the United States, with about 20 dispersed in collections around Europe. Many of these precious, fragile pieces have never left their lending institutions — until now.

"The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist" (‘Madonna of the Rose Garden’), ca. 1468. Tempera and gold on poplar panel, 35 3/4 x 26 3/8 in. (90.7 x 67 cm).Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, inv. 286 / L 3936 © RMN-Grand Palais. Photo: Tony Querrec

Exploring the foundational role drawing played in Botticelli’s work, our exhibition traces his artistic journey, from studying under maestro Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406–1469) to leading his own workshop in Florence. Led by the research of curator Furio Rinaldi, we’re unveiling five newly attributed drawings alongside more than 60 works from 39 lending institutions. For the first time in centuries, a select number of Botticelli’s celebrated paintings will be paired with their preparatory drawings in our exhibition.

The exhibition will feature preparatory studies for some of Botticelli’s most renowned paintings, including "La Primavera" (ca. 1477); "The Virgin and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist" (1465–1470), on loan from the Musée du Louvre; and the Gallerie degli Uffizi’s "Adoration of the Magi" (ca. 1500–1506). The latter two paintings will be on view alongside their newly attributed preparatory drawing in "Botticelli Drawings." This pairing transports viewers back 500 years to Botticelli’s Florence workshop, giving rare insight into Botticelli’s creative vision and design practice. “These new proposed attributions will help lay the groundwork for a fuller understanding of Botticelli’s artistic output and the field of Italian Renaissance art at large," says Rinaldi.

"The Annunciation," ca. 1490-1495. Oil, tempera, gold lead on walnut panel. Framed: 31 1/4 x 36 7/8 x 6 5/8 in. (79.299 x 93.726 x 16.8 cm). 19 1/2 x 24 3/8 in. (49.5 x 61.9 cm) Lent by Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council, Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased, 1856

A quintessential artist of the Renaissance, Alessandro (Sandro) Filipepi was born in Florence in about 1445. His older brother, Giovanni, was called “Botticello,” meaning “small bottle,” because he loved wine, or had a large belly, or both. The nickname was passed on to Sandro as Botticelli. Botticelli lived and worked his whole life in the Ognissanti (“All Saints”) neighborhood of Florence. He established and maintained his workshop there, on Via Nuova d’Ognissanti (today known as Via del Porcellana). Today, you can visit his grave in the Church of San Salvatore in Ognissanti.

Botticelli helped transform the way artists understood and used drawing. During Botticelli’s lifetime, drawing evolved from the medieval purpose of a reference or pattern, to a more sophisticated element of an artist’s creative process. Botticelli created drawings to prepare artworks of all different mediums, ranging from paintings and murals to prints and book illustrations. He is often praised as the master of the line. Art historian and Botticelli expert Bernard Berenson once described him as “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had.”

"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

Even though drawing was central to Botticelli’s design process, his drawings have rarely been shown to the public and never in a dedicated exhibition. In part, this is because his workshop business suffered in his later years, and many of his drawings did not survive his studio’s decline. Toward the end of Botticelli’s life, his style had fallen out of fashion, and he died in his hometown of Florence in near poverty. His legacy was even rejected by his own family, who did not want to be responsible for the debts that came with it.

Botticelli was largely forgotten for nearly 300 years, until he was rediscovered by the Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century. This group of English painters and poets rebelled against classical traditions, instead celebrating individuality, and were drawn to Botticelli’s expressive and fluid style. Botticelli’s "Portrait of a Lady at the Window, Known as Smeralda Bandinelli" (ca. 1475) was even in the personal collection of one of the group’s cofounders, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Botticelli has continued to wield an enduring influence on contemporary culture, from art and design to dance, music, fashion, and film. Known for some of the world’s greatest paintings, from "La Primavera" (1477–1482) to the "Birth of Venus" (ca. 1485), Botticelli has inspired the likes of artists Andy Warhol, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Cindy Sherman, among others. Some of his most enduring works will be included in our exhibition, including "Portrait of a Lady at the Window," one of the first western European paintings in which the female subject looks directly at the viewer.

From Botticelli’s earliest recorded drawings through expressive designs for his final painting, the works on view reveal Botticelli’s experimental drawing techniques, quest for ideal beauty, and command of the line. These works are presented in the quiet grandeur of the Legion of Honor, where, after you wander amid works from Renaissance Florence, you can step outside to sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge. We recommend bringing along a pad of paper — you may leave inspired to draw the beauty that surrounds you. 

Botticelli Drawings, Legion of Honor
November 19, 2023 - February 11, 2024

Main image: "Study of the head of a woman in profile" (detail, recto), ca. 1485. Metalpoint, white gouache on light-brown prepared paper (recto), black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white gouache (verso). 13 7/16 x 9 1/16 in. (34.2 x 23 cm.) The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeather by Francis Douce, 1834. ©️ Ashmolean Museum

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