Alessandro Filipepi got his nickname Botticelli from the barrel-like physique of his younger brother although there is no way of knowing if the painter was similarly built. Botticelli learned his art with Filippo Lippi but was soon running one of the largest workshops in Florence where he trained Filippo’s orphaned son Filippino and for a while collaborated with him. One of Botticelli’s first commissions was one of the Virtues (Uffizi) for the Mercanzia, the chamber of commerce, for the series begun by the Pollaiolo brothers. Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi) of 1475–76, commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, an associate of the Medici, for an altar in Santa Maria Novella, shows portraits of various members of the Medici family (both living and then dead) indicating Botticelli’s closeness to the cultural world of the Medici. In 1475 he also painted the tourney banner for Giuliano de’ Medici and after the assassination of Giuliano in the Pazzi conspiracy, Botticelli was called upon to depict in fresco the hanging of the conspirators. In 1480 he frescoed a Saint Jerome for the Vespucci for the church of the Ognissanti. Sixtus IV included Botticelli among the artists he summoned to Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel in 1481, but despite his contribution of three large scenes, he only stayed there a year. The 1480s are the period of his three great mythological allegories for the Medici Family: Pallas and the Centaur, the Primavera, and the Birth of Venus (Uffizi).
While in Florence, Botticelli had patrons in the highest circles and was deeply involved in the city’s intellectual scene; many of his paintings allude to neo-Platonist theories circulating at the Medici court.
As a portrait artist he was very much in demand and in the aftermath of the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478, when over 70 Florentines were executed for plotting against the Medici, he was hired to portray the ringleaders' hanged bodies on the facade of the Palace of Justice. The idea of frontal portraits was revolutionary when Botticelli started portraying powerful Florentine figures, as earlier portraits such as Pisanello's Leonello d'Este were in profile. Portrait of a young man, at the National Gallery of Art (London, UK) can be considered the first frontal portrait by Botticelli.
Botticelli’s reputation went into obscurity and was revived in the nineteenth century. Walter Pater’s chapter dedicated to him in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Literature, published in 1873, most probably cemented his reputation in the English language world. Pater wrote: ‘He is before all things a poetical painter, blending the charm of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry, with the charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting.’ Not much later the Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriele Rossetti wrote verses on the Primavera, which was then displayed in the Galleria dell’Accademia. It was brought to the Uffizi in 1919, a sure sign of Botticelli’s increasing fame. Among collectors, owning a Botticelli, became a matter of primacy. Isabella Stewart Gardner was the first American to do so, when in 1894 Bernard Berenson helped her purchase the Stories of Lucretia. Herbert Horne was at work on serious documentary monograph on Botticelli, which came out in 1908. Charles Swan, in the first 1913 volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, keeps a reproduction of the head of the wife of Jethro (from the Sistine Chapel frescoes) as if it were a portrait of his beloved Odette. In 1925 Yukio Yashiro published a sumptuous monograph in which the Florentine’s art is compared to Japanese painting. Later monographs by Ronald Lightbown and Alessandro Cecchi and Charles Dempsey’s study of the Primavera as well as numerous studies and exhibitions (including most recently Reimagining Botticelli at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) have tried to ground Botticelli’s life and work in the Florence of his time. The poetry though has never gone away.
Most information about the life of Michael Marullo Tarcaniota comes from his own writings many of which are epigrams to people he knew. Marullo appears to have been born or conceived in Constantinople in the last days of its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. In any case, as evident by epitaphs in San Domenico in Ancona, for several generations the family had been closely connected to centres on the Adriatic coasts. The poet probably spent his earliest years in present-day Dubrovnik. By his late teenage years, he was serving as a mercenary soldier (stratiota) seemingly in Sycthia and Thrace, but the exact campaigns are unknown. An indication of his vast learning and the network of humanists with whom he was in contact comes from mention of him by the Neapolitan humanists Pontano and Sannazaro as well as a letter from Marullo to Pico della Mirandola, Paolo Cortesi, author of De cardinalate, who knew Marullo as a youth when Marullo was in Rome, and the introduction to Pier Candido’s edition of Lucretius’s De rerum natura in which he credits Marullo for his help with the text. Poetry and humanistic studies––particularly of Lucretius ––had to contend with soldiering and the tricky political alliances of the era. Between June 1488 and July 1489, the Roman publisher Eucharis Silber issued a volume of Marullo’s epigrams, which was dedicated to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who hosted him in Florence where Marullo is documented by mid-1489. The poet appears to be in Florence again around 1496, the probable period of his marriage to Alessandra Scala, daughter of the chancellor Bartolomeo Scala. On 26 November 1497 Marullo’s epigrams, now in three books, and together with most of hymns to nature were printed by the Stamperia del Drago. The hymns were dedicated to Antonello Sanseverino whereas the dedication to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici was kept for the epigrams. Lorenzo’s brother died in September 1498, after which we know that Marullo served his widow Caterina Sforza Riario, the mistress of Forlì, including on a diplomatic mission to Milan to Louis XII. However, it was Louis’s French troops in support of Cesare Borgia that in 1500 successfully besieged the castle of Ravaldino to which Caterina and her forces had retreated. Marullo’s life was spared. Just a few months later he was in Volterra visiting the humanist churchman Raffaele Maffei. On leaving the town, he drowned in the River Cecina. His death caused an outpouring of grief among his intellectual friends of which Ariosto’s epigram is the most notable.
Botticelli portrayed Marullo in a mesmerizing portrait looking out at the viewer almost in defiance of the world.
As there is neither setting nor symbolism to identify the sitter, the artist was obviously confident of his abilities to tell the story behind the man and convey who he is through a physical description that brings out his personality. The man in three-quarters-view dominates the picture surface like a pyramid. He turns slightly outward as if he is defying the viewer to look at him, but he is aware of another presence as the pupils of his eyes have turned to the extreme right. It is a technique found in sculpture busts of the period such as Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici in antique-style armour in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in which Giuliano is caught in the moment, having just spun around. His long locks of hair––carefully cut, combed, and pomaded––animate the figure’s movement.
Botticelli similarly specializes in using hair to create form and convey personality. Much has been written of the fantastic hairdos of Botticelli’s women. The piles of braid and hairpieces, alluringly arranged about their heads would invite thoughts of how they might be undone in more intimate situations. While female coiffeurs might seem complicated things, the male ones were no simple manner––particularly in case of the helmet-like hair of the preening youths of Florence. One imagines much time spent in front of the mirror but also professional barbers to get the cut just right. Marullo keeps to fashion no less, but Botticelli makes his hair unkempt showing a man who might not have been bothered to comb it out every morning, use pomade, or really care about keeping it in place. Individual strands fall across the forehead in a scatter-shot way.
Marullo has bushy eyebrows, his eyelids are heavy, and his eyes are turned completely to the viewer’s right as if he had suddenly become aware of another presence. His dress is a sombre black (only a bit of white shirt can be seen at the collar) and the blackness of his costume fits his hair as if the two together frame the face dominated by his big nose and his mouth shut tight. Although a poet, no words are about to come out. The movement of the eyes that gives a sense of action, it is as if something is calling him into action. It could be a military call to arms or a poetical controversy. Ariosto gave a good idea of Marullo’s personality in his lament to Ercole Strozzi when he described Marullo’s double nature. From his mouth could come out ‘sweet eloquence’ just as much as ‘strict reprimands (dulci eloquio monitisque severis)’.
While always living an iterant life, Marullo seems to have made Florence his home base in 1489 between April, when from Rome he wrote a letter to Pico della Mirandola, and August when he is recorded in Florence. In the 1480s Florence was the hub of the modern world, the most sophisticated court ever seen. Lorenzo the Magnificent - a stern ruler, yet at the same time a talented poet - gathered around him the finest minds of his day: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Politian and many others. He used the Arts to broadcast a carefully crafted image of himself and of his rule, sending artists such as Botticelli and Leonardo to competing kingdoms as his envoys.
In many ways, Lorenzo was the personification of Plato’s concept of a philosopher-king - embodying not only Florence’s realpolitik but also its culture, Humanism, where man rather than God was finally at the centre of the universe and where his life was guided not by the Church but by Plato and Virgil.
Yet Florence was not simply the idyllic cradle of civilisation that we all know. Lorenzo was never formally appointed ruler of Florence and his tenure as de-facto ruler was constantly rocked by plots to overthrow him, attempted murders and violent acts of retaliation. Little wonder that it was this same cultural milieu that spawned both the otherworldly perfection of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the gritty realism of Machiavelli's The Prince.
Michele Marullo - the soldier poet - was very much at home in such an environment.
Shrewd advisors and committed commentators, 15th century poets were not only men of letters: they imparted legitimacy with their learning to this new generation of rulers, playing a central role on the political scene. In this highly charged political climate, Marullo’s Hymns to Nature sounded positively revolutionary, celebrating the Greeks gods and living kings alike: “The Sun governs all things, yet it has only one abode: kings conduct themselves in the same way as gods”.
Culture was politics and politics was culture, and the Greeks classics rather than the Christian God showed the way.
While in Florence Marullo’s first printed edition of Epigrammata appeared with a dedication to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. The text included epigrams to various Medici personages including Simonetta Vespucci and also the recently deceased Clarice Orsini, wife of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The dedication to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco clearly indicates that Marullo was in the centre of Florence’s humanist circles and in particular close to the Medici in the Pierfrancesco line.
A this time, Pierfrancesco was already an illustrious figure and was regarded by many, after Lorenzo’s death, as his cultural heir.
Laurentius minor - as he was nicknamed by the court. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Marullo - having decided to settle in Florence - looked to the younger Pierfrancesco rather than to Lorenzo to curry favour at court.
Michele Marullo died in April 1500, and his portrait was done either in the decade before his passing or shortly afterward, probably for his widow Alessandra Scala, who entered the Benedictine nunnery of Le Murate in Florence and died in 1506.
The first confirmed record of Botticelli’s Michele Marullo Tarcaniota is an engraving of it made in 1820 in Munich undoubtedly for the art dealer Serand Lassalle, who around 1822 offered it to Eugène de Beauharnais via the latter’s agent Baron Antoine Darnay. Beauharnais was the son of the Empress Joséphine Bonaparte from her first marriage and after the downfall of Napoléon, his adopted father, Beauharnais held the title of Duke of Leuchtenberg. However, in Lassalle’s long letter to Darnay, he speaks of it as a work by Masaccio and makes a case for Beauharnais to buy a Masaccio because of the rarity of the artist who could not be found in Paris, Dresden, or Vienna.
The Masaccio attribution is an indication of how little Botticelli was held in regard in the early nineteenth century. The picture was seen at the public opening in 1825, a year after Beauharnais’s premature death, of his collection in the Palais Leuchtenberg in Munich. The 3rd Duke of Leuchtenberg brought the paintings to Saint Petersburg. It was only in the 1890s, that the portrait was recognized as a work of Botticelli. The Leuchtenberg collection was dispersed by the grandson of the 3rd Duke and the portrait went into the hands of the London based dealer Arthur J. Sulley, who sold it to the Berlin collector Eduard Georg Simon. After his death in 1929, it was acquired by the Catalan Francisco de Asís Cambó Batlle. Cambó was a politician and businessman who left Spain in 1936 at the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1929 he had purchased many Renaissance paintings with a view of donating them to the Prado and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Despite his decision not to return to Spain, in 1941 Cambó signed the act of donation of his collection to the Prado, which had few fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italian paintings. The portrait of Marullo was not included in this donation and was kept by his family.
The painting was first exhibited in Paris at the Exposition de l’art italien in 1935 and has appeared in many subsequent exhibitions on portraits.