Sandro Botticelli Adoration of the Magi, today at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence Italy, is one of the early works by the painter that better shows all the features of the Renaissance: depth, perspective, realism, love for the ancient classical architecture, but above all, the translation of a biblical event in a contemporary context. It’s not as famous as his allegorical paintings: the Birth of Venus, La Primavera, Pallas and the Centaur or the Calumny. The painting contains several portraits of members of the Medici family and other important Florentine people. Let’s discover all of them.
A commission for a banker
It was a banker, Gaspare Lami, to ask Sandro Botticelli for an altarpiece to decorate his chapel in Santa Maria Novella. The work is dated 1475 when Botticelli is 30 years old and on the verge of becoming the most famous Florentine painter. As often happened, bankers dedicated part of their profits to embellish their parish church, in an attempt to save their soul from damnation (the banking activity, common in Renaissance Florence, was still considered a sin by the Catholic church). Very often, the “sponsor” of the work was portrayed, kneeling in front of the various Saints and biblical characters, but times were rapidly changing in Renaissance Florence, and in this second half of the 15th century, the new trend was to represent the patron attending the scene with a group of friends.
This is exactly what happens in Botticelli Adoration of the Magi, where Gaspare Lami is portrayed in the group on the right. he’s easy to spot, as he’s looking at you when you observe the painting. Gaspare Lami didn’t commission this painting only to save his soul, and he didn’t settle for satisfying his vanity with his own portrait: he wanted to appear important and, at the same time, please some “friends” that made him a favour, or to whom he was going to ask one. I’m of course speaking of the greatest bankers in Florence: the Medici family.
Medici portraits in Botticelli Adoration of the Magi
The patron didn’t want to have himself represented in the same group as his powerful friends, as often happened in Renaissance paintings. He wanted to honor the Medici acknowledging that they had a superior dignity, and this is why he asked the painter to represent some of them as the Magi. Now the three wise men are often represented as a young man, a mature man, and an old man, as symbols of the “three ages” of the human life. In 1475, Florence was ruled by Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, two young brothers, and Gaspare Lami thought it was better to use the previous generations: Cosimo The Elder (grandfather of Lorenzo and Giuliano) is represented as the old wise man, kneeling in front of Jesus.
His sons, Piero The Gouty (father of Lorenzo and Giuliano) and Giovanni, are respectively the mature and the young wise men. The ruler of Florence, Lorenzo The Magnificent, is not a shown as a biblical character but is the most important person in town and as such is not represented as part of any group. His brother Giuliano, killed in the Pazzi conspiracy three years later, is less important apparently, and is represented on the extreme left, together with another group of people, mostly the artists and philosophers that lived at the court of the Medici.
The Adoration of the Magi probably was the work that ignited Botticelli’s career. The Medici couldn’t certainly ignore such a painting, which was not only extremely well executed but also was a free promotion capable of gaining many supporters for their party. It was a great chance for the painter to be accepted at the Medici court, which is what indeed happened, so Botticelli couldn’t ignore it and was very clever in self-promoting himself.
As often happened in Renaissance Florence, artists didn’t sign their works but added a self-portrait on the right, looking at the observer. The self-portrait in this painting shows the painter at the age of 30, proud of his talent. A man ready to work for the greatest patrons of the Renaissance and ready to become the symbol of the cultural re-birth.
Video lesson on Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi