Sandro Botticelli And Portraits of Giuliano De’ Medici




Figure 1. Adoration of the Magi (Botticelli, 1475 – current location Uffizi Gallery)


Figure 2 Giuliano


Figure 3 Artist’s self-portrait

Before starting to talk about Giuliano De’ Medici’s three famous portraits, we have to go back to the relationship of Botticelli with the Medici family. Adoration of the Magi is a famous painting by Sandro Botticelli depicting the Medici family. In the painting, numerous characters of Botticelli’s contemporaries are present, including several members of the Medici family. (1) Cosimo in front of the virgin, described by Giorgio Vasari as “the finest of all that are now extant for its life and vigor”, Piero (the second Magus kneeling in the center in red) and Giovanni (the third Magus), and also Giuliano and Lorenzo. (2) The completion of the painting is dated at 1975 –when Lorenzo was ruling Florence– and Giuliano was still alive. In this painting, I can’t but to notice the similarities between Botticelli’s self-portrait with Giuliano’s face.

In a film about the Medici family produced by PBS titled Godfathers of the Renaissance, the narrator is asserting that Botticelli’s intent to add his self-portrait in this painting was a gesture of belonging to the family. (3) In an attempt to describe the overall qualities of Botticelli’s paintings, Émile Gebhart & Victoria Charles are using terms such as “Pagan”, “Mystical”, and “Oriental Visions”. This is perhaps due to his studies in botany, or his attention to the psychological effects of interior and exterior spaces in the viewer.

Figure 4  Portrait of a Young Man before a Light Background, c. 1475-1480. Tempera and oil (?) on panel, 52.1 x 36.5 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Figure 5 Workshop of Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Woman (Simonetta Vespucci), c. 1480-1485 (?). Tempera on panel, 59 x 40 cm. The National Gallery, London.


With the death of Piero de’ Medici (the Gouty) at 1469, his son Lorenzo the magnificent immediately took over his father’s business and expanded the power and network of the Medici family. The second powerful family in Florence felt marginalized and decided to assassinate Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano. The Pazzi’s were a respected and powerful family in Florence. Their noble lineage was longer than that of the Medici’s. They took their plan into action on Sunday, 26 April 1478 in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore to murder Medici brothers. William Manchester in his book A World Lit Only by Fire, argues that the assassination attempt was backed by the pope. (4)

The death of Giuliano marked a new era in politics of Florence. His assassination is continuing to be depicted in modern culture. The video game Assassin’s Creed II incorporated the event of Giuliano’s death inside its story.

Immediately after the assassination of Giuliano, not only all the murderers and their friends were severely punished but “the Pazzi family was banished from Florence and their property was confiscated; anyone named Pazzi had to change surname”. (5) Vasari wrote in his book about the aftermath of Giuliano’s assassination:

“During the year 1478, when the Pazzi family and their followers and co-conspirators killed Giuliano de’ Medici in Santa Maria del Fiore and wounded his brother Lorenzo, the Signoria [goverment] decided that all those who took part in the conspiracy would be painted as traitors upon the wall of the Palace of the Podesta. This project was offered to Andrea del Castagno, who, as a servant of the Medici household and obligated to it, accepted the task most willingly, and he executed the work in such a beautiful fashion that it was amazing, for it would be impossible to describe how much skill and good judgement can be discerned in the portraits of those figures drawn, for the most part, from life and strung up by their feet in strange positions—all of them quite different and very admirable. And because this work pleased the entire city and especially those who understood the details of painting, from then on they called him not Andrea del Castagno but Andrea degli Impiccati [‘Andrea of the Hanged Men’].” (2)

Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici later was decorated by Michelangelo; representing the sculpture of Giuliano above two figures of Night and Day. (6) It was Giuliano’s illegitimate son who went on to become Pope Clement VII and commissioned Michelangelo’s painting of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

Jacques-Edouard Berger Foundation claimed that Giuliano’s portrait that is currently in Washington DC was commissioned by Lorenzo after the murder of his brother in May 1478. The “open door“ in the background and the interior of the building is symbolic of the passage of life to death. (7) In his book on Botticelli, Guido Cornini argues that the version of this painting in Bergamo with its vibrant colors (compare to the other two) “corrects and filters the clearly defined facial characteristics by means of subtle introspection into the psychological qualities of the sitter.” (8)

When we compare all three portraits, the figure of Giuliano dissolves, and what we pay attention to is the background. One is showing the bare “wall” with a light-blue color. Another one is showing a “window“ slightly above the figure’s neck (similar to the other such background that Sandro has used in other paintings). The last one is depicting a double “door” that has an open side. This combination of “door, wall, and window”, is what constitutes the architectural features of a regular building. All three, are depicting a sense of interiority where the body can be situated. This type of portraiture was very rare at that time. Perhaps, Botticelli was trying to create a new visual mysticism.

Jeremy Norman Melius in his dissertation focuses on Simonetta’s portraits quotes Herbert P. Horne:

“At the time of Simeontta’s death, none of the pictures which are said to contain her portrait were painted, or even invented: and at the time of Giuliano’s murder, in 1479, only one, the “Spring,” could possibly have been begun. All historical evidence is thus entirely opposed to this legend: but there is one circumstance which is more damaging to this pretty fiction than any such historical evidence; and that is that none of these paintings contain a single portrait.” (9) (10)

Perhaps Sandro is a painter of postmortem and most of his portraits was depicting dead subjects. As an artist of Quattrocento, his technique, content, and philosophy can demonstrate this element. The presence of body and melancholia is evident in both his large-scale works as well as his portraits. Richard Brilliant makes a good observation that “the artist’s choice of frontal and profile modes of presentation effectively distinguished between the portrayal of the living and of the dead.” (11)

In terms of the relationship of the artist to the patron Brilliant continues: “Alternatively, attention may be directed to the role of the portrait artist in creating a work shaped by his talent and craft, by the perspicacity of his interpretation, and by the affective relationship between himself and his subject, both as responsive human beings and as ‘artist’ and ‘sitter’. The resulting portrait may resemble a battlefield, documenting the struggle for dominance between the artist’s conception and the sitter’s will.” (11) We should not forget that the Medici family was basically governing the city of Florence at that time. They were in charge of a lot of public and urban projects. This depiction of “architectural interior“ might also be a hint to this power relationship between Sandro and the Medici family.

Figure 6 Workshop of Sandro Botticelli, Posthumous Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, 1478. Poplar, 56.8 x 38.5 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Figure 7 Workshop of Sandro Botticelli, Giuliano de’ Medici, c. 1480. Tempera, 60 x 41 cm. Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.

Figure 8 Giuliano de’ Medici, c. 1478-1480. Tempera on panel, 75.5 x 52.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C





Assassin’s Creed 2

Ezio Saves Lorenzo Medici. Pazzi Kill Giuliano

The Pazzi Conspiracy – Mysterious Cities

The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance

Part 1

Part 2: Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination at 24:14




Works Cited

  1. Malaguzzi, Silvia. Botticelli: The Artist and His Works. s.l. : Giunti, 2003.
  2. Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. [trans.] JULIA CONAWAY BONDANELLA and PETER BONDANELLA. s.l. : Oxford, 1991.
  3. Hardy, Justin. Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance. [writ.] Susan Horth. PBS, 2004.
  4. Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. s.l. : Back Bay Books , 1992.
  5. Hibbert, Christopher. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. s.l. : William Morrow Paperbacks, 1974.
  6. Cropper, Elizabeth. Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier. s.l. : J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998.
  7. FOUNDATION, JACQUES-EDOUARD BERGER. Florence and the Medicis . JACQUES-EDOUARD BERGER FOUNDATION: World Art Treasures. [Online]
  8. Cornini, Guido. Botticelli. Ediz. inglese. s.l. : Giunti Editore, 1998.
  9. Horne, Herbert P. Botticelli: Painter of Florence. s.l. : Princeton University Press, 1981.
  10. Melius, Jeremy Norman. Art History and the Invention of Botticelli. [ed.] Chair Professor Whitney Davis Professor Barbara Spackman Committee in charge: Professor T. J. Clark. s.l. : A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History of Art in the Graduate Division of the University of California, Berkeley, 2010.
  11. Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture . s.l. : Reaktion, 1991.