Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510) paints Primavera in the second half of the 15th century, Florence – speculated to be the year 1482. Here, he works on a commission from his principal patrons, the Medici dynasty, having found favour with it’s burgeoning intelligentsia. Botticelli presents Primavera as a large-scale mythological painting playing on popular literary, allegoric and philosophical themes, whilst tying contemporary symbols of the Medici into this rich iconography. From an ancient conception of ideals flourishing in the courtly Early Renaissance, we see Botticelli use these devices to celebrate the conjugal union of Lorenzo di Pierfranceso de’ Medici (1463 – 1503), his new bride and the allegorical element of Spring’s arrival.
Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, tempera on panel, c. 1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
The depiction of figures from myth echoes the work of Roman poets Ovid and Lucretius whose descriptions helped shape their appearance in the visual arts. Botticelli’s mythological grouping denotes love, beauty and courtship all under the bower of nature and its continual bounty in Springtime. Venus is shown central here to rule over earthly and divine love and, as the classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary, is framed in an altar-like setting with her hand raised in blessing. In Boticelli’s conception, the goddess embodies celestial ‘Platonic’ love and is flanked by a ‘putto’, the cherubic Cupid representing secular passion in a non-religious context; here shown blindfolded to symbolically convey that love, itself, is blind. These Neoplatonic ideals were moving around the Medici court with Venus seen in Primavera as its facet ‘Humanitas’ or ‘benevolence’.
The Three Graces, as shown in Boticelli’s Primavera.
To her left, the three Graces ‘Pulchritudo’ (Beauty), ‘Chastitas’ (Chastity) and ‘Voluptas’ (Pleasure) are shown in the guise of ideal feminine beauty as it was seen in Renaissance Florence: Flaunted in their pointed faces, long necks, sloping shoulders, curving bellies and slender ankles; features which had a high sensual appeal in the period. To further what Roman writer Seneca referred to as being “pure and undefiled and holy”, these visions of the virtues have pearls in their hair, tying them symbolically to purity and Venus herself. They dance as an extension of harmony, forming a continual, fluid circle which in itself echoes the idea of perfection and eternity.
From the Second Key of Basil Valentine, Hermes is shown as a healing god carrying a Caduceus in each hand.
The figure of Mercury, the messenger god, is understood by his painted attributes; these being his winged sandals, prominent headwear and the ‘Caduceus’ used by the herald to usher the dark clouds away from the scene, ensuring perpetual Spring. This particular symbol is shown as a staff entwined by twin serpents, allowing Mercury to protect and bring balance to the gathering. There are however deeper connotations to the Medici iconographically through the inclusion of Mercury in this painting: Firstly, as the son of nymph ‘Maia’, seen as the God of May, Mercury commemorates the month in which Pierfrancesco de’ Medici married Semiramide d’Appiano in 1482. Secondly, as the God of Commerce, it would have also been appropriate for Botticelli to include his presence in the commission of the Medici, a significant merchant-patron who built their wealth on banking.
Allegory of Spring, as shown in Botticelli’s Primavera.
To the right of the scene we see performed the allegory of Spring as recorded by Ovid involving the pursual of Chloris, a nymph, by Zephyrus, the West Wind in the work ‘Fasti’. Here, as she is ravished, flowers are shown sprouting from the mouth of thinly veiled Chloris, detailed in the painting from Ovid’s poetic line “as she talks, her lips breathe spring roses.” As Chloris becomes Flora, Goddess of Spring, Botticelli includes this metamorphosis as another figure, that of the Goddess, stepping out in front of her former self (“I was Chloris, who am now called Flora”) shown as she strews flowers across the earth. This iconography is understood as a symbol of Florence known at the time of this painting as ‘City of Flowers’ as an abundance of flowers sprout from Flora herself stepping forth into the world.
Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c. 1486, tempera, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Botticelli sets his figures in an idyllic, ethereal glade overhung by an orangery: Here the figure of Venus presides over her own domain. This realm had been imagined by ancient poets and by Poliziano whose influence was as scholar at the court of the Medici; Botticelli iconographically recalls this in ‘Primavera’ through a garden blossoming under the lush growth of Spring. Behind Venus, a myrtle bush grows, recognised through mythology as the sacred symbol of this goddess: Greek poet Hesiod writes of Venus as being born of the sea from the semen of Uranus, clothing her nakedness on land with myrtle leaves. Botticelli uses this attribute of Venus in his imagining of her garden on the island of Cythera, perhaps even taking from other mythological sources in this conception.
Hortus conclusus depicted by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgärtleins
Indeed, taking the latin ‘Hortus conclusus’ in it’s state of perfection, harmony and bliss, a revival of classical allusions in the Renaissance would also point to the garden of the Hesperides; nymphs presiding over a garden bearing the golden apples of immortality. Botanically, Botticelli includes a grove of oranges in Primavera with similar associations. Extending on this imagery, the orange grove was another symbol of the Medici born on it’s coat of arms; Botticelli’s inclusion of the oranges in this painting would hold significance to it’s Medici patrons as a family emblem shown in abundance. All of this conjures visions of Eden, Paradise and Arcadia in Botticelli’s painting as he conveys a state of perfection, to be similarly attained by the Medici in marriage.
Designed to be hung outside the nuptial chamber in a trilogy with The Birth of Venus and Minerva and the Centaur, Primavera reflects this iconographically through Botticelli’s choice of compositional elements. Instances related to marriage are seen in the inclusion of the courtship between Zephyrus and Chloris: The rape of a nymph by a god was considered to be ‘divine love’ and was taken as a high honour; Botticelli shows Zephyrus overcome by an earthly carnal love as he chases his prize, Chloris. However, Botticelli includes another dimension of the story highlighted by Ovid in that Chloris is transformed into Flora. Here, she is elevated through marriage as Zephyrus’s bride to being a goddess, with her swollen belly signifying terrestrial fertility. Her smile in this painting expresses conventional renaissance humanist thought on ‘feminine’ contentment, motherhood and marital bliss, as she is serenely depicted here in a timeless state of matrimony. To extend on the reading of this iconography, Botticelli paints Venus wearing the typical headdress of a Florentine married woman, furthering the nuptial theme.
As an artist working in the early Renaissance, Botticelli combines these iconographical elements to create a pleasing, poetic composition for the Medici family; in keeping with contemporary ideals, allusions and symbols of status. Explicitly, Primavera reads as a celebration of Spring and the harmonious workings of nature in bringing constant beauty and renewal. Culturally, this painting uses the complex classical, literary and allegorical elements that would have been recognised by an elite audience of certain refinement and taste. Alternatively, it can be read in relation to the event which is commemorates, this being a marriage; using images of courtship, love, fertility and fidelity. Conclusively, on a larger scale, the iconography of this painting points to the flourishing of wisdom and virtues in Florence as a city, who, under the influence of the Medician dynasty, would experience political, cultural and economic prosperity.
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