Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, or Allegory of Spring, is a famous large (over 6 x 8 feet) 15th century artwork commissioned by the Medici family, Botticelli’s common patron and the major patron and influence of Florence Italy’s Renaissance art. Botticelli’s work falls into the early Renaissance period and he was a pioneer in the use of Pre-Christian Greek and Roman mythology in the era’s work.
The exact history of the painting is unknown. The exact date it was made is not known (Wikipedia says “circa 1482”) and its current name was assigned long after Botticelli’s death. However, according to ItallianRenausance.com and other sources, “it was probably created for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (a cousin of the powerful Lorenzo the Magnificent Medici).” Many believe this was made for his bedroom and this would mean it would have been the painting first seen by his wife on their wedding night.
The exact meaning of the painting is also unknown, but most scholars believe it is about spring, love and marriage. Scholars generally believe the figures are as follows: On the far left is Mercury, the Roman God of May in his identifying winged shoes. It is ambiguous what he is doing but he may be dissipating the clouds of winter. On the far right is the god of wind Zephyr, who captured the nymph Chloris, to his left, and forced her to be his wife. Afterward, he felt bad about this and made her into Flora, the goddess of Spring. Flora is shown to the left of Chloris, in a floral dress and spreading out flowers. To the right of Mercury are the Three Graces, Chastity, Beauty and Love. At the top center is Cupid, and his arrow of love and marriage about to strike. Except for Mercury, the figures are barefooted in a natural setting full of plants and flowers.
At the physical and figurative center is Venus. Venus was the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility. She also resembles a Mary figure, both in pose and with Mary commonly depicted in red. She is shown as the figurative central figure as she is placed in the center, raised above others, is framed by the foliage, and has Cupid, her son, directly above her head. Further, while the others looking in various directions doing various often playful things, Venus is looking forward with a motherly expression. She appears as a motherly figure overlooking, tempering and approving the goings on and the themes of the painting.
As an artwork for the bedroom of newlyweds (if that is the case), the painting is an enjoyment for the eyes, a furnishing for the room and a symbol of love, youth, spring and marriage. The painting is a secular ‘private’ painting rather than a church one, and, though overseen by a semi-Mary figure, it is filled with ‘pagan’ gods and goddess.
To modern minds, Zephyr forcing Chloris to marry him is interesting theme. Back then, women didn’t get to chose their husbands. However, the story says that being forced to marry a Medici had its perks of glory and riches. Chloris is made into a beautiful and celebrated goddess. This could also be seen as an apology or justification to the wife. Today’s feminists will have a lot to say about this.
When I first looked at the painting I found it formal, somber and serious, as the people seemed so serious with unsmiling expressions and the overall painting was literally dark. However, after reading more, I realized it was the opposite. The seeming seriousness is a relative thing to my modern sensibilities. Back then, they likely didn’t show bouncing people and overly smiling faces as they do in modern magazine ads ads televisions situation comedies. Upon my closer and second look, the faces are very human, fresh, young, beautiful and the whole scene and is natural and relaxed. Upon close inspection of Flora’s face, she has partially open mouth that expresses a sexuality and having fun. Except for Venus, the figures seem playful or at least action filled. They are facing various directions, the Three Graces are dancing in flowing dresses, Zephyr is shown in amorous pursuit of Chloris, Flora is spreading flowers. Except for Mercury and Venus, the figures are barefoot in the grass. Further, the way the figures are spread is informal compared to the many formally structured Christian paintings, including those of Botticelli. In Primavera, the people are doing their own things and the whole thing resembles a dance or celebration.
The painting was meant as a feast for the eyes, a glorification of youth and spring and love. The Roman mythology is opposed to the stern, formal Christian aesthetic. Today’s audiences appreciate how sensuous Botticelli’s faces are, how beautiful and modern they look. It strikes them how they look like real, modern people.
I learned that the physical darkness I commented on is because the painting has darkened over time, a common occurrence with varnished old paintings. Revarnishing old paintings to reveal the original tones and colors is done by conservators, though they sometimes choose not to do it for certain priceless paintings. I was told by a recent American visitor to the Louvre that they have chosen not to revarnish the Mona Lisa.
The painting is a famous example of humanism, which is closely associated with the Italian Renaissance, Humanism is a departure from early Christian spiritual-centric view. Humanism placed emphasis on humans as individuals, capable of reason and rationality, and was a forerunner of modern rational thought and science. It produced such thinkers as Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, Copernicus and Galileo. It is shown in art by realistic secular depictions of humans and the use of Pre-Christian Roman and Greek myth (‘pagan gods.’) Before humanist influence, Primavera would not have been approved of by the church. The secular humanism is also symbolized in that it was made for a Medici, (it is believed) as a furnishing for his bedroom.
Venus is also commonly used a symbol of humanism, and this painting shows that humanism, human individuality and reason, are central to all the things going.
The orange grove was a symbol of the Medicis and most of the models for the gods and goddesses in this painting were Medici or other higher ups in Florence society. The painting was designed for and shows the Medici world and society. Venus oversees a Medici world.
This whole painting is an expression and glorification of the Medici humanist philosophy and aesthetic. While Christian, the Medici family were secular leaders and bankers with early persuits. The painting has a semi-Madonna, but is about their beliefs in individuality, rationality and the enjoyment of life This is what they felt, but the painting may also also an apology or justification of their secular ways. The use of an overseeing Madonna may be seen as justification of their earthly ways. Even the Virgin Mary approves and watches over in a motherly manner human individuality and reason.
The painting is a tempera on wood panel, called a panel painting. Tempera was a standard form of paint and painting before oil painting. Wood was the common backing before canvas. Some have commented on the subtilty of the colors and details of Primavera. This is the nature of tempera painting. The paint is translucent and quick drying, and the artist paints by building up the details and colors painted line by painted line. This leads to gradual gradations in color changes, so the details of a face lack the great contrast of an oil painting or acrylic and leads to the delicacy that Botticelli’s paintings were known for. The paint itself on a tempera painting is physically flat, as opposed to the common raised relief surface of oil paintings. Tempera paint goes hand in hand with Botticelli’s delicate people.
What is interesting about this humanist painting is that Botticelli later became deeply religious under the influence of the strict Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and renounced his humanist paintings. It has been said that he may have burned many in the Bonfire of the Vanities. He gave up the pre-Christian and secular themes and turned to devout Christian themes. His later Christian paintings were more formal and orderly, lacking the relaxed ‘fun’ look of his pagan paintings.
The painting is valued for many reasons. It is enjoyed as an artwork showing Botticelli’s talents, as a lush display celebrating ever popular themes love, spring, youth and beauty. The painting is valued as an example of humanism and Medici thought and influence. In context of Botticelli’s works and life, it shows the battles between religious and secular power and thought, both in Florence history Italy and within one person’s mind. It is valued as a physical and historical artifact, showing the types and paint and backing. Dendrology is used in the study of panel paintings. It is valued as a personal artifact of a famous family. People are fascinated by things owned by famous people, even if it’s a robe or a chair. It is also valued as a puzzle. Humans are drawn to ambiguous stories and unsolved mysteries. This is why this, and other paintings, still fascinate audiences and are studied endlessly.
Wikipedia articles on Botticelli’s Primavera, Botticelli and Girolamo Savonarola
“La Primavera by Botticelli” at uffizi.org
“La Primavera by Botticeli” at italianrenaissance.org
Sandro Bitticelli at history101link
Articles on Botticelli, the Medicis and Girolamo Savonarola in the New World Encyclopedia