Spring mysteries: Botticelli’s Primavera
Spring is here! The return of sunshine inspired us to look at Botticelli’s Primavera, a masterpiece of the early Renaissance and arguably the most popular artistic representation of the season, even if – as we shall see – its interpretation remains inconclusive.
Botticelli painted Primavera sometime between 1477 and 1482, probably for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, cousin of the powerful Italian statesman (and important patron of the arts) Lorenzo Medici. The date is just one of the many facts surrounding the painting that remain unclear. For starters, its original title is unknown; it was first called La Primavera by the artist/art historian Giorgio Vasari, who only saw it some 70 years after it was painted. While it’s generally agreed that on one level Primavera depicts themes of love and marriage, sensuality and fertility, the work’s precise meaning continues to be debated (a search in JSTOR led us to almost 700 results, with nearly as many differing opinions). Here’s what we think we know:
Primavera depicts a group of figures in an orange grove (which may reflect the fact that the Medici family had adopted the orange tree as its family symbol). To the far left of the painting stands Mercury dissipating the clouds of winter with his staff for spring to come.
Next to Mercury stand the Three Graces, who represent the feminine virtues of Chastity, Beauty, and Love; the pearls on their heads symbolize purity. Next to them, in the center of the composition, is the Roman goddess Venus, who protects and cares for the institution of marriage. Above her is her son, cupid, blindfolded as he shoots his arrows of love towards the Three Graces.
On the far right of the painting we see Zephyrus, the west wind, pursuing a nymph named Chloris. After he succeeds in reaching her, Chloris transforms into Flora, goddess of spring. The transformation is indicated by the flowers coming out of Chloris’s mouth. Flora scatters the flowers she gathered on her dress, symbolizing springtime and fertility.
The key to interpreting the composition as a whole might lie with the sources of the painting, but we have no consensus as to what they were. Parts seem to come from Ovid, who wrote about Chloris and her transformation, and from Lucretius, who in his poem “De rerum natura” touched upon some of the imagery seen in the painting, or it may have been inspired by “Rusticus,” a poem celebrating country life by Poliziano, a close friend of the Medici family. Thankfully, our appreciation for the beauty of the painting transcends our difficulties in understanding it. Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Ian Alteveer’s recent statement about Jasper John’s White Flag could easily suit Botticelli’s Primavera: “As I warmed up to this work, I realized that a work can be inscrutable and you can still love it.”
These images come to us courtesy of the Scala Archives. We encourage you to look at the painting in the Artstor Digital Library to zoom in for illuminating close-ups. (And don’t forget to click on the duplicates and details and related images icons to explore further.)
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