The Italian Renaissance was a truly groundbreaking movement that influenced the entire Western cultural space at the time it started developing around the 14th century. It brought an entirely different world view based on the scientific and social profoundly inspired by the Greek philosophy and culture. The cities-states that were run by wealthy nobleman families became hubs for various talented craftsmen, commissioned to produce astounding artworks for their patrons' private palazzos and public spaces - churches and other facilities.
In such an atmosphere some of the world’s best-known masterpieces were created, among them being the celebrated painting Primavera by Sandro Botticelli made in the late 1470s or early 1480s. This particular artwork is perhaps one of the most representative examples of allegorical painting that encapsulated the Renaissance zeitgeist.
Although it features a group of figures from classical mythology in a garden, Primavera is not based on any particular literary source. However, it is an allegory indicating the growth of Springtime, that various scholars affiliate with the Renaissance Neoplatonism, very much en vogue at the intellectual circles in Florence at the time.
The painting is often discussed in comparison with Botticelli's other equally celebrated mythological painting The Birth of Venus, although the precise liaison between the two is not established. The only thing that might connect them is their size, unprecedented in Western art since classical antiquity.
Primavera depicts six female and two male figures, including a cupid located in an orange grove. The figures represented are: at far right Zephyrus, the wind of March, who kidnaps the nymph Chloris, marries her and transforms her into a deity; she becomes Flora, the goddess of Spring, eternal bearer of life, and is scattering roses on the ground.
Although positioned slightly aside from the other figures, the most central position takes Venus, a red-draped woman in blue. Above her levitates a blindfolded Cupid with a strengthened bow. The Three Graces, on the left, are found in festive mode, while the god Mercury, clothed in red with a helmet and a sword, holds a wooden rod towards the clouds.
The interaction between the figures is almost entirely enigmatic; while Zephyrus and Chloris are looking at each other, Flora and Venus look straight at the viewer; the Cupid is blindfolded, and Mercury seems as if ignoring the others looking at the clouds. One of the Graces observes him, while the other two seem to look at each other.
The garden that surrounds the figures is rather elaborate and it includes over five hundred identified plant species (with about one hundred and ninety different flowers). The size of the painting is reminiscent of the millefleur (million flowers) Flemish tapestries that often decorated palaces at the time. The costumes worn by the figures are contemporary Florentine outfits although they also resonated sort of costumes invented by Lorenzo de’ Medici for civic festivals and tournaments.
The consensus was achieved by the scholars that at least one segment of the painting stands as an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world. The painting definitely reflects knowledge of classical literature and philosophy that Botticelli didn’t possess, and so it is thought that Poliziano was involved in this or it might have been Marsilio Ficino, another member of de' Medici's circle and a key figure in Renaissance Neoplatonism.
The painting depicts the progress of springtime from right to left. The early spring wind blows and spurs growth and flowers, presided over by Venus, the goddess of April. On the left there is Mercury, the god of May, according to an early Roman calendar, chasing away the last clouds before summer.
It is important to note that Venus is represented here as a goddess of marriage, fully clothed and with her modest hairstyle, as married women were expected to appear in public. She is traditionally followed by the Three Graces (Pleasure, Chastity, and Beauty), sisters that are usually nude and stand with joined hands; however, their attire in Primavera is also adjusted to the Venus. This depiction is probably based on the Seneca adaptation by Leon Battista Alberti in his influential book De pictura that Botticelli definitely knew.
In general, Primavera was interpreted as an illustration of the ideal of Neoplatonic love that was adorned among the Medicis and their followers. According to the Neoplatonic philosophy, Venus was perceived as an embodiment of both earthly and divine love, a principle equivalent of the Virgin Mary in Christianity.
Numerous allusions to Medici names can be found within the painting - from the orange groves that recall the Medici coat of arms, the laurel trees, and the flames on the costumes of both Mercury (who was the god of medicine and doctors or Medici in Italian) and Venus.
One of the main reasons why Primavera is considered one of the most controversial paintings in the world has to do with the lack of data regarding its origin. The archives showed that in 1481/82 Botticelli was away in Rome for many months working on the Sistine Chapel, while the suggested dates in recent years are mostly later than this, but still sometimes before.
However, in 1975 the discovery of an inventory from 1499 of the collection of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici showed that during that year the painting was displayed in the city palace of Lorenzo and his brother Giovanni, who were the cousins of the grand Lorenzo de' Medici, known also as Lorenzo il Magnifico, the ruler of Florence. Apparently, the same room was also decorated with Botticelli's Pallas and the Centaur, as well as a large tondo with the Virgin and Child.
On the other hand, in the first edition of the biographical writing Life of Botticelli, published in 1550, Giorgio Vasari claimed that he saw the painting, along with the Birth of Venus, hanging in the Medici country Villa di Castello. Before the inventory was discovered, there was a common belief that both paintings were made for the villa soon after they were acquired in 1477, either commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco or instructed by his guardian Lorenzo de' Medici.
There is also a proposition that Primavera was made to commemorate the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici that happened on 19 July 1482. Recent datings tend to believe that the commission was acquired in the early 1480s in connection with this wedding, after Botticelli's return from Rome.
Ever since, this painting was united with the Birth of Venus at Castello where they remained together until 1815, when they were transferred to the Uffizi gallery. During World War II, the paintings were moved to Montegufoni Castle ten miles southwest of Florence to protect them from wartime bombing. After the end of the war, they were moved back to the Uffizi Gallery where they remain to the present day. In 1978, Primavera was restored.
Although it is significantly mysterious, this meticulously performed masterpiece rightfully stands highly on a pedestal of the world’s most recognizable artworks ever made in Western history; it inspires with its beauty while posing significant questions regarding ancient times.
Editors’ Tip: Under the Guise of Spring: The Message Hidden in Botticelli's Primavera
A chance discovery provided the author with the key to unlocking the centuries old enigma of Botticelli's Primavera - the famous Renaissance masterpiece painted for the private viewing of a Medici. Its pagan figures in a paradisical spring meadow illuminated the cryptic world of the Renaissance pagan revival. Botticelli's allegory emerged to address its personal message directly to a young Medici, one of the known world's richest young men. Botticelli's cleverly disguised message for Lorenzo Minore, is to be found on the right side of La Primavera, where Chloris draws Zephyr's attention to it. This book is extremely well researched and beautifully produced with eighty color plates, a full pullout reproduction of La Primavera and numerous details from this and other Renaissance paintings.
Featured image: Sandro Botticelli - Primavera, 1482. Tempera on panel, 203 x 314 cm 79.9 in x 10.3 ft). Uffizi Gallery Florence. Image via creative commons.