The Lush Growth of Spring

800px-Botticelli-primaveraPrimavera (also known as Allegory of Spring), Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482

 
 

Most critics agree that the painting, depicting a group of mythological figures in a garden, is allegorical for the lush growth of Spring. Other meanings have also been explored. Among them, the work is sometimes cited as illustrating the ideal of Neoplatonic love. The painting itself carries no title and was first called La Primavera by the art historian Giorgio Vasari who saw it at Villa Castello, just outside Florence, in 1550.

The history of the painting is not certainly known, though it seems to have been commissioned by one of the Medici family. The painting overall was inspired by a description the Roman poet Ovid wrote of the arrival of Spring (Fasti, Book 5, May 2), though the specifics may have been derived from a poem by Angelo Poliziano. As Poliziano’s poem, “Rusticus”, was published in 1483 and the painting is generally held to have been completed around 1482, some scholars have argued that the influence was reversed.

Another inspiration for the painting seems to have been the Lucretius poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which includes the lines, “Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus’ boy, / The winged harbinger, steps on before, / And hard on Zephyr’s foot-prints Mother Flora, / Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all / With colors and with odors excellent.”

Various interpretations of the figures have been set forth, but it is generally agreed that at least at one level the painting is, as characterized by Cunningham and Reich (2009), “an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world.” Elena Capretti in Botticelli (2002) suggests that the typical interpretation is thus:

The reading of the picture is from right to left: Zephyrus, the biting wind of March, kidnaps and possesses the nymph Chloris, whom he later marries and transforms into a deity; she becomes the goddess of Spring, eternal bearer of life, and is scattering roses on the ground.

This is a tale from the fifth book of Ovid’s Fasti in which the wood nymph Chloris’s naked charms attracted the first wind of Spring, Zephyr. Zephyr pursued her and as she was ravished, flowers sprang from her mouth and she became transformed into Flora, goddess of flowers. In Ovid’s work the reader is told ’till then the earth had been but of one colour’. From Chloris’ name the colour may be guessed to have been green – the Greek word for green is khloros, the root of words like chlorophyll – and may be why Botticeli painted Zephyr in shades of bluish-green.

In addition to its overt meaning, the painting has been interpreted as an illustration of the ideal of Neoplatonic love popularized among the Medicis and their followers by Marsilio Ficino. The Neoplatonic philosophers saw Venus as ruling over both earthly and divine love and argued that she was the classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary; this is alluded to by the way she is framed in an altar-like setting that is similar to contemporary images of the Virgin Mary.

 
 

Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur (1482) has been proposed as the companion piece to Primavera

 
 

In this interpretation, as set out in Sandro Botticelli, 1444/45-1510 (2000), the earthy carnal love represented by Zephyrus to the right is renounced by the central figure of the Graces, who has turned her back to the scene, unconcerned by the threat represented to her by Cupid. Her focus is on Mercury, who himself gazes beyond the canvas at what Deimling asserts hung as the companion piece to Primavera: Pallas and the Centaur, in which “love oriented towards knowledge” (embodied by Pallas Athena) proves triumphant over lust (symbolized by the centaur).

It is, on the other hand, possible that, rather than her having renounced carnal love, the intense emotional expression with which she gazes at Mercury is one of dawning love, proleptic of the receipt of Cupid’s arrow which appears to be aimed particularly at her; which emotion is being recognised with an expression both quizzical and apprehensive by the sister immediately to her left.

The origin of the painting is somewhat unclear. It may have been created in response to a request in 1477 of Lorenzo de’ Medici, or it may have been commissioned somewhat later by Lorenzo or his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. One theory suggests Lorenzo commissioned the portrait to celebrate the birth of his nephew Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici (who would one day become Pope), but changed his mind after the assassination of Giulo’s father, his brother Giuliano, having it instead completed as a wedding gift for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who married in 1482.

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An Allegory of Beauty, Valour and Sensuous Love

Venere e Marte (Mars and Venus), Sandro Botticelli, 1483

 
 

It shows the Roman gods Venus and Mars in an allegory of beauty and valour. The youthful and voluptuous couple recline in a forest setting, surrounded by playful satyrs. The painting is typically held as an ideal of sensuous love, of pleasure and play.

In the painting Venus watches Mars sleep while two infant satyrs play carrying his armour as another rests under his arm. A fourth blows a small conch shell in his ear in an effort to wake him. Although the work draws from classical sources, it diverges in important aspects, and is a product of early renaissance allegorical teaching. The scene is set in a haunted forest, and the sense of perspective and horizon extremely tight and compact. The sea from which Venus emerged can be seen in the distant background. In the foreground, a swarm of wasps hovers around Mars’ head, possibly as a symbol that love is often accompanied by pain or it may be no more than a symbol of the stings of love. Another possible explanation is that the wasps represent the Vespucci family that may have commissioned the painting; the symbol of the Vespucci house is the wasp. The painting is thought originally to have been the back of a lettuccio, a wooden sofa.

The image may be based on the Stanze of Angelo Poliziano. Stanze 122 describes how the hero found Venus “seated on the edge of her couch, just then released from the embrace of Mars, who lay on his back in her lap, still feeding his eyes on her face”. Poliziano was one of the humanist scholars in the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and in his stanze he alludes to Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici’s prowess in a jousting tournament his older brother Lorenzo had organized to celebrate a treaty with Venice.

Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici is most likely the athletic model for the war god who slumbers next to the goddess in this work. However, the description, with Mars in Venus’ lap, gazing up at her, is a poor fit to the painting. Venus may have been Simonetta Vespucci, a great beauty of the time, married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci. Sandro Botticelli, who portrayed her many times after her death, asked to be buried, as she had been, in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence.

The Nymph’s Apotheosis and The Birth of a Goddess

“Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ideal beauty.”

Giorgio Vasari

 
 

Il Trionfo di Galatea (The Triumph of Galatea), Raphael, c. 1514

 
 

The fresco is a mythological scene of a series embellishing the open gallery of the building, a series never completed which was inspired to the Stanze per la giostra of the poet Angelo Poliziano.

According to Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, Acis was the son of Faunus and the river-nymph Symaethis, daughter of the River Symaethus. His version of the tale occurs nowhere earlier and may be a fiction invented by him, “suggested by the manner in which the little river springs forth from under a rock”. According to Athenaeus, ca 200 CE the story was first concocted as a political satire against the Sicilian tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse, whose favourite concubine, Galatea, shared her name with a nereid mentioned by Homer. Others claim the story was invented to explain the presence of a shrine dedicated to Galatea on Mount Etna.

Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story. When asked where he had found a model of such beauty, Raphael reportedly said that he had used “a certain idea” he had formed in his mind. He chose the scene of the nymph’s apotheosis (Stanze, I, 118-119). Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures whose forms are somewhat inspired by Michelangelo Buonarroti, whereas the bright colors and decoration are supposed to be inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left, a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducts a sea nymph; behind them, another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins.

 
 

La Naissance de Vénus, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1879.

 
 

The subject matter, as well as the composition, resembles a previous rendition of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, as well as Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea.

As Painting so is Poetry

 Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus), Sandro Botticelli, 1486

 
 

XCIX 99

In the stormy Aegean, the genital member is
seen to be received in the lap of Tethys, to drift
across the waves, wrapped in white foam,
beneath the various turnings of the planets;
and within, both with lovely and happy gestures,
a young woman with nonhuman countenance, is
carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by
playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth.

 
 

C 100

You would call the foam real, the sea real, real
the conch shell and real the blowing wind; you
would see the lightning in the goddess’s eyes,
the sky and the elements laughing about her; the
Hours treading the beach in white garments, the
breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair;
their faces not one, not different, as befits sisters.

 
 

CI 101

You could swear that the goddess had emerged
from the waves, pressing her hair with her right
hand, covering with the other her sweet mound
of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted by
her sacred and divine step, it had clothed itself
in flowers and grass; then with happy, more than
mortal features, she was received in the bosom
of the three nymphs and cloaked in a starry garment.

 
 

CII 102

With both hands one nymph holds above the
spray-wet tresses a garland, burning with gold
and oriental gems, another adjusts pearls in her
ears; the third, intent upon those beautiful
breasts and white shoulders, appears to strew
round them the rich necklaces with which they
three girded their own necks when they used to
dance in a ring in heaven.

 
 

CIII 103

Thence they seem to be raised toward heavenly spheres, seated upon a silver cloud:
in the hard stone you would seem to see the air trembling and all of heaven contented;
every god takes pleasure in her beauty and desires her happy bed: each face seems to marvel,
with raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead…

Angelo Poliziano
Stanze per la giostra
Written between 1475-8

 
 

The iconography of Birth of Venus is similar to a description of the event (or rather, a description of a sculpture of the event) in a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the Stanze per la giostra. No single text provides the precise imagery of the painting, however, which has led scholars to propose many sources and interpretations. Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting. Botticelli represented the Neoplatonic idea of divine love in the form of a nude Venus.

For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator. A Neoplatonic reading of Sandro Botticelli‘s Birth of Venus suggests that 15th-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.

More recently, questions have arisen about Neoplatonism as the dominant intellectual system of late 15th-century Florence, and scholars have indicated that there might be other ways to interpret Botticelli’s mythological paintings. In particular, both Primavera and Birth of Venus have been seen as wedding paintings that suggest appropriate behaviors for brides and grooms.

Venus is an Italian Renaissance ideal: red-haired, pale-skinned, voluptuous. Botticelli has picked out highlights in her hair with gold leaf and has emphasized the femininity of her body (long neck, curviness). The brilliant light and soothing colours, the luxurious garden, the gorgeous draperies of the nymph, and the roses floating around the beautiful nude all suggest that the painting is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer.

 
 

So-called “Capitoline Venus”, one of the best preserved copies of Praxiteles’ Cnidian Venus (4th century BC).

 
 

The central figure of Venus in the painting is very similar to Praxiteles‘ sculpture of Aphrodite. The version of her birth, is where she arises from the sea, already a fully grown woman.

 
 

Venus de’ Medici

 
 

The pose of Botticelli’s Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de’ Medici, a marble sculpture from classical antiquity in the Medici collection which Botticelli had opportunity to study. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence, specifically Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici under the influence of his cousin Lorenzo de’ Medici, close friend to Botticelli. The painting is on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.