La Primavera by Botticelli
La Primavera (c.1482-3)
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A masterpiece of the Florentine Renaissance, La Primavera was commissioned by the Medici family from a Botticelli (1445-1510) at the height of his powers. This complex allegorical and mythological painting brings together the elegance of Gothic art, the decorative beauty of the International Gothic and the humanistic narrative of the Italian Renaissance. It contains numerous references to classical and contemporary texts, and is open to almost endless interpretations by scholars and art historians. According to the Uffizi, it was probably painted to celebrate the wedding of Lorenzo Medici and Semiramide Appiani, which took place in May 1482. Like his other work, The Birth of Venus (1484-86) - a companion piece which hung in the Medici's summer house - La Primavera remains an iconic painting of the Renaissance in Florence, and ranks among the finest of all Renaissance paintings. Botticelli trained under Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69) whose style of expressive interactions between figures, combined with decorative techniques inherited from the Late Gothic period, is clearly evident in both paintings. Another influence was Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98), whose new style of muscular modelling was more sensitive to human anatomy and proportion.
Specially Designed For His Client
When Botticelli began La Primavera he had only just returned from Rome, where he had executed a number of fresco paintings on the walls of the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV. (Example: Revolt Against the Law of Moses, 1481.) The successful completion of such a prestigious commission cemented his already high reputation, and led to more commissions from families in high society, like the Medicis. It was during this period 1482-90 that Botticelli painted most of his allegorical and mythological works (Pallas and the Centaur, Venus and Mars, The Birth of Venus, La Primavera), which, incidentally, were not intended to be viewed by a large audience, but were installed in private rooms, and designed specifically to the interests of the customer. Botticelli's clients belonged to the humanist circle associated with the Medici Family, and so were especially interested in classical mythology and the study of antiquity. In 1919, the painting was acquired by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Although it was thoroughly cleaned and restored in 1982, the painting has darkened considerably over the centuries.
Primavera - From Classical Mythology
In La Primavera, Botticelli created a lively, interactive scene, based on several different sources including, Ovid's Fasti, a poetic calendar of Roman festivals; and De Rerum Nature (On the Nature of Things), a philosophical poem by the classical writer Titus Lucretius Carus (1st century BCE). Primavera is one of the first known paintings from the post-classical period which portrays Gods and Goddesses life-size and virtually naked. Some of the poses and figures are derived from Greek sculpture, although - as is evident from the slightly elongated torsos and distended stomachs - they are reworked to reflect contemporary Florentine aesthetics.
The scene is set in the divine garden of Venus, the Goddess of Love, who is standing in the centre of the picture, set back a shade from the other figures. Close by, her companions, the Three Graces, are wearing diaphanous white and jewels in the colours of the Medici family. They are dancing, while next to them on the extreme left of the picture, Mercury - the winged messenger of the gods - is wearing a helmet and carrying a sword, enough to identify him as being on guard. He is also marked out by his winged shoes and his signature staff, with which he chases away threatening clouds. Overhead, Venus's blindfolded son Amor, aims his arrow at the Three Graces.
Meanwhile, on the extreme right of the painting, Botticelli has depicted two separate tales from classical mythology. Both concern Zephyrus, the god of the wind, who is featured with puffed cheeks and reaching for the nymph Chloris. In the first tale, Zephyrus falls for Chloris whom he forcefully takes as his wife. In the second tale, Zephyrus - as a mark of regret for his conduct - then transforms Chloris into Flora Goddess of Flowers and Spring. According to Ovid, he also gives her a wonderful garden, filled with flowers and plants, in which eternal spring reigns.
The garden we see however, belongs to Venus, who raises her hand to welcome viewers into her kingdom. Her proprietorship is confirmed by the myrtle tree, behind her, which is one of her symbols. For reasons which are unclear, Botticelli painted a staggering 500 separate plant species in the picture, including some 190 different flowers. This one element alone has been the subject of decades of specialist cataloguing and research.
The figure of Venus (both in La Primavera and The Birth of Venus) may have been modelled on Simonetta Vespucci, the wife of Marco Vespucci. According to rumour, she was the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, who himself is supposed to have been the model for Mercury. See also the Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (1482, Musee Conde, Chantilly), by Piero di Cosimo (1461-1521).
According to one expert, La Primavera may be an illustration of Neo-platonic love. Thus, physical love symbolized by Zephyrus is renounced by the central member of the Graces, who turns her back on Zephyrus and Amor/Cupid, and gazes at Mercury. The winged messenger is himself looking out beyond the canvas at the painting Pallas and the Centaur (c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), which supposedly hung next to Primavera, and which portrays the victory of virtue over lust. If so, it must have been hung at a higher level than Primavera, as Mercury's gaze is directed towards the top corner of the garden. (Compare Botticelli's expressionist distortion of forms - the Florentine style - with the more naturalist contemporary painting Virgin of the Rocks 1484-6, by Leonardo.)
Botticelli's Allegorical Paintings
These pictures - Pallas and the Centaur (c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), Venus and Mars (1483, National Gallery, London), Birth of Venus (1482-3, Uffizi), La Primavera (1484-6, Uffizi) - mostly completed in the 1480s, form an unusually homogenous group, in both their narrative content and stylistic expression. In spite of numerous scholarly attempts by art historians, spanning the entire 20th century, to decipher the intricate set of figures and other symbols within these works, they remain a mystery. One reason for this - aside from the presence of references to contemporary Florentine elements, some of which have fallen into total obscurity - is that they are a super-complex blend of classical mythology and modern textual sources, and rank among the greatest treasures in Early Renaissance painting. For many scholars, Botticelli's paintings are a lifetime study, so don't worry if you don't understand everything in La Primavera: just stand back and enjoy it.
Venus (1510) Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
and Ariadne (1520-23) National Gallery, London.
of the Andrians (1523-5) Prado, Madrid.
and Io (1533) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540-50) National Gallery, London.
of Paris (1632-6) National Gallery, London.
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