Sandro Botticelli was at one stage one of the most sought after and accomplished artists of the Florentine Renaissance. Then, after centuries of almost total obscurity his stock rose again in the mid nineteenth century to reach the fame his works enjoy today. Whereas his early public works were the numerous Madonnas and Virgins his modern popularity comes from the poetic, so called mythological works of which Primavera or Allegory of Spring, hung in the Uffizi Gallery, is one of the most well known. I have chosen this as my Painting of the Month and the theme of Poetry and Art.
Primavera is a wonderfully executed painting with eight main characters in a scene containing some five hundred different plants, including almost two hundred flowers. The exact interpretation of the scene has been lost in time, if it was ever completely clear, so is now open to many interpretations. The main description has Venus, Goddess of love, centre stage in an orange grove, with her blindfolded son Amor firing his arrows. In front of Venus a story unfolds traditionally read from right to left. Zephyrus, the gentle wind, is in fact invading the garden pursuing the nymph, Chlorus, who is transforming into Flora, the Goddess of Spring. Further on we see Venus’s companions, The Three Graces, dancing for her. But look at the central one, who is the target for Amor’s arrow of love, and notice her eyes are fixed on Mercury to the left. And what is Mercury doing in the scene, looking out the picture frame completely?
According to Barbara Deimling in her 2014 work, Sandro Botticelli, we have to know more about the patronage to understand Mercury’s role. The painting was commissioned by the Medici’s for Lorenzo di Francesco and hung in his bed chamber. The answer to the Mercury question may lie in the painting that hung to the left, Pallas and the Centaur. Pallas Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, dressed in Medici adorned garments is seen in the act of arresting the centaur in an enclosed space, that he has invaded, just in the act of firing his arrow (itself an allegorical action). Mercury, The winged messenger maybe carrying a message from Venus to Athene.
Zephyrus and The centaur are both in the act of hunting innocent nymphs so reading both paintings together the viewer maybe witnessing the victory of chastity over lust, or good over evil. Indeed the victory has been orchestrated by the Medici family as signified by Athene’s dress symbols. These scenes do not appear in any single text together but it is believed that Botticelli’s ideas originate in De Reum Natura, by the Italian poet Lucretius. But wait…just when you thought you understand it Botticelli launches another surprise. Is he attributing the victory to the Medici’s or covertly to Christian belief? Look for an array of Christian symbols in the straight erect trees above the Graces, the random bending trees framing Zephyrus. Do these echo the tradional order and chaos of the last judgement. Probably the most striking symbol is the halo above the Venus – is she really the Virgin Mary. The interchangeability of The Venus and Mary was a common idea in medieval thinking.
Primavera could keep you busy for years understanding the plot, testing the theories, dismissing ideas, but really the painting can be simply enjoyed for its imagery and beauty. No wonder it is such a huge draw in The Uffizi. Enjoy.