Spotlight on ‘Primavera’ by Sandro Botticelli painted in 1478

with Barry Whitehouse

Primavera is painted on wooden panel and measures at 203 cm (w) x 314 cm (h). The painting is hung in the Uffizi gallery in Florence where it has been on display since 1856. It is one of the most widely discussed paintings in Art History,  yet hardly any ‘facts’ are known about it. The primary source for the picture is thought to come from a poem, “De Rerum Natura”, by the classical poet and philosopher Lucretius. The painting was commissioned by a cousin of Lorenzo Medici, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, who was to become a faithful patron of Botticelli’s work. The picture was hung in the bed-chamber along with another work by Botticelli, “Pallas and the Centaur”, and is listed in an inventory of the contents of Pierfrancesco’s Florentine palace. It was probably painted as a celebration of the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in 1482.

Primavera is a secular (non-religious) painting which at the time could have been considered ground breaking – most of the paintings around that time were highly religious with popular themes such as “crucifixions” or “virgin with child” dominating.  This was indeed a bold move by Botticelli which would most probably have attracted a certain amount of negative attention from within the church.

The background of the painting is one of the most documented and studied aspects of Primavera. There is a huge abundance of flowers which cover the floor of the painting. It is estimated that there are almost 500 different specimens – something which became more apparent during the restoration which was carried out in 1982. It is clear to Strawberries (seduction) in the crown of Flora and Roses (love) in her hands. There is also evidence of Periwinkle along with Hyacinth (marriage) among the many specimens. There is also evidence that many of the flowers in Primavera can be found in the surrounding area of Villa di Castello, the supposed site where it was painted.

High in the skies of the painting we can see an abundance of oranges, which is a symbol of the Medici. It is interesting to see that they are not growing above the actions of Zephyr – a clear indication that the relationship with Chloris is not yet fruitful.

Who’s Who? (from left to right)

At first glance of Primavera you will notice that the painting consists of 9 characters that have assembled within a lush and floral meadow with an orange grove behind them.

Mercury As we look to the left hand side of Primavera we can see a young man who appears to be poking at the clouds with what looks like a golden branch. Mercury, a messenger who wore winged sandals, and a god of trade, merchants, and travel, was the son of Maia Maiestas and Jupiter in Roman mythology. His name is related to the Latin word merx (“merchandise”; compare merchant, commerce, etc.), mercari (to trade), and merces (wages). If we continue with the theory that Primavera was created as a wedding gift then it stands to reason that Mercury assumes the role of groom. It has been suggested that the figure of Mercury bares resemblance to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco which I imagine would have been greatly received – Mercury is the messenger of the gods and god of financial gain so the choice of Mercury may well have been Botticelli’s attempts at flattery and is a good choice to represent someone of importance and business acumen.

Behind Mercury there are what seem to be three semi-naked nymphs and representations of beauty but Mercury is not interested even though one of the graces is completely transfixed on him. He turns his back on physical emotions and feelings of desire to keep his focus on the divine above.

The Three Graces, goddesses of such things as charm, beauty, and creativity. In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae. Their presence within Primavera further supports the common themes of love and fertility. The Three Graces are adorned with the jewels of the Medici in yet another tribute to Botticelli’s employers but it is the central figure which requires most attention. The central grace has seemingly been struck by the golden arrow of Cupid and is now fixated on Mercury, who has is back turned and is seemingly oblivious to these events.

Venus

The main focal point and central feature of Primavera is Venus, Roman goddess of love. The fact that Venus is at the centre of this masterpiece shows that all of the figures are in the presence of love and love is presiding over events. Surrounded by myrtle (according to Hesiod, Venus arrives at our shores in a seashell covered in Myrtle) she is situated within a naturally formed arch. Obviously this is no coincidence and is highly symbolic of marital proceedings. At a glance it does appear to me that Venus is standing at a wedding altar waiting to join bride and groom in holy matrimony.

Cupid

Cupid is the god of sexual attraction and desire. The source of his power is his bow and arrow which serves him in 2 ways – Cupid has arrows with blunt tips made from lead and sharp tips made from gold. It is said that if struck with the blunt lead arrow the victim is overwhelmed with an overwhelming sense to flee, but if struck by Cupid’s golden arrow the person is to be overcome with endless desire.

It is clear that Cupid is aiming his golden arrow at the central figure of the three graces. It is no mistake then that she is now fixated on Mercury – something I will cover in greater detail shortly. It should also be noted that Cupid is blindfolded as he is often depicted representing the fact that love itself is blind, an feeling which knows no boundaries and that can strike at any time.

Flora was a goddess of flowers and the season of spring. While she was otherwise a relatively minor figure in Roman mythology, being one among several fertility goddesses, her association with the spring gave her particular importance at the coming of springtime. Her festival, the Floralia, was held between April 28 and May 3 and symbolized the renewal of the cycle of life, drinking, and flowers. Her Greek equivalent was Chloris (next to her in the painting), who was a nymph and not a goddess at all. Flora was married to Favionus, the wind god, and her companion was Hercules. Flora achieved more prominence in the neo-pagan revival of Antiquity among Renaissance humanists than she had ever enjoyed in ancient Rome. Here in the painting it looks as though Flora is in the later stages of pregnancy. This would also serve well to remind our bride that her union is intended to be fruitful – the house of the Medici was extremely important and would obviously need to be continued.

Chloris was the nymph who according to the Roman poet Ovid was transformed into Flora. In Greek mythology, the name Chloris (Khloris Χλωρίς, from khloros χλωρός, meaning “greenish-yellow,” “pale green,” “pale,” “pallid” or “fresh”). She was a Nymph associated with spring, flowers and new growth, believed to have dwelt in the Elysian Fields. She was abducted by (and later married) Zephyr, the god of the west wind. He is known as the fructifying wind, the messenger of spring. It was thought that Zephyr lived in a cave in Thrace. It is interesting to see that the oranges are not growing above the actions of Zephyr – a clear indication that the relationship with Chloris is not yet fruitful, but start growing over the pregnant Flora.

Primavera is a ground breaking masterpiece, and to understand it means going on a journey to visit many characters of Greek and Roman mythology. A panting with many layers, but that can also simply be enjoyed for the magnificent way it has been painted. Hopefully this short overview has helped deepen your appreciation of one of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance