Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, c. 1482, tempera on wood
Sandro Botticelli was one of the most well-known of the Medici employees. He studied under Fra Filippo Lippi and had a technique which focused on line, and his forms were lightly shaded. While art historians consider Botticelli to have been an expert at using line, he was also adept at using color.
The Primavera, the title of which means “Spring”, is among the greatest works at the Uffizi Museum in Florence. The precise meaning of the painting is unknown, but it was probably created for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (a cousin of the powerful Lorenzo the Magnificent Medici) in May, 1482.
The scene shows us a group of figures in an orange grove. One of the first things we should note is that little is used in terms of perspective; while some atmospheric perspective is visible through the trees to the right and to the left, we do not see the one-point linear perspective here which some of the early Renaissance masters had used so effectively in the fifteenth century. Also, note how most of the figures have limbs which are long and slender and appear rather elegant. Botticelli produced art at a time when there was a demand in the court of Florence for this type of work.
While the exact meaning of the painting eludes us, we do know the identities of many of the figures who are shown in it. In the center is the Roman goddess, Venus. Her presence is a reflection of the humanist interest in the classical world which was popular in Florence at this time. She is depicted as an idealized woman, slightly off-center, with her head tilted and gesturing to her right. Above her is a blindfolded cupid (her son), and behind him the tree limbs form an arch which conveniently frame Venus and provide her with a privileged position in the painting.
To the far left, Mercury, the god of the month of May, has a staff which he may be using to usher away the winter clouds. He is readily identifiable by his prominent winged sandals.
To the right of Mercury is an important group called the Three Graces. These women, who appear to be involved in some type of dance, were modeled by Botticelli after an ancient depiction of the Three Graces. These figures are important because they represent the feminine virtues of Chastity, Beauty, Love, all of which point to romance and provide us with some context in terms of what is going on in the painting. The Roman writer Seneca refers to them as “pure and undefiled and holy in the eyes of all”, and we can see the pearls on their heads which symbolize this type of purity. Their clothing is like lace, very light, and see-through, which demonstrates Botticelli’s virtuosity in depicting such kinds of fabric. It is interesting to see that they are being targeted by Cupid’s arrow, which reinforce the idea of marriage.
On the right side, we see another group of figures which includes that of Zephyrus, the west wind, about to take a nymph named Chloris. After he succeeds in taking her for his own, they are married and Chloris transforms into Flora, the Spring goddess. Here, Flora is depicted throwing flowers that have been gathered in her dress. This is a means of symbolizing both springtime and fertility.
Taking the scene as a whole, it is probably best understood in light of an allegorical meaning. The allusions to Spring and the month of May, the scene of a suitor’s pursuit, the Three Graces – all of these point to the idea of a springtime marriage. The setting in an orange grove is also noteworthy, since the Medici had adopted the orange tree as its family symbol. The painting would have been placed in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bedroom and his wife would have seen it for the first time after their wedding, so the idea of Cupid targeting the pure Three Graces with his arrow takes on a particular meaning in light of conjugal love. In any case, the painting is a testament to humanist interests in classical subject matter in the Renaissance, as well as the courtly desire for lavish themes and graceful figures.
The painting is set in a meadow complete with flowers and trees. It shows nine figures, all based on a mythological text. The man on the far left is Mercury and he separates the clouds so that spring may come. Cupid is above Venus and is known for his lack of morality and his attempts to take apart marriages. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, is in the center of the picture surrounded by the Three Graces.
Venus is elegantly dressed and obviously reigns over the land. She is no longer the young girl featured in the painting Birth of Venus.
Venus is the goddess who protects and cares for the institution of marriage. The myrtle plant surrounding her is traditionally thought of as the plant that represents sexual desire, marriage and child bearing. Venus supports the fact that marriage is where sexuality is experienced, not before, and the Three Graces also represent this. They portray the female virtues chastity, beauty and love and their long, flowing coverings are characteristic of Botticelli's painting style.
On the right, covered in flowers is Flora, the goddess of flowers and blossoms. The story about how Flora came into existence begins with her former self, Chloris. Chloris was in the woods when Zephyr, the wind god on the far right of the painting, found and raped her. To prove to Chloris that he was sorry for his violence, he married her and declared her Flora, the goddess of flowers.
Botticelli depicted Chloris turning into Flora by literally painting flowers coming out of Chloris' mouth. In this small detail, Botticelli was seen to have followed the mythology stories very closely.
The story of Chloris alone shows that this painting was meant to celebrate a marriage. The fact that Chloris was not the one to choose her mate reflects 15th century culture where women had very little control over who they wed. The celebration of marriage is also demonstrated by the garden bursting with fruit and flowers which symbolize the fertility expected in marriage.
Also symbolic of love and fertility are the oranges growing in the grove and the number of oranges Botticelli drew clearly represented the hope that this marriage would result in many offspring. Notice on the right side above Zephyr there are no oranges until the scene moves on and Flora is shown to be married and respected by Zephyr; only then will "fruit" be produced. The trees and fruit are mature showing that Venus has reached her own maturity. The land is being made fertile again after winter.
Use of technique:
Botticelli preferred painting in fresco or distemper but he was influenced by Pollaiolo. A talented man as well as artists, Botticelli saw nature through the eyes of a goldsmith and he paid close attention to detail in Primavera.