The Early Renaissance





Renaissance Art Map
Candro Botticelly  "Visual Poetry"
    Early life and career    
    Devotional paintings     
    Secular patronage and works    
    Mythological paintings    
    How the Nymph became a Goddess    
    Botticelli: lyrical precision    
    Late works    
    Illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy and Dravings    
    APPENDIX: Venus - The Evening Star


Sandro Botticelli




Sandro Botticelli

Primavera - Spring

How the Nymph became a Goddess

(by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen)



Sandro Botticelli




Mythical figures

Botticelli's Primavera
is an allegory on the
harmony of nature
and humankind and
contains many mythical
figures, including Venus
(the link between
nature and civilization)
and Mercury. At the
extreme right of the
painting, the figure of
Zephyr (the west wind
of spring) is seen chasing
Chloris, who is then
transformed into Flora,
the goddess of flowers.
A blindfolded Cupid
shoots his arrows
at the Three Graces
(the handmaidens of Venus)
who were believed
to represent the three
phases of love:
beauty, desire, and
fulfillment. This
illustration shows a
woodcut of Cupid, who
was one of the most
popular figures in
Renaissance art.


Iron ore, in quattrocento Italy, was found solely on the island of Elba, where the mines belonged to a family called Appiani. In 1478 Lorenzo de' Medici wished to acquire the mining rights. Lorenzo was known as "the Magnificent", the uncrowned king of Florence. The respective contract was signed, and, in May 1482, there was a wedding: Lorenzo the Magnificent's cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, married Semirarmde Appiani. There is no evidence to suggest that the wedding was arranged by Lorenzo the Magnificent and the Appiani family - common practice in ruling families at the time - to promote trade. It nonetheless served that purpose ably.
The conjunction of mine owners and mining interests, or perhaps — who knows! - the joining in wedlock of lovers, was the occasion which prompted Botticelli's Primavera. This, in any case, is generally assumed. Nor is it unlikely either: although undated, the style of the painting is that of Botticelli's other works of this period.
It was usual in upper class circles to provide newly-weds with a fully furnished home, including works of art. The painting was later listed in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco's inventary, so that scholars now suppose it was executed for the younger Lorenzo (rather than for Lorenzo the Magnificent, as previously thought); it hung in the antechamber of the master bedroom.
Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, like his powerful cousin and in keeping with family tradition, was a patron of philosophy and the arts. The great humanist Ficino supervised his education, while the poet Poliziano dedicated verses to him. Besides the Primavera, Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus and Pallas and the Centaur for Lorenzo. For thirty years, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was entirely dominated by his powerful and more "magnificent" cousin, who made him ambassador to the pope and gave him the task of conveying the official congratulations of the ruling house of Florence to the newly crowned French king. At the same time, however, Lorenzo did everything he could to prevent his younger cousin from growing powerful. Tensions arose between them, and rivalry. When the Medicis were expelled from Florence after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was permitted to stay. He abandoned the Medici family name, calling himself "Popolano", after the "populist" party, instead. He died in 1503, at the age of 40.
He married at the age of 19, a time of life that is frequently compared to spring. Spring, too, or Primavera, is the title by which the painting is commonly known today. It was first described by the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century: "Venus, adorned with garlands by the Graces, annouces the Spring." During the 17th and 18th centuries the painting was called The Garden of the Hesperides. According to the ancient myth, golden apples grew in this garden. They were guarded by a dragon, and by the Hesperides, daughters of the Titan Atlas. There is no dragon here, and whether the dancing women really are Graces, or even Atlas's daughters, is a matter of some dispute. Venus stands at the centre of the painting. Zephyrus is the figure on the right, blowing pleasant breezes that bring eternal spring. The goddess Flora scatters her flowers, while on the left, the god Mercury keeps watch, sheltering the garden against threatening clouds.
Besides obvious references to fertility and spring, there are two hidden allusions to the name of the bridegroom. On the right, laurel trees sway in the wind; their Latin name was laurus, in which contemporaries would have heard Laurentius, the Latin name for Lorenzo. Venus' golden apples are here painted as oranges, known in antiquity as the "health fruit": medica mala. From here to the name Medici is hardly very far. Allusions of this kind were the joy of an educated public.




Sandro Botticelli (detail)





Sandro Botticelli (detail)

Sandro Botticelli (detail)


Various nineteenth-century art buffs let it be known that the features of members and friends of the Medici family could be identified in the faces of Botticelli figures. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. At the same time, however, the figures in Botticelli's paintings were certainly known to his contemporaries: not as individuals, but as figures from Greek and Roman mythology.
They knew that Zephyrus, a wind god, was pursuing the nymph Chloris in this picture. The story was familiar enough, recorded by the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-18 A.D.), who allowed the nymph to tell the story herself: "Zephyrus caught sight of me, I avoided him, he followed, I took flight; he was the stronger ..."
Of course, the pursuit and rape of Chloris had a happy ending; we would otherwise be unlikely to find them in a wedding painting: Zephyrus turned the nymph into the goddess Flora, and married her. Botticelli paints Chloris and Flora as a couple. And indeed from then on, so Flora tells us, she had no reason for complaint:
"I enjoy eternal spring, a radiant season ... At the heart of the land of my dowry lies a fertile garden in the mildest of climates ... My noble husband filled it with flowers, saying: 'You, o goddess, shall rule over the flowers!'"
Flora thus became the goddess of flowers; Botticelli's blossoms look as if Flora herself has scattered them. Flora: "I often wished to count the colours arranged on the ground, but I could not. Together, they were greater than any number could be ... I was first to scatter new seed over countless peoples, before then the earth had but one colour."
There is nothing in Ovid to suggest that flowers sprang from Chloris' mouth when she cried for help. That is probably the artist's own invention. But when the goddess spoke, "spring roses were the breath that passed her lips". Afterwards she ascended "into the mild air, leaving nothing but a light fragrance. One simply knew: a goddess was here."
This lovely story comes from Ovid's "Fasti", a Roman calendar. Ovid tells a tale about the god revered on each feast day. Flora's feast day, for example, was called Floralia. Botticelli is unlikely to have read the "Fasti"; as the son of an uneducated tanner, he probably could not read Latin. However, it is known that Pohziano, a poet employed by the Medici family, held public lectures on Ovid's festive calandar in 1481. The wedding took place a year later. It is possible that Botticelli was inspired by Poliziano.
The lectures on Ovid were enormously popular, coinciding as they did with the rediscovery by Poliziano's more progressive contemporaries of Classical antiquity. The majority of Greek and Roman writers had been committed to oblivion for over a thousand years. The ancient gods and heroes had been swept aside by the one God, by Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. But Classical authors now enjoyed a comeback. Their manuscripts were sought far and wide, and large sums were paid for copies. Ancient mythical figures began, in turn, to replace the Holy Family and saints.
In Florence, Poliziano was a major proponent of the rediscovery - or rebirth, for it became known as the Renaissance - of Classical art and literature. His real name was Angelo Ambrogini, born in Montepul-ciano in 1454. Like many humanist scholars and poets of his day, he gave himself a Latin name after his place of birth, the Latin word for which was Mons Politianus. He thus called himself Politianus, or, translated into Italian, Poliziano. It was he who coined the famous dictum: "Athens lies not in ruins, but brought her scholars, mice and men to set up house in Florence."


The flowers

Sandro Botticelli (detail)

Not only was Classical antiquity discovered anew, but Nature too. Botanists have identified the species of flower that Flora, wife of Zephyrus, appears to scatter in the painting. Among them are forget-me-not, hyacinth, iris, periwinkle, pheasant's-eye and anemone. Around her neck the goddess wears a wreath of myrtle; in her dress she carries wild roses; in her hair are violets, cornflowers and a sprig of wild strawberries. Apparently, these flowers all blossom in Tuscany in the month of May. Whatever the dictates of mythology and style, Botticelli's choice was true to Nature.
Botticelli's botanic realism corresponded to a newly awakened interest in Nature at the universities, where botany had become an academic subject. Pisa and Padua, the university towns of Florence and Venice, were the sites of the first botanic gardens.
Besides all else, the special attention devoted to Nature also had a practical side. Any Florentine who could afford to do so had a country house and farm not far from town. Once there, they would eat vegetables and fruit grown in their own garden and use oil from their own groves. Lorenzo the Magnificent is known to have owned a country villa near Careggi where he bred Calabrian pigs; at one of his other villas he bred Sicilian pheasants. He also introduced a species of rabbit from Spain.
Even a relatively poor man like Botticelli's father bought a small villa near Careggi. On 19th April 1494 Sandro Botticelli bought a country house outside Florence, admittedly with the help of his brother and nephews. The price was 155 gulden. That was approximately what he was paid for one and a half paintings.
It was not uncommon in Europe for the inhabitants of towns to own agricultural land. However, the difference between Florentines and the majority of other town dwellers, especially those in more northerly climes, was that the former also liked to live out of town. A book published at the time states: "In the crystal-clean air and pleasant countryside around Florence are many villas with wonderful vistas ..." In the same book we read: "A country house is like a reliable friend ... It keeps your troubles at bay all the year round."






Sandro Botticelli (detail)

Sandro Botticelli (detail)

Venus stands at the centre of the painting. The space between the branches of trees surrounding her head forms the shape of a halo. Her graceful pose and chaste clothes are rather more reminiscent of the Virgin Mary than of a goddess of sensual love. Classical antiquity ascribed two roles to Venus. On the one hand, certainly, she was the light-hearted, adulterous goddess, accompanied by her son Cupid, "who (painted near the Graces in this picture), blindly excited passion with his burning arrows. On the other, she was all harmony, proportion, balance. A civilizing influnce, she settled quarrels, eased social cohesion. She was the incarnation of eroticism - a creative rather than destructive force.
The vision of a Venus humanitas informed the ideal of womanhood in 15th-century Italy. In his treatise Il Libro del Cortegiano Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) wrote: "It is surely beyond dispute that there could be no contentment in a life without "women. Without them, life would be rough, lacking in tenderness, worse than the life of wild beasts. Can there be anybody who disputes this? Women drive from our hearts all evil, all baseness, all worry, misery, sadness. They inspire our minds to great things, rather than distracting us ..."
It goes without saying that Botticelli clothed his Venus in the robes of a married woman: she wears a bonnet and, draped over it, a veil. Hair was considered the weapon of the seductress; only young girls were permitted to let their hair hang loose.
The figures of the three Graces allow the artist to display the elaborate artistry with which the women of his time arranged their hair. To make their hair seem fuller, women would often use silk bands, false plaits and
other hairpieces. The most fashionable colour was a delicately tinted blonde, the product of strenuous bleaching and dyeing.
Under her dress and shawl, Venus wears a long chemise, of which the arms alone are visible. This was quite usual for a lady of Florence. However, it was unusual for a married woman to reveal her feet, or drape her shawl or cloak with such evident disregard for symmetry. Mercury's toga, too, is deliberately asymmetrical. This was thought to be in the antique manner, and Florentines would have considered it a token of Classical mythology.
What was utterly contemporary, and utterly 15th century, however, was the ideal of beauty shown in Botticelli's paintings: eyebrows drawn as gentle curves rather than a double arch, foreheads no longer high and shaved, as they had been during the Middle Ages, but linear and Greek and twice as broad as long. A rounded, slightly protruberant belly was now considered graceful. The beauty of the hand was accentuated by exhibiting it against the background of a dress or shawl - as does Venus in the painting.
While in Rome to assess the qualities of a potential bride for her son, Lorenzo the Magnificent's mother, Lucrezia, mentions two characteristics that were highly treasured at the time: "She is tall and has a white skin." Almost all of Botticelli's women are large, indeed slightly elongated, if not unnaturally tall. And as for white skin, even country girls are said to have gone to some length in order to procure the ideal pallor, using tinctures, pastry packs, cosmetic pastes, and avoiding sunlight. If the three Graces dancing in the shadows in the present painting seem almost carved from alabaster, this cannot solely be attributed to idiosyncracy of style on the artist's part, for their appearance is fully in keeping with contemporary notions of beauty.
The Florentine ideal of womanhood demanded not only beauty, but education. In wealthier families, women were taught the Classical subjects alongside their brothers; they were expected to hold their own in a discussion, and to please their husbands with intelligent conversation. Besides this, a woman had to know how to run a household, an ability which the practically-minded Florentines held in high esteem. She had to be thrifty, keep a clean house and give sound direction to the servants. Only the cash-books were out of bounds.


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