Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492), leader of the family banking business, was one of the richest men in Europe and was effectively ruler of Florence at a key stage in the development of the Renaissance there, in which he played a significant role.
The Renaissance was seen as a rebirth of ancient Greece and Rome, not just the visual art, but also the literature, the political system and the philosophy (in fact all the Liberal Arts). Humanism was central to this, “man is the measure of all things”. Plato was translated at this time and Neo-Platanism was intellectually very much in fashion. Lorenzo massively expanded the family library with ancient works and their translations and was close friends with Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Ambrogini (Poliziano) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Neo-Platonic philosophers, scholars, authors and teachers.
Bankers at that time were seen as sinners by Christianity so they sought absolution by performing good works, which included sponsoring works of religious art for churches. Lorenzo commissioned artists such as the Pollaiuolo brothers, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio and Botticelli. Most art at the time was religious, for instance about a half of all pictures produced were of the Madonna and Child. Non religious art was portraits and statues of rich people. The Medicis did not just buy public art, they also bought art for their own town houses and country villas. Then around about 1480 something remarkable and revolutionary happened, Lorenzo (probably) commissioned two works from Botticelli for his orphaned cousin and ward, Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de’ Medici’s, 1482 marriage to Semiramide Appiani, a picture being a customary gift at the time. Amazingly these were neither religious nor portrait, they were mythological, based on the ancient texts in Lorenzo’s library.
La Primavera is 203cm X 314 cm, so the figures in it are nearly life sized, it was painted on thick (7.5cm) wood because it was part of a piece of furniture, a lettucccio (bed), in Semiramide’s bedchamber and the base of the picture would have been about two metres off the ground, so it is designed to be looked up at, which is why you can see the soles of a couple of feet. The pendant picture, Pallas and the Centaur, was painted on canvas, so would have been hung conventionally, on the wall.
During its restoration, in 1982, it was discovered that La Primavera had been painted largely using tempera grassa. A technique that was new to Italy at the time, combining egg yolk tempera with oils such as walnut or linseed. This combines the transparency possible with oils with the clear colours of tempera and is especially effective at creating semi transparent skin tones. There is no doubt that the picture is a technical triumph and the sense of physical weightlessness it displays in its figures transports us to the land of the gods. Probably for the same reason there is no apparent source of light, consistent direction for it or uniform shadows, just the use of tone to model some solidity into the figures. They represent the Florentine ideal of beauty at that time, the females having elongated bodies, necks and limbs with distended stomachs and small busts.
The main achievement of Renaissance art was realism, so a picture was analogous to a window looking out on to a scene, with a believable three dimensional space occupied by solid believable objects and recognisable people, with real emotions displayed. Linear perspective had been developed by Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca amongst others and its maths was common knowledge. Botticelli chose to ignore all this for La Primevera. This may have been to make it more like the tapestry that many would have expected to see in its position or maybe to make it look more other worldly. Certainly Botticelli was well capable of painting in the mathematical perspective style, as he had proven in earlier work, such as Fortitude (1470), Adoration of the Magi (1475-6) and Annunciation of San Martino all Scala (1481).
The picture itself draws from several ancient mythological sources, principally Ovid’s Fasti, a poetic festival calendar but also works by Titus Lucretius Carus, Virgil and Horace and, as was the fashion, is steeped in allegory and is dense with symbology and metaphor, only some of which we can decipher through the mist of the centuries. There are nine figures. Starting on the left, chasing away clouds with his staff, is Mercury, who is the god of business (hence he is painted here as an idealised likeness of Lorenzo the Magnificent) and of messages (hence the winged feet) and who heralded the arrival of spring, next come the three graces or charities, with jewellery in Medici colours, who often accompany Mercury and who represent enjoyment and festivity, which is why they are dancing. In the centre we have Venus, blessing us or maybe inviting us into her kingdom, she is the goddess of love and beauty, but also of watching over marriages. Hovering above her is her son Cupid (also called Amor) the god of erotic love, attraction and desire. Then we have Flora, the goddess of spring, of flowering plants and of sex, who really looks the part here. Next to her, in a piece of simultaneous narrative, is her former self, the wood nymph Chloris who is undergoing metamorphosis from having been touched by Zephyr, to her right, the god of the west wind. Cupid and these two are the ones with animated expressions, everyone else is tranquil, radiating serene beauty.
Our cast are set in a very fertile and rich orange (a symbol of the Medici) grove full of spring flowers, though there are, incongruously, also flowers from other seasons. Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, describes the picture thus: “the second is another Venus, the symbol of Spring, being adorned with flowers by the Graces”, by which Vasari gave the picture its name that we use today and provided a clue from history as to the subject. There are about 500 uniquely painted individual flowers in the picture from about 190 species, of which the identity of around 130 have been agreed on, each with their own symbology. Some examples: Venus is surrounded by Myrtle, which is associated with sexual desire. The laurels in the top right corner are a pun on the name Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Flora’s carnations are the flower that a Florentine bride traditionally hid somewhere on her body and her strawberries represent seduction.
Though this is not a Christian religious picture it does have some such overtones. Venus, under an arch, could easily be seen as being Mary and Cupid as Jesus. And the female figures are very similar to those Botticelli had painted previously in Life of Moses in the Sistine Chapel and in Judith Returning to Bethulla. Another strong influence is Fra Filippo Lippi to whom Botticelli had been apprenticed, this is very evident in the elegant draped figures and the very strong sense of motion in most of the characters in the picture.
Overall the composition seems confused and disjointed, as if representing the different and varied literary sources was more important than the total aesthetic visual composition. So one wonders whether Botticelli had sole authorship of the content or did Lorenzo and/or his Neo-Platonist friends decide on the composition? One reading of the picture is that it illustrates the different sorts of love described by Plato, with carnal love descending on the right, civilised love in the centre and divine love to the left with Mercury reascending. One humanist interpretation has a central Venus representing goodwill with the material world to the right and the spiritual world to the left. Another reading is that Zephyr represents Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, the bridegroom and that Chloris/Flora represents Semiramide Appiani, the bride, who is undergoing the metamorphosis of marriage and that all the blooms of spring represent her expected fertility. Yet another is that it is a romp, a celebration of the Liberal Arts seem through the lens of a marriage.
Of course it could have just been erotica for the young, newly married couple’s bed, with references from mythology to give it some semblance of respectability by providing context.
Lorenzo died in 1492 and Florence was taken over by an extremist, puritanical Dominican priest, Girolamo Savonarola, who proceeded to burn all the secular art that he and his henchmen could find in a series of Bonfires of the Vanities. Botticelli reacted by only painting modest religious works and by actually handing over several (we don’t know how many) of his mythological paintings for burning. Savonarola was executed in 1498 but Botticelli never went back to creating pictures in the style he had achieved with Lorenzo de’ Medici. He died impoverished in 1510.
Whilst beautiful, complicated, dense, sensuous and full of sexual drama La Primavera is also so much more. With it and a series of other works, such as Birth of Venus and Mars and Venus, Botticelli became the father of Western mythological painting, a major genre that became a mainstay subject for artists ever since. Veronese, Reubens, Turner and Picasso being among the most prominent. But La Primavera is also a cryptic and enigmatic work of art which ensures its enduring fascination for us.