Primavera also known as Allegory of Spring, is a tempera panel painting by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. Painted ca. 1482, the painting is described in Culture & Values (2009) as “one of the most popular paintings in Western art“.It is also, according to Botticelli, Primavera (1998), “one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world.”
Most critics agree that the painting, depicting a group of mythological figures in a garden, is allegorical for the lush growth of Spring. Other meanings have also been explored. Among them, the work is sometimes cited as illustrating the ideal of Neoplatonic love. The painting itself carries no title and was first called La Primavera by the art historian Giorgio Vasari who saw it at Villa Castello, just outside Florence, in 1550.
The history of the painting is not certainly known, though it seems to have been commissioned by one of the Medici family. It contains references to the Roman poets Ovid and Lucretius, and may also reference a poem by Poliziano. Since 1919 the painting has been part of the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
The painting features six female figures and two male, along with a blindfolded putto, in an orange grove. To the right of the painting, a flower-crowned female figure stands in a floral-patterned dress scattering flowers, collected in the folds of her gown.
Her nearest companion, a woman in diaphanous white, is being seized by a winged male from above. His cheeks are puffed, his expression intent, and his unnatural complexion separates him from the rest of the figures. The trees around him blow in the direction of his entry, as does the skirt of the woman he is seizing. The drapery of her companion blows in the other direction.
Next to this woman is another woman wearing a flowery designed dress that drapes over her body. She has a slight smile on her face while stepping towards the viewer and holding a grouping of flowers in her dress. The flowers on her dress and in her hand consist of pinks, reds and whites accompanied by the greens of the leaves.
Clustered on the left, a group of three females also in diaphanous white, join hands in a dance, while a red-draped youth with a sword and a helmet near them raises a wooden rod towards some wispy gray clouds. Two of the women wear prominent necklaces. The flying cherub has an arrow nocked to loose, directed towards the dancing girls. Central and somewhat isolated from the other figures stands a red-draped woman in blue. Like the flower-gatherer, she returns the viewer’s gaze. The trees behind her form a broken arch to draw the eye.
The pastoral scenery is elaborate. Botticelli (2002) indicates there are 500 identified plant species depicted in the painting, with about 190 different flowers.Botticelli. Primavera (1998) says that of the 190 different species of flowers depicted, at least 130 have been specifically named.
The overall appearance of the painting is similar to Flemish tapestries that were popular at the time.
Various interpretations of the figures have been set forth, but it is generally agreed that at least at one level the painting is, as characterized by Cunningham and Reich (2009), “an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world.” Elena Capretti in Botticelli (2002) suggests that the typical interpretation is thus:
The reading of the picture is from right to left: Zephyrus, the biting wind of March, kidnaps and possesses the nymph Chloris, whom he later marries and transforms into a deity; she becomes the goddess of Spring, eternal bearer of life, and is scattering roses on the ground.
This is a tale from the fifth book of Ovid’s Fasti in which the wood nymph Chloris’s naked charms attracted the first wind of Spring, Zephyr. Zephyr pursued her and as she was ravished, flowers sprang from her mouth and she became transformed into Flora, goddess of flowers. In Ovid’s work the reader is told ‘till then the earth had been but of one colour’. From Chloris’ name the colour may be guessed to have been green – the Greek word for green is khloros, the root of words like chlorophyll – and may be why Botticeli painted Zephyr in shades of bluish-green.
Venus presides over the garden – an orange grove (a Medici symbol).She stands in front of the dark leaves of a myrtle bush. According to Hesiod, Venus had been born of the sea after the semen of Uranus had fallen upon the waters. Coming ashore in a shell she had clothed her nakedness in myrtle, and so the plant became sacred to her.The Graces accompanying her (and targeted by Cupid) bear jewels in the colors of the Medici family, while Mercury’s caduceus keeps the garden safe from threatening clouds.
The basic identifications of characters is widely embraced, but other names are sometimes used for the females on the right. According to Botticelli (1901), the woman in the flowered dress is Primavera (a personification of Spring) whose companion is Flora.The male figure is generally accepted as Mercury but has been identified as Mars by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker of SmARThistory.
In addition to its overt meaning, the painting has been interpreted as an illustration of the ideal of Neoplatonic love popularized among the Medicis and their followers by Marsilio Ficino.
The Neoplatonic philosophers saw Venus as ruling over both earthly and divine love and argued that she was the classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary; this is alluded to by the way she is framed in an altar-like setting that is similar to contemporary images of the Virgin Mary.
In this interpretation, as set out in Sandro Botticelli, 1444/45-1510 (2000), the earthy carnal love represented by Zephyrus to the right is renounced by the central figure of the Graces, who has turned her back to the scene, unconcerned by the threat represented to her by Cupid. Her focus is on Mercury, who himself gazes beyond the canvas at what Deimling asserts hung as the companion piece to Primavera: Pallas and the Centaur, in which “love oriented towards knowledge” (embodied by Pallas Athena) proves triumphant over lust (symbolized by the centaur). It is, on the other hand, possible that, rather than her having renounced carnal love, the intense emotional expression with which she gazes at Mercury is one of dawning love, proleptic of the receipt of Cupid’s arrow which appears to be aimed particularly at her; which emotion is being recognised, with an expression at once sympathetic, quizzical and apprehensive, by the sister immediately to her left.
The recent discovery of a disguised message (in the floral pattern on the gown of Flora to which Chloris is drawing Zephyr’s attention, see detail below) and related evidence, indicates that the subject matter of La Primavera is set in the context of the Pagan Renaissance Revival championed by Marsilio Ficino, Florence’s foremost philosopher. He was the friend, mentor and tutor of the young Medici owner of the painting, in whom he sought to instill the Platonic philosophy he was introducing to Europe at the time. Ficino’s Platonic teaching held that man possessed a spark of divinity, which contrasted with the medieval view of man’s guilt and culpability.