La Primavera or “Springtime” is one of the best-known works of art of the Florentine Renaissance. Painted in 1482 by Sandro Botticelli, the painting is believed to have been privately commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a member of the Medici family who hung the painting above a sofa in an anteroom to his bedchamber. Today the painting resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
If you have seen La Primavera in person, you were most likely struck by the beauty of this 7 ft x 10 ft tempera painting on wood in which Botticelli remains true to his style: emphasis on line, elongation of the body, serene facial expression, gracefulness of pose and composition, and delicate coloring. But what is it about this painting that has made it a favorite among his other works? I think it is subject matter rather than style that makes La Primavera a winner. And as mysterious as it is beautiful, the painting seems to symbolize more than just the coming of spring.
Although scholars disagree on what exactly Botticelli trying to express in La Primavera, most do agree on the identity of the figures in the painting: mythological figures based primarily on the works of the Greek poet, Ovid. Standing serenely in the middle of an orange grove is Venus, Goddess of Love, splendidly framed by an array of foliage. At the left is Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, recognizable by his winged shoes and his snake-entwined staff, gazing upward and perhaps attempting to dispel the clouds that have gathered above his head. Also on the left next to Venus are the three Graces, daughters of Zeus – Aglaia who gives, Euphrosyne who receives, Thalia who returns -- engaged in a dance. Notice Venus’ son, Amor, floating blind-folded above her head, aiming his arrow toward the three sisters. To the right of Venus is a scene which requires a bit more interpretation. The bluish male figure on the right is believed to be Zephyrus, God of the Winds. He is groping at a fleeing nymph clothed in a transparent gown, presumably Chloris. According to Ovid, Zephyrus took Chloris by force, later regretted his actions, and transformed her into Flora, the Goddess of Flowers, who appears to the left of Chloris. Nearly 500 different kinds of plants adorn the floor of the orchard.
La Primavera represents a small segment of time in Renaissance history when artists felt secure enough to risk the displeasure of the Church and create works of art that were based upon pagan themes. Because the triumph of Christianity in Europe in the 4th century AD resulted in the widespread destruction of pagan art, the great art of the Greeks and Romans had been virtually erased from public awareness. During the Renaissance, however, art patrons like the Medici began to rediscover pagan mythology through the ancient writings of Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid. Visual evidence of Roman and particularly Greek art, however, was rare and required artists to create their own visual imagery based on these ancient classical writings. In painting Venus, Botticelli resurrected subject matter that had not been explored for nearly 1000 years. Unfortunately, before these classical themes could be fully developed, the fanatical Christian priest Savonarola rose to power in Florence and sanctioned the Bonfire of the Vanities, in which all pagan and immoral works of art were burned in the streets. Deeply religious and easily influenced, Botticelli became a follower of Savonarola, tossing some of his own paintings into the blaze. Fortunately, La Primavera was not among them. Although Savonarola was put to death only four years after he came to power, his ideals had a lasting effect on painters who, like Botticelli, resumed painting subjects of a Christian nature. Ironically, it is the series of paintings that include La Primavera that form the basis of Botticelli’s fame as a painter today.
Was La Primavera an allegory of love, beauty and knowledge? Or was it merely a pleasing array of figures related to the subject of spring? Why is the cupid blind-folded and at whom is he aiming his arrow? Is Venus a stand-in for the Virgin Mary? Why are the three Graces dancing? These are but a few of the theories and unresolved questions surrounding this famous painting that will most likely remain a mystery as it has for over 500 years since its creation.
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