Detail, The birth of Venus, c 1484, Tempera on wood.  Ufizzi Gallery Florence

Detail, Primavera, c 1482, Grease tempera on wood.  Ufizzi Gallery Florence

Primavera, 1482, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This is perhaps the most famous of Botticelli's paintings, along with the Birth of Venus. Not only is the meaning of the work shrouded in something of a mystery, but so it's the person who commissioned it and exactly where it was housed. The Official Guide to the Uffizi Gallery lists the work as being commissioned by and placed in the home of Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, the cousins of Lorenzo the Magnificent where it supposedly hung over the back of a day-bed or chest. The work is intimately connected with the Birth of Venus in terms of it's composition and the interrelation of the allegory... although it is still disputed as to whether the paintings were actually intended to be hung together. Recent research tends towards the idea that although this work is slightly larger than the Birth of Venus, that is because the latter was planed down at some later date. The Ufizzi does not hang the pictures on the same wall, but many art historians maintain that they are indeed a pair and should be seen and discussed together. Discussing the two of them together is something I am simply not capable of, but please keep this one in mind when you get to the Birth of Venus! ... On to the analysis

Vasari described it as "Venus as a symbol of spring, being adorned with flowers by the Graces" when he saw it at the Medici villa at Castello in the 16th century. But the complex allegory and symbolism of the painting is still being debated in art and history circles. One thing that is almost universally agreed upon is that the work is inpired by the classical texts of Ovid and Lucretius, and by certain verses by Agnolo Poliziano (1475) a friend of the Medici and of the artist who described a garden with the Three Graces garlanded with flowers and the springtime wind Zephyrus chasing after Flora.

Identifying the figures is made easier when thinking of Poliziano's verse. The winged, blue being flying in on the right is Zephyrus who chased and captured the nymph Chloris. Upon their marriage Chloris acquired the ability to germinate flowers, hence the blooms falling from her mouth in the painting. Next to Chloris is the smiling figure of the Roman Goddess Flora. Botticelli has captured the moment of Chloris' transformation into the Goddess. Switching over to the left hand side, the youth at the edge of the painting is certainly Mercury (the winged sandals and travellers hat give him away). Next to him are the Three Graces and at the top of the painting is Cupid with his arrow. The central figure is oft disputed but when reading this painting in tandem with the Birth of Venus, it is reasonable to assume that she is Venus and this is her garden.

More complicated it trying to decipher what each of the figures is symbolizing and what they mean. The Graces are believed by most art historians to represent liberality, Mercury, the messenger of Jove could represent knowledge. The figures on the right side of the painting give it it's name - they show the birth of Spring and the rejuvination of flowers and the earth. Cupid naturally enough represents love.

There are two futher interpretations to be added to the mix. The first offered by some historians suggests that the painting is a symbol of marriage, in particular, celebrating the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici to Semiramide Appiani, a relative of Simonetta Vespucci who was famous for her beauty and liaison with Guiliano de' Medici. The second and more recent intepretation is that this painting is intended to represent the whole of the Liberal Arts, the very thing that drove the creativity and the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici and his circle.