Primavera is one of the most popular and mysterious paintings in Western Art. It was created by the Italian Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli, at he peak of his career – sometime between 1477 and 1482. The exact details of the commission is unknown, although historians have suggested it was for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, cousin of the powerful statesman and patron of the arts, Lorenzo Medici.
Primavera was created on a large panel and painted with tempera – a fast-drying paint made from egg yolk, distilled water, linseed oil and powdered pigment. It presents a group of figures from classical mythology – six female, two male, and a flying cupid.
Gods and goddesses
The standard understanding of the scene is one which reads right to left. On the far right is Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind. Here he is shown swooping into the scene, his cheeks puffed, brows furrowed and clothing flying back, as he tries to kidnap the nymph Chloris.
Although Chloris endeavours to escape Zephyrus’ clutches in this image, Ovid’s texts tells us that Chloris and Zephyrus eventually marry, at which point she transforms into Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring. Botticelli has represented this transformation by the roses blossoming out of Chloris’s mouth and the fully formed figure of Flora beside her, adorned in floral patterns and scattering roses on the ground.
The central figure of Botticelli’s composition, set slightly back, is Venus, the Roman goddess who is variously associated with love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory. She is emphasised as the focal point of this composition by the arched frame created by branches and foliage – a halo effect comparable to the architectural shape of an apse, which would have surrounded depictions of the Virgin Mary. Above Venus, her son, Cupid, flies blindfolded, aiming his bow towards the next group of figures.
These figures are The Three Graces: Aglaïa, whose name means “shining one”; Euphrosyne, meaning “joy”; and Thalia, meaning “flourishing”. Here they join hands in a dance, and are dressed in swirls of diaphanous drapery, which tantalise the viewer with glimpses of the female form beneath. But such frivolity is totally ignored by the figure on the far left. This is Mercury, clothed in red with a sword, helmet and winged sandals. He holds a staff with intertwined snakes (known as a ‘caduceus’), which he uses to pry apart the wispy clouds above.
The figures are set in a a lush orange grove – the orange being the symbol of the patrons, the Medici family. Indeed, this is a wonderland of botanical delights: there are 500 identified plant species presented in the painting, with about 190 different flowers. These natural forms portrayed on such a large scale have drawn comparisons with the Millefleur Flemish tapestries (from the French, mille-fleurs, meaning “thousand flowers”).
An ongoing mystery
With the abundance of floral motifs, the presence of Flora and the title of Primavera (meaning ‘Spring’), this painting is often perceived as an allegory of springtime.
But how to make sense of this bizarre assembly of figures? It continues to puzzle art historians to this day, ensuring a constant stream of lively debate and new theories. Botticelli has used a number of sources here. Some inspiration must have come from Ovid, who wrote about Chloris and her transformation. Perhaps he looked to the work of Lucretius, who in his poem De rerum natura conjures the imagery seen here in Primavera. Or was this a nod to Rusticus, a poem celebrating country life by Poliziano, a close friend of the Medici family?
A timeless work
The painting was hung above a lettuccio, a wooden chest that was a common piece of furniture in wealthy Renaissance homes. It was later moved to the Villa di Castello, where the historian Giorgio Vasari saw it alongside Botticelli’s other great work, The Birth of Venus. Vasari wrote:
“For various houses throughout the city he painted round pictures, and many female nudes, of which there are still two at Castello, a villa of Duke Cosimo’s; one representing the birth of Venus, with those Winds and Zephyrs that bring her to the earth, with the Cupids; and likewise another Venus, whom the Graces are covering with flowers as a symbol of spring; and all this he is seen to have expressed very gracefully”
The paintings still hang beside one another today. They remained in the Villa di Castello until 1815, when they were transferred to Florence, kept intermittently at the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia. During the Italian campaign of World War Two, Primavera was moved to Montegufoni Castle, about ten miles from Florence to protect it from wartime bombing.
Today it hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, where it amazes and fascinates almost one million visitors each year.