Spring. ( La Primavera ) 1482, Sandro Botticelli.

In the late spring of 1967 I visited Florence in Italy, it was several months after the devastating flood that had engulfed Florence in November the previous year. I saw stains like plimsoll lines on the walls of buildings and in the churches I visited, huge dehumidifying machines were drying their interior walls. Life was slowly getting back to
Having greeted a copy of Michaelangelo’s sculpture of David outside of the Uffizzi Gallery, I went in to look at paintings. I came to Botticelli’s ‘ Spring’ it was exciting to see the original that had been painted nearly five hundred years earlier. Botticelli was a painter working in Florence during the era which has become known as the Renaissance; several schools of painting flourished, situated throughout much of Italy, the Northern and Venetian Schools, the Florentine and Central Schools being the most important, each put an emphasis on different aspects of painting.
The painting ‘Spring’ is an allegory. The work was painted with tempera on panel, tempera consists of ground pigments mixed with egg yolk, honey or glue and water, it is permanent and fast drying. I have experimented with egg tempera mixed with gouache paint, it is more suitable for painting on a panel rather than on canvas, because the paint tends to crack if not kept flat.
The setting for Spring is an orange grove, with plants scattered around, five hundred different varieties and one hundred and ninety different flowers, so I read, a botanical dictionary! Six mythological characters are situated across the space. The work is thought to resemble a Flemish tapestry, popular at the time.
The work was probably commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici for one of his cousins. Lorenzo Medici was an important patron of the Arts and left a lasting legacy of work. Much has been written about the Medici dynasty, mostly unfavourable, but the Arts did flourish during their time in power.
In the painting we see on the left hand side, a male pointing a wand towards the sky, three women are dancing in a circle next to him, in the centre is a female, dressed in a diaphanous white dress, around her is draped a red gown, her gaze is towards the viewer, her figure is framed by an archway of trees, a blind-folded putti is seen holding an arrow, hovering above her, next to her stands, almost floats, another female, her dress is decorated with plant designs and she wears a necklace of flowers. The wind we can see is blowing the flowing dresses from left to right. On the right of the painting we see another female character, also dressed in a diaphanous white gown with a garland of flowers flowing from her mouth and looking down intently at her is the second male figure, he has puffed up cheeks, he clasps her waist, the cold wind if March is now blowing in the opposite direction, I’m not sure what the significance of this change of direction signifies, perhaps the warming of the atmosphere as spring approaches?
There have been several interpretations of this painting, we know that Botticelli was interested in portraying Greek and Roman myths in addition to religious scenes and characters. If we think about the Roman myth, the male on the right would be the god Zephyrus, his cheeks full of wind, the god of wind, Zephyrus marries Chloris, she is shown in the painting with the flowers flowing from her mouth, after they marry Choris becomes the goddess Flora, goddess of flowers, she is next to Chloris. Venus the goddess of Love and Beauty is the central figure, an archetype who can be traced as far back as Paleolithic cave paintings and sculptures. In Helen Benigni’s book The Emergence of the Goddess, she writes ‘Venus appears to be part of what Carl Jung calls the transformative character of the primordial archetype where her image is seen as a regenerative force for change connected to the celestial order.’ To quote Robert Ellis in his book The Integration of Meaning he writes ‘the other way that art might relate more effectively to archetypes is in depicting them as symbolic forms rather than as objects in the world. In western art I find this particularly in the religious and mythological art of the Renaissance.’ To return to the painting, above Venus is Cupid who blindly points his arrow at Chastity, one of the three graces we see dancing in a circle, (the dance of time maybe?) the two other graces are Love and Pleasure. On the left hand side we see the god Mercury, he is pointing his wand to the sky, to brush away the wind, while Chastity looks at him.
Botticelli belonged to the Florentine School of painters, for them form and movement were their main objectives. Botticelli used a paint brush like a pen, his line work gave a feeling of movement, a linear rhythm. He was indifferent to representation, but was intent on presentation. Bernard Berenson wrote, ‘Botticelli was almost as if haunted by the idea of communicationg the unembodied values of touch and movement.’ He may have rivals in the East and Japan writes Berenson, but not in Europe, ‘his work possesses qualities that are life-enhancing and life- communicating, with quivering feeling containing values of touch and values of movement.’
Rober Ellis wites in the chapter The Integration of Meaning, when discussing the integration of visual art ‘ The central conflict within art reflects the tension within meaning in general – between representation and expression.’ Representation was not of primary importance to Botticelli, he was preoccupied with expressing the renewal of life and growth in this work, but he reaches a balance between the two. For Botticelli colour is less important than line, unlike the Venetian painters for example where the use of colour was very important. Berenson thinks that he is the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever had. His work went out of favour and was not appreciated again for a long time. He didn’t paint during the last ten years of his life, he died in 1510..Botticelli 002

6 thoughts on “Spring. ( La Primavera ) 1482, Sandro Botticelli.

    1. Thank you very much Robert, I have looked at your link, I wish I could name the flowers, I admire Botticelli’s knowledge of them.

  1. I found the picture strangely disconcerting. The figures are beautifully executed but have an ethereal appearance, being oddly disconnected from each other, although closely inhabiting the same space. No figure holds another in her/his gaze. Although some of them touch (their hands or fingers entwined) there is a curious distance, emphasised by the seeming absence of physical energy, despite the apparent movement.

    The limbs and extremities of the figures are anatomically accurate, although some of the postures look odd. There is a mudra-like positioning of the limbs of Venus and of Dorae that reminds me a little of the abnormal (catatonic) tone of people with severe psychosis, the so-called flexibilitas cerea (waxy flexibility). It’s possible that in the 16th century such gestures were normal or fashionable.

    The two figures at each extreme of the painting strike me as unusual: the figure on the left, a male person, is the only clearly human figure to show any purposefully coordinated movement, as he reaches up to pluck a fruit from a bough above his head.

    Two other unworldly figures are also, to me, slightly disconcerting: one is an eerily livid colour and his face, slightly averted from the figure nearest to him, is expressionless, but slightly contorted. The figure, save for the fact that it/he is either air-borne or suspended, has the lividity one associates with asphyxia or drowning. The left arm is trailed across the body of a woman, whose body seems to shrink from his touch with alarm, an emotion mirrored in her face.
    His/its fingers seem lifeless, neither touching, nor flexed as if to hold or grasp her.

    A small blind-folded cherub is aloft, with bow charged to fire an arrow, which seems to be aimed at a dancer below. The significance of this is lost on me.

    The rich colours, and the profusion of small flowers in what seems to be an otherwise shaded bower, contribute, for me, to a distinctly funereal and sombre ensemble. It does not speak to me of spring at all.

    This is not to say that the picture doesn’t have a powerful effect on me. It does.

    1. Hi Peter,
      I like to read replies in response to my choice of paintings, the more input the better, they make me feel they are worthwhile writing about. The atmosphere in ‘Spring’ is far from cheerful and some others I’ve talked to about it agree with you, they are not life like, they haunt the space rather than live in it. Plants and flowers need sunshine to flourish and in this painting no sunlight is present, I think Botticelli’s intention was to create a night time scene, because Venus is also a bright star. The realm in which the gods reside is unwordly, Botticelli was describing an imagined place, even though it was set in an orchard, the figures do seem unconcerned with each other, each has it’s role. Botticelli did portray gentleness very well in other work. The god of wind is intent on making Chloris fertile, not much loving there, the cherub like character is Cupid who aims his arrow of love randomly, it is about to strike Chastity. When this was painted mythological characters were more understood and in later times artists like Picasso returned to them as a good source of subject matter. I’m glad it had a powerful if disconcerting effect on you, then a painting is working well.
      If there are paintings you would like me to think about discussing here, much like suggesting poems, I would be happy to have a go.

      1. I’m glad you appreciate my replies, Norma. Your posts on art open up a new world for me. Although my comments aren’t informed by anything other than my own odd sensibilities, I get a lot out of opening to those, and writing them down. Art is such an integrative tool, it seems to harness blocked energies that so much want to find expression, like drama, which is one of my own under-used ‘talents’, that Robert and Barry have helped uncover in me. A bit like restoring an old painting that whose colours are covered with years of accumulated grime, not that I don’t like accumulated grime, because it has its own charm, being the patina produced by years or centuries of history, the touch of many thousands of human hands, the deposit of millions of human and other animal exhalations…..

      2. It is wonderful to refresh forgotten hobbies, writing about paintings has re – awakened my interest in art history. I will return to painting this year after a break of many months. This site has given us that chance, perhaps in a way that Robert and Barry had not foreseen. I like the way you describe the passage of time, you have a way with words as Barry said.

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