An art piece that encapsulates mythology, nature, love, and beauty
Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera is one of the most magnificent and popular paintings in western art. Apart from its grandeur visual appeal and intricate detailing, it is also famous for its unfathomable symbolism that has attracted art historians time and again.
Primavera means ‘spring’ in English. This painting encapsulates a mythological illustration of the Greco-Roman deities, an allegory of the arrival of spring, and a symbolic depiction of the neo-Platonic ideas about the nature of love.
Giorgio Vasari saw this painting after 70 years and named it Primavera. This painting is housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
In this article, we’ll walk-through the painting’s composition, the allegorical representation of spring, and the symbolic depiction of Primavera.
Composition of Primavera
Mercury, clothed in red (Left) and The Three Graces (dancing figures) (Right)
Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, chasing the nymph Cloris (Left) and Venus and blindfolded Cupid (Right)
The painting was created around the 1470s and supposedly commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, a wealthy Italian statesman and enthusiastic art patron, probably for the marriage of his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. Primavera portrays nine mythological figures positioned around an orange grove that might reflect the family tree of the Medici family.
- To the far left of the painting is Mercury, clothed in red, wearing winged shoes and the caduceus he uses to dissipate the clouds.
- Next to Mercury, are the Three Graces (dancing figures), adorned in a translucent white and represent beauty and purity.
- The center of the composition is the Roman goddess, Venus, a red-draped woman.
- In the air, above Venus, is cupid who is blindfolded and aims his arrow to The Three Graces.
- To the extreme right of the painting is Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, chasing the nymph Cloris.
- Botticelli shows the spilling of flowers from Cloris’s mouth who transforms into Flora, the goddess of spring.
The allegory of spring and depiction of aromatic symbols
The bottom part of the painting with iris flowers (symbol of Florence)
Venus is surrounded by myrtle, a very well-known plant in ancient Greece and Rome. Flora’s hair and the dress have tiny blue myositis also known as forget-me-nots that have a strong fragrance and her dress is embroidered with carnations.
The bottom half of the painting consists of an amalgam of flowers including iris (symbol of Florence), jasmine, and grape hyacinth that are used in perfumery for thousands of years.
The symbolic depiction of Primavera
Mirella Levi D’Ancona, an American-Italian art critic, defines Primavera with neo-Platonic ideas about love discussed in the humanist circles surrounding Botticelli.
Marsilio Ficino, one of the most influential humanist philosophers in the early Italian Renaissance described love —
There are two kinds of love, the terrestrial and the divine. Love cements the union between mortals as well as between a man and God. Love originates from God, and all humans tend to return to God when they are inflamed with love. The lower kind of love, which is common to humans as well as beasts and plants, is responsible for the continuation of the species through the generative act. This lower type of love, in turn, induces man to seek the higher kind of love, which links man with God.
The two kinds of love illustrated in the painting are from right to left. While Zephyrus’s love is “terrestrial” who is abducting Cloris, Mercury embodies the idea of “divine love” who turns his back on other figures.
We could expand the idea further using Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil opening lines: Supposing truth is a woman — what then?
Supposing the truth of the Primavera is a woman — what does the painting itself tell us about this woman, and man’s (i.e. the interpreter’s) attempt to acquire it? On the one hand, there is Zephyrus, violently penetrating the horrified virginal truth embodied by Chloris — could this not be compared to the rigid relationship of identity, which does not take into account the fragile and nebulous nature of visual truth? On the other hand, does the disinterested, noble stature of Mercury, the disperser of clouds, not resemble the seeker of metaphorical relationships, a stoic figure intent on unveiling the complexities of the semantic knots tying the Primavera to a multiplicity of discourses?
Primavera as a painting is one big open window that is literally radiating the season of spring and metaphorically is open to human interpretations.