The Primavera (Spring), also know as L’allegoria della primavera (The Allegory of Spring), is a large panel painting in tempera paint by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli, displayed in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
It has been described as “one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world,” and “one of the most popular paintings in Western art.”
Primavera is one of Botticelli’s most famous paintings.
Sandro Botticelli (1445 -1510), whose real name was Alessandro Filipepi, was one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance and one of the most well-known of the Medici employees. He studied under Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the top Florentine painters of the day.
The history of the painting is not certainly known, though it seems to have been painted for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco dei Medici, who belonged to the most powerful Florentine family and was cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificient.
While critics are divided on the date, Primavera was certainly painted between 1477 and 1482.
The painting was originally located in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, a florentine palace situated on the via Larga, and was then moved to the Villa of Castello which, according to Vasari, also housed The Birth of Venus. It was subsequently moved to the Vasari Corridor, to the Accademia Gallery and finally to its current location, the Uffizi Museum.
The figurative composition, arranged in groups, presents nine subjects (two male and six female figures), along with a cupid in an orange grove (a Medici symbol).
To be fully understood, the painting should be read from right to left.
The first character from the right is Zephyr, the Spring wind, about to impregnate with a puff a nymph named Chloris. After he succeeds in taking her for his own, they are married and Chloris transforms into Flora, the Spring goddess. Here, Flora is depicted throwing flowers that have been gathered in her dress. This is a means of symbolizing both springtime and fertility.
In the centre (but not exactly so) and somewhat set back from the other figures stands Venus, a red-draped woman in blue. Above her we find a putto swaying while in the act of shooting an arrow from his bow. The trees behind her form a broken arch to draw the eye.
Venus seems to be reaching out to the Three Graces, a group of females also in diaphanous white who are doing the Carola, a typical medieval dance.
Their clothing is like lace, very light and see-through, which demonstrates Botticelli’s virtuosity in depicting such kinds of fabric.
It is interesting to see that they are being targeted by Cupid’s arrow, which reinforces the idea of marriage.
Finally, on the left we find Mercury, clothed in red with a sword and a helmet, dissipating the clouds with his winged staff.
The landscape in the background is composed of a forest of orange trees as well as a lawn containing many varieties of flowers.
There are 500 identified plant species depicted in the painting, with about 190 different flowers, of which at least 130 can be specifically identified.
The overall appearance and size of the painting is similar to that of the millefleur (“thousand flower”) Flemish tapestries that were popular decorations for palaces at the time.
The figures are spread out in a rough line across the front of the picture.
The interactions between the figures are enigmatic. Zephyrus and Chloris are looking at each other, Flora and Venus look out at the viewer, the Cupid is blindfolded, and Mercury has turned his back on the others and looks up at the clouds. The central Grace looks towards him, while the other two seem to look at each other.
The painting has generated much controversy for its interpretation. Most art historians agree that the painting depicts a group of mythological figures cavorting in a lush garden and that it is an allegory for springfertility of the world. However, others believe that the painting is more than a simple illustration, representing the ideal of Neoplatonic love.
During the Renaissance Neo-Platonic philosophy was very popular. It focused on the perfect fusion of Spirit and Matter, as well as Ideas and Nature; Botticelli was greatly influenced by this type of philosophy.
The allusions to Spring and the month of May, the scene of a suitor’s pursuit, the Three Graces—all of these point to the idea of a springtime marriage.
The painting would have been placed in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bedroom, and his wife would have seen it for the first time after their wedding. As such, the idea of Cupid targeting the pure Three Graces with his arrow takes on a particular meaning in light of conjugal love.
In any case, the painting is a testament to humanist interests in classical subject matter in the Renaissance, as well as the courtly desire for lavish themes and graceful figures.
From a pictorial point of view, Botticelli’s Primavera is characterized by different shades of light colors that contrast with the background in a play of light and shadow. As a result, the light and the shade stand out.
The naturalistic details of the lawn, the skillful use of color, the elegance of the figures, and the poetry of the whole all contributed to making this painting a masterpiece.
Spring is from the most serene and graceful period for Botticelli, as opposed to some of his other works, such as Map of Hell, which are very dark and gloomy and belong to a different phase of his artistic production.
In Inferno, Dan Brown contrasts these two masterpieces through this insightful passage:
The Map of Hell was one of the most frightening visions of the afterlife ever created. Dark, grim and terrifying, the painting stopped people in their tracks even today. Unlike his vibrant and colorful Primavera or Birth of Venus, Botticelli had crafted his Map of Hell with a depressing palate of reds, sepias, and browns
This post was originally published on December 9, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on September 17, 2018