Primavera (painting)

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Artist Sandro Botticelli
Year late 1470s or early 1480s
Medium Tempera on panel
Dimensions 202 cm × 314 cm (80 in × 124 in)
Location Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Primavera (Italian pronunciation: [primaˈveːra]), is a large panel painting in tempera paint by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli made in the late 1470s or early 1480s (datings vary). It has been described as "one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world",[1] and also "one of the most popular paintings in Western art".[2]

The painting depicts a group of figures from classical mythology in a garden, but no story has been found that brings this particular group together.[3] Most critics agree that the painting is an allegory based on the lush growth of Spring, but accounts of any precise meaning vary, though many involve the Renaissance Neoplatonism which then fascinated intellectual circles in Florence. The title of La Primavera was first recorded by the art historian Giorgio Vasari who saw it at Villa Castello, just outside Florence, by 1550.[4]

The history of the painting is not certainly known, though it seems to have been commissioned by one of the Medici family. It probably draws from the works of the Ancient Roman poets Ovid and Lucretius, and may also allude to a poem by Poliziano. Since 1919 the painting has been part of the collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.


Venus standing in her arch.

The painting features six female figures and two male, along with a cupid, in an orange grove. The typical identification of the figures is:

from right to left: Zephyrus, the biting wind of March, kidnaps and possesses the nymph Chloris, whom he later marries and transforms into a deity; she becomes the goddess of Spring, eternal bearer of life, and is scattering roses on the ground.[5]

In the centre and somewhat set back from the other figures stands Venus, a red-draped woman in blue. Like the flower-gatherer, she returns the viewer's gaze. The trees behind her form a broken arch to draw the eye.[6]

To the right of centre of the painting, Flora, a flower-crowned female figure stands in a floral-patterned dress scattering flowers that are piled up in a folds of her dress. She has a slight smile on her face while stepping towards the viewer. The colours of the flowers on her dress and in her hand are pink, red and white.[7]

To the right of Flora a woman in diaphanous white is being seized from above by Zephyr, a winged male. His cheeks are puffed, his expression intent, and his unnatural complexion separates him from the rest of the figures. The trees around him blow in the direction of his entry, as does the skirt of the woman he is seizing. The drapery of her companion blows in the other direction.[8]

On the left of the painting the Three Graces, a group of three females also in diaphanous white, join hands in a dance, while to the left of them Mercury, a red-draped youth with a sword and a helmet, raises his wooden rod towards some wispy gray clouds. Two of the women wear prominent necklaces. The flying cherub has an arrow ready to shoot, aimed at the dancing girls.[9]

The pastoral scenery is elaborate. There are 500 identified plant species depicted in the painting, with about 190 different flowers,[10] of which at least 130 can be specifically identified.[1] 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.[11]


Various interpretations of the figures have been set forth, but it is generally agreed that at least at one level the painting is, as characterized by Cunningham and Reich (2009), "an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world."[2] It is thought that Botticelli had help devising the composition of the painting and whatever meanings it was intended to contain. Poliziano is usually thought to have been involved in this.[12]

Venus presides over the garden - an orange grove (a Medici symbol). She stands in front of the dark leaves of a myrtle bush. According to Hesiod, Venus had been born of the sea after the semen of Uranus had fallen upon the waters. Coming ashore in a shell she had clothed her nakedness in myrtle, and so the plant became sacred to her.[13] The Graces accompanying her (and targeted by Cupid) bear jewels in the colors of the Medici family, while Mercury's caduceus keeps the garden safe from threatening clouds.[5][14]

The basic identifications of the figures is widely agreed,[15] but other names have sometimes been used for the females on the right, who are two stages of the same person in the usual interpretation. The woman in the flowered dress may be called Primavera (a personification of Spring), with Flora the figure pursued by Zephyr.[16]

Botticelli's Pallas and the Centaur (1482) has been proposed as the companion piece to Primavera.[17]

In addition to its overt meaning, the painting has been interpreted as an illustration of the ideal of Neoplatonic love popularized among the Medicis and their followers by Marsilio Ficino.[17] The Neoplatonic philosophers saw Venus as ruling over both earthly and divine love and argued that she was the classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary; this is alluded to by the way she is framed in an altar-like setting that is similar to contemporary images of the Virgin Mary.[18]

In this interpretation, as set out in Sandro Botticelli, 1444/45-1510 (2000), the earthy carnal love represented by Zephyrus to the right is renounced by the central figure of the Graces, who has turned her back to the scene, unconcerned by the threat represented to her by Cupid. Her focus is on Mercury, who himself gazes beyond the canvas at what Deimling asserts hung as the companion piece to Primavera: Pallas and the Centaur, in which "love oriented towards knowledge" (embodied by Pallas Athena) proves triumphant over lust (symbolized by the centaur).[19] It is, on the other hand, possible that, rather than her having renounced carnal love, the intense emotional expression with which she gazes at Mercury is one of dawning love, proleptic of the receipt of Cupid's arrow which appears to be aimed particularly at her; which emotion is being recognised, with an expression at once sympathetic, quizzical and apprehensive, by the sister immediately to her left.[citation needed]

Literary sources[edit]

The group at the right of the painting was inspired by a description by the Roman poet Ovid of the arrival of Spring (Fasti, Book 5, May 2). In this the wood nymph Chloris recounts how her naked charms attracted the first wind of Spring, Zephyr. Zephyr pursued her and as she was ravished, flowers sprang from her mouth and she became transformed into Flora, goddess of flowers.[20] In Ovid's work the reader is told 'till then the earth had been but of one colour'. From Chloris' name the colour may be guessed to have been green - the Greek word for green is khloros, the root of words like chlorophyll - and may be why Botticeli painted Zephyr in shades of bluish-green.[14]

Other specific elements may have been derived from a poem by Poliziano.[21][22] As Poliziano's poem, "Rusticus", was published in 1483 and the painting is generally held to have been completed by around 1482,[1][23] some scholars have argued that the influence was reversed,[24] bearing in mind that Poliziano is generally thought to have helped with devising the allegory in the painting.[25]

Another inspiration for the painting seems to have been the poem by Lucretius "De rerum natura", which includes the lines, "Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus' boy, / The winged harbinger, steps on before, / And hard on Zephyr's foot-prints Mother Flora, / Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all / With colors and with odors excellent."[26][27][28]


Mercury may have been modeled after Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici,[29] or possibly his cousin Giuliano de' Medici.[30]

The origin of the painting is unclear. Botticelli was away in Rome for many months in 1481/82, painting in the Sistine Chapel, and suggested dates are in recent years mostly later than this, but still sometimes before. Thinking has been somewhat changed by the publication in 1975 of an inventory from 1499 of the collection of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici.[31]

The 1499 inventory records it hanging in the city palace of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and his brother Giovanni "Il Popolano". They were the cousins of Lorenzo de' Medici ("Lorenzo il Magnifico"), who was effectively the ruler of Florence, and after their father's early death had been his wards.[32] It hung over a large lettuccio, an elaborate piece of furniture including a raised base, a seat and and a backboard, probably topped with a cornice. The bottom of the painting was probably at about the viewer's eye-level, so rather higher than it is hung today.[33]

In the same room was Botticelli's Pallas and the Centaur, and also a large tondo with the Virgin and Child. The tondo is now unidentified, but is a type of painting especially associated with Botticelli. This was given the highest value of the three paintings, at 180 lire. A further inventory of 1503 records that the Primavera had a large white frame.[34]

In the first edition of his Life of Botticelli, published in 1550, Giorgio Vasari said that he had seen this painting, and the Birth of Venus, hanging in the Medici country Villa di Castello. Before the inventory was known it was usually believed that both paintings were made for the villa, probably soon after it was acquired in 1477, either commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco or perhaps given to him by his older cousin and guardian Lorenzo de' Medici.[35]

Most scholars now connect the painting to the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. Paintings and furniture were often given as presents celebrating weddings. The marriage was on 19 July 1482, but had been postponed after the death of the elder Lorenzo's mother on 25 March. It was originally planned for May.[36] Recent datings tend to prefer the early 1480's, after Botticelli's return from Rome, suggesting it was directly commissioned in connection with this wedding, a view supported by many.[37]

Another older theory, assuming an early date, suggests the older Lorenzo commissioned the portrait to celebrate the birth of his nephew Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici (who later became Pope), but changed his mind after the assassination of Giulo's father, his brother Giuliano in 1478, having it instead completed as a wedding gift for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco.[5][38]

It is frequently suggested that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco is the model for Mercury in the portrait, and his bride Semirande represented as Flora (or Venus).[29] In older theories, placing the painting in the 1470s, it was proposed that the model for Venus was Simonetta Vespucci, wife of Marco Vespucci and perhaps the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici (who is also sometimes said to have been the model for Mercury);[30] these identifications largely depend on an early date, in the 1470s, as both were dead by 1478.

Whenever this painting and the Birth of Venus were united at Castello, they have remained together ever since. They stayed in Castello until 1815, when they were transferred to the Uffizi. For some years until 1919 they were kept in the Galleria dell'Accademia, another government museum in Florence.[39] Since 1919, it has hung in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. During the Italian campaign of World War Two, the picture was moved to Montegufoni Castle about ten miles south west of Florence to protect it from wartime bombing.[40]

It was returned to the Uffizi Gallery where it remains to the present day. In 1978, the painting was restored.[41] The work has darkened considerably over the course of time.[22]

Details, Primavera
Flora, the goddess of flowers and the season of spring. 
Detail of Flora's gown. 


  1. ^ a b c Fossi 1998, p. 5.
  2. ^ a b Cunningham & Reich 2009, p. 282.
  3. ^ Dempsey
  4. ^ Foster & Tudor-Craig 1986, p. 42.
  5. ^ a b c Capretti 2002, p. 48.
  6. ^ Lightbown, 126-128
  7. ^ Lightbown, 137-138
  8. ^ Lightbown, 138-140
  9. ^ Lightbown, 128-135
  10. ^ Capretti 2002, p. 49.
  11. ^ Lightbown, 123; Ettlingers, 120, 122
  12. ^ Dempsey
  13. ^ Foster & Tudor-Craig 1986, p. 44.
  14. ^ a b Foster & Tudor-Craig 1986, p. 45.
  15. ^ Lightbown, 126-140; Ettlingers, 122-124; Dempsey
  16. ^ Steinmann 1901, p. 82-84.
  17. ^ a b Deimling 2000, p. 45.
  18. ^ Harris & Zucker.
  19. ^ Deimling 2000, p. 45-46.
  20. ^ Lightbown, 140
  21. ^ Servadio 2005, p. 7.
  22. ^ a b Steinmann 1901, p. 80.
  23. ^ Patterson 1987, p. 65.
  24. ^ Cheney 1985, p. 52.
  25. ^ Dempsey
  26. ^ Deimling 2000, p. 43.
  27. ^ Lucretius.
  28. ^ Lightbown, 137, 138
  29. ^ a b Fisher 2011, p. 12.
  30. ^ a b Heyl 1912, p. 89-90.
  31. ^ Lightbown, 142; Inventory publication
  32. ^ Lightbown, 120-122
  33. ^ Lightbown, 122
  34. ^ Lightbown, 122
  35. ^ Lightbown, 142
  36. ^ Lightbown, 122; Dempsey
  37. ^ Lightbown, 142-143
  38. ^ Lightbown, 121-122
  39. ^ Legouix, 115-118
  40. ^ Healey 2011.
  41. ^ Lightbown, 143-145


External links[edit]

External video
Smarthistory - Botticelli's Primavera