‘Spring is something you step into’ – Part Three: Botticelli’s Primavera | whynow

Since we started this series inspired by David Hockney’s ‘Do remember they can’t cancel spring’, the artist has unveiled even more iPad paintings of the landscape in Normandy ‘as a respite from the news’.

Taking up the torch from Hockney, we’re exploring depictions of springtime from art history — and Botticelli’s Primavera might just be the epitome.


A pregnant Venus and her son, Cupid, his arrow of love the centrifugal force of the scene

No discussion of spring in art would be complete without Sandro Botticellii’s ‘Primavera’, often referred to as Allegory of Spring. Painted circa 1482 for the Medici Palace, and most probably for the wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and Semiramide d’Appiano, it shows nine figures in an orange grove; it’s one of those gatherings that reaffirm spring as a time of endless revival.

…often referred to as Allegory of Spring it’s one of those gatherings that reaffirm spring as a time of endless revival.

On the right, a swirl of blue through the trees — the wind god Zephyr seizing the wood nymph Chloris. The myth goes that following her rape the pair enter into a loving marriage and Chloris transforms into Flora, the figure standing to her right. As if to emphasise the happy metamorphosis, flowers stream from Chloris’ mouth, eliding her with her future form; Flora, the goddess of spring, is covered head-to-toe in flowers, from her garland crown to the carnations embroidered on her dress and the petals she scatters on the floor.

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Next to Flora on the left is Venus, framed by myrtle trees (a plant used in wedding rituals and long associated with the goddess of love) signifying this as her domain. Cupid, her son, appears overhead, blindfolded (love is blind, after all) and aims an arrow at the Three Graces dancing to Venus’ right. There is indeed much grace to be found in their dresses’ diaphanous fabric, as well as playfulness in their loosely interlocked fingers, and timelessness in the fluid circle they’ve formed.

Truly, spring might last forever — especially with Mercury on the far left dissipating the incoming clouds with his caduceus, prolonging the inventiveness and vivacity of the season.

The Three Graces dancing, oblivious that they are the target of Cupid’s poised arrow

Many see this painting as contrasting different types of love, with Venus in the centre separating the idealised forms embodied in the Three Graces on the painting’s left-side, with the carnal desire on the right. A celebration of Florence — city of flowers, no less — the work is also reverent with allusions to the Medici who commissioned it. The oranges reference those in the family coat of arms and a laurel tree on the right might stand for ‘Lorenzo’, to give a couple examples. All the references to fertility (a pregnant Flora), longevity, and nuptials (with Venus wearing a headdress typical of a Florentine married woman) make it the perfect wedding gift.

All the references to fertility, longevity, and nuptials make [the painting] the perfect wedding gift.

Critics continue to debate the exact meaning of all its allusions, but there are bountiful pleasures on display for the dilettante and passerby. Who could fail to be drawn in by the sensuousness of this sacred grove? For a start, I like that the painting remains quietly enigmatic. While it’s reassuring to think that someone, perhaps a guest at an opulent Medici wedding ceremony, would have grasped every single reference, I find it somehow more seductive that a kernel of its meaning is always elusive — it’s like someone has just promised to tell you a delicious secret, and being suspended in that moment.

I find it somehow more seductive that a kernel of its meaning is always elusive…

Second, is the rhythm of the painting. The flowing figures with elongated limbs — typical of Botticelli — cut subtle S shapes. They appear languid and weightless at once. The guests in Venus’ garden are engaged in various activities, their hair tousled by the wind, while the goddess of love is an oasis of calm, her clothes and veil hanging still, as she stands in casual contrapposto.

Mercury raises his caduceus towards the wispy grey clouds

Then there’s the interplay of architectural and natural elements. The shape of the tree limbs behind Venus’ head form an apse — the cool shade of the canopy acts as a roof, the straight tree trunks pillars. We’re in the church of spring, standing before the secular-classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, her hand is raised in blessing. With this reassuring gesture, she beckons us into the frame. It’s as if the figures on either side of her have parted, clearing the way for the viewer to stride onto that carpet-like, flowery meadow.

Then there’s the interplay of architectural and natural elements. The shape of the tree limbs behind Venus’ head form an apse — the cool shade of the canopy acts as a roof, the straight tree trunks pillars. We’re in the church of spring, standing before the secular-classical equivalent of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, her hand is raised in blessing. With this reassuring gesture, she beckons us into the frame. It’s as if the figures on either side of her have parted, clearing the way for the viewer to stride onto that carpet-like, flowery meadow.

Probable self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli from the Adoration of the Magi

In this equable shade, skin glows as if sunlit, colours and climate finely balanced. Violets, cornflowers, chrysanthemums, forget-me-nots (literally hundreds of different types of flowers) are scattered like stars at your feet. Spring, Botticelli has realised, is something you step into; bask in. Its pleasures are as simple, immediate and life-giving as being held by a loving gaze. In this pagan church, all the world is dancing at its altar.

In this equable shade, skin glows as if sunlit, colours and climate finely balanced.

They say marriage is for life, not just the wedding day. But Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ goes the other way: boundless life is teeming in each evanescing moment.

Rampa  They Will Be