In the northern hemisphere, spring begins between March 20th and 21st. During this time, the temperature gradually rises, causing vegetation to resurge and trees, shrubs, and others to be filled with new flowers, repeating the cycle. It is, to a certain extent, a rebirth. Hence, one of the most important paintings of all time was named after this season, a work that is considered a symbol of the transition towards the Renaissance, where ancient arts began to be reborn. Here is our analysis of Sandro Botticelli’s iconic painting, Primavera.
Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera
Primavera shows what initially appears to be a celebration in a forest, but as the iconography is interpreted, its meaning begins to change. The central figure is a woman of great beauty and noble appearance dressed in red. With the gesture of her hand, she seems to be in charge of the group. Above her, a winged being flutters and blindfolds a bow towards the left to what seems to be three women dancing. Near them is a subject carrying a sword and looking up with an instrument; it is also considered to observe oranges hanging. On the other side, to the right, something unusual happens: a strange being seems to be dragging a woman, who has plants sprouting from her mouth. Next to her, a proud and elegantly dressed woman looks indifferent to what is happening. Above them, some fruits are hanging from the trees, apparently apples. On the ground, many flowers grow, and vegetation is palpable in every corner.
The characters are in the Garden of Atlas or the Hesperides, which is the garden of the goddess Hera or Juno, and where the nymphs resided. This is the mythological place where famous golden apples that provided immortality grew. Therefore, the central figure is a representation of Venus, goddess of fertility, beauty, and love. She is easy to recognize as she is dressed in red, and is the most important goddess represented in Primavera; also, another way to identify her is the winged being that accompanies her above, Cupid, as it was common during Renaissance for these two characters to be depicted together.
Zephyr and Chloris
To one side of them, the three women would be recognized as the Hesperides or Graces, the guardians of the garden who are dancing in apparent celebration. Near them is Mercury, as part of Venus’ entourage, which can be identified thanks to the small wings that emerge from his sandals. Art historian Horst Bredekamp exposes that he is in contrast to a character on the extreme right: Zephyr. According to Ovid in Book V of the Fasti, the goddess of spring, Flora, describes how before she was a goddess, she was a nymph named Chloris:
I was once Chloris, and now I am known as Flora […] I was a nymph from the happy plains, where you know that once-fortunate men had their means of living; modest as I am, it is hard for me to expose the beauty that I had. But that beauty caught my mother as a god for a son-in-law. It was spring; I was walking; the west wind discovered me, and I was about to flee. He chased me, I ran; he was stronger […] I have no complaints about my marriage. I enjoy eternal spring: the year is always smiling, the trees always have leaves, and the earth always has grass. I have a lush garden in the fields that make up my dowry: the wind respects it, and a crystal-clear water source waters it. My husband covered this garden with generous flowers and told me: “You, goddess, hold the sovereignty of flowers.” (Fasti, 177-178)
Thus, the figures on the right are explained, as it is about Zephyrus seizing Chloris, while she expels flowers from her mouth, as she is about to become the goddess of spring. However, the figure next to Chloris remains even more mysterious as she ventures to say that it is none other than Chloris herself, only representing the goddess Flora, and that is why she stands so proud: she now rises in her new identity.
Primavera: Historical Background
During the Middle Ages, it was common to depict different stories in the same plane. There is a way to notice the story of Zephyrus, Flora, and Chloris that is hidden in the movements of the clothing, as it goes in opposite directions, representing that the wind blowing in the image belongs to different times.
However, beyond the mythological explanation and the relationship between the characters, a historical background is hidden in the painting, which has been studied and interpreted multiple times. Firstly, Sandro Botticelli was closely associated with the Medici family, and it is said that it was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (Popolano) from the younger line of the Medici, who commissioned the painting, inspired by a poem dedicated to him by Bartolomeo Scala: De Arborirus (Of Trees). This poem is about the cultivation and care of trees and has no political meaning, although the metaphor of the plant world in Florence is applied, and there is a phonetic approximation between “Flora” and “Flor.”
Due to the similarity between these words, it can be referred to the ancient myth and try to make Florence appear as the very garden of the Hesperides. Despite this, Bredekamp, in his study of Primavera, refers multiple times to the term “vegetal kingdom,” emphasizing this last word. He explains that it is this vegetal character that prevails in the painting and that it is an allegory of how Florence is an earthly paradise.
Venus is represented as the main goddess, and the others accompany her. She is the center of everything: love, beauty, fertility, and it may be that, because of her, Flora accepted Zephyrus. Although in Primavera she is represented accompanied by Cupid launching an arrow, the mystery of who it was directed to also becomes present. Flora has a haughty attitude, and a proud bearing, and even her clothing surrounded by vegetation say something about her strength; while Venus’s face and gestures represent complete calm, a sign that she is in charge. There are no limits or doubts about her power.
Bredekamp makes a very important allegory by linking Venus with Proserpina, the queen of the Underworld. In Botticelli’s painting, Venus is depicted with a necklace from which a ruby hangs, representing the color red (of the roses that were born when Venus touched the Earth), but the base of this forms a half-moon, which is directly related to Proserpina who was taken by Pluto to her his wife. At the request of her mother, Proserpina was allowed to return to Earth every spring; the flowers would bloom with her return and, when she would descend again, winter would return.
The resemblance that Proserpina has to Chloris is evident since both were seized and are related to spring. However, the figure of Proserpina has a greater weight, since she is the queen of the underworld, and when she descends, the Earth receives winter as a yearning for her figure.
There’s no doubt that Primavera can still hide many more things within its brush strokes, but above all, it brings the return of the ancient gods to this Renaissance world, who were not forgotten and return because they can still represent something; whether to imply that Florence was an attempt at the Garden of the Hesperides on Earth or as a simple decoration on the wall of a Medici. Spring is the triumph of the Ancient in the Renaissance, as reviving the ancient gods and depicting them in a new way; becomes an act of rebellion. It was just the beginning, and spring as such, is the start of the other seasons; it’s the beginning of a new cycle, just like the Renaissance.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva.