Sandro Botticelli. One of the most famous artists of the Renaissance, and universally known for his beautiful and distinctive paintings. His art hangs in the Uffizi, the Louvre and the National Gallery, to name but a few. During the Renaissance, artists often took inspiration from the classical world, as they saw this as one of the greatest ages of human accomplishment. They strived to recover the ancient arts of Greece and Rome, which is where the name “Renaissance” comes from, as the ancient world was quite literally being reborn!
One of the biggest turning points in artistic style was the movement from religious to mythological themes. In the middle ages, most paintings had a religious theme, but Botticelli began to break ground and was the first to depict a full-scale mythological scene.
Officially called ‘The Allegory of Spring’, ‘Primavera’ (meaning ‘spring’) was painted around 1470 and commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of the Medici family, who were a powerful banking family from Florence. It is one of the most famous Renaissance paintings in the world and one of the most popular paintings of all time. Botticelli often drew inspiration from the classical, and another of his famous works, ‘The Birth of Venus’, is also mythological; the two paintings are often seen as a pair.
The scene shows a group of elegant figures standing in an orange grove scattered with wildflowers. Some interpret the location as the ‘realm of Venus’, whilst others see the orange trees as a reference to the Medici family, who used them as a symbol. Whilst there has been much debate as to the exact meaning of the painting, the figures in it are well known.
Venus, the Roman goddess of love, stands in the middle and represents the humanist ideals of the classical world which were embraced during the Renaissance. As with all of Botticelli’s depictions of women, Venus has porcelain skin with hints of blush in her cheeks, painted in meticulous detail. Above Venus flies her son Cupid, whilst the foliage behind her frames her as the painting’s focus. She poses with her head tilted in thought as she gestures to the dancing figures.
These are the Three Graces, women that represent the feminine ideals of Love, Chastity and Beauty. These figures traditionally accompany Venus and reinforce the romantic and sensual scene. Their clothing is almost transparent, falling around them in a way that highlights Botticelli’s expertise in using light brushstrokes to build up opaque layers. This technique is what gives his paintings their uniquely iridescent quality. They also have pearls on their heads, a symbol of purity. Cupid aims his arrow at them, perhaps alluding to the approaching marriage of the painting’s patron.
At the edge of the painting, stands Mercury, the god of May. Easily identified by his winged sandals, he uses his staff to dispel the winter clouds and welcome Spring. Some think that the model for Mercury was Lorenzo di Pierfranceso himself, and that Flora, on Venus’ left, was modelled on his bride.
On the other side, the blue-faced Zephyrus, the west wind, is pursuing a nymph called Chloris. We see Chloris transforming into Flora, the goddess of flowers and Spring. In a beautifully detailed gown, she scatters flowers that have gathered there, representing fertility. Together, Mercury and Flora signify the coming of Spring, the perfect time for a wedding.
In trying to recapture Rome’s former glory, ancient myths were revived. The artist had to transform what was written and conjure up the spirit of the ancient world. Primavera depicts themes of fertility, love and springtime. Its beautifully intricate details, like the hundreds of different flowers, mean that it continues to inspire awe to this day. It captures a moment in time when absolute love and idealised beauty were the driving force of creativity, art and culture.
– Miranda Parkinson