When I was little, I used to play a game called ‘Botticelli’. It is quite a simple game: someone has to think of a famous person, and then others have to guess who he or she is by asking questions. These questions can only be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The game is named after the famous Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). As a child, I did not have a clue who Botticelli was, until I saw a painting of his masterpiece, the Birth of Venus, during my first year in high school. Much, much later I saw the original work at the Uffizi in Florence. Botticelli’s elegantly painted figures and brilliant use of colour have always fascinated me. This post is about three of his works that can be admired at the Uffizi. Apart from The Birth of Venus (ca. 1485) these are the Primavera (ca. 1482) and the Madonna del Magnificat (ca. 1480-1481). For some of Botticelli’s other work I refer to my posts about the Museo Poldi Pezzoli and the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, both in Milan.
Let us take a closer look at the Primavera first. It is often discussed together with the Birth of Venus and it is the older of the two paintings. Botticelli probably painted it shortly after his return from Rome in 1482, where he had executed three frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. It has long been thought that the Primavera was painted for Lorenzo de’ Medici, nicknamed ‘The Magnificent’, the de facto ruler of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492. However, this theory can be considered disproven. A more plausible theory is that the painting was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (1463-1503), one of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousins. According to an inventory published in the 1970s, the painting was in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s city palace in 1499. To be precise, it was on the wall of an anteroom to Lorenzo’s bedchamber, with a Virgin and Child by an unknown painter on the opposite wall and another work by Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur (also in the Uffizi), above the entrance. It has been hypothesised that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco hired Botticelli to paint the Primavera on the occasion of his wedding in July of 1482. It was later moved to the Villa di Castello, the country residence of the de’ Medici family.
The Primavera is about the arrival and celebration of Spring. The painting is set in a rather dark orange grove. Botticelli really excelled himself in the details, as he painted almost 500 different kinds of plants, among them 190 species of flowers. The orange grove is a quiet and serene place, but on the right an intruder is causing a disturbance. He is Zephyrus, a wind god, and Botticelli has painted him with his cheeks full of air. He is trying to abduct Chloris, a scantily clad nymph with flowers emerging from her mouth. Chloris then transforms into the woman next to her, Flora, the goddess of flowers. In the centre of the painting we see Venus, the goddess of love, with her son Amor or Cupido hovering above her. He seems to be taking aim with his bow and pointing the arrow towards the group of three beautiful women dancing a roundelay. They are the three Graces or Charites, who appear quite often in Renaissance art (see Rome: Villa Farnesina for Raphael’s depiction of them). On the far left, we see the messenger god Mercurius. He is trying to dispel some clouds with his caduceus, a staff with two serpents wrapped around it. He is wearing the traditional winged boots and has a sword on his hip.
The Primavera has sparked a lot of academic debate and this debate will no doubt continue, as the precise meaning of the painting will probably remain unclear forever. Botticelli was certainly inspired by the Roman poet Ovidius (Ovid in English; ca. 43 BCE-18 CE). Ovidius wrote a six-book poem about the Roman calendar and festivals, and in the fifth book we find and account of the rape of Chloris by Zephyrus. Another source of inspiration was probably the poem “De Rerum Natura” by the poet and philosopher Lucretius (ca. 99-55 BCE). There has also been a lot of speculation about a possible Neoplatonic message in the painting. There can be no doubt that Neoplatonism was popular in Renaissance Florence and that one of its chief promoters was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), court philosopher of the de’ Medicis. This is all certainly food for thought, but I will leave it to more qualified writers to discuss the possible Neoplatonic meaning of the Primavera.
The Birth of Venus
The Birth of Venus is usually dated to ca. 1485, so it was painted some three years later than the Primavera. One notable difference is that it was painted on canvas instead of wood. Canvas paintings were cheaper than panel paintings, and while the latter were used to decorate palazzos and public buildings, the former were usually taken to country villas, where they could be admired in a more private setting. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the Birth of Venus hung in the Villa di Castello at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Since the Primavera was to be found there as well around this time, it has often been assumed that both paintings were executed as counterparts. But while there are some thematic similarities between the two mythological paintings, this assumption cannot be correct. As we have seen above, the Primavera was in the palazzo of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco in 1499. The Birth of Venus is not mentioned in the inventory of that palazzo. It must therefore be concluded that the paintings were only united later. The difference in material – canvas vs. wood – only serves to strengthen that conclusion. We do not know who commissioned the painting, but since it ended up in the country residence of the de’ Medicis, we may presume that it was a member of that extended family.
Venus is again the central figure of the painting, but this time she is naked. She is trying to cover her breasts with her right arm, while using her flowing reddish hair to cover her nether regions. This pose was obviously inspired by the classical sculpture of the Venus Pudica, the modest Venus (examples here and here). In fact, Botticelli painted Venus very much like a statue. The colour of her skin resembles that of cool marble, her stance is physically impossible and her neck is slightly too long to be considered realistic. And yet she is absolutely beautiful. Although the painting is called the Birth of Venus, it is not actually about her birth (for that moment, see for instance this post). The goddess is depicted standing on a large shell. She is being blown ashore by two figures floating in the sky on the left. The male figure is the wind god Zephyrus again (see above), but the naked female is less certain. If we assume a parallel between the Birth of Venus and the Primavera, she might by Chloris, but she is more often identified as Aura, also a wind god (her name actually means “breeze”). Standing on the shore is a woman in a white dress with floral motifs. She is ready to cover Venus’ nakedness with a large robe. The woman has been identified as one of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons.
As with the Primavera, the Birth of Venus is full of symbolism and this has led to much academic debate and speculation. The laurel trees (Laurus nobilis in Latin) are said to be a reference to the name Lorenzo (Laurentius in Latin; “the laurelled”), perhaps Lorenzo the Magnificent, perhaps his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. But perhaps they are just laurel trees. The flowers (florae in Latin) that can be seen in the air might by a reference to the city of Florence (Florentia in Latin). But perhaps they are just flowers. Perhaps Venus was modelled on the beautiful Simonetta Vespucci (1453-1476), a noblewoman from Genoa who had married into the Florentine Vespucci family (see this post). We will never know. But what we do know is that the Birth of Venus remains one of the most beautiful Renaissance paintings ever created.
Madonna del Magnificat
Botticelli presumably painted his Magnificat Madonna in 1480 or 1481, so just prior to leaving for Rome to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The (unofficial) name of the painting derives from the first word – “MAGNIFICAT” – on the right page of the book that is held by two angels on the left. The text is taken from the Gospel of Luke and refers to the song of praise spoken by Mary to her relative Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist (“magnificat anima mea Dominum etc”; Luke 1:46-55). The Madonna del Magnificat is a tondo, a round painting that was typically used to decorate a palazzo or a guild house. Botticelli has depicted the Virgin writing the final lines of her song. Her hand is being guided by the Christ child on her lap. Two angels are holding the book, while a third is leaning over them to take a look at what is being written. A fourth angel, for whom there seems to be too little space on the left, is holding a crown above Mary’s head, aided by a fifth angel on the right. Mary and the Christ child are clutching a pomegranate with their left hand. In the background, we can see a landscape with a river and a castle-like structure.
Whoever commissioned the Magnificat Madonna, he must have been fabulously wealthy. In no other tondo did Botticelli employ so much gold paint. According to art historian Barbara Deimling, he used it “for the ornamentation of the robes, for the divine rays, and for Mary’s crown, and even utilizing it to heighten the hair colour of Mary and the angels”. The result is a beautiful painting that, although quite different from the Primavera and the Birth of Venus, is certainly not out of place in the same room at the Uffizi.
Barbara Deimling’s ‘Botticelli’ was an important source for this post.