“Allegory of Spring” by Botticelli is one of those iconic paintings that have conquered the collective imagination. Housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, it’s a mesmerising work where flowers, plants and dancing figures create a world of pure grace and movement. It’s here that we understand why Botticelli was called ‘the master of the swirling line’.
This painting has been called a “mythological riddle”, and critics haven’t agreed on one single interpretation. Botticelli might be recreating a pagan ritual, a feast to celebrate the arrival of Spring. Alternatively it could be an ode to Beauty, a quality that brings men closer to God according to neoplatonism. It might be that he’s just celebrating Florence, the city of flowers, and the ruling Medici family, alluding to the marriage of one of their members.
Botticelli Spring, Primavera – Who’s in the painting?
In this busy scene we see lots of figures around the central Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty who is the only one looking directly out at the spectator. She’s the real protagonist here, as in the other Botticelli masterpiece “The Birth of Venus”. The representation is not realistic, and looks more like a theatre set, with a totally flat background. Here the artist is not reproducing reality, but creating an ideal world of images. It’s the allegory that counts, and the atmosphere that this ensemble conveys.
On the left side stands the God Mercury, recognisable by his sandals and his staff, “the caduceus” with which he is dispersing the clouds. He’s the divine messenger, a mediator between man and gods.
The three dancing graces bring elegance and sensuality to the scene. The pearls they are wearing are a symbol of chastity and purity. In Greek mythology they were the goddesses of fertility and were usually associated with Venus, also known as Aphrodite.
On the other side we find the God of the spring wind, Zephyrus, who is abducting the nymph Chloris. In the myth he repents and marries her, making her into a Goddess, the protector of flowers. She appears again in the front of the painting, awakened and transformed as the married Flora, her dress alive with flowers. Above the scene we see Cupid ready to unleash his arrow on one of the graces.
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Who commissioned this painting?
Botticelli painted this work in 1482 for the cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Both “Spring” and “Birth of Venus” were to be hung in the Medici Villa in Castello, just outside Florence. Vasari saw it there for the first time, hanging above the marital bed.
What is the meaning of the Botticelli Spring? A humanist interpretation
Sandro Botticelli was very much part of the cultural circle that took inspiration from neoplatonism. While rediscovering the classical world and ancient mythology, these intellectuals mixed christian principles and the theories of Greek philosopher Plato. They discussed topics such as the role of Beauty in elevating the spirit while arousing aesthetic sensations, and love as a mysterious force that leads man to the contemplation of God.
Earthly beauty was seen as a mirror for spiritual beauty, and art, with its complex language of allegory and symbols, was a way to create this.
According the neoplatonic interpretation, Venus represents spiritual activities while Mercury stands for Reason that guides people away to control their base instincts. Flora represents Spring, life and rebirth of natural world. Seen in this way, the painting shows how Beauty helps to embrace spiritual values and bring the soul closer to God.
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Was this painting loved then as it is now?
No. At the time of Botticelli’s death, in 1510, this painting was considered antiquated, too remote from the style of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the new artistic heroes. The same happened to all of Botticelli’s works, forgotten for hundreds of years until some critics rediscovered them in the 19th century.
At the end of his life Botticelli wasn’t rich and famous. He died in poverty after a spiritual crisis that led him to reject his early works, and the pagan principles they represented.
Botticelli also illustrated a copy of the Dante’s Divine Comedy, including the famous Map of hell. This impressive drawing is kept in the Libreria Vaticana in Rome, unfortunately not displayed to the public.