La Primavera (Italian for ‘Spring’) was believed to be painted by Sandro Botticelli, a florentine painter of the high renaissance, in 1482. This spectacular painting, with renditions of figures that were near-lifesize, was deemed a masterpiece and instituted as a canonical work of western art history. It was interesting to learn that this much admired work – which had dominated scholarly discussion and research for decades – first gained public attention in Florence, Italy, when displayed on the wall of the Uffizi Gallery nearly 4 centuries later. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, made up of William Rossetti, Holman Hunt and others, all played a role in re-establishing the significance of the renaissance aesthetic ideals, sparking what could arguably have been the beginning of the modern movement of 19th century western art.
I have always had a soft spot for Greek mythology and the classical revival movements of the Pre-Raphaelites and Lord Federick Leighton. The Gallery of New South Wales had a relatively good collection of Lord Leighton’s work and I remember many long afternoons spent in front of Winding the Skein just to admire the folds cascading down the figure, pushed along by the wind. If anything, Botticelli’s mastery techniques in rendering the thin, translucent gowns on the the nymphs (the three Graces) established him as one of the most highly-skilled artist of his time. It was perhaps so that the influential Medici family and Rome’s richest, most powerful patron, Lorenzo the Magnificent (or so he was called), would pay to have Botticelli paint this remarkable piece as a wedding gift to his orphaned nephew.
Although I have limited knowledge of renaissance art (and equally poor knowledge of the Italian language and culture), I was drawn to the painting, intriqued and fascinated by the representations of what are now described as largely paganistic figures – Mercury (messenger of gods), the three Graces, Venus, Cupid (her son), Flora, Chloris and Zephyrus (god of Clouds). It was therefore, unsurprising to learn of the controversy and debate surrounding this painting as scholars argued about the intention of the artist – was it merely for aesthetic decorative purposes or was there a more intellectual significance behind it. Botanists also participated in the discussion as they identified over 500 flowers (170 species) from the painting alone. Could it be mere coincidence that strawberries – symbolic of marriage – were found in the bouquets Flora was holding, and that this painting was intended as a wedding gift? Why were these nine characters put together in this garden of meadow with flowers from Spring, Summer and Winter? What was Mercury, the messenger doing there, his back against the nymphs – all scantily clad – and one of whom was showing clear interest in him?
So many questions and yet, however indepth and convincing the answers provided by art historians were, the answers could suffice only as interpretations that had been derived after piecing together the history and cultural assumptions drawn from empirical data. I particularly liked the idea that this was a painting about an all-consuming violent love – symbolic of the anxiety the young couple could be experiencing in their arranged marriage – that would result in a peaceful and loving ending as symbolised by the recarnation of Chloris to Flora; the former raped by Zephyrus. It was meant to be a realistic portrayal of the harsh reality of the political significance of arranged marriages between powerful families, tampered by the artist’s sense of empathy to reassure the young couple that all will be well when there is love. It is clear, at least to me, the real intent of the artist – that is, is it purely a decorative work celebrating love and beauty or one that is a commentary of neo-platonistic ideals – can never be resolutely determined; and that’s the eternal beauty and charm I find in Botticelli’s work.