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Malcolm Bull-Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’

Primavera is a large panel painting in tempera paint by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli made in the late 1470s or early 1480s (datings vary). It has been described as “one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world“, and also “one of the most popular paintings in Western art“.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Malcolm Bull’s study, ‘The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art‘, Oxford, 2005. Pages 201, 202, 203. Here, Professor Bull describes below, in the chapter devoted to Venus, Botticelli’s painting, ‘Primavera’. This masterpiece has come for us to epitomize the Renaissance’s discovery of paganism in general, and of Venus in particular, and the author putts things back into their  original context…


‘Where Botticelli’s images of Venus fit into all of this? Since the early twentieth century his mythological paintings have come to epitomize the renaissance’s discovery of paganism, and of Venus in particular. In fact, they are rather isolated works. They had little influence on the development of later iconography, and they draw on none of the literary sources that artists customarily used. Botticelli’s mythological imagery cannot usually be traced directly to the ‘Metamorphoses’ (of Ovid), or Boccaccio’s ‘Genealogia Deorum’. He seems to have got his instructions straight from Poliziano, or one of the other learned men in Florence, and so skipped all the usual mediating texts.

On the far right of the ‘Primavera’, the wind-god Zephyr is pursuing the nymph Chloris, who became Flora, the goddess of flowers, after the wind-god had married her. In Ovid’s ‘Fasti’, Flora exhales roses as she speaks, but in Botticelli’s painting, it is Chloris who breathes out the flowers that form Flora’s dress. The devise links all three figures, for the power of Zephyr’s breath forces the flowers from the corner of Chloris’s mouth towards Flora. There is no getting away from the redundancy here: Chloris and Flora are the same person show twice. Is this a confusion? Probably not, for the painting is based on some lines from ‘De Rerum Natura’ (rehearsed by Poliziano in his ‘Sylvae’), where Lucretius had referred to the coming of spring as a procession consisting of Venus, Flora and her husband Zephyr, accompanied by the dancing Graces. So, Flora is one of the principals, and the story of Chloris is just a flash-back which explains how she became the queen of flowers.

Venus stands in the center of the painting, with the Graces and then Mercury to the left. The Graces are there primarily because they are mentioned in the narrative, through their appearance closely follows Seneca’s description of them dancing in a ring clothed in transparent gowns. According to him, the Graces represented the giving, receiving, and returning of benefits, which passed from hand to hand between them. The eldest sister, Aglaia, has the honour of bestowing the gift, which she passes to Euphrosyne, and then to the youngest, Thalia. Botticelli illustrates this sequence very precisely, placing Aglaia, the oldest of the Graces, on the right and indicating the direction of flow through the height at which the hands are joined-from the original bestowal high above the heads of Aglaia and Euphrosyne, anti-clockwise to their return on the right, where Aglaia retrieves her gift from the upturned hand of Thalia. As for Mercury, Seneca says he is depicted with the Graces because painters include him, and this is perhaps the primary reason he is in Botticelli’s painting as well.’


Lucretius’ ‘De Rerum Natura’, Chapter V, v.722 to 736.

English translation by William Ellery Leonard. E. P. Dutton. 1916.

Then, again,
Why a new moon might not forevermore
Created be with fixed successions there
Of shapes and with configurations fixed,
And why each day that bright created moon
Might not miscarry and another be,
In its stead and place, engendered anew,
‘Tis hard to show by reason, or by words
To prove absurd- since, lo, so many things
Can be create with fixed successions:
Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus’ boy,
The winged harbinger, steps on before,
And hard on Zephyr’s foot-prints Mother Flora,
Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all
With colours and with odours excellent…


Original Latin, V, 731 to 740

denique cur nequeat semper nova luna creari
ordine formarum certo certisque figuris
inque dies privos aborisci quaeque creata
atque alia illius reparari in parte locoque,
difficilest ratione docere et vincere verbis,
ordine cum videas tam certo multa creari.
it Ver et Venus et Veneris praenuntius ante
pennatus graditur, Zephyri vestigia propter
Flora quibus mater praespargens ante viai
cuncta coloribus egregiis et odoribus opplet.’


More about Sandro Botticelli: 🌿More about Malcolm Bull:
Malcolm Bull-Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’

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