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Book Review: Under the Guise of Spring: The Message Hidden in Botticelli’s Primavera

A view of Florence. Photo: Sergey Ashmarin
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A view of contemporary Florence, 2005. Photo: Sergey Ashmarin

Gabrielle Langdon reviews Gene Lane-Spollen’s Under the Guise of Spring: The Message Hidden in Botticelli’s Primavera. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2014 | ISBN 9780856832963 | 207pp

This careful, handsome study of Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (c1480-85) will appeal to Renaissance scholars and especially to admirers of the artist’s exquisite masterwork, writes Gabrielle Langdon. Firstly, the humanistic culture that flourished in Renaissance Florence is ably surveyed with a view to anchoring this Medici commission clearly in its historic, political and artistic contexts. Lane-Spollen traces the fervent blending of pagan with Christian ethos among the Medici, its circle of cognoscenti and literati, first mapping the influx of intellectuals from Byzantium, the Medici satellites’ eager embrace of Neoplatonism, and popular pride in Italian classical origins. Laurentian Florence was steeped in humanism by late century.

We are cautioned that in this era, nothing artistic arose by chance. Challenges arise: the Primavera—Vasari’s title—does not follow traditional ‘spring’ content.

Scholarly acceptance of Lorenzo the Magnificent de Medici’s cousin and ward, Lorenzo ‘Minore’ as patron has been construed through family correspondence, speeches, tax records, marriage documents, commercial contracts, visual language of the era, religious symbolism, marriage culture and everyday metaphors in the writings of the Medici circle.

Lane-Spollen’s mission (p15) is to demonstrate that La Primavera emerged from the ambience that encircled owner and painter. While Minore may have delighted in the work’s beauty and intriguing ambiguities, the four visually distinct component scenes of the Primavera have been variously interpreted (pp18-19) for over a century. Medicean humanism fused with Christian ethos was ‘validated’ by revelations found in the rediscovered works of Hermes-Mercurius; the Three Graces, and theories of love and immortality were popular themes for intellectual discussion. Accepting its theme as nuptial, the author explores concepts of its private location, its viewer’s gaze, the gravitas of marriage as a male rite of passage, and the opportunity to symbolically promote family status and civic pride, all made in a seamless mix of antique and modern ideals.

Part II covers the volatile history and bloody realpolitik of Medicean Florence and Italy during this era. By mid-century, the astute and cultured Cosimo the Elder had steered Florence and family interests to the forefront of mercantile and cultural affairs through wily alliances. However, shifting political loyalties and multiple external threats festered. Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificant showed masterly statesmanship after his brother, Giuliano’s murder in the 1478 Pazzi-papal conspiracy and ensuing civic mayhem. Consolidation of important alliances was imperative.

In 1480, Lorenzo Minore replaced the deceased Giuliano for betrothal with Semiramide d’Appiano of Naples. This cemented Medici power and commercial interests in Naples when the Magnificent outmanoeuvered dangerous papal alliances and secured southern Italy from Turkish incursions. Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur’s (1482) with its serene backdrop of a ship at anchor celebrated this victory of good over brutish evil. As it would be hung with the Primavera, the author suggests their common theme would reflect young Minore’s fervent Neoplatonism, a result of Marsilio Ficino’s tutoring of him. Lorenzo the Magnificent’s Neoplatonic poem The Supreme Good, published in 1482-83 and influenced by the humanist Angelo Polziano serves to summarise the cultural ambience in which Botticelli embarked on the Primavera.

The historic and cultural background secured, Lane-Spollen devotes Chapter 5 to Botticelli (1445-1510). It was his artistic good fortune to be exposed to such masters as Filippo Lippi, the Pollaiuoli, Verocchio, Ghirlandaio and Florence itself as centre of an enormous flowering in art and culture. (His training in goldsmithing may have contributed to the meticulous delicacy of finish, for example on Flora’s sleeves.) Botticelli, if unlettered, combined innate sophistication with a deeply mystical sensibility and humanist awareness. His fame soared. He was favoured by the wealthy, notably the Medici and Sixtus IV. His many religious commissions and their contexts are surveyed: the Adoration of the Magi (1475); St Augustine (1480), the exquisite Madonna del Libro (c1481), the Madonna del Magnificat (1480-81), and several others, all shown in fine colourplates that beautifully express the artist’s native gifts. Secular works such as his lost Pallas banner had idealised the platonic love of Giuliano for Simonetta Vespucci, while literary references to Ovid, Plato and Horace swelled the humanist delight in esoteric themes.

As ‘The Craftsman-Artist’ (pp59-62) Botticelli’s status is contrasted with the emergence of artistic freedom granted to Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael. This usefully charts the contemporary training of his peers. The author concludes that the spiritual programme of the Primavera is indebted to Medici literati, Poliziano, Ficino,Vespucci and possibly Landino, all familiars of Lorenzo Minore. Chapter 6 ably investigates their philosophies and passionate devotion to classicism. Love, beauty and perfection were seen as paths to a higher truth by Medici Neoplatonists, notably Ficino, but in harmony with Christian ideals, a fusion that informed a new awareness of man’s innate nobility. Lane-Spollen traces the heady discovery of the writings of the pseudo-Egyptian Hermes and Medici sponsored translation of it by Ficino, who set aside his labours on Plato’s Republic and Symposium. He daringly sought to reveal to his Christian world unadulterated truths known since the dawn of man (p82).

Figures in the Primavera are identified in Ficino’s mentoring letter to young Lorenzo Minore, of moral guidance laced with intricate allegory: Venus is a divine nymph, ‘a soul embodying all the most exalted human qualities…unite with this nymph in marriage’ – ie spiritual union. Lorenzo is urged to ‘prudently temper within yourself the heavenly signs’ to release him from the body’s ‘prison’; with ‘the mists lifted to reveal the true vision, one is realised.’ Astrology is linked to divine will: Mars represents action, Mercury is reason. The rape of Chloris by Zephyr allegorises Ficino’s warning of man’s lower nature: ‘Come! Gird yourself, noble youth’. The skyward gaze of Hermes-Mercury is linked to Ficino’s concept that gazing on the loved one creates a bond leading to sudden ‘seeing’ or self-realisation.

In Part III, elements of the painting’s formal structure are investigated. Venus is enframed in a bright circle, a form ubiquitous in Christian iconography of Coronations of the Virgin, in haloes, and in tondi of Virgin and Child, as universal emblem of perfection. In Botticelli’s 1481 commission by Minore to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy, twenty-seven drawings employ the circular format. In one, Beatrice looks heavenwards through concentric circles; the flame shapes tracing her gaze are repeated on Mercury’s tunic. The conclusion is of Christian-pagan fusion by the artist (p96). Further, lancet windows and columns ubiquitous in Florentine religious and civic architecture underlie subtle background shapes that serve to impart a sacred environment in the Primavera. The hand clasp of the Graces represents the marriage of Semiramide and Minore. It may also refer to the entente cordiale with Rome of 1480, when a Papal interdict placed on Florence as punishment for the Medici bloodletting of Pazzi conspirators was lifted. A Christian message underlies the pagan theme, one that was not lost on initiates in Medici circles (p105).

Chapter 8, ‘A Madonna called Venus’ is an excursus on Ficino’s writings, in his De Amore and his letter to Minore, on the ascent of the soul to perfection through contemplation of the beautiful form of a divine Venus. The privacy of the letter in a pre-nuptial context is one with Minore’s private viewing of Botticelli’s Primavera. Arising from such pagan prefigurations as Isis, Ceres,or Demeter, the attributes of Venus are synthesised with those of Mary. Botticelli’s exquisite, natural Venus in his Primavera will uplift the soul through love to a celestial world. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars chastely promoted the power of love over war; in his Birth of Venus her nudity personifies Truth; Mary in his St Barnabas Altarpiece is almost interchangeable with Venus in the Primavera.

The merging of pagan with Christian ethos is further argued citing Ficino’s and Poliziano’s writings, their Neoplatonic circles, and art historical theory, as is the analysis of gesture, colour, jewels, and profuse floral details. In sum, the Primavera is an implicit invitation to Lorenzo to enter a world of contemplative perfection towards enlightenment (pp115-122). Its abundant flame motifs recall Apollonian and Christian light and, for Ficino, Love.

Chapter 9, ‘The Esoteric Graces’ traces the triad’s beneficent meanings from antiquity to Alberti. Their loose transparent robes and conjoined gestures embody liberality and reciprocal grace, infusing beauty with Christian virtue. Cupid, naked and blindfold, ignites passion. Lane-Spollen plots the trajectory of his arrow to the central Grace who, enraptured, turns towards Mercury. This recalls Poliziano’s earlier description of Giuliano smitten by Cupid’s arrow. Mercury’s flame-sprinkled tunic identifies him with Lorenzo’s patron saint, Laurence, martyred by fire, and with the Medici family church, San Lorenzo. Marriage symbolism from a selection of Primavera’s profuse plants species appears as Appendix I.

Mercury’s traditional caduceus, his tunic and sword conform to his heroic status in the Corpus Hermeticum, that manifesto of Ficinesque ideology of ancient truths (p136). He is mediator and guide. In the Primavera, his lily-decorated sword denotes Florence, its laurel motif Lorenzo, member of its leading family. Further, Mercury’s features resemble those often believed to be Minore’s in Botticelli’s Young Man with a Medal of Cosimo the Elder (1475-79) and the crowned youth in Filippo Lippi’s Adorationn of the Magi of 1496..

In conclusion, Mercury personifies the young bridegroom, Lorenzo Minore urged towards self-fashioning as in Ficino’s letter. Union with the Appiani family is expressed by the dragon motif, their dominant armorial emblem, on the caduceus’s finial. His clearing of clouds follows Ficino: ‘through yourself clear the clouded vision of the mind’. His pointing gesture is commonplace in Renaissance art; in Raphael’s School of Athens it is Plato who points heavenwards. The Magnificent in his poem, The Supreme Good yearns for clarity to perceive: ‘I pray to you to cleanse my clouded vision/Of haze and make it absolutely clear/ that I may see your pure and limpid light’.

Chapter 12 explores the rape allegory of Chloris by Zephyr, after Ovid’s account with Flora as narrator, of Chloris then ‘breathing the roses of Spring’, signifying transformation: he repents his violence and is purified; she becomes his bride and evolves into Flora herself, as Botticelli depicts. Zephyr expresses the duality of good and evil, leading to regeneration. The myth of the nymph stalked by a malevolent god, forced into remorse because he has destroyed beauty derives from the Magnificent’s poem ‘Ambra’ (pp153-55).

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses a stalking Apollo is deprived of his prize as Daphne is transformed into a laurel. Poliziano and the Magnificent owed much to Ovid‘s themes of man’s bestial nature overcome by realisation of a higher good. Again, on Christian overlaps, Lane-Spollen cites Chloris’s unusual hand gesture over the floral emblem on Flora’s thigh and her backward glance to the pose and gaze of the Christ child in Botticelli’s Madonna del Libro (c1481) as He points to a sacred manuscript. It is concluded that divine and profane inspiration overlapped for Botticelli. La Primavera’s themes fused current Neoplatonic with Christian ideals for Ficino’s young initiate, under the guise of spring.

Scholarly debate on the Primavera will doubtless continue. Its intricacies and contexts are embraced here with flair and conviction in clear prose style. It teems with period detail and citations. Addenda expand on botanical symbolism, location, dating, and relevant literary references. Copious colour illustrations are aptly spread throughout, and a large format, loose colourplate is provided for ease of reference. It is an engaging book that should appeal to Botticelli scholars and to anyone drawn to this cultural period in Renaissance Florence.—Gabrielle Langdon

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