Saturday, December 4, 2021

Botticelli's "La Primavera"

Botticelli's La Primavera (Spring) Click image to see VERY LARGE version

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 6 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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We tend to take for granted that things are what we are told they are. So Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa--a name he almost certainly never heard it called. "Homer" wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey--though we have no idea if a person by that name ever lived.

My point is, names become affixed to people, places, and things, and then we take those names as "true," though they may have been later inventions.

Such is the case with a painting that frequently makes it onto various "greatest of all time" lists. Allegory of Spring, often simply called Spring (La Primavera in Italian), was not given that name by artist Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510). In fact, it has been called "one of the... most controversial paintings in the world" because the idea that it depicts Spring is only a consensus among critics. There are other possible interpretations, including that it depicts Neoplatonic love. (The name La Primavera was given to it by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the same art historian who said the painting previously known as La Gioconda depicted a woman he called "Mona Lisa.")

Assuming we are indeed dealing with an allegory of Spring, the six female and two male figures in the painting (not counting the blindfolded Cupid above them) center on a slightly pregnant-looking image of Venus, goddess of love and fertility, a fitting representation of the abundance of Spring.

To her left (our right) are two females and a male, perhaps synchronously telling the story of Zephyrus (the first wind of Spring) and a nymph named Chloris, whose name means "green." The dark, winged male figure is grabbing the central female, seeming to kidnap her; the other female, then, is Spring herself, sometimes called Flora ("Flowers"), a transformed version of Chloris after her mating with the wind god. She is shown scattering roses on the ground.

On the other side is a group of three females, the Graces (Splendor, Mirth, and Good Cheer, or perhaps Pleasure, Chastity, and Beauty) dancing in celebration of Spring. The final figure, guarding the scene from encroaching clouds on the far left, may be Mercury or Mars. (That's what the "experts" say, anyway; he looks to me like he's picking fruit!)

So, there are three "scenes," this time left to right:

  • The Three Graces celebrate Spring, protected from foul weather by a god (Mercury or Mars);
  • Venus, goddess of love and fertility, is in the center, presiding over the whole; and
  • Chloris is impregnated by the first wind of Spring, and is transformed into Flora: Spring herself.


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. abundance
  2. affixed
  3. allegory
  4. blindfolded
  5. consensus
  6. encroaching
  7. inventions
  8. Neoplatonic love
  9. synchronously
  10. take for granted
  1. with the eyes covered by a cloth
  2. assume something is true
  3. the majority of opinion
  4. at the same time; showing scenes from two or more different times in one image
  5. a representation of an abstract concept in concrete words or images
  6. new ideas
  7. moving beyond the proper limit
  8. plenty
  9. a "spiritual" form, not involving physical relations
  10. fastened

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. Did Botticelli intend to call this painting "Spring"? What's the story of its name?
  2. Who is the pregnant-looking figure in the center? What does she stand for?
  3. Who are the three figures on our right? What is happening there?
  4. Who are the three women to the left of Venus? What are they doing?
  5. Who is the man on the left? What is he doing?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Do you think it's important to know the "true names" of things?
  2. Do you think the interpretation that this picture is about "Spring" is the correct one?
  3. Thinking allegorically, how could "the first wind of Spring" make a woman whose name means "Green," into "Spring" (or Flowers) after mating with her?

1 comment:

  1. Answers:
    Vocabulary: 1. H; 2. J; 3. E; 4. A; 5. C; 6. G; 7. F; 8. I; 9. D; 10. B

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. We don't know what Botticelli called this painting. It was called "Spring" by an art critic, Giorgio Vasari, who lived after Botticelli died.
    2. Venus, the goddess of love and fertility, is in the center, standing for the abundance of Spring.
    3. Zephyrus (the first wind of Spring) is kidnapping Chloris ("Green"). After he makes her pregnant, she appears as "Flora" ("Spring" or "Flowers").
    4. The three women to the left of Venus are the Graces (Splendor, Mirth, and Good Cheer). They are dancing to celebrate Spring.
    5. The man on the left is probably a god, either Mercury or Mars. He might be protecting the whole scene from storm clouds.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").