Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MWA XXII: Botticelli's Spring

This Winter has been incredibly cold, with record amounts of snow and below-normal temperatures, even this late in March. Needless to say, I am ready for Spring! So what better way to celebrate the start of the new season this week than to share as this Monthly Work of Art the Primavera (Spring), ca.1482, by the early Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (images: Web Gallery of Art). This painting hangs at the Uffizi in Firenze. The first time I ever saw it in person (1991?) I was in awe. In fact, I was so much in awe, that my father took the photograph you see below, which admittedly is quite embarrassing because of my mullet, but you get the impression from my stunned look how awestruck I was to see this painting in person.

The fact is, Primavera is my favorite painting in the world. It's often not easy to narrow down one's ideas of what is a favorite anything, but I can say for sure that this painting seems to have always been, and remains, my favorite. The question is...why? The painting itself is an enigma. We know that it is intended to be an allegory of spring. We can identify the central figure as the goddess of love, Venus, here seen as a glorified wife and mother goddess, Venus Victrix, not a sexualized goddess. She gazes at the viewer and her raised hand offers a sign of welcome to her bower as if it were a mudra of peace. Behind her, among the trees, the branches form an arched niche, and the sky becomes like a halo around her head. She is Venus and Virgin Mary in one. Above her is her son Cupid, blind as is love, shooting an arrow. As for the other figures, they should be read right-to-left. The god of the wind Zephyrus chases after the nymph Chloris, ravishing her, symbolically transforming her into Flora, the goddess of flowers, who throws petals from her dress into the grass. Sexuality has been allegorized as fertility. On Venus's proper right are the 3 Graces (image here), who perform a dance of celebration, their hands gently touching one another, their diaphonous clothes floating around their nude bodies, commingled, dancing to music only they can hear. And beside them is the god Mercury, the messenger god who carries the souls of the dead to the underworld. Is this the finality to love and life for all humankind?

The painting is done in tempera (egg yolk with pigment), a favored medium in Florence at this time. Tempera paint helps reinforce linear structure, as the colors rarely blend, but Botticelli devises a way in his brush strokes to make the paint create motion, not only in each figure's positions and bodily forms, but in the way the clothes on each figure move, most notably the aforementioned dresses on the 3 Graces. These mythological figures all appear like a painted relief, presented to the viewer with no obvious subject, but at least with recognizable iconographic forms. It is said that the painting was commissioned from Botticelli for a cousin of the Medici family as a wedding present for the bride and groom, and that it hung in a main room in the couple's villa, just beside Botticelli's other masterpiece from this time, The Birth of Venus, a symbol of Venus as a idealized beauty and sexualized love.

I've actually written about this painting before on this blog, emphasizing Mercury in particular, albeit with some humor in that post. But it is true that this painting is my favorite. It has always struck me for its frozen beauty. It is timeless. It is the perfect Eden, populated by beauty and sound and nature, but represented only as a flat painting. It is Spring, a perpetual sense of new life and new love, and it offers viewers the hope of a future, one that leaves them peaceful and happy, in their own personal Arcadian bower. I have not seen this painting in person in almost a decade now, but the next time I return to Firenze, I will revisit my personal Spring once again.

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