a Primavera (c. 1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli is a mysterious and majestic mythological tempera painting that has been pondered over by many art historians. In this article, we will explore this painting in more detail and look at the ever-brewing question: What does Primavera mean?
Table of Contents
- 1 Artist Abstract: Who Was Sandro Botticelli?
- 2 La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli in Context
- 3 Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview
- 4 Untangling the Mystery of Spring
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Artist Abstract: Who Was Sandro Botticelli?
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi was born in Florence, Italy around the year 1445 and died in May 1510. He is mostly known as Sandro Botticelli, his last name was a nickname given to him, meaning “little barrel”. He was believed to have worked as a goldsmith before he started working as an artist. His father was a goldbeater and worked with Botticelli’s other brother.
Self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli in his painting Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475); Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
During the early 1460s, Botticelli became an apprentice to the Italian artist Fra Filippo Lippi. He was a member of the Compagnia di San Luca and was also commissioned by wealthy families like the Medicis, whom he painted several artworks for. Botticelli became a highly renowned Early Renaissance painter and had an active artist’s workshop.
Many sources state that his art was forgotten for a long time, partly because of the High Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael. During the 1800s, his art was reportedly rediscovered and revived by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli in Context
The Early Renaissance painting La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli is a worldwide adored depiction and mythological celebration of Spring. Below we will provide a brief contextual analysis of this 15th-century rendering as well as a formal analysis, which will discuss the subject matter and Botticelli’s stylistic approaches in terms of certain art elements utilized like color, texture, space, and others.
|Date Painted||c. 1477-1482|
|Medium||Tempera paint on wood/panel|
|Period / Movement||Early Renaissance|
|Dimensions||207 x 319 centimeters|
|Series / Versions||N/A|
|Where Is It Housed?||Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy|
|What It Is Worth||According to the 1499 inventory, the painting’s worth was estimated to be 100 lire.|
Contextual Analysis: A Brief Socio-Historical Overview
The Primavera painting, the word meaning “spring” in Italian, depicts a scene with several mythological figures in an orange grove. However, the meaning of this portrayal has been unclear to many, and for this reason, it has become widely debated by art historians over the years, with some describing it as an “enigma”.
There have been numerous interpretations assigned to it too, ranging from music, and philosophical Neo-Platonic ideas, to the literature and poetry of Dante, Ovid, and others.
Furthermore, this Primavera painting has been viewed as a portrayal of what is beautiful, bountiful, and love-filled. Some believe it was commissioned by one of the Medici family members, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, for his wedding, reportedly in 1482.
Portrait of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503), called Lorenzo il Popolano (between 1552 and 1568) by Cristofano dell’Altissimo; Cristofano dell’Altissimo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Another possible suggestion indicates that it was gifted to him by the wealthy Lorenzo de Medici, also known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”, who was his cousin, for the same reason. The painting was hung behind a piece of furniture, described as a lettuccio, in the palatial home of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici.
It is important to note that there has been significant debate about who commissioned the “Primavera” painting and what it symbolizes.
Many believe it was indeed a wedding gift. Giorgio Vasari also wrote about this painting and saw it at the Villa di Castello alongside Botticelli’s other famous painting, The Birth of Venus (c. 1485), which has often been described as its “companion” painting.
The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, in the scholarly article On the Original Location of the Primavera (1975) by Webster Smith, which was published in the journal The Art Bulletin (Volume 57, Number 1, March 1975), he writes that according to some scholars, The Birth of Venus painting could have been created for another family and it is possible it was not a companion painting to La Primavera.
Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview
Below we will look closely at the La Primavera by Botticelli analysis in terms of the subject matter and who these mythological figures depicted are. We will then discuss the stylistic aspects in terms of Botticelli’s utilization of color, form, and space.
La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Visual Description: Subject Matter
In Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, there are nine figures set in a verdant landscape, an orange grove to be specific. Surrounding them are several orange trees and other types of foliage. Beyond this forested area, we are not able to see clearly where they are in a larger location.
However, between the trees, there appears to be a blue background denoting the sky and hints of land to the left and right in the middle ground of the composition.
If we look at the figures, starting from the left, the first figure is the Roman god Mercury (Hermes in Greek mythology), who is usually described as the “messenger of the gods”, distinguished by his winged sandals and helmet. He holds a staff, otherwise known as a caduceus, up in his right hand, twirling it in what appears to be storm clouds approaching. Many sources describe him as keeping these clouds at bay.
Mercury in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There are three dancing female figures to Mercury’s left (our right). They are known as the Three Graces, or Charites, namely, Aglaïa, whose name means “shining one”; Euphrosyne, meaning “joy”; and Thalia, meaning “flourishing”.
They represent ideals of beauty, fertility, and charm and are depicted wearing soft and silken dresses.
The Three Graces in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We move now to the center of the composition, which is where we see the central figure of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. She stands further into the background than the other figures. Her head is tilted slightly to her right (our left) and her right hand is lifted at her waist. Her left hand holds on to her red robes and she serenely gazes at us, the viewers.
Venus in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Above Venus is a smaller infantile figure of Cupid, who is blindfolded and pointing his bow and arrow towards one of the Three Graces. He is portrayed in mid-action, and we can see the tension on his face as he aims the arrow, about to shoot it.
Cupid in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Additionally, there is a visible outline around Venus’s countenance, formed by the foliage behind her. This gives a halo effect and some art history scholars have also likened it to the architectural shape of an apse, which would have surrounded depictions of the Holy Virgin Mary.
Looking at the figures to the right of the composition, the figure to the far right is Zephyrus, the god of the wind.
His entire figure and clothing are in a bluish color. We see him emerging from between tree trunks, resolutely grabbing onto the female figure to his right (our left). She is Chloris, known as a nymph of spring and flowers.
Zephyrus and Chloris in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
According to mythology, she married Zephyrus and transformed into the goddess of spring named Flora, who is the second female figure to the right of Chloris (our left). Flora gazes at us, the viewers, while she reaches her right hand to scatter rose blossoms onto the ground. Chloris is looking up at Zephyrus while barely touching or holding on to the figure of Flora.
This is possibly a visual depiction of her progression from a nymph to a goddess.
Flora in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
If we look at the grassy ground, Botticelli reportedly painted over 190 “botanical species” and 130 were identified, including buttercups, cornflowers, crocuses, chrysanthemums, daisies, irises, jasmines, and lilies, among others. This is another indication of the artist’s keen eye for detail and the inclusion of realism in this painting.
The different botanical species on the ground of La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Color and Light
The La Primavera painting was reportedly painted in tempera grassa paint, which consists of egg yolks mixed with oils, on a wooden panel. From what we can see, there does not appear to be a visible light source, although the figures in the foreground appear somewhat lighter than the background, whereas the latter appears darker in color to suggest the more shaded area due to the trees.
There is an overall color harmony in the “Primavera” painting because there are no harsh or bright colors that stand out, yet there is a notable color contrast between the fair-skinned figures in the foreground and the darker trees and foliage in the background.
Color and light in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It is also important to note here that due to the age of the painting, we need to remember that the color of the painting would have altered over the centuries, which would alter our perspective of it compared to when it was first presented. There are warm and soft tones of pinks, reds, and beiges on the figures’ costumes, their hair, and skin.
There are also various shades of color like whites, yellows, reds, and orange, dappled here and there, from the flowers to the fruit on the trees.
Sandro Botticelli portrayed different textures in a beautiful and masterful manner. This is particularly evident in the figures’ costumes, for example, the dresses worn by the female figures. We can see the light, soft, and almost silky, and what has been described as “diaphanous”, qualities of the material.
The use of texture in La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Three Graces’ dresses appear almost translucent as they fold over their bodies. If we look closer, we will notice even more detail and implied texture from the crocheted patterns on the upper seams of their dresses.
There is an implied texture for the figures’ smooth skin tones, which gives them a soft and delicate appearance, but equally deified and sacred. We also see this implied texture on all the flowers and foliage in the foreground.
The use of texture in the flowers and plants of La Primavera (c.1477-1482) by Sandro Botticelli; Uffizi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There are a variety of forms in this La Primavera painting, notably the figures in the foreground, who appear loose and fluid in their gestures and motions. Furthermore, Botticelli depicted the figures anatomically elongated, which was a common characteristic of his artistic style.
There is a sense of idealization in their forms.
Space and Scale
The Primavera painting is often described as the largest-scale Early Renaissance painting that depicts mythological subject matter. This painting has been widely compared to the millefleur tapestries from the Medieval period before it because of the wide variety of florals and foliage that fills the space. The term millefleur means a “thousand flowers” in French and these tapestries were usually presented on large scales with flowers as the backgrounds, which would often cover the entire tapestry.
Furthermore, due to the nature of this painting, it was apparently hung high on the wall where it would have been displayed and reportedly at eye level.
Untangling the Mystery of Spring
In this La Primavera by Botticelli analysis, we learned more about the journey of this painting, from whom commissioned it, who saw it, and what villa they saw it in, to its place in Renaissance art as a purely mythological rendering, far from the accepted religious subject matter, but still with reference to religious ideas, the La Primavera painting by Sandro Botticelli has become almost like solving a mystery.
There has been significant research and theories presented to state the case for this “allegory of spring” and to find its inherent meaning. Whether it was made for a wedding or not, it wholeheartedly depicts the ideas of growth, fertility, love, and celebration without the need to refer to any external text or theory to prove this.
The “La Primavera” painting is a budding portrayal of matrimony and there are as many cultural references and symbols as there are flowers. It is a testament to Botticelli’s enduring artistic skills to capture an almost otherworldly beauty and portray it on a two-dimensional surface.
Take a look at our Primavera by Botticelli webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Painted La Primavera?
La Primavera was painted around the late 1470s or early 1480s, by the Early Renaissance artist Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, more commonly known as Sandro Botticelli. He was born around the year 1445 in Italy and died in 1510. He became one of the most famous Renaissance artists and was celebrated by the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood art group.
What Does Primavera Mean?
The word primavera means “spring” in Italian and is the title of the famous Sandro Botticelli painting, often titled La Primavera (c. 1477-1482) or the Allegory of Spring. An interesting fact is that the scholar and art historian Giorgio Vasari gave the painting its name around 1550 when he viewed it.
Who Is Depicted in the La Primavera Painting?
The La Primavera (c. 1477-1482) painting by Sandro Botticelli depicts the central figure of Venus, the goddess of love, and several other mythological figures like the Three Graces and Mercury to her right (our left), Zephyrus, Chloris, and Flora to her left (our right), and Cupid above her. All these figures relate to the ideals of love, beauty, fertility, growth, and the onset of spring.