The Right of Spring

by Mark Calderwood

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera is one of the most iconic images of the renaissance. Arguably the jewel in the crown of the Uffizi, it is immediately recognisable even to those with barely a nodding acquaintance with art. How then is one of the most fundamentally misunderstood?

For decades, august art historians who have delved into the painting’s enigmatic iconography, resulting in ponderous tomes and academic debates of unfaltering venom as interpretation and counter-interpretation has been wrangled back and forth. Almost without exception, these arguments have regarded Primavera with an aloof eye, viewing it through the lens of Neoplatonic philosophy beloved of the Medici circle.

Using that approach, Primavera has been proposed as a complex allegory of Neoplatonism itself, illustrating the ascent from profane to divine love; as an iconographic articulation of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sonnets celebrating his Tuscan republic through the somewhat unlikely metaphor of young love; as a tenaciously paganesque Neoplatonic Christian rite; or simply as a graceful mythological representation of youthful love and fertility, since Antiquity associated with spring. With so much investigation and learned theorising surrounding the work- why does none of it ring completely true?

What none of the established and long-argued interpretations take into account, is that art does not occur in a vacuum. There is no question the painting is couched in Neoplatonic imagery: it saturated the literature, thought and visual language of quattrocento Florence. Yet by seeing Primavera only as an object on the wall of a museum, historians have failed to look beyond that level, and consider the painting in light of the social functions of art in the renaissance or the ability of its artists to simultaneously articulate multiple semiotic and discursive texts. Looking at Primavera from the perspective of its original audience, it is easily recognised not only as an ambitiously and ambiguously layered painting, but a work possessed of a clear socio-political discourse- as well as holding unmistakable messages for a very specific, and very private, audience.

As with all patrician marriages, the wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to Semiramide Appiani in 1482 was a strategic and dynastic alliance contracted and promoted by the bridegroom’s uncle and guardian Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Florentine oligarch who had consolidated his autocratic position as il magnifico signore through prolific cultural patronage. Traditionally provided by the groom or his father and triumphantly paraded as a public component of civic marriage ritual, the Classical/mythological themes of works such as Primavera naturally reflected the renovatio that made Florence the epicentre of the renaissance, fashionably articulating Christian narratives and morals in terms of the heroic Antique mythology lauded by scholars…and lot least announcing, with suitable ostentation, the patron’s wealth and humanist erudition.

In the absence of documentary evidence, the question of Primavera’s patronage is bewilderingly complex. Horst Bredekamp suggested the painting was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco as a kind of manifesto on behalf of his own potential rule of Florence, where Ernst Gombrich regards him as patron on the basis of letters from Ficino and his later artistic patronage. Neither seems likely while under the not-entirely-amicable legal guardianship of il Magnifico after his father’s death, when, most tellingly, he was not in control of his family’s finances and is inconsistent with the strongly patristic didactic messages surrounding the figure of Mercury found in the painting.

Botticelli’s close association with Medici patronage also renders it less likely that the bride’s father Jacopo III Appiani of Piombino was the patron. Il Magnifico, whose patronage was not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate, best fits as the patron given the scale and expense of the painting, its self-consciously Classicist iconography, civic-familial patterns of fifteenth-century Florentine marriage ritual- and its pointedly personal messages.

Whether public or private, a Laurentian audience would instantly discern the subtext beneath the painting’s gambolling Neoclassicism, recognising Primavera as nuptial art intended as a lesson for the bride, admonishing her to chaste submission and procreation.

The mores of renaissance culture regarded ‘heroic rape’ not as personal violation, but a valorised necessity of marriages arranged for the good of the family or state. Images of heroic rape was common artistic currency in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with scenes depicting the Sabine women and the rapes of Io, Leda, Proserpina and the daughters of Leucippus adorning the apartments and wedding paraphernalia of Tuscan noble women, in particular elaborately decorated cassoni. The placement of the painting in the private anteroom to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bed chamber, above a lettuccio whose based formed just such a cassone, provides contextual privileging of the nuptial reading.

So mannered is the iconography in Primavera that the brutality of the rape is barely detectable to modern sensibilities: yet from the anxious bride’s viewpoint on the lettuccio, the scene from Ovid’s Fasti dominates: almost bestial in her contorted, panic-stricken state as she flees, Chloris is almost literally surmounted by the threatening figure of Zephyrus looming above her. Renaissance art continued the topos of spatial division for the sexes seen in Antiquity, as depicted in Botticelli’s subsequent work Venus and Mars, c1483, also a spalliera belonging to the same genre of nuptial art. Carrying this through to the relaxed reclining of the newly wed couple on their lettuccio looking at Primavera restores the sight lines that make sense of the painting’s back-to-front narrative.

The bride’s line of sight, looking up and from the left, not only connects immediately with the incident of rape but is perpendicular to the distinctive diagonal alignment of the figures of Chloris and Zephyrus. From this perspective, the latter would appear to be not merely embracing his quarry but actually atop her as if already engaged in penetrative intercourse, making Chloris’ fright and struggle all the more visceral and driving home the lesson that sexual (and social) domination was an inevitability of marriage.

Yet the bride is expected to take solace in the narrative’s hasty transformation of the violated nymph into the bountiful, serene figure of Flora, the ‘happy ending’ to heroic rape where her virtue is restored in respectable wifedom. The social doctrine that the young wife has no choice but conjugal submission is crystal clear.

The densely syncretic central figure of Venus demonstrates the purpose of this marital ordeal: procreation. Rather than more usual eroticised depictions, the goddess of love is here modestly attired, suggesting both a Classical bride in a saffron veil and a Florentine matron clad in a guarnello, an expensive maternity gown of the period, the drape of her mantle drawing attention to her swollen abdomen. She is presented in stark contrast to the frighted, fleeing deer-like figure of Chloris as the domesticated and impregnated Venus that presides over fruitful spring, and her satisfied smile exemplifies contentment with status as a patrician bride and her impending motherhood, the primary role of women in renaissance society.

This discourse is intensified by the fusion of the Antique image with Marian iconography. Elevated above the surrounding figures, Venus is silhouetted against a triumphal arch formed of myrtle branches, in a manner commonly found in contemporary depictions of the Virgin. The angelic putto figure of Cupid and the symbolic carpet of flowers further the Marian image, with the Arcadian grove taking on the aspect of the medieval enclosed garden. Her liturgical gesture and entreating gaze are lifted from contemporary Crucifixion scenes, portraying Mary as the mother of Christ. The fusion of Venus and the Virgin not only highlights the social legitimation of her marriage-by-capture, but instructs the bride on the traits and role expected of a new wife: to instill Classical republican and Christian moral virtues and into her progeny.

Nor is the groom spared a lesson: from his seated viewpoint, the insouciant figure of Mercury looms large. The youthful god is most often interpreted as the Laurentian manifestation of love, the culmination of the Neoplatonic narrative as it evolves from the base to the divine. Yet the figure is a pendant to the structure of the painting, not an integral component of its pyramidal structure, suggesting its later inclusion. Moreover, its imagery fits not within the genre of heroic rape but conforms to the heuristic depiction of adolescent males common in the art of fifteenth-century Florence.

Arrayed as a soldier with helmet, sword and crimson mantle matching that Venus/Semiramide, Mercury pays no attention to the feminine turmoil unfolding behind him, touching the clouds overheard with his caduceus. But while his manner indicates the martial prowess, classicist education and civic outlook expected of a head of the household, Mercury displays a strongly homoerotic coding in his stance and scant clothing, akin to the famed sculpture David by Donatello. Common to quattrocentro Florentine art, this erotic coding was based in the humanist social doctrine of idealised youth, who would eventually assume civic and moral authority as worthy heirs to the city’s oligarchic elite.

Yet the eroticised, ephebic nudity not only articulated the boy’s narcissistic self-image and nascent potency but reinforced its taming through disciplining of that self-image, and the strict paternal controls exerted over young men during the drawn-out process of their social and sexual maturation. During which time the youth, though feeling his potency, was firmly excluded from adult political or entrepreneurial roles and as a result frequently clashed with his fathers or equivalent paternal figures. The boy’s sexualised, vulnerable nakedness represents a metaphorical stripping of his emerging powers by the stern authority of his elders.

In Primavera, Mercury delivers a pointed discourse on this theme. As a heroic Classical and martial figure, he represents a public, political affirmation of heroic Florentine morality and humility- the perfect youth and worthy heir of the city’s grandest oligarch, dutifully fulfilling the important dynastic duty of marriage. Unusually in the milieu of renaissance Florence, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco was only 19 at the time of his wedding, and is reported to have resisted the match arranged for him by his uncle.  In private, then, this same figure represents an injunction for the groom to put away the ‘feminine’ attitudes of the domestic realm in favour of the masculine responsibilities prematurely thrust upon him; yet he is still depicted as a sexually vulnerable youth, bared before the gaze of more powerful men, and stripped of the manly civic-economic authority that should have accompanied such a circumstance as his wedding.

The choice of Mercury, messenger of the gods, is an even more pointed reminder of the subordinate political role relegated to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s cadet branch of the powerful Medici family. His placement beside the diaphanously-clad Graces reveals another  function of heroic rape imagery, as erotic stimulation directed at the male (while constructing the subject as a willing lover rather than the victim of forced intercourse). But in this context, amorous art becomes sexual admonition: similar to the bride’s diagonal sight-line, the groom’s looking up at the beautiful goddesses would have served to stiffen an inexperienced and possibly virginal young man’s resolve to do his manly duty under so much political and familial pressure, and the very public denial of his own masculinity.

But if groom’s connection to Mercury was well understood, the Graces also help ram the message home: being the goddesses associated with gratitude, they remind the young groom to be grateful for his uncle’s beneficence and generosity, both in arranging the match and in such a costly gift. Both theirs and Mercury’s raised hands direct the eye to the golden oranges in the grove’s canopy, which while a conventional marital symbol, hint at the palle of the Medici arms- and even more blatantly resemble gold coins, suggesting riches from above- that is, il Magnifico’s influence and coffers. That the ducat-like oranges are placed to ‘begin’ above Chloris illustrates the legal contract portion of patrician marriage that the husband ‘earns’ his bride’s dowry only upon the act of consummation.

Although presented as an Arcadian fantasia of youthful love, its renaissance audience would immediately understand Primavera as a marriage picture- or to be blunt, a marital rape picture. Certainly viewing the painting from within its original matrix and societal discourses offers a far more plausible interpretation than quaint poetic readings that discount the presence of sexuality in a marital painting.

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