Primavera (the Spring), considered by many to be Botticelli’s first masterpiece, was originally painted for the residence of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent) in Florence. Primavera has been a subject of a myriad of interpretations, one of them in musical terms. Thus, the episode on the right of the panel with Zephyrus chasing Chloris (later transformed into the goddess Flora) has been compared with an allegro, followed by the appearance of the goddess of the Spring (Flora herself); then, like a melancholic andante, is the central figure of the dressed Venus, after which, the melody seems to vary, moving, as in a perpetual rhythm, in the group of the Three Graces, where it reaches a very sharp trillo (trill) reflected in the two raised hands of this group of female dancers, and finally it extinguishes in a morendo, in the figure of Mercury that, in a relaxed attitude, points up to the sky. Regarding the interpretation of the subject-matter, it seems convincing the one that sees in this painting an allegory of the kingdom of Venus as a “burgeoning fertility of the world”, interpreted according to the Neoplatonic philosophy —then disseminated in Florence by Marsilio Ficino— as “Humanitas“: “Venus = Humanitas“, that is, unity, harmony, between nature and civilization. Other scholars have interpreted it as an allegory of the love between Giuliano de’ Medici and Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, or as an allegory of the latter’s death in 1476 (Simonetta reached by death —Zephyrus—, and her consequent rebirth in the Elysium); others see a theme suggested by Angelo Poliziano on classical writings; others still see in the painting a representation of the months during the season of Spring, from February (Zephyrus), through April (Venus), and ending in May (Mercury chasing away the clouds in the sky before summer arrives).
Indeed, a strong suggestion emerges from this painting where even erotic elements (the Zephyr who pursues Chloris-Flora) are apparent to a refined, melancholic spirituality, reflected in the naked Graces under her veils and where, in the gloom of the flowery forest, the graceful figures with their melodic-fluid lines truly acquire a mythical quality, like a dream. These qualities of rhythm, of sublimation of realism, of mysterious and fascinating message, justify for such a work the phrase coined by Leonardo that says that “painting is silent poetry”.
In 1478, immediately after the failed conspiracy of the Pazzi against the Medici, Botticelli was commissioned with a fresco on a side door of the Palazzo Vecchio (where the Bargello or Police Office had its headquarters). The fresco was supposed to include the figures of the conspirators in gallows. Something that Andrea del Castagno had already done in the Palace of the Podestá, on the occasion of the Albizzi conspiracy. This commission supposed for Botticelli a “remediation” on the influences of del Castagno’s energetic art as, indeed, also showed his Saint Augustine from the church of Ognissanti in Florence and the Annunciation of San Martino in the Uffizi.
St. Augustine was painted in fresco by order of the Vespucci in 1480, to make a pendant with the figure of St. Jerome painted by Ghirlandaio in the same church of the Ognissanti: on the background of the study-cabinet, with furniture, instruments, books, etc., all depicted with precise definition and perspective, the figure of the saint appears with a passionate energy. For the second time Botticelli succeeded in adopting the technique of fresco painting —in which, of course, the Florentines were masters— in his representation of the Annunciation for the Loggia of San Martin alla Scala, executed in 1481 according to documents. This painting, now prominently displayed at the Uffizi, vigorously presents the angel of sparkling colors that comes flying up to a portico adorned with pilasters and enriched with a marble pavement, all placed against a wide and deep background of a typically Tuscan garden and landscape. On the right, the sensitive Virgin, kneeling on a beautiful carpet, is in her chamber, at the bottom of which we can see the bed masterfully painted with its transparent veil bedspread. Although in this work the fundamental iconographic scheme for the scene of the Annunciation is represented, nevertheless there is a notable new element in it, a determined modernization of the details; and —always under the inspiration of del Castagno— a great force in the drawing, united, however, with a pictorial value that clearly anticipates the Venetian painting of the Cinquecento.
More complex, though perhaps less convincing in comparison, are Botticelli’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, executed between the summer of 1481 to the spring or summer of 1482. Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere summoned Florentine artists, or educated in Florence, to decorate the Sistine chapel with frescoes. Thus, in addition to Botticelli, C. Cerroselli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino and later, Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Piero di Cosimo, were called for the enterprise. Botticelli made in collaboration with his assistants some figures of Popes and three great scenes representing, respectively, the Trials and Calling of Moses, the Temptation of Christ and the Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron. The most celebrated of these frescoes is the first, composed in its various episodes on diagonal lines and with the seductive central figures of Jethro’s daughters. The second fresco is filled with characters and rich in portraits, where certain influences from the recent Adoration of the Magi by the then young Leonardo are already noticeable. The third fresco, with classical buildings, such as a Roman arch, shows some influence from Perugino and from the archaeological environment of Rome. On the whole, Botticelli’s style, even though it was very elevated, here in these frescoes denounced a certain tension (which his disciple Filippino Lippi will later draw inspiration from), an overly charged structure and an excessive nervous tension.
This pictoric tension, compared to to the serenity displayed in Botticelli’s preceding Adoration of the Magi, is also found in the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., a work of great quality. We have already said how this shocking and turbulent vision of the scenes was particularly influenced by Leonardo; but it is true that it also foreshadows the last phase of Botticelli’s art, of exasperated religiosity and altered nerves.
On the contrary, a reaffirmed equilibrium and a corporeity inspired by classical examples (admired and in vogue then in Rome), can be appreciated in the Uffizi’s Pallas and the Centaur, also painted for the cousins of Lorenzo the Magnificent: a work to which various meanings have been attributed, both political (as an allusion to Lorenzo the Magnificent who succeeded in restoring peace after the war that followed the Pazzi conspiracy), and moral (the wise Pallas Athena subjugating the Centaur, symbol of the double nature, instinctive and rational, of man). Similarly, in this painting force is balanced with grace, the vertical components are so with the horizontal ones, the distant landscape with the rocks and foreground figures, and dark areas with the illuminated ones.