BOTTICELLI (the Primavera and other Medicean paintings, from 1477 to 1483).

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).

Primavera (“Spring”), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, 207 x 319 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The Primavera is one of the first surviving paintings from the post-classical period which depicts classical gods almost naked and life-size. This famous painting shows nine figures from classic mythology advancing over a flowery lawn in a grove of orange (a Medici symbol) and laurel trees. In the foreground, to the right, Zephyrus (the west wind, messenger of spring) embraces a nymph named Chloris before taking her, he blows at her face as plants sprout from her mouth; Chloris is then portrayed after her transformation into Flora, the goddess of Spring, wearing a flowy, flowery dress and spreading flowers as she walks. The center of the painting is dominated by the goddess of love and beauty, Venus, chastely dressed in light blue and red, and set slightly back from the others, the trees behind her forming a broken arch to draw the eye. The tree behind her is a myrtle, one of her symbols. She is raising her hand in greeting and welcoming the observer to her kingdom, while her blindfolded son, Cupid, fires his arrow of love towards the group of the three Graces, on the left, minor goddesses with virtues like those of Venus, who are shown dancing in a circle. The composition is closed, at the left, by Mercury, messenger of the Gods, recognizable from his helmet and winged sandals, as he touches a gray cloud with his caduceus staff, pushing it away. At least 138 species of different plants have been identified, all accurately portrayed by Botticelli, perhaps using herbarium specimens. The attention to detail confirms the artist’s commitment to this piece, which is also evident in the sheer skill with which the paint was applied. Towards the end of the 15th century, the painting was to be found in the house in Via Larga (modern-day Via Cavour) that belonged to the heirs of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was hung above a lettuccio, a kind of chest with back that was often among the furniture items in noble Renaissance homes. There, the painting decorated an anteroom attached to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s chambers. It was later moved to the Villa di Castello, where Giorgio Vasari (1550) described it together with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Botticelli has reproduced here a mythological tale passed down by Ovid (Fasti, Book 5, 2 May) the classical poet: Zephyrus, God of Winds, is pursuing the nymph Chloris and transforming her into Flora, Goddess of Flowers and Spring. The subject-mater of the painting may also allude to a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the Medici house poet who may have helped Botticelli devise the composition, or to Marsilio Ficino, another member of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s circle and a key figure in Renaissance Neoplatonism. Most scholars now believe this painting to be connected to the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici as paintings and furniture were often given as presents celebrating weddings.
Primavera (“Spring”, detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, 207 x 319 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Primavera (“Spring”, detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, 207 x 319 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Primavera (“Spring”, detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, 207 x 319 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

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, fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1480, 152 x 112 cm (Church of Ognissanti, Florence). Botticelli painted this fresco for the Vespucci family in the church of Ognissanti. It was created in competition with Ghirlandaio’s fresco of St. Jerome. Botticelli here depicted St. Augustine suddenly interrupted at his studies. He is deeply moved as he raises his eyes, and, in an expansive gesture, lays his right hand to his chest: for he is seeing a vision of the death of St. Jerome. The entablature at the top is an architectural feature which Botticelli continued in order to add depth to the picture and to place a row of large books and astronomical instruments on it. The coat of arms visible in the upper part (on the entablature) is that of the Vespucci family. Botticelli shows the room and the saint from a low angle which enables the artist to give greater emphasis to Augustine’s dramatic gesture.
Annunciation, detached fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1481, 243 x 555 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This fresco was originally under a loggia over the entrance of San Martino della Scala, a hospital for people stricken with the plague. The traditional iconography of the Annunciation is set in a Renaissance palace, overlooking a garden, closed by a crenellated wall at the end. The portico, through which the archangel Gabriel appears, leads into Mary’s room. Behind the Virgin is the tall wooden bed, surrounded by chests and protected by a curtain, shown opened to one side. Mary kneels on a precious carpet. The painting is rich with symbolic references to the mother of God, although these are masked behind the everyday appearance of the setting. The walled garden symbolizes Mary’s purity, while the awning suggests a parallel between Mary, who carries the Christ Child in her womb, and the drape that covered the Ark of the Covenant. This fresco is usually considered as related to a certified payment to Sandro Botticelli, made in 1481, shortly before the painter departed for Rome, where he worked on the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

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.

St. Sixtus II, fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1481, 210 x 80 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). Originally, in the register above the history paintings, the decoration of the Sistine Chapel consisted of 28 portraits of early popes who had died as martyrs (four of them, the portraits of the first four popes on the altar wall, have not survived). It is assumed that these papal portraits were executed by the assistants of the four masters (Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Rosselli). However, it is possible to identify specific stylistic features in many of the portraits, which led to conclude that perhaps Botticelli designed an unusually large share of them, seven portraits, including that of Sixtus II. These portraits are imaginary. As can be seen in this fresco representing Sixtus II, the popes were represented in full length placed in niches and painted, so as to be seen from far below, high up on the walls of the room. All popes are shown wearing pontifical robes and the papal tiara.
The Trials and Calling of Moses, fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482, 348,5 x 558 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). This fresco, located in the second compartment on the south wall in the Sistine Chapel, is opposite The Temptations of Christ (see picture below) also painted by Botticelli. Both frescoes deal with the theme of temptation. Botticelli integrated seven episodes from the life of the young Moses, taken from Exodus, into the landscape with considerable skill, by opening up the surface of the picture by designing four diagonal rows of figures. The painting is read from right to left: (1) Moses in a shining yellow garment, angrily strikes an Egyptian overseer and then (2) flees to the Midianites. There (3) he disperses a group of shepherds who were preventing the daughters of Jethro from (4) drawing water at the well. After God ordered him to remove his shoes to approach the burning bush (5), He gave Moses the divine revelation at the top left (6), Moses obeys God commandment and (7) leads the people of Israel in a triumphal procession from slavery in Egypt. The central scene, in which Moses gives water to the sheep belonging to Jethro’s daughters, is one of the most charming of this fresco (see detail below).
The Trials and Calling of Moses (detail), fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482, 348,5 x 558 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City).
Temptations of Christ, fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1480–1482, 345.5 × 555 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). The theme of these fresco decoration was a parallel between the Stories of Moses (see picture above) and those of Christ, as a sign of continuity between the Old and the New Testament. This fresco depicts three episodes from the gospels, in parallel with the painting on the opposite wall, showing the Trials of Moses. This fresco though, on the contrary, is read from left to right: on the top left corner, Jesus, who has been fasting, is tempted by the Devil, in the guise of a hermit, to turn stones into bread. In the second scene of temptation, at the upper center of the picture, the Devil has carried Jesus to the top of the temple of Jerusalem, represented by the façade of the Chapel of Santa Maria in Traspontina of the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome. The Devil tempts Jesus to challenge God’s promise that he will be protected by angels, by throwing himself down. In the third temptation, to the upper right, the Devil has taken Jesus to a high mountain where he shows him the beauties of the Earth. The Devil promises Jesus power over this domain, if he will deny God and bow down to the Devil. Jesus sends the Devil away from him, while angels come to minister to him. In the foreground, a man whom Jesus has healed of leprosy presents himself to the High Priest at the temple, so that he may be pronounced clean. The young man carries a basin of water, in which is a bough of hyssop. A woman brings two fowls for sacrifice (middle center left) and another woman brings cedar wood (to the right). These three ingredients were part of the ritual of cleansing of a leper. The high priest may symbolize Moses, who transmitted the Law, and the young man may symbolically represent Christ, who, according to the Gospels, was wounded and slain for the benefit of mankind, and healed through the Resurrection so that mankind might also be made spiritually clean, and receive salvation.
The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron, fresco, by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482, 348,5 x 570 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). The fresco is located in the fifth compartment on the south wall. The message of this painting provides the key to an understanding of the Sistine Chapel as a whole before Michelangelo’s work. The fresco reproduces three episodes, each of which depicts a rebellion by the Hebrews against God’s appointed leaders, Moses and Aaron, along with the ensuing divine punishment of the agitators. On the right-hand side, the revolt of the Jews against Moses is related, the latter portrayed as an old man with a long white beard, clothed in a yellow robe and an olive-green cloak. Irritated by the various trials through which their emigration from Egypt was putting them, the Jews demanded that Moses be dismissed. They wanted a new leader, one who would take them back to Egypt, and they threatened to stone Moses; however, Joshua placed himself protectively between them and their would-be victim, as depicted in Botticelli’s fresco. The center of the fresco shows the rebellion, under the leadership of Korah, of the sons of Aaron and some Levites, who, setting themselves up in defiance of Aaron’s authority as high priest, also offered up incense. In the background we see Aaron in a blue robe and wearing the papal tiara, swinging his incense censer with an upright posture and filled with solemn dignity, while his rivals stagger and fall to the ground with their censers at God’s behest. Their punishment ensues on the left-hand side of the painting, as the rebels are swallowed up by the earth, which is breaking open under them. The two innocent sons of Korah, the ringleader of the rebels, appear floating on a cloud, exempted from the divine punishment. The principal message of these scenes is made manifest by the inscription in the central field of the triumphal arch: “Let no man take the honor to himself except he that is called by God, as Aaron was”. The fresco thus holds a warning that God’s punishment will fall upon those who oppose God’s appointed leaders. This warning also contained a contemporary political reference through the portrayal of Aaron in the fresco, depicted wearing the triple-ringed tiara of the Pope and thus characterized as the papal predecessor. It was a warning to those questioning the ultimate authority of the Pope over the Church. The triumphal arch is an almost exact copy of the Roman Arch of Constantine. The magnificent ships to the left of the fresco may well be a reference to the Pope’s fleet.

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.

Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482, 70 x 103 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C,). One hint that this painting was perhaps done during Botticelli’s stay in Rome can be seen in the groom in the background on the right who is attempting to bring his horse under control; Botticelli probably adapted this motif from the classical sculptures of the Dioscuri, the horse-tamers, in Rome. In contrast to Botticelli’s earlier versions of the Adoration, the Virgin and the Christ Child now form the painting’s main focal point. As in the Adoration done for Gaspare del Lama, those present here are arrayed around the Virgin in a semicircle. In this painting, however, Botticelli has opened up the semicircle towards the observer, so that the latter’s gaze may reach the Virgin unhindered. At the same time, all those involved, their postures and gestures, are directed towards the Mother of God, lending the painting a dramatic unity which the earlier Adorations lacked. The artist’s recording of the figures’ various reactions demonstrates once again the importance for Botticelli of Alberti’s treatise on painting (De pictura, published in 1450). The art theoretician recommended for the edification of the observer not only the greatest variation in the possible palette of emotions but also the depiction of people of differing age, together with alternation in the perspectives offered by the figures, who should be presented from various sides in three-quarter and half profile or from the front. Botticelli’s wealth of variation in the fashioning of his figures fulfilled all of these demands, yet without losing the central focus of the picture’s content.

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.

Pallas and the Centaur, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, 207 x 148 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).  According to the inventory of 1499 which lists the property of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, this painting hung above a door in the same room as the Primavera. Its bare landscape focuses one’s gaze on the two main figures. A centaur has trespassed on forbidden territory. This lusty being, half horse and half man, is being brought under control by a female guard armed with a shield and halberd, and she has grabbed him by the hair. The woman has been identified both as the goddess Pallas Athena and the Amazon Camilla, chaste heroine of Virgil’s Aeneid. The fine cloth of Pallas’ dress is decorated with the three ring insignia of the Medici family, confirming that the painting was made for the Medici. She wears laurel branches, entwined around her arms and chest, and as a crown. On her back is a shield and she wears leather sandals on her feet. The halberd is large and elaborate, and the centaur has apparently been captured while preparing to shoot his bow. The features of the centaur are close to those of Moses in one of Botticelli’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel (see pictures above). What is undisputed is the moral content of the painting, in which virtue is victorious over sensuality. As with the Primavera, this painting is often connected with the wedding in 1482 of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to Semiramide Appiano, perhaps as a wedding gift from Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent). The lands of the bride’s father, lord of Piombino on the Ligurian coast, and the island of Elba just off it, has been seen in the painting’s backgrounds. The painting has also been connected with the ideas of the Renaissance Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino about the human soul as part animal and part human. This painting marks the end of Botticelli’s Medicean period, from this point onwards the subject-matter of his paintings changes and becomes increasingly religious.
Pallas and the Centaur (detail), tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1482, 207 x 148 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).