Garden of Delights

Another source, both text and visual, Sandro Botticelli utilised to structure the Primavera painting was a medieval manuscript known as the Hortus deliciarum (Garden of Delights). It was compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, abbess of the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace, as a teaching aid for novices in the convent.

Hohenburg Abbey built on the summit of Mount St Odile

In the manuscript’s prologue, Herrad describes herself as being “like a little bee inspired by God” to collect ”from the various flowers of sacred Scripture and philosophical writings” which she brought together in her book and offered “to the praise and honour of God and the Church […] as if into a single sweet honeycomb”.

From this statement it can be seen that Botticelli adopted a similar approach in his composition for the Primavera, sourcing from “various flowers” to create his “garden of delights”.

Herrad’s manuscript was destroyed in 1870 when the library where is was kept was bombed in the German Siege of Strasbourg. Portions of the work had been copied and so it has been possible to reconstruct parts for continued study and publication, including copies of many of the hundreds of illustrations that formed part of the original manuscript.

The Children of Israel Dance before the calf – from the Hortus deliciarum manuscript

Botticelli also referenced some of the HD illustrations in the Primavera, the most obvious being the line of mythological figures and bovine allusions which he matched to the drawing captioned: “The Children of Israel Dance before the calf”. It refers to the biblical passage from Exodus (32) when the Israelites melted the gold rings from their ears so as to form an effigy of a golden calf to worship.

A “pagan wall” of mythological figures in Botticelli’s Primavera painting

In this scenario the gold discs hanging from the trees represent the gold earrings. They also represent the gold or orange bezant coins associated with the Medici bankers, money growing on trees, so to speak. They can be recognised too as the golden apples in the Garden of Hera, which were guarded by the Hesperides and depicted in the Primavera as the Three Graces.

The theme of boundaries and enclosures is one of many threads Botticelli has woven into his “tapestry”. In this instance the line of mythological figures refer to the “pagan wall”, a term used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century when he issued a bull concerning the independence of Hohenburg Abbey built on the summit of Mount St Odile. At the base of the mount is a mysterious ancient wall standing almost three metres high in places and over ten kilometres long. The pope declared that the area contained within the “pagan wall” belonged to the Abbey, now known as Mt St Odile Abbey.

The “Pagan Wall” at Mount St Odile

In the Primavera the “little bee inspired by God” is the painter himself, portrayed as Cupid whose bow is formed as a letter ‘B’. His arrow is directed at the group of Three Graces, the closest target being the woman portrayed as Simonetta Vespucci. The Vespucci name relates to wasps (vespa) and wasps are depicted on the family stemma or coat of arms. Botticelli is blindfolded, symbolic of love being blind, but also representing St Odile, Hohenburg Abbey’s first abbess. She was born blind but after her baptism at the age of twelve she miraculously recovered her sight.

Saint Odile was born blind

It is said that Botticelli carried a torch in his heart for Simonetta Vespucci, hence Cupid’s flamed arrow and the flame-shaped quiver. But it could only be love from a distance. Bees do not mate with wasps. 

Simonetta was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence and admired by all the people. Even Giuliano de’ Medici expressed a courtly love for the woman when in 1475 he dedicated a jousting victory to Simonetta, nominating her as the ‘Queen of Beauty’. Giuliano entered the arena carrying a banner which pictured Simonetta as a helmeted Pallas Athene. The image had been painted by Botticelli. On the banner was written ‘La Sans Pareille’ (The Unparalleled One). This inscription would be referred to again in other works by Botticelli.

Simonetta Vespucci

Simonetta (nee Cattaneo) married Marco Vespucci in 1469 when she was 16. She died from a suspected brain tumour in 1476, age 22, just a year after the jousting tournament. Twelve months later Giuliano de’ Medici also died, assassinated in Florence Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1478. Giuliano is one of the identities given to the figure ‘tilting’ at the dark, ominous cloud above him.

Simonetta and the Grace to her left, Lucrezia Donati, are also shown ’tilting’ in another sense, that of leaning to one side, suggesting perhaps that the Three Graces are dancing in a clockwise direction. While Simonetta may have been awarded the epithet, ‘The Unparalleled One’, she is in fact portrayed leaning parallel with Lucrezia. The reason for this is because Lucrezia, said to have served as a mistress in a platonic sense to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s elder brother, was also awarded a title at La Giostra, that of ‘Queen of the Tournament’. So the ’tilting’ figure at the end of the line represents both brothers, Giuliano and Leonardo, as identified in an earlier post

Lucrezia Donati is also the model for the Venus figure who in turn is matched to the Donati woman in the Nuova Crónica illustration, pointed out in a previous post, while Simonetta Vespucci is also reflected in the figure of Flora presented as the Florentine symbol of protection, the Marzocco.

There are two other leaning figures on the right side of the painting that relate to the Hortus deliciarum and one of its illustrations in particular, the Ladder of Virtue shown below. The ladder leans right’, grounded in the left corner at the foot of the page and rising diagonally to its opposite corner of the folio. 

On the right side of the ladder several characters, mostly men, are shown falling from its steps, unable to resist the attractions and temptations of the world below. On the left side of the ladder one woman makes it to Heaven to receive her crown of glory, while lower down another is encouraged on her ascent by a friendly presbyter. 

Botticelli has matched the cleric wearing a blue gown and somersaulting backwards to the the figure of the wind god Zephyrus, aka the painter-cum-cleric Fra Filippo Lippi whose abduction of the Dominican novice Lucrezia Butti and its connection with the Primavera painting was outlined in an earlier post.

Compare the distinctive circular, swirling fold in Zephyrus’ tunic with that of the cleric falling from the Ladder of Virtue. Observe also the similar blue colour of their clothing. See how the colour of the habit worn by the monk above the cleric, particularly the shape of his cowl is matched to Zephyrus’ green wings.

In her exceptional book, Painting the Hortus deliciarum, Medieval Women, Wisdom and Time, Danielle B Joyner describes the cleric as arching over backward toward both his “friend” and the golden dishes of fish and delectables atop the church. Botticelli connects this scene to Fra Filippo Lippi’s relationship with his novice “friend” and his clerical status.

Primavera… past and present sources

So what was the inspiration behind the composition of Botticelli’s Primavera, particularly the arrangement and placing of its figures.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Firstly, the direction of the flow of figures can be understood as pointing to the painting’s presence and influence of Leonardo da Vinci, the polymath whose mirror-style of writing in his notebooks started from the right side of the page and moved to the left. Other mirror or reflection features are also present.

A sample of Leonardo da Vinci’s mirror writing

But perhaps the most unexpected source of inspiration are two illustrations which appear in a 14th century history of Florence by Giovanni Villani, Nuova Cronica. They record the assassination of a young Florentine nobleman called Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti. He was murdered on Easter Sunday, 1216, the morning of his wedding day. Botticelli links this date to the death of Giuliano de’ Medici who was also assassinated on an Easter Sunday – in 1478 – while attending Mass in the Florentine church of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 69v, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Figures from both illustrations can be matched to figures in the Primavera. I should point out at this stage that the group of three horses and the lone horse are matched to the group of Three Graces and the figure of Chloris. The groom holding the reins of the horse in the first illustration is matched to Zephyrus. The woman dressed in blue and raised on steps with her right hand extended and her left hand at her side can be compared to the figure of Venus. The woman’s family name is Donati. Her daughter in red, shielded in the doorway, is the inspiration for Flora. The arched windows can be compared to the arched silhouette behind the head of Venus, while the circular windows or roundels are echoed in the oranges. The figure wearing a brown gown is Buondelmonte. The side door to the building also features in the Primavera painting which I shall explain in a later post.

Ms L VIII 296, fol. 70r, Vatican Library, © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The second illustration depicts the slaughter of Buondelmonte. He has just crossed the Arno river via the Ponte Vecchio where the old Roman statue of Mars was located before it was swept away in a flood. Notice Mars is facing in the opposite direction of the nearest horse, in the same way he is depicted with his back turned to the nearest figure of the Graces. Notice also the pronounced tail of the horse and the ‘tail’ feature on the Grace figure. The horse saddle is another borrowed feature by Botticelli. He replaced this with Chloris’s cleft-shaped right hand about to be grafted onto Floris’s thigh. 

An unusual feature seen on the three horses is the horn between their ears. The group can also be recognised as three mares. The word mare in Italian translates as ‘sea’. In this context Botticelli has referenced the Three Graces as the three seas that meet at Istanbul, the Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (explained in an earlier post). Notice the golden horn hairstyle on the central figure. Her family name is also Donati. She is Lucrezia Donati, said to have been the platonic love of  Lorenzo de’ Medici.

This is the account of Buonedelmonte’s assassination as it appeared in Villani’s Nouva Cronica:

In the year of Christ 1215, M. Gherardo Orlandi being Podestà in Florence, one M. Bondelmonte dei Bondelmonti, a noble citizen of Florence, had promised to take to wife a maiden of the house of the Amidei, honourable and notable citizens; and afterwards as the said M. Bondelmonte, who was very charming and a good horseman, was riding through the city, a lady of the house of Donati called to him, reproaching him as to the lady to whom he was betrothed, that she was not beautiful or worthy of him, and saying: “I have kept this my daughter for you;” whom she showed to him, and she was most beautiful; and immediately by the inspiration of the devil he was so taken by her, that he was betrothed and wedded to her, for which thing the kinsfolk of the first betrothed lady, being assembled together, and grieving over the shame which M. Bondelmonte had done to them, were filled with the accursed indignation, whereby the city of Florence was destroyed and divided. For many houses of the nobles swore together to bring shame upon the said M. Bondelmonte, in revenge for these wrongs. And being in council among themselves, after what fashion they should punish him, whether by beating or killing, Mosca de’ Lamberti said the evil word: ‘Thing done has an end’; to wit, that he should be slain; and so it was done; for on the morning of Easter of the Resurrection the Amidei of San Stefano assembled in their house, and the said M. Bondelmonte coming from Oltrarno, nobly arrayed in new white apparel, and upon a white palfrey, arriving at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio on this side, just at the foot of the pillar where was the statue of Mars, the said M. Bondelmonte was dragged from his horse by Schiatta degli Uberti, and by Mosca Lamberti and Lambertuccio degli Amidei assaulted and smitten, and by Oderigo Fifanti his veins were opened and he was brought to his end; and there was with them one of the counts of Gangalandi. For the which thing the city rose in arms and tumult; and this death of M. Bondelmonte was the cause and beginning of the accursed parties of Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence, albeit long before there were factions among the noble citizens and the said parties existed by reason of the strifes and questions between the Church and the Empire; but by reason of the death of the said M. Bondelmonte all the families of the nobles and the other citizens of Florence were divided, and some held with the Bondelmonti, who took the side of the Guelfs, and were its leaders, and some with the Uberti, who were the leaders of the Ghibillines, whence followed much evil and disaster to our city, as hereafter shall be told; and it is believed that it will never have an end, if God do not cut it short. And surely it shows that the enemy of the human race, for the sins of the Florentines, had power in that idol of Mars, which the pagan Florentines of old were wont to worship, that at the foot of his statue such a murder was committed, whence so much evil followed to the city of Florence. The accursed names of the Guelf and Ghibelline parties are said to have arisen first in Germany by reason that two great barons of that country were at war together, and had each a strong castle the one over against the other, and the one had the name of Guelf, and the other of Ghibelline, and the war lasted so long, that all the Germans were divided, and one held to one side, and the other to the other; and the strife even came as far as to the court of Rome, and all the court took part in it, and the one side was called that of Guelf, and the other that of Ghibelline; and so the said names continued in Italy. source

That Botticelli sourced two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica, which Villani was inspired to write after attending the first Christian Jubilee in Rome in 1300, suggests the artist may also have been similarly inspired to paint the Primavera after returning in 1482 from his year-long commission in Rome frescoing the Sistine Chapel. The Jubilee year was an opportunity for pilgrims to visit Rome, confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church

The oldest manuscript of the Nuovo Chronica is held in the Vatican Library, formally established in 1475 by Pope Sixtus IV. So could Botticelli have set eyes on this manuscript while he was in Rome? 

The Pray Codex is kept at the National Széchényi Library of Budapest.

What may have also inspired Botticelli to utilise the two illustrations from the Nuovo Cronica is the knowledge that Jan van Eyck took a similar approach when painting the Arnolfini Portrait. He sourced two illustrations from the Hungarian manuscript known as the Pray Codex to embed references to what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. Like the Primavera, the Arnolfini Portrait has penitential and rebirth themes. The word Lent, a shortened form of the Old English word Lencten, means “Spring season” or “Springtime”, which translates in Italian as “Primavera”.

There is one other important manuscript that inspired Botticelli’s composition and lineup of figures he painted in Primavera. More on this in a future post.

Renaissance… rebirth… resurrection

“How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” These were questions the Pharisee called Nicodemus asked after Jesus had said to him, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-4)

Jesus answered Nicodemus, “I tell you most solemnly, unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

Botticelli referenced this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in Primavera as a way of highlighting one of the painting’s main themes – rebirth, but not solely in the sense of the Renaissance period of his time. Rather, Botticelli’s aim was directed at highlighting the need for reformation of hearts and souls towards higher values than offered by the rebirth of Greek and Roman antiquity and its pagan overtones.

The wall of mythological figures in the Primavera serve as a facade that masks deeper truths. Art historians are generally in agreement when identifying the nine figures at an individual level, but struggle to recognise the purpose or role of the group as a whole – probably because the artist has deliberately composed an arrangement meant to suggest an overtone of discord which can never be reconciled – that is pagan mythology. 

In referencing the Pharisee known as Nicodemus, Botticelli introduces another narrative that could be considered a myth in itself – the account of the Holy Face of Lucca, an ancient crucifix said to have been sculpted by Nicodemus and which miraculously found its way from Palestine to Lucca, a town about 60 miles east of Florence, in 782.

The legend records that Nicodemus fell asleep while sculpting the crucifix. He had completed most of the work except for Christ’s face. As he slept an angel appeared on the scene to finish the feature. Centuries later a bishop by the name of Gualfredo was directed in a dream to a cave in the Holy Land where he rediscovered the crucifix. He loaded the relic on a ship without sails or crew. The ship miraculously drifted out to sea and eventually berthed at Luni in Tuscany. However, every time the people of Luni attempted to board the ship it retreated out to sea again. Another bishop, Johannes of Lucca, dreamt that a ship transporting a holy relic had arrived in Luni and so he made his way to the port accompanied by clerics and many people from Lucca. When the Lucchese arrived at Luni they prayed to God and the ship returned to shore and opened its gangplank for the bishop to board.

The eight-foot-tall crucifix was brought ashore and loaded into a cart drawn by oxen. Once again it made what the people considered another miraculous journey – the cart had no driver – and arrived at the San Frediano church in Lucca. But it’s transfer didn’t end there. Another miracle occurred when the crucifix appeared unexpectedly in Lucca’s church of San Martino. It is still there today.

San Martino, or St Martin of Tours, also makes an appearance in the Primavera painting as one of many identities represented by the military figure standing at the end of the lineup, for which I shall present details in a future post.

In an earlier post I pointed out the iconography connecting St Luke, symbolised as an ox, with the central figure in the painting representing the Virgin Mary. This feature also links with the legend of the Holy Face relic and its journey or translation led by oxen to Lucca. Botticelli puns Luke with Lucca; he also make a comparison with the Holy Face coming to light again after its entombment and rediscovery in a cave with the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion and burial in a tomb carved out of rock.

The medallion worn by the Virgin Mary depicts the deposition of Jesus in his tomb. It is suspended above the Virgin’s swollen belly, indicating her expectancy of new life. In this scenario “new life” represents a resurrection to an everlasting life and how a “grown man” can be born again and so “see” and “enter the kingdom of God”. 

The span of life on Earth is sometimes expressed as a journey “from the womb to the tomb”. As for being “born through water and the Spirit”, man is born again through “Mother Church” – Ecclesia – by being baptised with both Holy Water and the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection scene is disguised in the Virgin’s red mantle. So is Christ’s descent into Hell after his crucifixion. To be able to recognise the Resurrection feature the painting requires to be viewed turned upside down.

The Virgin’s left hand is shaped to draw attention to the highlighted area over her thigh, a “dim reflection” of the head and beard of Jesus as he exits his oval-shaped tomb. He is slightly turned so that his left shoulder and the folds of his gown are prominent and nearest the viewer. The oval entrance represents the open mouth of the large fish that swallowed Jonah for three days before vomiting the prophet onto dry land. The Old Testament account of Jonah and the fish is symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection. 

The “dim reflection” of the Holy Face points to a passage in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that refers to resurrection: “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror, but then we shall be seeing face to face” (13:12).

Botticelli has used this reference to paint a portrait and “a dim reflection” created with the aid of a mirror – a self portrait – not of Botticelli but of Leonardo da Vinci, and very likely the red chalk drawing owned by a private collector but brought to public attention in 2020 by the Leonardo scholar, Annalisa Di Maria

A feature of most Leonardo portraits, and even his figures, is that the model is shown  in three-quarter view with a shoulder nearest the viewer, hence Botticelli’s emphasis and detail in the folds of the gown or shroud of the “dim reflection”.

When viewed in its normal position the detail serves to represent the blood-soaked sudarium that covered the face of Jesus when he was wrapped in his tomb. The “agonised” depiction is presented looking downwards and meant to represent Christ’s descent into Hell, sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. Notice the wing-shaped folds indicating God’s Spirit descending.

That Leonardo’s self-portrait was drawn with the aid of a mirror is for a particular reason why Botticelli has referenced it as representing the Holy Face of Lucca, and not solely to fit with the verse from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

The mirror connection introduces another artist and specifically one of his paintings: Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes referred to as the Arnolfini Wedding, or the Arnolfini Marriage

Art historians are undecided as to which member of the Arnolfini family the “bridegroom” represents – Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, or his cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. Both men were Italian merchants from Lucca but resident in Bruges.

There are other connections in the Primavera painting to the Arnolfini Portrait, the most obvious being the way the two artists identified themselves. Van Eyck wrote his name above the large mirror central in the painting; Botticelli has depicted himself as the Cupid figure above the image of the “Mirror of Justice”, one of many titles associated with the Virgin Mary. 

There are also more references in the Primavera to the Cathedral of San Martino which I will explain in a future post.

Renaissance Painting Discovery

A lost masterwork by a follower of the Italian Renaissance painter Filippino Lippi hidden in plain sight in a London bungalow has sold for £255,000 ($321,000) at Dawsons Auctioneers in London.

Follower of Filippino Lippi, The Depiction of the Madonna and Child, Photo Dawsons Auctioneers

The painting belonged to a woman in her 90s who moved to a nursing home last year. Her family enlisted Dawsons to evaluate the home and its contents as they began the process of selling the property to help cover her medical care.

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