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.
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 it 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Botticelli never married and once when it was suggested he should, he explained that a few days earlier he dreamt he had married and awoke suddenly, struck with grief. He walked the streets for the rest of the night to avoid having to sleep and the dream possibly repeating.
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 (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 (or Virtue) 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.