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