A touch of topiary

Disguised within the tree arch behind the figure of the Virgin Mary – who equates with the celestial sign of Virgo – are two more zodiac symbols, Aries and Taurus. In a previous post I revealed another sign, Cancer, as the left arm of the Virgin portrayed as a crab’s leg.

Detail from Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The left side of the arch is Aries, the right, Taurus. To visualise more clearly requires the painting to be rotated. When turned 90 degrees clockwise the shape of a rather bulky Aries the Ram is silhouetted against the sky blue backdrop (A).

(A) – Aries the Ram

Rotating the right side of the arch at 180 degrees, the silhouette (B) produces the bull symbol representing Taurus, its muzzle and two horns pointing in the direction of the Virgin’s left arm.

The reason for the Ram’s bulkiness is that it also represents another bull (C) outlined on its underside, the muzzle and horns pointing downwards to the Virgin’s head.

Left: (B) The bull symbol Taurus… Right: (C) A second bull symbol
The shape of a lion’s head

A third animal is also depicted in the shape at the muzzle end of the ram, the profile of a lion’s head representing the Zodiac symbol Leo, or in terms of constellations, Leo Minor. Leo Major is the profile of the lion’s head formed by the shape of the Virgin’s hair at the right side of her face. 

Apart from its zodiac meaning, the bull iconography refers to certain papal bulls issued during the reign of Sixtus IV. Two issued on the same day, 12 May 1479, concerned the Rule of Order dedicated to the Mother of God of Mount Carmel, and the Recitation of the Marian prayer known as the Rosary. In 1983 Sixtus also issued a bull allowing local bishops to permit bodies of executed criminals and unknown corpses to be dissected by physicians and artists. Botticelli has referenced all three edicts in his Primavera painting.

The two bulls issued on the same day in May 1479 connect to another painter referenced in the Primavera painting – Leonardo da Vinci – known for dissecting corpses in his scientific and artistic pursuit of knowledge about the human body.

Detail of a drawing by Leonardo titled: The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman, Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The two bull silhouettes that form the arch behind the Virgin represent a pair of lungs, while her right hand points shape of the lion’s head mentioned earlier, and representing the zodiac sign Leo – or Leonardo.

The background silhouette feature is also a pointer to a similar detail in a painting by Leonardo supposedly depicting Ginevra de’ Benci. However, the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, the same woman portrayed as the Virgin Mary in Botticelli’s Primavera.

Detail from Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini, showing the silhouette of Elijah – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The silhouette seen in the Juniper tree featured in Leonardo’s painting has two representations, the biblical prophet Elijah, and Saint Gall (as in gallbladder). The reference to Elijah connects to the biblical account (1 Kings 18:16-45) when the prophet challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah said: “Let two bulls be given us; let them choose one for themselves, dismember it and lay it on wood, but not set fire to it. I in my turn will prepare the other bull and not set fire to it. You must call on the name of your god, and I shall call on the name of mine; the god who answers with fire is God indeed.” The outcome was that fire fell on Elijah’s sacrifice but not on the bull offered by the prophets of Baal.

I shall post at another time details about the Rosary prayer depicted in Primavera, but to suffice to say it connects to another Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the artists who worked alongside Botticelli on the Sistine Chapel frescoes.

When Ghirlandaio completed his time in Rome he was commissioned to produce a series of frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel in the Florentine basilica of Santa Trinita. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi. One scene, portraying the death of Francis, shows a man dressed in red and blue and with his right hand feeling into the vent or incision on the side of the corpse. He is depicted as Leonardo da Vinci who, unlike the praying friars around him, prefers instead to study the cadaver. 

A section of the fresco, Death of Francis, 1483-86, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sassetti Chapel.

The frescoes were produced between 1483-86. Shortly before completion Ghirlandaio and his workshop started on another cycle of frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. The cycle of frescoes depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and from the life of St John the Baptist. Both cycles contain references to Botticelli’s Primavera painting. 

Detail from The Visitation fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The Visitation scene from the Baptist cycle is centred on the meeting of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. Standing behind Elizabeth are two women shown as ladies in waiting. The one half-hidden behind the other is matched to Fioretta Gorini as depicted in Primavera.

Fioretta is also shown ‘half-hidden’ and facing the viewer in the group of three women placed at the left edge of the frame. This group is Ghirlandaio’s hat-tip to the Three Graces seen in Primavera who are Fioretta Gorini, Lucrezia Donati, and Simonetta Vespucci. As to why the three women in The Visitation scene are shown with halos, it could be that they have all been portrayed as the Virgin Mary in some of Botticelli’s paintings.

Another scene from the life of John the Baptist that features Leonardo and Fioretta is the panel titled: Zechariah Write’s John’s Name. More details in an earlier post at this link.

Congression narratives

So here’s how Sandro Botticelli gave clues as to the identity of one of the Three Graces in his Primavera painting being Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. Fioretta is the muse depicted back to back with the figure generally described as Mars, but who Botticelli has applied several other identities, one being Giuliano.

Primavera, c1482, by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Giuliano de’ Medici, terracotta bust by Andrea del Verrocchio, National Gallery of Art.

There is a terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici displayed at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. It was created by the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio between 1475 and 1478. Giuliano is depicted wearing a cuirass, armour made in two pieces to protect the chest and back. It is emblazoned with an unusual gorgon-type feature, a winged head of a man screaming in fear. There is a separate narrative to this feature but suffice to say at this stage the screaming head is modelled on Leonardo da Vinci, an apprentice in Verrocchio’s studio at the time.

A depiction of Leonardo da Vinci on the breastplate of Giuliano de’ Medici
Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Lady with a Bouquet of Flowers, Andrea del Verrocchio, Bargello Museum, Florence

The cuirass links to Fioretta Gorini in that not only was she the daughter of a cuirass maker but also the subject of a painting by Leonardo that is mistakingly identified by some art historians as Ginerva de Benci, painted sometime between 1474 and 1478. Fiorretta also links back to another work by Verrochio, a marble bust known as the Lady with a Bouquet of Flowers, dated between 1475 and 1480, and housed at the Bargello Museum, Florence.

The woman in both works is almost identical and it has been speculated that Verrocchio’s sculpture was the inspiration for Leonardo’s painting, hence its stony appearance, softened only by the rolling curls of her golden hair. But there may be another reason for Fioretta’s blank expression, one which connects to the death of Giuliano who was assassinated on April 26, 1478, Easter Sunday. This would also date the painting sometime afterwards.

Verrocchio’s two sculptures and Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta are all referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera. His linking of the three works in this way confirms the Fioretta portraits by Verrocchio and Leonardo are one and the same woman.

However, unlike the Leonardo portrait and Verrocchio’s marble bust that show Fioretta with a curled hairstyle, Botticelli has portrayed her with hair that flows loose. The strands represent snakes and refer to the Gorgon known as Medusa whose stare could turn people into stone, therefore linking to the gorgon feature on Giuliano’s breastplate. Notice also the form representing a breastplate, or the front section of a cuirass, underneath Fioretta’s diaphorous dress.

Detail of Fioretta Gorini from Botticelli’s Primavera painting, Uffizi, Florence

The mention of stone is also a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta made by Verrocchio, but to confirm what type of stone –marble – Botticelli introduced another clue which relates to a disclosure made in a previous post, that the painting refers to the Council of Florence in 1437, an ecumenical “congress” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church governed from Constantinople (Istanbul).

In this scenario the group of Three Graces are portrayed as flowing water used for baptism into the Christian faith. They also represent the three water features that meet at Istanbul, namely the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea. The central figure of Lucrezia Donati represents the Golden Horn; Simonetta Vespucci, the Bosphorus; and Fioretti Gorini, the Marmara Sea whose name is taken from Marmara Island “a rich source of marble” and the Greek word mármaron, meaning marble”.

The Marmarar Sea, the Golden Horn, and the Bosphorus

The marble bust of Fioretta shows her holding a small bouquet of flowers. This is echoed by Botticelli with the gold-leaf, petalled brooch worn by Fioretta. It refers to her name meaning “little flower”. It also links back to another painting by Botticelli, the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, which shows Leonardo da Vinci wearing a gold leaf on his chest, pictured right.

There are two other references in Primavera on the relationship between Leonardo and Fioretta which I shall post on at another time.

Who are the Three Graces?

This group of three dancing females in Botticelli’s Primavera painting are usually referred to as the Three Graces or Charites and are given various names and roles in Greco-Roman mythology. But in this scene they can be clearly identified and in at least two roles they represent.

Left to right, they are Fioretta Gorini, said to be the mother of Pope Clement VII, son of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated a month before his child’s birth; Lucrezia Donati, a platonic love of Giuliano’s brother Lorenzo de’ Medici; and Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s Venus and a beauty all of Florence admired.

The same three women are portrayed in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c.1484–1486). Uffizi, Florence.

In my next post I shall explain the iconography that identifies Fioretta Gorini, the daughter of a cuirass maker, frequently portrayed as the Virgin Mary in many of Botticelli’s paintings – as she is in Primavera – and also as the figure of Chloris.