An unlikely pairing, but well matched

Forever together… The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, and Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera

I wonder if any art curator would ever consider aligning these two paintings on a gallery wall? If so, for what purpose? That Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait was completed in 1434, and Botticelli’s Primavera some fifty years later, reflecting both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles of painting, could be a reason; that the two paintings relate to marriage could be another.

While art historians have generally focused on literary sources of ancient poets to identify and understand the Primavera figures and the painting’s composition, the wellspring and source of inspiration dates to just a decade before the birth of Botticelli – to Jan van Eyck and the Arnolfini Portrait.

This would indicate that Botticelli had seen the Van Eyck painting at some time, and also had knowledge of Jan’s own inventiveness and rationale behind the painting’s composition and narratives. 

More on this in a future post.

There is a season for everything*

Having already revealed several identities applied by Botticelli to the standing male figure in the Primavera painting, it would not be unreasonable to assume that other figures in the scene represent more than one person. There is a transforming or changing theme running through the painting and its many narratives.

The Marzocco

Perhaps the most obvious hint of this are the two women on the right of the frame representing Chloris, the Greek goddess of flowers and her Roman equivalent Flora. Chloris is seen being lowered alongside Flora by Zephyrus the West Wind. In fact, Chloris is depicted as being grafted to the thigh of Flora. Observe the cleft-shaped, right hand of Chloris. Flora’s thigh is shield-shaped (a stemma), suggesting shield-budding.

A further transformation feature is that Flora also represents a lion and the heraldic symbol of Florence, the Marzocco. In turn, Chloris is presented as a lamb or a goat (a sacrifice offered to the gods). When the two elements – lion and lamb, or goat – are combined or grafted they form the basis of a beast known in Greek mythology as a Chimera.

To complete the transformation a third creature is required, that of a serpent. This is represented by the scaled pattern on Flora’s arms, the serpent’s head being her left hand. Chimera is another term associated with horticulture grafting.

In an earlier post I pointed out that Zephyrus, the West Wind, also represented the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, and Chloris as Lucrezia Buti, the Dominican novice he abducted to use as a model to represent the Virgin Mary in his paintings.

The Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna mirrored this section of Primavera in his painting titled Parnassus, except that for the West Wind he depicted the painter Leonardo da Vinci in the guise of Pegasus, the winged horse that Bellerophon rode to Lycia on his mission to slay the monstrous Chimera. Leonardo is another identity Botticelli applied to the Zephyrus figure.

Detail from Parnassus, by Andrea Mantegna, Louvre

In the Parnassus painting, the two figures nearest to Pegasus are Chloris and Flora. The serpent is the ribbon gripped by Chloris’ left hand, and her right hand gripping the thumb of Flora’s right hand is the graft feature.

The head of the lamb is formed by the shape of the dress at Chloris’ shoulder, turned towards the wind created by Pegasus’ wing, just as Chloris turns her head towards the wind (hot air?) blown from the mouth of Zephyrus in the Primavera painting.

Note also the brown-coloured profile at the side of the arch above the two women. It represents Donatello (pictured right), the sculptor commissioned to create a new version of the Marzocco between 1418-20, to replace the weather-beaten version erected in the late 14th century.

* There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven...
(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Of shapes and silhouettes

Detail from The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence

In my last post I pointed out a connection in Botticelli’s Primavera with a fresco panel of The Visitation in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio. In fact, there are several links.

Left: Fioretta Gorini by Leonardo da Vinci. Right: Detail from The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

One in particular couples with the Fioretta Gorini portrait by Leonardo da Vinci and confirms the silhouette feature I pointed out connecting the biblical prophet Elijah and the miracle on Mount Carmel in the Primavera painting.

Same shape, different presentations.

The silhouette of Elijah’s profile in the juniper tree to the right of Fioretta is matched by the shape of the summit of the rock formation (representing Mount Carmel) behind the heads of Elizabeth’s two servants. The two women appear to both represent Fioretta Gorini; the woman nearest, with a more rounded face as she looks in Leonardo’s portrait, and the half-hidden figure as in Botticelli’s portrayal of the Virgin in Primavera.

That Ghirlandaio has depicted a shaped stone formation to make reference to Fioretta Gorini, may also be a pointer to the marble bust of Fioretta sculpted by Andrea Verrocchio.

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.

Primavera and Leonardo da Vinci

Detail of the drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo – Leonardo da Vinci International Committee

I recently came across a report published at artnet news that an Italian researcher, Annalisa Di Maria, had discovered a new drawing by Leonardo da Vinci portraying Jesus Christ. Experts have still to support Annalisa’s claim, but they may be interested to know the drawing is referred to in Botticelli’s Primavera.

I shall reveal more about this in a future post.

In my first post of a series intended to reveal the alternative narratives in Primavera, I pointed out that the painting was inspired by two other artists, Leonardo da Vinci and, in particular, Jan van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci

Pairing Lorenzo and Sixtus

Girolamo Savonarola

I recently read a “bite size” biography of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola who preached in Florence during the Renaissance. Sandro Botticelli gets a mention. The co-authors write that Savonarola’s preaching “profoundly influenced” Botticelli “and turned him from painting pornography to producing works that honoured the God of the Bible”.

Perhaps the authors never really understood that Botticelli had profound knowledge of the Bible before Savonarola arrived in Florence when the friar was assigned to the Convent of San Marco in 1482. Botticelli’s Primavera painting exemplifies this and makes several references to biblical passages embedded in what may appear on the surface to some observers as simply a “painting of pornography” based on figures associated with Greco-Roman mythology.

In a previous post I explained that the dual figure of Hermes (Greek) and Mercury (Roman) also represents the Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano, and how some of the iconography pointed to the assassination of Giuliano and the attack on his brother who managed to escape to the safety of the Duomo’s sacristy after sustaining only a slight wound to his neck.

The attack on the Medici brothers was orchestrated by members and supporters of a rival banking family, the Pazzi, with some support of Pope Sixtus IV for their removal from Florence but not their assassination. The whole affair became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. Eventually, a settlement was reached between Lorenzo and Sixtus IV. 

As part of the diplomacy process Lorenzo arranged for a number of Florentine artists to visit Rome and fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Sandro Botticelli was one of them. References to this commission are found in the Primavera painting, some of which are detailed in previous posts. Not only does Botticelli’s time in Rome provide another link to Lorenzo and Sixtus, it also introduces a painter from an earlier period, Fra Angelico Lippi, to connect to the roles of the father and son painters, Fra Filippo Lippi and Filippino Lippi, depicted in Primavera.

Fra Angelico

Like Savonarola, Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro) was a Dominican friar and after leaving the nearby convent of Fiesole in 1436 he moved to Florence and San Marco where he began decorating the newly built convent. In 1447 Fra Angelico was called to Rome by Pope Nicholas V to produce frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel. It is this work that Botticelli has sourced during his own period in Rome in 1480-82 to refer to the relationship between Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Sixtus IV, compared to St Lawrence – who Lorenzo was named after – and the martyr’s relationship with a predecessor of Sixtus IV – Pope Sixtus II.

The Medici banking arrangement with the Papal court was complex. There was a hesitancy on the part of Lorenzo de’ Medici to keep financially supporting Pope Sixtus IV and his aggrandizement of the Papal States abd his own family. The Pope turned instead to another Florentine banking family, the Pazzi, and this eventually climaxed in what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy and the assassination of Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano de’ Medici.

Lorenzo’s namesake, St Lawrence is one of two martyrs whose lives are portrayed in the Niccoline Chapel in the Vatican. The other is St Stephen. The frescoes were commisioned by Pope Nicholas V and painted by Fra Angelico Lippi. 

According to Wikipedia, “St Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of the city of Rome under Pope Sixtus II who were martyred in the persecution of Christians that the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered in 258”. As Archdeacon of Rome Lawrence was in care of the treasury and riches of the Church and distribution of alms to the poor.

Detail of St Lawrence distributing alms to the poor, painted by Fra Angelico for the Niccoline Chapel

The Emperor Valerian issued an edict that all Christians should be put to death. Pope Sixtus II was the first of the martyrs. Valerian then ordered Lawwrence to hand over all the riches of the Church. Lawrence requested that he be given three days to gather the wealth. In the meantime he began instead to distribute the treasures to the poor and suffering people of Rome declaring that they were the true treasures of the Church. For his defiance he was arrested and while waiting in prison for his execution he baptised fellow prisoners before he died a martyr, roasted to death on a gridiron. 

St Lawrence is usually depicted wearing a dalmatic and holding a gridiron. Fra Angelico portrayed Lawrence in his dalmatic decorated with a pattern of flames to represent the martyr’s death.

The pattern is repeated on Lorenzo’s tunic in the Primavera, except that the flames are inverted to appear as roots, suggesting that “The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Pope Sixtus II, by Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel

One of the legends asociated with the martyrdom of St Lawrence was the declaration he made while being roasted on the gridiron: “I’m well done of this side, turn me over!” And so another reference why Botticelli’s figure of Lorenzo is shown turned facing away from the Three Graces representing the water of faith through baptism. The biblical reference to wandering souls given any number of fatal wounds can also be be understood in context with the wounds inflicted on Giuliano – twenty – when he was assasinated in Florence Cathedral. Lorenzo escaped with a minor wound to his neck.

A final connection in all of this is the fresco in the Sistine Chapel depicting Pope Sixtus ll, the bishop of Rome who made St Lawrence an Archdeacon of Rome and also martyred by the Emperor Valerian. The fresco was painted by Sandro Botticelli during the time he and other Florentine artists were commissioned to fresco the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV.

Springtime!

This cherry and white blossom tree stands on the street outside my home. I took a photo of it today as it reminds me of some of the ‘grafting’ features in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. For instance, notice the ‘cleft’ shape of Chloris’ right hand as she is about to be grafted onto the thigh of Flora. Narratives are also grafted onto the thighs of the other figures. More on this in future posts.

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

The Passover and the Primavera

Tomorrow, Holy Thursday, Christians celebrate the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his Apostles before his crucifixion. The Passover is a day and festival of remembrance for ever in God’s honour before he instigated the tenth plague against Egypt to convince its pharaoh to free the Israelites.

The Passover is referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The male figure with his back turned to the Three Graces is said to represent Hermes/Mercury, messenger to the Greco-Roman gods. The figure also has other identities. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is another.

In his monograph on the life and work of Botticelli, Ronald Lightbown describes the figure of Mercury as inspired by a passage from The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil: “Mercury, despatched by his father Jove to Aeneas, first ties his winged shoes to his feet, then takes his caduceus, and by its power drives off the winds and the turbid clouds as he descends to earth.

So how does the Passover and Giuliano de’ Medici fit in with this section of the painting? The passing cloud and the raised caduceus are clues.

Giuliano was assassinated while attending Mass in the Duomo cathedral in Florence. His head was sliced by a sword and he was stabbed several times. The signal for the time his killers planned to strike was during the time of Consecration when a bell was rung as the consecrated host was raised and held high before the congregation, hence the raised arm of Giuliano.

The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is the True Presence of Jesus, echoing the time at the Last Supper when he took some bread, broke it and shared it with his Apostles, saying: “Take it and eat, this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

The raising of the Host, symbolic of Jesus being raised on the Cross, can also be compared to the raising of the caduceus, the cloud being the darkness that came over the whole land at the time of his death. The caduceus with its two entwined dragons or serpents also represents the time when the Israelites complained to Moses and so God sent fiery serpents among the people. Their bite brought death to many. The people repented and God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. He added: “If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8), which is why some Christian crosses and the crucifix are depicted with the image of a serpent. 

As a mythological representation the dragons are seen as a sign of peace after Hermes/Mercury saw two serpents engaged in mortal combat. Hermes/Mercury separated them with his wand and brought peace between them.

The stance of the man, also relates to part of the Passover description in Exodus. “You shall eat it like this [the Passover meal]: with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily; it is a Passover in honour of Yahweh” (12:11).

And then there are the strands of dark clouds which the figure is reaching up to with his wand. The elongated shapes can be likened to lentil seed pods and therefore recognised as a cloud formation known as Stratocumulus lenticularis. Here Botticelli is punning on the word Lent (meaning Spring) and Lint, the fluffy substance derived from bits of fabric, and then extending the pun to refer to Lintel, the load-bearing beam placed above windows and doors. This then connects to another biblical passage relating to the Passover when Moses instructs the people to “Take a spray of hyssop, dip it in the blood [from the slaughtered animal] that is in the basin, and with the blood from the basin, touch the lintel and the two door posts. Let none of you venture out of the house till morning. Then, when Yahweh goes through Egypt to strike it, and see blood on the lintel and on the two door posts, he will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your homes and strike” (Exodus 12:22-23).

In this scenario we can understand the figure as reaching up to touch the lintel with blood, and probably his own because the man also represents Lorenzo de’ Medici who suffered a slight wound to the neck during the assassination attempt. He managed to escape death by reaching the sacristy and fastening the bronze door to keep out “the destroyer” from entering and striking again. As to the clues for also identifying the figure as Lorenzo de’ Medici, I shall explain in a future post as it connects to the time Botticelli spent in Rome engaged in frescoing some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.

Called to Communion

I stated in my last post that there was more to Botticelli’s Primavera other than being a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences. However, the translation of mythological identities from Greek to Roman is a key to understanding the major narrative in the painting.

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

The mergence of the figure of Chloris with Flora, her Roman counterpart, is an example of this, brought together by Zephyrus the Greek god of the east wind, or his Roman equivalent, a favourable wind called Favonius.

The scene is an allegory of Greco-Roman coalescence, Greek language and Latin language, Orthodox Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church, a marriage or unification of the Catholic Church following its several schisms during previous centuries, including the Great East-West Schism that happened during the eleventh century.

It points to the Council of Florence, the seventeenth ecumenical council between the “two lungs” of the Church that began in Basel (Switzerland) in 1431, reconvened at Ferrara (Italy) in 1438 and then moved to Florence in 1439, concluding in 1445.

Among many of the issues under discussion by the Council was papal primacy and the jurisdiction of bishop of Rome over the whole Church. This was resolved and agreed when a final decree, a papal Bull of Union with the Greeks, was issued in July, 1439. It officially reunited the Roman Catholic Church with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, so ending the East-West Schism (until the next time).

Papal primacy and authority is also expressed in another sense in the Primavera. The painting makes reference to the reconciliation of Lorenzo de’Medici and the city of Florence with Pope Sixtus IV following what is known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, as mentioned in the previous post.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is characterised by the term Byzantium. Although centred on Constantinople which was considered the “cradle of Orthodox Christianity”, “it orientated towards Greek rather than Latin culture”, hence the papal bull reference to “Union with the Greeks”.

Byzantine bezant featuring Basil I

The most familiar Byzantine reference to be seen in the Primavera are the orange balls that appear as fruit of the orange trees. In heraldic terms they are known as roundels, depicting gold bezants, the currency associated with the Byzantine Empire. They can also be understood as the orange balls that appear on the coat of arms or “stemma” associated with the Medici banking family. A mythological representation is that they are the golden apples in the Garden of Hesperides given as a wedding gift to Hera, wife of Zeus, and Queen of the gods, and of marriage, family and childbirth, Juno being her Roman equivalent.

The Medici Stemma

So what appears on the surface to be oranges can also be a lead into other themes embedded in the painting. For instance, understood in terms of being associated with the Medici coat of arms, the word “stemma” can be linked to the positioning of the stem-like arms of the figures in the painting. Generally they act as pointers to other narratives and an aid to identification.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the twelve signs of the Zodiac can be identified in the painting. For example the left arm of the VirginMary, fragmented in places and its hand showing three fingers, is meant to represent a crab’s leg and so the sign of Cancer. Her right hand is also a telling pointer which I shall explain at a later stage.

Note the crab-leg shape of the Virgin’s left arm representing the Zodiac sign of Cancer
The Marzocco

The lonic image of Flora is symbolic of Florence’s heraldic lion, the Marzocco. Her left thigh is shaped as the shield that Donatello’s famous lion rests one of its paws on, except in Flora’s portrayal the flower on the shield is a rose and not the “Fleur de Lys”. There is a reason why Botticelli has used a rose which connects to another narrative in the painting and I shall explain in a future post.

The Primavera is saturated with symbols.

“The term symbolism is derived from the word ‘symbol’ which derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition, in turn from classical Greek σύμβολον symbolon, an object cut in half constituting a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two-halves…” (wikipedia)

Reassembling two halves reconnects to earlier mention of the Council of Florence and the “two lungs” of the Church coming together. And if we take a fresh look at the arch formation of trees behind Mary, the Mother of the Church, we can see they are shaped and presented as two lungs, left and right. This leads on to other Church connections in the painting, particularly Pope Sixtus IV, which I shall explain in a future post.

Making Assumptions…

A section of the Northern Wall in the Sistine Chapel and some of the frescoes depicting the Life of Christ

In my previous post about the Primavera I pointed out a connection between the painting and one of the frescos produced by Botticelli for the Sistine Chapel. In fact, the Primavera is linked to the series of wall frescos in more ways than one as they feature several notable Florentine dignitaries and artists in some of the scenes. So what could be the reason for this?

Giuliano de’ Medici by Sandro Botticlelli

In 1478 Giuliano de’Medici, the brother of Lorenzo the Magnifico, was assassinated while attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence. His brother was also attacked but survived. A bloodbath of retribution followed when the conspirators, members of the Pazzi family and associates, were slaughtered and executed. It is said that Pope Sixtus IV approved of the plot to overthrow the Medici family from power, but not their killing. A month after the event Sixtus IV excommunicated Lorenzo and others and placed Florence under interdict, forbidding Mass and Communion.

It wasn’t until December 1480 that some semblance of peace ensued between Lorenzo, Florence and  Sixtus IV, when a dozen distinguished Florentines travelled to Rome for a pre-arranged public ceremony that saw them plead for forgiveness from the pope for any perceived errors by the Republic. Lorenzo was not among the group. However, in an act of diplomacy and personal reconciliation, he later arranged to send artists from Florence to assist with producing frescos for the walls of the Sistine Chapel: Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli, along with assistants from their workshops including Filippino Lippi.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Pietro Perugini, Cosimo Rosselli and Luca Signorelli
Pope Sixtus IV

Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugini, Rosselli, Signorelli and Lippi are all referenced in the Primavera painting, as is Sixtus IV. One notable Florentine artist at the time, Leonardo da Vinci, was not among the group of painters engaged to fresco the Sistine Chapel, although he is depicted in two of the panels. Reference is also made to Leonardo in the Primavera. From these connections it becomes clear that there is more to understand of the mystery associated with Botticelli’s Primavera other than a presentation of Greco-Roman mythology and its poetic influences.

I mentioned in an earlier post that an underlying narrative in Primavera is the religious period of Lent, meaning “spring season,” and that Lent is a time of reparation and renewal. I also pointed out here that the foremost identity of the figure normally recognised as Venus is that of the Virgin Mary. She has many titles attributed to her, one being Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower – the name given to Florence Cathedral known as the Duomo, hence one of the reasons for the dome-shaped backdrop to the figure.

The Duomo in Florence, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – Saint Mary of the Flower

Before the building and naming of the Santa Maria del Fiore, there were two other cathedrals built on the site. The first was dedicated to St Lorenzo (Lawrence), the second to St Reparata. Both saints connect to the Primavera, Lorenzo as a name linked to Lorenzo de’Medici who probably commissioned the painting, and Reparata linked to the narrative of Lent and reparation. The theme of restitution echoes the time when the 12 representatives of Florence repaired to Rome seeking forgiveness for the Republic’s past errors, and also to further reparation made with the work carried out later by the Florentine artists in the Sistine Chapel.

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

The question if often asked why the central figure is positioned further back than than those placed either side. But is she? The woman measures the same height as the other figures. A clue to the answer can be found in the pairing of Chloris and Zephyrus. Is the god of the east wind lowering or lifting Cloris? In the Virgin Mary’s case she is being lifted or raised above all others, and assumed into Heaven. She represents the Assumption, and this feature has a connection with the Sistine Chapel.

Covering the whole wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel is a fresco illustrating the Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo between 1535 and 1541. However, the wall was originally frescoed by Pietro Perugino in the early 1480s showing the Assumption of the Virgin. It also portrayed Pope Sixtus IV kneeling among the group of Apostles. The Chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, on her feast day of that name, August 15, 1483.

A drawing made by Pinturicchio, one of Perugini’s assistants, of the lost Assumption of the Virgin,
Notice the apostle Peter, the first Pope, confirming the legitimacy and authority of Sixtus as Pope.

One of the most intriguing pieces of iconography in the Primavera painting is the arch formation of branches behind the Virgin. It represents multiple connecting narratives which I shall explain in my next post.

Primavera, the painter and the nun

This picture is by the Gabriele Castagnola (1828-1883). Titled Love or Duty, it was painted in 1874, ten years before the Italian artist’s death in Florence. The painting on the easel is a clue to the artist featured in the main picture and his model dressed as a nun.

Love or Duty, chromolithograph by Gabriele Castagnola, 1873, published in Paris by Hangard-Mangué

Although Castagnola was well aware of the account that inspired his painting and its two subjects, it’s unlikely he would have known that another painter, Sandro Botticelli, embedded the same narrative in his famous Primavera painting almost four hundred years earlier.

The picture propped on the easel is known as Madonna with the Child and Two Angels. It was painted in 1465 by the Carmelite priest and artist Fra Filippo Lippi. The original is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Madonna and Child with Two Angels, Fra Filippo Lippi, Ufizzi Gallery, Florence

The artist seated in Castagnola’s painting is Fra Filippo Lippi. His model is Lucrezia Buti, a Dominican novice and the mother of Lippi’s two children, a son named Filippino and a daughter Allesandra. The boy inherited his father’s talent for painting and went on to become one of the most noted Florentine painters.

Fra Filippo met Lucrezia when he was commissioned to produce a painting for the monastery chapel of San Margherita in Prato near Florence. The story goes that Filippo wanted Lucrezia as a model to portray the Virgin Mary. However, during the sittings he fell in love with the young novice and went on to take the extreme measure of kidnapping her while she was taking part in a procession. The friar brought Lucrezia to his house and refused to return her to the Dominican sisters at the monastery. Some years later the couple received a dispensation to marry from Pope Pius II, but seemingly Lippi declined to do so.

The comparison Botticelli makes to this story are the figures of Zephyrus and Chloris. The god of the West Wind came upon the flower nymph Chloris in the Elysian Fields, a place of the blessed. Zephyrus abducted Chloris and raped her. He later repented his crime and married Chloris who had no regrets and became Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. The Roman poet Ovid wrote in Fasti 5: “The goddess replied to my questions; as she talks her lips breathe Spring roses: ‘I was Chloris, who am now called Flora'”. Hence the roses (?) depicted rambling from the mouth of Chloris and her attachment to the figure of Flora.

But Botticelli reinforces the connection between the two abduction accounts by “abducting” detail from two paintings attributed to Fra Lippi and morphing them as models for the figures of Zephyrus and Chloris.

The face of Zephyrus is based on Fra Lippi’s self portrait found in a fresco he painted in Duomo di Spoleto, Umbria. The large ears and shape of mouth are giveaways.

The turned head of Chloris is modelled on the pose of the foremost angel in Lippi’s Madonna and the Child with Two Angels. The nymph’s open mouth links to the mouth of the second angel, while the lifting or support action of the pair of angels is echoed by the lifting action of Zephyrus.

Fra Lippi’s son Filippino Lippi is also part of the Primavera painting. He is the model for the Hermes/Mercury figure. The Cupid or sprite figure is the link between Fra Lippi and his son. It’s barrel shape is a clue to its identity – Botticelli, meaning ‘little barrel’. The link can also be joined to the two Lippi’s in that Botticelli served as an apprentice to Fra Lippi whose son later worked in a similar role in Botticelli’s workshop.

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

Filippino was one of the painters who worked alongside Botticelli in producing some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. He is portrayed standing behind Botticelli in the Northern wall panel, Temptations of Christ.

Temptation of Christ, Sandro Botticelli, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
(Left) Filippino Lippi and (Right) looking up and standing behind the figure of Sandro Botticelli.

Like Mercury in the Primavera, Filippino is portrayed looking up to the sky, except that in the Sistine Chapel fresco Filippino is focused on the final temptation when the ‘Son of Man’ is led to a height and promised the world if he would worship his tempter. The devil is disguised as a holy man for he quotes Scripture to tempt Jesus during his forty days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness (another Lenten reference). Jesus, the Word made flesh, responds by also quoting from Scripture, and the devil departs, after which, angels appear to minister to Jesus with bread and water.

Detail from the Temptation of Christ, Sistine Chapel

The figure of Christ in his final temptation, his right arm raised as if to dismiss the darkness, his left hand placed in his hip, his blue coat wrapped across his left shoulder, are all features which can be recognised in the figure of Mercury. That Christ has his back to the three angels can be matched to Mercury turning his back on the Three Graces.

There are subtle references in the Primavera to the three temptations of Christ but the second temptation is one in particular that reconnects Filippino to his father in Fra Lippo’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels, and explains why Botticelli’s fresco depicted Filipino looking up in the scene at the second temptation of Christ, just as Filippino is looking up in the Primavera painting. Botticelli has portrayed Filippino as having made the connection to the symbolism in his father’s painting of the Madonna and Child with Two Angels, as an allegory for the temptations of Christ in the desert. 

The relevant passage from Matthew’s gospel (4:3-7) reads: Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet if the Temple. “If you are the Son of God” he said “throw yourself down; for scripture says: He will put you in his angels’ charge, and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:11-12). Jesus said to him, “You must not put the Lord your God to the test” (Dt 6:16).

In Fra Lippi’s painting we see the Child Jesus supported with the hands of two angels, the Temple being Mary, Mother of the Church. The prominent rock formation in the background refers to the stones the devil asked Jesus to turn into bread, while the bent knees, symbolic of the act of genuflection, coupled with the Virgin’s praying hands, reflect the response Jesus made to the devil wanting the Son of God to worship him: “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone” (Dt 6:13). Or, in other words, “Every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall praise God” (Romans 14:11)

More on the Primavera in my next posting.