More from the Garden of Sculptures

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

In my previous post I pointed out connections to the figure of Mars and his “harpe” with St Martin of Tours and the sword he used to cut his cloak in half to cover a half-naked beggar.

However, a sculpture of this scene displayed above eye level on the facade of Lucca Cathedral, and which inspired Botticelli to reference it in the Primavera painting, gives the impression that Martin is about to decapitate the beggar.

Botticelli adopts this illusion to link the figure and his sword to the Three Graces group. Remember, too, that the figure of Mars also represents Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478.

Adjacent to the Duomo is the famous Baptistery of St John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets who was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas. 

At one time, before the turn of the 15th century, a sculpture of the Three Graces, or Virtues, representing, Faith, Hope and Love, stood above one of the three doors that opened into the Florence Baptistery. So in this scenario, Botticelli’s Three Graces can be understood as symbolic of the Sacrament of Baptism and their diaphanous gowns as the flow of cleansing water associated with the sacrament.

The decapitation theme – suggested by Botticelli’s observation of St Martin’s sword at the beggar’s neck, linked to the beheading of John the Baptist, and the fact that Giuliano de Medici’s head was also cleaved – is portrayed in very small detail below the edge of the sword’s sheath as a head on a plate.

This feature – a head on a plate – is also a link to the East door of the Baptistery, bordered in parts with a series of encircled busts, one of which is Lorenzo Ghiberti the sculptor who designed the door. Ghiberti had earlier designed and sculpted another of the Baptistery doors which became known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’. The commission was awarded as a result of a competition in which Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were considered finalists. The judges were unable to decide on an outright winner and both men were invited to work together. However, Brunelleschi refused and took himself off to Rome before returning some years later when both men competed again for a commission to design and engineer the famous Duomo for Florence Cathedral. This time it was Brunelleschi who was favoured with the contract. 

Botticelli references the Duomo – the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower – with the figure representing the Virgin Mary beneath the dome shape formed by the branches of the trees and representing the two lungs of the Church, East and West, Byzantine and Latin.

Botticelli also extended the themes of water and severed heads to another Florentine sculptor to add to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden: Andrea del Verrocchio, who was a painter and goldsmith as well.

There are four works attributed to Verrocchio that can be linked to this section of Primavera – (1) The Baptism of Christ, (2) the bronze figure of David with the Head of Goliath, (3) The terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, and (4) the equestrian bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.

Mentioned earlier was Herod Antipas who ordered the beheading of St John the Baptist. Sculpted in the rock formation in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ painting is a depiction of Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas. Observe that the water flowing alongside the sculpted head has turned red with the blood from the children Herod the Great ordered to be slain in his attempt to find and kill Jesus, the ‘new-born’ King.

Verrocchio’s bronze of David with the head of Goliath at his feet can be compared with the figure of Giuliano whose sword is adjacent to the severed head of the Baptist. However, David is depicted as wearing armour on his upper body while Giuliano isn’t, as was the case when he was attacked and assassinated in Florence Cathedral. But in Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici he is shown wearing a breastplate that depicts the head of a screaming angel which, in fact, is a representation of Leonardo da Vinci, who is also shown as one of the kneeling angels in the Baptism of Christ painting, and was the model for Verrocchio’s David. The stone which David used to slay Goliath was one of five he picked out of a stream. The weapon he used to decapitate Goliath was the Philistine’s own sword.

Verrocchio’s equestrian bronze of the Italian condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni was commissioned by the Republic of Venice in 1483. Although he completed the wax model, Verrocchio died in 1488 before he could he could cast the work in bronze. This was undertaken by Alessandro Leopardi in 1496.

Botticelli has linked the military theme of Verrocchio’s equestrian sculpture with that of St Martin, who served in the Roman cavalry, and also to the equestrian statue of Mars (the Roman military god) that once stood on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence before it was swept away in the Arno River flood of 1333. Botticelli employs word-play in the Primavera, for instance, bridging Vecchio with Verrocchio.

The equestrian and water themes link back to the Three Graces which I touched on in a previous post.

More on this and the Three Graces in my next post.

More hidden gems in Botticelli’s Primavera

Back with more analysis of the iconography in Botticelli’s Primavera and another connection to Lucca and its Cathedral dedicated to St Martin of Tours.

Equestrian statue of St Martin and the Beggar at the entrance of Lucca Cathedral

Many stories and legends are associated with St Martin. One famous account records the time when, as a young man serving in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, Martin met a half-naked beggar outside the gates of the walled city of Amiens. Martin took out his sword and slashed his tunic in half and gave one of the pieces to the beggar to cover himself. As Martin slept that night he experienced a dream of Jesus wearing the cloth he had given to the beggar earlier and saying to the Angels, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, gave me this cloak.” The dream prompted Martin to seek baptism.

Sometime later, Martin became a conscientious objector and informed his cavalry superiors he would no longer fight in an upcoming battle. He was accused of cowardice, but he responded by saying he would go into battle unarmed if necessary. However, the opposing army agreed to a truce and the battle never happened.

From that time Martin dedicated his life to the Church. In 371, the city of Tours required a new bishop. Martin was called to serve but was reluctant to take up the appointment and attempted to hide from the people in a goose pen. He was soon discovered when the geese began squawking.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

References to these three legends are embedded in the Primavera painting, and which Botticelli has linked to the figure of Mars, consort of Venus and a military deity of the Roman army.

The harpe* becomes Martin’s sword used to cut his cloak, shown as the figure’s tunic covering only half of his upper body. This lack of cover or protection refers to Martin offering to go into battle unarmed. It also represents the time when Giuliano de Medici, another of the figure’s multiple identities, was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478. He attended the Easter Mass without carrying a weapon or wearing any padded jacket armour to protect himself from attack by his assassins. The padded jackets were worn under metal armour when jousting and packed with goose down, similar to the modern puffer-style coats worn today.

The squawking geese, a warning cry of threat and danger, is symbolised in these ways: the dark cloud above Giuliano’s head; his raised arm referring to the time of the Offertory during Mass when the Body and Blood of Christ is raised by the celebrant before the congregation and a bell is rung. This was the signal for the assassins to attack and slice the head of Giuliano and inflict several stab wounds to his body during the pandemonium that ensued. The shape of the goose is formed by the figure’s raised arm and hand representing the neck and head. The left arm forms the wing, while the exposed chest area is the goose’s body.

The feast known as St Martinmass, celebrated on November 11, is a day when fattened livestock is butchered for the start of the winter season. In memory of St Martin, the traditional meal served and eaten on the day is goose.

  • A harpe was a sword with a sickle along one edge. In the painting the sickle is alluded to by the blade shape formed on the upper thigh under the figure’s left hand.

The shape also resembles the frame or outline of a musical harp. Here Botticelli has punned the word harpe with harp to link to the form of the man’s fingers, shaped not only to pluck the harp’s strings but also the goose.

The sword’s hilt is tied with strings and crowned, possibly referring to the idiom of one’s goose being cooked after Giuliano failed to put on his body armour to protect himself from attack. This suggests that Giuliano carried some of the blame for his death by not taking sufficient care to guard himself from his enemies in what became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy. The hilt can also be recognised as a goose whistle. Another idiom that connects to this scene is “killing the goose that laid the golden eggs”, symbolised by the Medici golden bezants or oranges. Take your pick.

The body armour reference links to a biblical passage, one of many disguised in the panting. In this instance it echoes the advice given by St Paul to the Ephesians (6:11,14-17): “Put God’s armour on so as to be able to resist the devil’s tactics. […] Stand your ground with truth buckled round your waist, and integrity for a breastplate, wearing for shoes on your feet the eagerness to spread the gospel of peace and always carry he shield of faith so that you can put out the burning arrows of the evil one. And then you must accept salvation from God to be your helmet and receive the word of God from the Spirit to use as a sword.”

The Cupid figure is depicted firing a burning arrow in the direction of the Three Graces. Observe the shield (a wasp’s cocoon) on the back of the nearest muse – Simonetta Vespucci (Vespa, Italian for wasp). She pops up again with a shield on her back in another of Botticelli’s paintings, Pallas and the Centaur. So who does the unfortunate Centaur represent, and seemingly in danger of being decapitated after straying into someone else’s garden?

Detail from Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli, c1482, Uffizi, Florence

More on this in a future post.

Leonardo… a fun guy

Ben Munster at The Art Newspaper reported this week that “a painting of a princess [La Bella Principessa] possibly by the Old Master [Leonardo da Vinci] has been sold digitally – but questions remain over its provenance, the inherent value of non-fungible tokens and who owns what.” Full story at this link.

Leonardo da Vinci’s La Bella Principessa (1495-96)

This portrait is generally referred to as La Bella Principessa. The appellation was given by art historian Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci. The sitter is thought to be Bianca Giovanna Sforza, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508). Some experts attribute the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci; others oppose the claim. Arguments for and against are presented at this Wikipedia link.

Bianca was born in 1482. She was legitimized in December 1489 and given in marriage to Galeazzo Sanseverino shortly afterwards. ‘Little’ Bianca was seven years old at the time. An agreement was made that the marriage would be consummated only after June 20, 1496, when Bianca had reached the age of 14. Within five months of attaining her ‘maturity’ Bianca died on November 23 from unknown causes but suffered with gastric symptoms. There were no signs of pregnancy and it was speculated that she may have been poisoned. Common symptoms of fungi poisoning are gastrointestinal upsets and abdominal pains. 

Observe the discoloured mushroom-shape vent on Bianca’s shoulder. Could this be a reference to the cause of her death? If so, it would indicate the portrait was completed after Bianca had died in 1496. But how soon after the young woman’s death and was the drawing produced by Leonardo?

Bianca was known to Leonardo da Vinci. Her husband was a patron and friend of the polymath and Leonardo also served at the court of Ludovico Sforza.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph published 12 April 2010, Richard Dorment wrote: “But even supposing the drawing does show Bianca, critics ask how it is possible that not a single document records the existence of such a masterpiece.”

But what if there is such a document, one produced around the same time the portrait of Bianca Sforza was made, one that points to Leonardo as the artist, and to this day has remained unnoticed by both camps, even though it is in the public domain?

Well, such a document does survive and derives from an earlier 15th century painting by Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary and associate of Leonardo da Vinci. The actual document was produced by another contemporary of Leonardo, the Mantua court painter Andrea Mantegna.

Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna (1497), Louvre Museum

What is now known as Mantegna’s Parnassus, and exhibited in the Louvre, is essentially a pastiche of some of Botticelli’s paintings that embed some stinging references to Leonardo who is also the butt of Mantegna’s cutting humour in Parnassus

It is said that the Parnassus painting was completed in 1497, a year after the death of Bianca, although some of the iconography does suggest a later date of 1498.

Central in the line of the Nine Muses is a faceless figure with her back to the viewer. She represents Bianca Sforza. The colour of her billowing, olive-green dress is matched to the olive shape and colour of the dress worn by La Bella Principessa

The  muse’s dress forms an umbrella shape around her waist, her stomach area, and represents a mushroom cap. Her white leg is the mushroom’s stalk.

When the umbrella shape is rotated 90 degree clockwise, it takes on a silhouette appearance similar to the profile of La Bella Principessa, the vent on the upper thigh representing the vent on the upper arm of the woman in the portrait. There are other details in both women that can be linked. 

As for locating Leonardo in the Parnassus painting, his presence can be found in four locations. I shall reveal these in a future post.

Painting parallels in Botticelli’s Primavera

A month ago I posted an item about a crucifix known as the Holy Face of Lucca, explaining its connection to Botticelli’s Primavera. I also mentioned there were more links to Lucca in the painting.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

When the Holy Face arrived in Lucca, it was first placed in the church of San Frediano before its translation to the church of San Martino, now referred to as Lucca Cathedral, where it has remained ever since.

On one of the walls in San Frediano is a fresco showing the transportation of the Holy face to Lucca after it had drifted on a boat to the Tuscan port of Luni from Palestine.

The transportation of the Holy Face from Luni to the church of San Frediano in Lucca.

Also in the the church of San Frediano lies the body of St Zita. She was a domestic who served a Lucchese family of silk merchants for 48 years. Zita was noted for her piety and aiding poor women of Lucca. After Zita died in 1272 many miracles became associated with her, and 300 years after her death, at the age of 60, her body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt. Zita was canonised in 1696.

The body of St Zita in the church of San Frediano, Lucca. Photo:  Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

A story associated with Zita is when she set off one day carrying bread in her cloak to feed the poor. Some jealous servants complained to her master, suggesting she was stealing the bread. When the master of the Fatinelli household confronted Zita and ordered to open her cloak, it was found to be full of flowers.

It is this account that Botticelli has linked to the figure of Flora in the Primavera, seen distributing flowers from her apron. The figure of Flora also represents Simonetta Vespucci, referred to as La Sans Pareille – The Unparalleled One – on an banner image of her painted by Botticelli which Giuliano de’ Medici carried in a jousting tournament he took part in 1475. 

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera

By integrating Simonetta and St Zita with the figure of Flora, Botticelli has created a link to the Greek philosopher Plutarch and his book Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans “arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues or failings”.

So now the upright Simonetta-cum-Flora can be compared to the leaning or falling figure of Chloris in the guise of Fioretta Gorini. Likewise, the virtues of Flora as Zita can be compared to the failings and later conversion or change in the circumstances of Fioretta when she became an anchoress, symbolised as being grafted to Flora.

Detail from Botticelli’s Primavera….

Chloris is the Greek goddess of flowers; Flora is her Roman equivalent.  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.

This transformation from Greek to Roman is also reflected in the life of Plutarch, a Greek who became a Roman citizen.

But Simonetta wasn’t always as upright as portrayed in this scene in Primavera. In an earlier painting by Botticelli – The Birth of Venus – Simonetta is depicted standing off-kilter on a giant scallop, having being blown by the wind to arrive in Florence from the region of Liguria in northwest Italy, which is close to the Port of Luni where the Holy a Face of Lucca sailed into from Palestine.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

So why is Simonetta portrayed as both leaning and upright in Botticelli’s two different paintings? Clues to the answer are to be found in the Primavera, one of which is a further link to Lucca Cathedral and introduces another artist Botticelli referenced for composing his painting.

More on this in a future post.

Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden

For “Paradise”… means nothing more than a most pleasant garden, abundant with all pleasing and delightful things, of trees, apples, flowers, vivid running waters, song of birds and in effect, all the amenities dreamed of by the heart of man…

Lorenzo de’ Medici

Another garden referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera is Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden which was located on the Via Larga facing the left side of the church of San Marco. The San Marco had an extensive orange orchard to the rear of the church in view of Lorenzo’s garden which may, in this scenario, be recognised as the oranges depicted in the Primavera. The location of the church of San Marco, placed in a corner of the piazza named after it, is another parameter for identifying Lorenzo de’ Medici’s garden in the painting.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The church, which also served as a convent, belonged to a community of observant Dominicans, a religious preaching order founded by St Dominic. If one looks to the bottom right corner of the painting, a silhouette of a monk or friar’s cowl is shaped between the legs of Chloris who can also identified as Fioretta Gorini. When rotated 90 degrees anti-clockwise, the cowl takes on the appearance of a dog’s head. 

The dog motif became associated with the Order when Dominic’s name was punned as Domini canes, meaning “Hounds of the Lord”. The Order explains the “hounds” relate to the story of Dominic’s mother who, when pregnant, had a vision of a black and white dog carrying a torch in its mouth. Wherever the dog went it set fire to the earth. The dream was understood later when Dominic and his followers, clad in black and white, set fire to the earth with the Gospel message. Observe the hem of Chloris’s smokey, diaphanous dress representing the flame.

This section of the painting is seemingly prophetic in itself for it also serves another interpretation connected to Greek mythology and the “hell-hound” Cerberus that guards the entrance to the underworld. Now the hem takes on the shape of a serpent and its temptation role in the Garden of Eden.

Girolamo Savonarola (right), the Dominican friar who was assigned to Florence in 1490, and who preached and prophesied from the pulpit of San Marco that the “Sword of the Lord” would soon fall on the earth, was himself consumed by fire in 1498 when he was hanged alongside two other Dominican friars. He had confessed to succumbing to temptation and inventing his visions and prophecies. For misleading the people in this way he was excommunicated by the Church as a heretic and schismatic, and sentenced to death by the civil authorities.

So having referenced two markers in the Primavera – the orange orchard and the corner position of San Marco with its Dominican connection – a third indicator which alludes to Lorenzo’s Sculpture Garden is the statuesque appearance of the line of figures.

A fourth indicator is the patterned tunic of Mars, also identified in a previous post as Lorenzo de Medici reaching up to disperse the threatening rain cloud. The pattern represents roots, and with the figure’s feet shown firmly “planted” on the ground, Botticelli has embedded enough clues to confirm that the garden scene was  intended to be recognised as Lorenzo’s Sculpture Garden as well as the those previously mentioned. But there are more which I shall reveal at another time.

The plan below, produced a century after Botticelli painted the Primavera, shows the San Marco and its extended orange orchard. The green areas indicate what remained of Lorenzo’s Sculpture Garden.

Detail from a plan of Florence, dated 1584

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 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.

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. 

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 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 (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.

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 more Lucca references in the Primavera 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.

More at artnet.com

Lookalikes

Two profile portraits by two different artists, but could the images be of the same woman? The portrait on the left is an early metal point drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and part of the Royal Collection Trust. The painting is by Sandro Botticelli and housed in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. It’s date attribution is 1475 which, if accurate, could probably apply to Leonardo’s drawing as well. 

As to the woman’s identity, several names have been postulated by art historians. The gallery favours Simonetta Vespucci and has titled the painting Bella Simonetta. I favour Fioretta Gorini, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, said to have fathered her child Giulio who later went on to become Pope Clement VII.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, another Florentine painter, portrayed Fioretta in some of the frescoes he produced for the Tornabuoni Chapel, one of which I pointed out in a recent post. Fioretta is also depicted in the Tornabuoni Chapel frescoes titled The Birth of John the Baptist, and Zechariah Writes Down the Name of his Son.

In the Birth fresco Fioretta is shown reaching out to nurse the child. Her profile is very similar to that in Botticelli’s painting. In the Naming fresco Fioretta is seen holding the  swaddled infant and, as pointed out in a previous post Zechariah takes on the identity of Leonardo to link to his painting of Fioretta Gorini but whose identity is mistakingly attributed to Ginevra de Benci.

So what did become of Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth? My understanding is that she became an anchoress in a Carmelite convent attached to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, which still exists today. Leonardo, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio attest to this in their paintings, Botticelli in particular.

But Ghirlandaio’s Visitation fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel is perhaps the most explicit reference in any painting that reveals Fioretta became an anchoress. I showed in an earlier post the connection between the two handmaidens standing behind Elizabeth. The woman nearest is Fioretta as she looks in Leonardo’s so-called Portrait of Ginevra de Benci, housed in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The half-hidden figure represents the Virgin of Carmel, portrayed in another guise as Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera.

The pairing is a reference to Fioretta retreating from secular life to become an anchoress in a Carmelite convent. Notice the right hand of the Carmel Virgin raised in greeting. Observe also Fioretta’s right hand clasped or ‘anchored’ to her left wrist. This motif is adapted from Botticelli’s Primavera and the figure of Chloris’s right hand shaped to be grafted or ‘anchored’ to the Flora’s thigh. Chloris’s other identity is Fioretta Gorini.

Attached to the back of Chloris is the wind god Zephyrus. Attached to the back of the Leonardo’s version of Fioretta in the Visitation fresco is a red building. This is the church of Santa Maria del Carmine.

Returning to the two portraits at the top of the post, notice the darkened branch-shape fold at the base of the woman’s cap in Leonardo’s drawing. A similar shape is seen in the Botticelli painting.

The branch shape in Leonardo’s depiction of Fioretta is likely to have been the inspiration that appears in the trees in the Ginevra de Benci (aka Fioretta Gorini) painting by Leonardo. The branch serves two purposes: to identify the bear silhouette representing St Gallo and so a connection to Antonio da Sangallo whose family cared for Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life, but also as a symbol representing the letter ‘Y’ and its Pythagorus association as a choice of two paths that can be taken in life.

Isidore of Seville, a Spanish cleric, wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.”

Leonardo has depicted Fioretta in his painting as taking the narrow, arduous path in becoming an anchoress..

Ghirlandaio echoes the two branches as two sets of supports for the drawbridge feature in The Visitation fresco. In fact, the main theme in the fresco is about support, evidenced in the pairing of Elizabeth and her cousin Mary ‘supporting’ each other.

Finally, the ‘anchored’ hand feature, showing Fioretta’s right hand ‘resting’ on her left wrist does appear to be an unnatural pose, more associated with a subject who is seated and and having their left arm supported on the arm of a chair. But in this image we see Fioretta’s left hand gripping her mantle and revealing a mysterious image beneath her left wrist. It represents a ‘Holy Face’ borrowed from the Primavera painting, more of which I shall explain in a future post.

Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit… *

A couple of months ago I posted an item titled The Annunciation and the Primavera. It explained how the so-called figure of Venus in Primavera also represented the Virgin Mary and how some of its iconography connected to Luke the Evangelist and his gospel account of the Annunciation. 

Luke, who is a patron saint of artists, is often depicted with or as a winged ox or bull. This originates from the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot of the Lord drawn by four winged creatures of human form, each with four faces: a lion, a bull, an eagle, and a human (Ezk 1:4-12). This image, referred to as a tetramorph, is generally presented as representing the four gospel writers, Matthew (human), Mark (lion), Luke (bull) and John (eagle). All four creatures are disguised in the Primavera painting.

Tetramorph… Nicolaus de Lyra, Postilla litteralis in Biblia. Source: gallica.bnf.fr

Botticelli referenced a passage from Luke’s account of the Annunciation to identify the evangelist –  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).

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

The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox [or bull]. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.

I also wrote in my earlier post: The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo da Vinci’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.

Taurus the bull symbol

The morphing symbolism not only connects to Luke’s representation as a bull but also to the shape of the two bulls silhouetted in the trees behind the Virgin’s head and their connection to the already mentioned Papal Bulls. This imagery, in turn, springs from from the opening statement made in Ovid’s Metamorphoses poem – “I intend to speak of forms changed into new identities” – confirming Botticelli’s intention to do the same with his painting. The declaration also aligns with the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary in Luke’s gospel when he announced that the Virgin would conceive a child and was to be named Jesus, after earlier appearing to Zechariah to announce that his barren wife would bear a son to be named John (the Baptist).

Baptism of Christ, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Botticelli utilises this double declaration to link back to a painting known as the Baptism of Christ, painted by his tutor Andrea del Verrocchio with the assistance of another apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci. In the painting, Verrocchio is portrayed as Christ while Leonardo features in two roles – as John the Baptist and the foremost angel at the waterside. The other is Botticelli.

Another biblical prophet to take into account at this stage is Elijah and his connection with the bull sacrifice on Mount Carmel mentioned in a previous post. The Baptist is also identified as Elijah by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (11:14)

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

Only one angel or cherub is visible in the painting – the blindfolded Cupid – portrayed as Botticelli. There is a reason for his lofty position above the Virgin which I will explain in a future post. 

Leonardo, who was portrayed as the other angel or cherub in The Baptism of Christ painting, now transforms into the Baptist figure, as the forerunner or precursor to Jesus. In other words, Botticelli has depicted Leonardo as both the Baptist and Jesus. This figure is disguised in the Virgin’s red garment, although to recognise the feature the image requires to be turned upside down, just as the silhouette features in the tree arch have to be turned to recognise the shape of the bulls.

However, to fully understand or recognise the Jesus figure, there is another narrative to be taken into account, and one which provides the link to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait mentioned in a recent post. The narrative also provides a connection to the figure of Flora who is shown distributing flowers from her apron.

I will detail the narrative and its iconography in a future post.

* Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
(John 3:5)

A prophetic painting?

This detail is from a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It depicts the Infant Jesus with his mother Mary. On the left are Pope Clement I and St Peter; on the right, St Sebastian and St Paul.

The altarpiece was painted in 1479 and is displayed in San Martino Cathedral in Lucca, Italy

The model for St Sebastian is another artist, Sandro Botticelli (right). The Virgin is portrayed by Fioretta Gorini, said to be the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated by members of the Pazzi family on Easter Sunday, 1478. Fioretta gave birth to a son a month after Giuliano’s death.

The boy was named Giulio and later adopted by the Medici family. He went on to become a cardinal in the Catholic Church and eventually Pope, taking the name Clement (VII) in honour of St Clement.

This is another painting that links to Botticelli’s Primavera which I will explain in future post.

An introduction to Botticelli’s Primavera

In Botticelli’s Primavera the source for the grouping of Zephyrus, Chloris and Flora is attributed to words written by the classical Roman poet, Ovid. 

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.

However, there are other words by Ovid which Botticelli adopted to make a clear statement as to the method he intended to use to illustrate and link the several narratives in the Primavera painting, hinted by the transformation of Chloris in to Flora. 

Ovid’s first words in his narrative poem Metamorphoses are: “I intend to speak of forms changed into new identities…”

The poet’s declaration is a clear explanation as to why Botticelli incorporated more than one identity into the Primavera figures, particularly with the so-called figure of Mercury which portrays several people.

From this it can be understood that Primavera is not simply a painting only to be observed and analysed or understood in the context of Greek and Roman mythology. It transcends beyond these limits – transforming and changing our perceptions of what we see and understand before us. It is revealing, yet mystical, inspiring a sense of spiritual mystery.

Neapolitan Ovid. Illuminated manuscript on parchment. Eleventh to thirteeth century. 
Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli. © World Digital Library.

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 and 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 assassinated 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.