Sandro Botticelli’s Spring is one of the most popular masterpieces of Italian Renaissance art. The painting is preserved in the Uffizi Gallery and you can admire it during your visit to this museum.
Every day thousands of people look at this picture, take photos and share them on Instagram. But do they know what this painting actually represents?
In fact, Botticelli’s Spring is probably the most enigmatic, hermetic and complex image ever created during the fifteenth century in Florence. Since the late nineteenth century art historians tried to answer the question regarding the meaning of this curious image. Hundreds of pages have been written about it and different interpretations have been given. In the end, it seems that the Spring does not represent Spring at all but more probably it pictures a fascinating allegory of Poetry and Philology.
Aby Warburg and Ernst Gombrich’s interpretations
This mysterious painting was mentioned for the first time in a document from 1499 which lists it among the works held in Medici’s private palace in via Larga in Florence, at that time owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Laurence the Magnificent’s cousin.
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Subsequently, Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects included the description of the work into Botticelli’s biography and said that it represents “[…] Venus with the Graces, who deck her with flowers, denoting Spring”. These words strongly influenced the critical history of the painting. In fact, art historians have always called it “Spring” and tried to explain its complex meaning in reference to Vasari’s reading of its subject matter.
In 1893 Aby Warburg, one of the most important historians of Florentine art, published his ground-breaking study of Botticelli’s Spring. In his article Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Spring the scholar linked the meaning of the painting with Ovid’s Fasti, Virgil’s Aeneid and texts by Lucretius and Poliziano. According to Warburg the three figures on the right visualize a passage from Fasti and show the moment when Zephyrus abducts the nymph Chloris who is transformed in Flora. This source, however, explains only one part of the image. What with the rest? In reference to Aeneid, Horace’s Odes and writings by Lucretius and Poliziano, Warburg saw in the painting a representation of Garden of Venus. According to his reading, the figures from left to right are: Mercury, the Three Graces, Venus with Cupid, Flora, Chloris and Zephyrus. The painting would, therefore, represent the realm of Venus as described by Poliziano in his Stanze per la Giostra:
Ma fatta Amor la sua bella vendetta
Mossesi lieto pel negro aere a volo;
E ginne al regno di sua madre in fretta
Ov’è del picciol suo’ fratei lo stuolo
A regno ove ogni Grazia si diletta,
Ove Beltà di fiori al crin fra brolo,
Ove tutto lascivo drieto a Flora
Zefiro vola e la verde erba infiora.
Or canta meco un po’ del dolce regno,
Erato bella che ‘l nome hai d’amore…
When Cupid had enforced his sweet
Through the dark air he joyously took flight,
Hastening away towards his mother realm,
Where bands of his young brothers have their home:
That realm in which the Graces all delight,
Where Beauty weaves a garden in their hair,
And lustful Zephyr flying after Flora
Scatters the greensward with a host of flowers.
Now sing a little of this joyful realm,
Lovely Erato, named for Love himself…
As you can see, in Poliziano’s verses we find almost all of the protagonists of Botticelli’s painting: Venus, Cupid, the Three Graces, Zephyrus and Flora. However, Poliziano does not mention Mercury. We may ask, then, what Mercury was doing in this beautiful Garden of Venus?
In 1945 Ernst Gombrich published his own study of Botticelli’s Spring in which he attributed the commission for the Spring to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. The scholar quoted a letter sent by Marsilio Ficino, the most important representant of the Florentine Neoplatonic circle, to young Lorenzo. In his highly instructive letter, Ficino introduces the figure of Venus as allegory of the virtue of Humanitas.
“The astrologers have it that he is the happies of man for whom Fate has so disposed the heavenly signs that Luna is in no bad aspect to Mars and Saturn, that furthermore she is in favourable aspect to Sol and Jupiter, Mercury and Venus. (…) First Luna – what else can she signify in us but that continuous motion of the soul and of the body? Mars stand for speed, Saturn for tardiness, Sol for God, Jupiter for the Law, Mercury for Reason, and Venus for Humanity (Humanitas).”
For Gombrich, therefore, the image of Venus and her train had highly didactic and moral values and was meant to excite the most noble thoughts and attitudes in Ficino’s young pupil. According to the scholar, the most precise description of Venus and her train can be found in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, in the passage narrating the Judgement of Paris. For Gombrich, therefore, the interpretation of the figures does not change in respect to Warburg’s reading. What changes is an overall meaning of Botticelli’s work, which in Gombrich’s interpretation acquires strong didactic and moral character.
Spring and On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury by Martianus Capella
For a long time these two interpretations of Botticelli’s work were the most accredited among the scholars. Nevertheless, the two readings continued to raise doubts and questions. First of all, Warburg and Gombrich were not able to quote one single source for the painting’s iconography and suggested a whole series of texts that inspired the author of this composition. If any of these two interpretations was correct, Botticelli’s Spring would be a true exception in terms of iconography. In fact, the iconographic programs for paintings and cycles of paintings were usually based on one single source and not, like in this case, on a whole group of texts. Another problem with Warburg and Gombrich’s readings regards the figure of Mercury. Why is he standing with his hand on his hip, moving the clouds with his caduceus and making a step backwards? His pose and gestures remained quite mysterious to us.
In 1998 Claudia Villa published the results of her research on the iconography of Botticelli’s painting and her discoveries are truly fascinating and surprising. The scholar linked the Spring with a text from Late Antiquity (5th century AD) by Martianus Capella entitled De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii (“On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury”). In fact, it seems that the Spring does not represent Spring at all but is rather a beautiful metaphor of Poetry.
Capella’s text, vastly read during the Middle Ages and well known in fifteenth-century Florence, contains an elaborate allegory of Seven Liberal Arts. Its main protagonist is Mercury, a planet and one of Sun’s satellites, who is looking for a wife. To choose wisely he asks for help from Apollo who suggests Philology as a perfect candidate for his companion.
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Capella’s text explains precisely Mercury’s strange position. According to the Latin author, Mercury was one of Sun’s satellites. His planet was cold, and the Sun was hot, and this is why there has always been a thick layer of clouds between the two planets. On Botticelli’s painting you can see Mercury who drives away the clouds with his caduceus.
What about his elbow and his stepping backwards? Remember that until the affirmation of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, astronomers used to put the Earth at the centre of the universe. When they then tried to describe the motions of the planets, their observations not always coincided with their ideal models. In fact, Mercury was considered to be a “retrograde planet” because his movement seemed opposite to the usual order. Botticelli had to struggle a lot before he invented the way how to represent a “retrograde Mercury”. But if you look carefully on the painting, you may notice that Mercury seems to turn backwards! Imagine him in movement! He is a planet and he turns “backwards” around the Sun.
His bride is Philology. Botticelli put her at the centre of the composition. Philology is a terrestial nymph, she is human and mortal, and the Seven Liberal Arts are her maids. In the painting she wears sandals made of papyrus, mentioned by Capella, which, according to the Medieval commentaries on the text, symbolized immortality achieved by Philology through her marriage with Mercury. Through her marriage with Mercury, who symbolizes intellect, this terrestial nymph will ascend to the heavens, which means that these, who study Liberal Arts will achieve immortality.
Next to her we see the guests invited to the wedding. Rhetoric, on the right, spreads flowers, the rhetoric figures (flores retoricae) that adorn the speech. In the medieval manuscripts on rhetoric the initials were illuminated with the figures of young girls spreading flowers around. Etymology follows Rethoric and pronounces her name, thus other flowers come out from her mouth.
Then, we see Zephyrus-“Genius” and the Three Graces. Symbolically, the Genius may represent the Divine Furore, contemplative and intellectual virtues, which inspire the creative process. He comes like a wind and blows the poetic inspiration, without which any artistic creativity seems impossible.
It seems that the “Spring” has nothing to do with four seasons, fertility and Venus, but rather represents a unique allegory of Poetry, or better, a triumph of Philology and expresses the passion for study, intellectual exercise and for the beauty of speech. Claudia Villa suggests that behind this painting, which shows Philology at the centre of the universe, stands an iconographic programme prepared by the poet and philologist, Poliziano.
We live in a world, which does not give us enough time to communicate properly, to write with attention, to read a 1000-pages volume. Having in front of us a painting on Philology and Poetry is a true treasure, which may invite us to stop for a moment and to enjoy the art of the word.
If you want to read the articles I quote here, here is their list:
Aby Warburg, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Spring (first published in 1893), in Idem, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, Los Angeles, 1999, pp. 89-156.
Ernst H. Gombrich, Botticelli’s Mythologies : A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle, “Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 8 (1945), pp. 7-60.
Claudia Villa, Per una lettura della «Primavera». Mercurio «retrogrado» e la Retorica nella bottega di Botticelli, “Strumenti Critici”, a. XIII, n. 1 gennaio 1998, pp. 1-29.