Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Florence 2012 Journal: An Analysis of the Iconography in Botticelli's Primavera

An Analysis of the iconography in Botticelli’s Primavera.

Botticelli’s Primavera is currently housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, it was painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1482.

First of all, the figure of Venus appears in the middle of the composition (Fig.1). She is slightly off-set into the background and bare foot. Although the red and white flowers at her feet can be attributed to the Goddess Flora to her right, there is also an alternative meaning. The ground being covered in red roses is a reference to the allegory of Venus and Apollo. This was when Venus was so in love with Apollo that she ran barefoot across a white rose field. By consequence, the white roses had been stained with the blood from her feet. Therefore, red roses are a traditional symbol of love as is Venus herself. Cupid (her son) is painted above her head and helps us identify her as Botticelli’s portrayal of Venus was not in keeping with her original depiction. Geraldine Herbert-Brown explains that the ‘iconography of the national myth had been modified’ and thus was the ‘transition from the erotic to the more dignified’; she was painted as a more ‘modest Venus in a long garment standing in a non-erotic pose’.[1]

To the right of Venus stands the Goddess Flora, as explained earlier Botticelli portrays her transformation from Chloris to Goddess. As with Venus, Botticelli is said to have also represented the ‘challenges for interpreting imagery of Flora’[2] in that she is shown during transformation and ultimately shown as pregnant. However, although some aspects of her imagery is less conventional, Ann B. Shteir notes that this pregnancy displays her ’fecundity as she strews flowers from her lap’.[3] As the Goddess of Flowers and the season of Spring, the flowers surrounding her and the allusion to fertility (commonly associated with Spring) illustrates the ‘traditions of Flora within visual culture’ alongside some of Botticelli‘s unique representations of her.[4]

Painted opposite are the three Graces. Typically, the three graces represent the likes of charm, beauty and creativity. Yet again, Botticelli’s take on the mythological figures are somewhat unique. The classical portrayal of such is discussed in Jane Chances research on the works of Remigius of Auxerre:

Although the Graces are three, they have one name, “Carite,” and one beauty (“unius pulchritudinis”) and are depicted nude because it is not possible for grace to be fictitious or insincere, and as one turning away from us (“una nobis aversa”) and two toward us (“duae nos respicientes”) because “ gratia simpla a nobis profecta dupla solet reverti” [“a single kindness (or favour) coming from us usually return two-fold”].[5]
What is made clear from this passage is that Botticelli has stayed true to the classical depiction of “una nobis aversa” (one of the trio with her back turned to us) whilst straying from this in the fact that they are not completely nude.

Lastly, Mercury is also depicted in Primavera to the left of the graces. He is shown turning away from the other figures. He is only identifiable by his clothes: a robe in the style of a Roman Toga (an allusion to Mars being the leader of the Roman army) with a helmet and sword. His iconography in this composition is slightly confusing as he is not depicted at Venus’ side. A possible interpretation of this could be that Botticelli had decided to allude to Mars’ previous identity as the God of Agriculture (hence the attention being paid to the fruit tree above).[6]

In conclusion, it is clear to see that while Botticelli had altered the conventional iconography of the figures in his Primavera, he was by no means uneducated in this respect. Evidence of this can be seen in the graces, for example. The subtle positioning of the grace with her back to us was certainly no mistake but the consequence of his in-depth knowledge of the classical Gods. His portrayal of the Gods, Goddesses and graces therefore have been altered in order to comply with the meaning he was trying to convey instead of a lack of knowledge.

[1] G. Herbert-Brown, the Studio Recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1965-68 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994), 84.
[2] A. B. Shteir, Figuring it Out: Science, Gender and Visual Culture, (Dartmouth College, UK, 2006), 9.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] J. Chance, Medieval Mythography: From Roman North Africa to the School of Chartres, AD 433- 1177 v. 1, (University Press of Florida, Florida, 1994), 260. The chapter from which this passage came is titled ‘Remigius of Auxerre on Martianus Capella’. Remigius of Auxerre was a 10th century Benedictine Monk who wrote prolific commentaries on classical Greek and Latin texts. Here, Chance analyses his commentaries on the earlier 5th century Pagan writer, Martianus Capella, on his iconography of the three graces.
[6] K. N. Daly, M. Rengel, Greek and Roman Mythology A-Z, (Infobase Publishing, USA, 2004), 81.

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