389 Botticelli’s Primavera as an image of Santa Maria del Fiore

A guest column by Loekie Schwartz. The calm central figure in the Primavera is framed by a bower with the shape of the cupola of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The visual rhyme is intended to convey that she partakes both in the floral association of the name and its Marian essence. A further link between painting and cathedral is to be found in a writing by Alberti, where the Duomo is called a springtime refuge from the vicissitudes of the world outside.  Please copy to students of Italian art and literature.


Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, ca. 1480
Tempera grassa on wood, 207 x 319 cm
Florence, Gli Uffizi

At the center of an orange grove where Botticelli placed eight figures and a putto stands a woman gazing at the beholder. Her position is behind the other figures, a long step into the middle ground, as if she belongs more to the trees than to the narrow foreground stage where the others perform their actions. The seven foreground figures are arranged in three groupings. On the left is Mercury, the messenger of the gods, with his back to the rest of the company, lifting his caduceus, his messenger’s staff, to drive away dark rainclouds threatening the blossoming trees that form a ceiling over the foreground. Behind him are The Three Graces, Aglaea, Euphrosyne and Thalia, the embodiment of grace, joy and youth. On the right we see Zephyr, the god of the warm southern wind, chasing the nymph Chloris. Before our very eyes the nymph is transformed into the goddess of flowers and spring, Flora, as she grasps at blooms in the fold of her flowered dress.

The woman in the center, beneath a blindfolded Cupid aiming an arrow at the Graces, Giorgio Vasari identifies, in his life of Botticelli, as Venus, the goddess of love. He discusses the painting briefly in combination with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, in these words:

“In various homes throughout the city [of Florence], he himself painted tondi and numerous female nudes. Two of these paintings are still at Castello, Duke Cosimo’s villa: one depicts the Birth of Venus, and those breezes and winds which blew her and her Cupids to land; and the second is another Venus, the symbol of Spring, being adorned with flowers by the Graces. In both paintings Sandro expressed himself with grace.” [Although Vasari speaks of a nude Venus, it is assumed that the second painting to which he refers is the Primavera. Translation by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, published by Oxford University Press, 1991.]

In this note I propose an auxiliary identification of Venus, suggesting that she personifies the Virgin Mary, the divine Christian being to whom the cathedral of Florence is dedicated, the church known since 1204 as Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower (i.e. the Florentine iris, used interchangeably with the lily in Marian symbolism). The identification is based on one visual and one textual piece of evidence that until now seem not to have been brought into relationship with the painting.

Venus, in a white dress covered by a red and blue mantle, is framed by trees arranged in a particular way. They bow toward the middle, forming an arch. The shape of the arch corresponds perfectly to the most famous architectural contour in the city of Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome was not completed until 1461, fifteen years after the death of its designer in 1446.

 

The resemblance between these encompassing forms struck me like an epiphany. A montage of the two images shows that the curve of Venus’s arboreal bower corresponds perfectly to that of the celebrated cupola of  the Duomo. The formal resemblance between bower and dome, compounded by the congruent floral symbolism of painting and church, are here interpreted to mean that the painting’s main figure represents not only Venus, but also the Virgin of Santa Maria del Fiore.

The relation of the Primavera to Florence Cathedral brings a new literary source into the picture, in addition to the many that have already been associated with the painting. Profugiorum ab Aerumna Libri III (Of the fugitives from hardship) by Leon Battista Alberti is more commonly known as Della tranquillità dell’animo. It “was written in the vernacular by Leon Battista Alberti in 1441 or 1442 at the end of a lengthy stay in Florence. As is suggested by the Latin title, the moral essay is somber, even pessimistic, in tone. The desired state of spiritual tranquillity is but briefly glimpsed, primarily through architectural allegories at the beginning and end of the work.”[i]

The first and main building referred to in the poem is Florence Cathedral. The disillusioned politician Agnolo Pandolfini strolls there with his companion Nicola de’Medici, a failed banker. Agnolo finds solace for his troubled mind in fantasies about gigantic hoists and cranes, like those invented to build the enormous dome. The peaceful interior of Santa Maria del Fiore, he muses, is a veritable state of spiritual calm. For Agnolo, the cathedral exemplifies grace under pressure, an ability to withstand the blows of fortune that he compares to adverse weather conditions that buffet the walls of the building but leave the beautiful interior pacific and unruffled.[ii]

 A translation of the passage concerned is provided by Christine Smith:

And certainly this temple has in itself grace and majesty; and, as I have often thought to myself, I delight to see joined together here a charming slenderness with a robust and full solidity so that, on the one hand, each of its parts seems designed for pleasure, while on the other, one understands that it has all been built for perpetuity. I would add that here is the constant home of temperateness, as of springtime: outside, wind, ice and frost; here inside one is protected from the wind, here mild air and quiet. Outside, the heat of summer and autumn; inside, coolness. And if, as they say, delight is felt when our senses perceive what, and how much, they require by nature, who could hesitate to call this temple the nest of delights? Here, wherever you look, you see the expression of happiness and gaiety; here it is always fragrant; and, that which I prize above all, here you listen to the voices during mass, during that which the ancients called mysteries, with their marvelous beauty.

Alberti associates Florence Cathedral quite emphatically with the season of spring, with “la primavera.” Other links between Agnolo’s soliloquy and Botticelli’s painting are his evocation of ice and wind, as in the figure of Mercury, chaser of storms (and patron of commerce and thus of the Medici); the expression of happiness and gaiety, represented by the Graces; the fragrance that fills the air of the flowery Primavera; and the “marvelous beauty” of ancient mysteries. The interpretation submitted here is that Botticelli’s painting shows in images what Alberti says in words, with a visual reference to the Duomo that would have given any Florentine a thrill when the resemblance dawned on him or her. The painting converts into the terms of classical mythology the stoic Christian message of Della tranquillità dell’animo.

The delights Alberti ascribes to the interior of the cathedral are subordinated to the holiness of the place and to Christian worship. If the above interpretation is correct, these elements must be considered to be implicit in Botticelli’s Primavera. These ideas do not amount to a complete interpretation of the painting. What they do establish, in my view, is that no interpretation of the Primavera that fails to take account of the references to Florence, its cathedral and the blessings of Christian faith can lay claim to completeness.

[i] Christine Smith, “Della tranquillità dell’animo: architectural allegories of virtue in a dialogue by Leon Battista Alberti,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 19 (1989), p. 103.

[ii] Ross King, Brunelleschi’s dome: how a Renaissance genius reinvented architecture, New York (Walker & Co.) 2000, p. 164

© Loekie Schwartz 2020. Published on the Schwartzlist on 15 November 2020.

With thanks to Gary, who came up with the Alberti passage in support of the visual interpretation.


It is a great pleasure to make the Schwartzlist available for such an exciting, illuminating and important column, by a colleague to whom I am deeply attached, in marriage among many other ways. We are very grateful to Marilyn Lavin for reading and copy-editing a draft. She tipped us on a related article by the great scholar with whom she shared her life until his deeply regretted death last year. Irving Lavin, “Santa Maria del Fiore: image of the pregnant Madonna. The Christology of Florence Cathedral.” Online at Academia.edu. For the riches of his contributions to art history, see his page on the website of the Institute for Advanced Study.


Responses in the Reply box below (these will be viewed by all visitors to the site and are the preferred response) or personally to Loekie.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.

So will donations. Please do send a donation.

Your donations help defray the costs of the Schwartzlist and encourage Gary Schwartz to write more columns.

.Donate Button

14 thoughts on “389 Botticelli’s Primavera as an image of Santa Maria del Fiore”

  1. I find the hypothesis somewhat recherché. The shape in the painting is rounder, a more perfect circle than the more pointed parabola-like shape of the duomo. And anyway, a circle is about the simplest form you can think of and any circle resembles any other near-circle closely without there needing to be more than coincidence linking them…

    1. The photo is a bit smudgy at the top I admit, but in the superposition the lines correspond perfectly. Whether the curve is round or not is beside the point, the point being that Venus’s bower takes the shape of the cupola.

      Something I didn’t mention, because I could not find the photo I took in Florence (in the 1990s?) of a fragment of the original plasterwork of the cupola. It was painted in tempera on a white surface with a pattern of myrtle leaves very much like those behind Venus – different from the orange tree-leaves of the grove. This would help clinch the comparison, so if anyone knows the whereabouts of said fragment, would you please let me know?
      Thank you for the opportunity to insert this question!

  2. I was delighted to read Loekie Schwartz’s essay on Botticelli’s Primavera. It is a beautiful and unusual interpretation that brings together stylistic and iconological interpretation of the Duomo’s formal characteristic and the Primavera’s Marian symbolism. I was also happy to have Irving Lavin’s bibliography. I feel I learned!

    1. Eva, I’m so glad that you liked the article and learned from it. I’m also pleased to have been the one to guide you to that amazing source of Irving Lavin’s writings.

  3. Congratulations Loekie. I find your discussion of the Primavera convincing. The Venus/Mary figure stands apart from the frieze-like arrangement of the others and I had always thought that she was standing within an arbor reminiscent of an apse, but your idea of an analogy to the dome makes more sense.

    The sources you (and Gary) used are excellent, and I can add another, if you wish. Check Nuper rosarum flores, the motet composed by Guillaume Dufay for the consecration of the cathedral in 1436. The last two strophes use similar metaphors to those you quoted: “Recently roses bloomed in the bitter cold, adorning the church …”

  4. I agree about the identification of the central figure as Mary rather than Venus. The latter sounds like a concession to humanistic fashion mixed with a bad memory. As for the analogy between the arching branches and the cathedral dome, it seems a bit brisk, since it associates an outside view with an inside view. At the same time, the arrangement of the trees does look like columns in a nave framing an apse… There is something weird going here, with the Christian message being edged into the background, while the Classical “extras” are given nearly equal footing and status to the Mother of the Church. It’s a powerful piece of dreaming in paint.

    1. There is (or used to be) a material indication supporting the similarity of the bower and the cupola, but alas! I cannot find the photo I took in Florence (exhibition in the Opera del Duomo, or in the church?, probably in the 1990s. It was a fragment of the original plaster of the cupola, with a fresco painting of just leaves, very much like the myrtle leaves behind the Venus/Virgin.

  5. Loekie: Your piece is not only quite lovely, it is insightful and gripping, indeed like a stroke of genius! You have enlarged the painting’s depth immeasurably. You must be a very deep reader; I envy you for that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *