April 21st 2018

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COVER STORY The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

CANBERRA OBSERVED Malcolm at 30 (polls): the cloud on Turnbull's horizon

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell firmly denies sex abuse allegations

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Sydney Archdiocese aims to eliminate slavery in supply chain

RURAL DEVELOPMENT Irrigation along Fitzroy River proposed and opposed

LIFE ISSUES Abortion Rethink Summit: the case for care

VERBATIM WA food, drink producers face shortage of carbon dioxide

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY Land costs: economist Henry George's solution

ELECTRICITY Will Turnbull lose three out of three?

ECONOMICS Trade wars: tariffs unlikely to be fired in anger

SEX AND TEENS How about support for the abstaining majority?

VISUAL ARTS Layers of meaning in Botticelli's La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

MUSIC Is it good?: Or, do we just like the sound it makes?

CINEMA The Death of Stalin: Black comedy of a dark time

BOOK REVIEW Cool head on topic that generates heat

BOOK REVIEW Life's not so bad: from the outside



OPINION What a republic would really mean for Australia

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Layers of meaning in Botticelli's La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

by Laura Leonard

News Weekly, April 21, 2018

Sandro Botticelli’s works contain many layers of meaning and l will use as examples two of his outstanding works, La Primavera and The Birth of Venus to demonstrate this.

Over the centuries, many art critics have discussed the validity of Botticelli’s works. The question posed is: Are they really as simple in content as they are made out to be? Many texts reveal and support varying meanings in the works. Both La Primavera and The Birth of Venus portray a straightforward illustration of classical texts as well as being a higher, more meaningful representation of neo-platonic philosophy.

La Primavera

Both La Primavera and The Birth of Venus were commissioned for a Medici patron who desired them for quite specific reasons. For instance, La Primavera (right) was painted to be placed in the patron’s bedroom, thereby symbolising a marriage relationship. Feminist critics have found this particular slice of evidence rather interesting. They ask whether La Primavera is a lesson to the bride? Judging from this, there is certainly more than one layer of meaning.

Sandro Botticelli was born in about 1444 in Florence to the artisan class, his father a tanner and himself becoming an apprentice to a goldsmith. Not happy with this trade, the young Sandro entered the workshop of Filippo Lippi, and thus began his career as a painter. The city of his birth at that time was alive with opportunity, international business and politics as well as artistic creations.

Critic Ernst Gombrich writes in Symbolic Images: “The Golden Age, as it were, has brought back to light the Liberal Arts which had almost been extinct: Grammar, Poetry, Rhetoric, Painting, Architecture, Music and the ancient art of Singing to the Orphic Lyre.”

Botticelli matured within a stable political and economic environment. The Medici were a prominent family at this time and with stability led the people in politics, religion and artistic creation. The heads of the Medici. at the time of Botticelli were Cosimo de’ Medici until his death in 1464, and his grandson, Lorenzo ll Magnifico until his death in 1492. The “Golden Age” of Florence and the Medici ended with Lorenzo’s death. Some of the greatest works of art were created during this time, including both Botticelli’s works that we are looking at here.

Both of these works were painted for a specific patron and were hung in a private home, The patron who commissioned both of these paintings was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco; a cousin once removed from Lorenzo Il Magnifico. Botticelli would have been given specific instructions to create an allegory in correspondence to the tastes and personal interests of the patron. The actual meaning of the painting would have been clear to Lorenzo, but without an attempt to define the intellectual world of his mind, the outside viewer cannot be expected to understand the significance completely. This accounts for why today there are many different interpretations of these works.

La Primavera can be seen as a straightforward illustration of the classical. It is a depiction of the season of spring, as its title states. Spring begins on the far right of the painting, where Zephyr, the West Wind and herald of spring, transforms Chloris into Flora, who then produces the first flowers of the season. The flowers issuing from Chloris’ mouth melt into the dress of Flora, who in turn issues them onto the meadow.

Botticelli has cleverly linked them visually. The three Graces, representative of growth, flowering and fertility (from classical times) in their dance pay homage to Flora; Venus and Cupid are a reminder that love is also an integral force of nature; and the presence of Mercury, on the far left, may imply that he rules over May as Venus rules over April (the two months in which the Floralia are celebrated).

Thus Mercury too embodies elements of spring. He stirs the clouds with a stick. Botticelli could imply that Mercury is keeping the bad weather at bay; or, as a strong astrological figure, he could represent, as Gombrich says, “good counsel and the gift of oratory”.

The basic classical texts in which Botticelli found his inspiration for these works provide the fundamental motives for his symbolism. In these works he has captured gods and goddesses of antiquity from the rich poetic tradition.

Giorgio Vasari’s statement in Lives of the Artists from 1550 reveals the simplest description of La Primavera: “Venus, whom the Graces deck with flowers, denoting spring.” Another important text was Ovid’s Fasti (Book of Days). It tells the story of Flora’s transformation. It relates how the three Graces dance in her honour at the feast of the Floralia.

A description of the Graces can be found in Roman philosopher Seneca: “One of the sisters gives, the other receives, the other returns the benefit.”

In the poems of Poliziano (Angelo Ambrogini) and Lorenzo Il Magnifico, Flora was identified with primavera; she became the personification of spring. Some viewers find the meaning of La Primavera difficult to attain because Flora, the Goddess of Spring, is not pictured as the central figure. Instead Venus, the Goddess of Love, stands central. This is significant in that, love is the universal element and, without it, spring could not exist. Spring revolves around Love as the planets orbit the Sun.

An ideal

The Birth of Venus (below) depicts the naked Venus perched on a seashell and being blown to the shore by the two Winds on the left. Flora stands waiting for her, ready to envelope her with the flower-embroidered cloak, which the breath of the winds causes to billow out.

The Birth of Venus

The theme is well known from classical literature, and Botticelli has provided the viewer with his “ideal” birth of Venus.

Although it is a pose well known from classical antiquity, it is nonetheless not a document of classical revival. As art historian Leopold Ettlinger states: “The steeply sloping shoulders, the elongated body, the circular breasts all bespeak Botticelli’s preference for International Gothic rather than classical proportions” (Botticelli). This may be true because beauty to Botticelli was a matter of infinite grace and linear refinement: therefore it is the artist’s own sense of the classical ideal.

Poliziano, the finest poet in the Florence of the time, retold the ancient legend of the birth of Venus in La Giostra, which derived from a Homeric hymn, Ovid and other classical texts, and tells of how Venus was born from the foam of the sea. Critics have often described The Birth of Venus as an illustration to Poliziano’s La Giostra, thus interpreting the painting as being a narrative of a classical and astrological myth.

However, Botticelli did not produce works that were taken from classical literature and directly constructed in a visual way – a degree of inventiveness and imagination was involved. The theories of the neo-platonic philosophers were also a strong force behind the higher and more spiritual meanings of La Primavera and The Birth of Venus.

Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, Botticelli’s patron, had been well educated by some of the finest scholars under the Medici influence. Marsilio Ficino was a leading neo-platonist philosopher of the time and was also Pierfrancesco’s mentor. Poliziano was also among his circle of friends.

The connection between Botticelli’s art and the spirit of the Ficino Academy was very strong. One of Ficino’s teachings was that “every experience should be allowed to turn into a symbol of something higher than itself”, which philosophy is evident in Botticelli’s works.

The neo-platonic philosophy on Venus was that she could “personify beauty and beauty was identical with truth” (Ettlinger). The Birth of Venus does not only represent to us the birth of the Goddess of Love but the birth of Beauty and Truth.

The way Botticelli has depicted Venus heightens the philosophical: the expressive and gestural quality; she is young, dignified, modest and pure. Her melancholy gaze invites the viewer into the painting. This spirit and emotion allow us to see the true meaning if the work.

Charles Dempsey writes in The Portrayal of Love: “Botticelli has not simply illustrated a story taken from Ovid but instead given expression to independent invention by bringing together material derived from and rationalised by a large number of ancient authors.”

In La Primavera, Botticelli depicts Venus as Humanitas in the centre. She embodies knowledge and virginal properties, and she has certainly been referred to as the Virgin Mary. Again, as in The Birth of Venus, she invites us into her domain as she is the only figure in the scene who engages the viewer.

Various interpretations

Past interpretations of La Primavera have varied widely: from declaring that Venus is pregnant, from her strange walk and carriage; to the observation from the inclination of her head that she is melancholy and strained, perhaps pining for Mars to share her bed in the forest.

Aside from these fairly ludicrous interpretations, La Primavera reveals the allegory of romance and that spring is a time of new life and love and therefore pleasure.

My hope is that all viewers of these two magnificent works may continue to unravel many more layers of meaning. Not only as Botticelli intended, but also in the context of today’s world.


Dempsey, Charles, The Portrayal of Love, 1992, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Ettlinger, L.D., and Helen S. Botticelli, 1976, Thames and Hudson, London.

Gombrich, E.H., Symbolic Images, 1972, Phaidon, London.

Gombrich, E.H., New Light on Old Masters, 1986, Phaidon, London.

Gombrich, E.H., Meditations on a Hobby Horse, 1963, Phaidon, London.

Hartt, Frederick, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, 1989, Harry N. Abrams, New York.

Levy, M. and Mandel, G., Botticelli, 1967, Rizzole Editors, Italy.

World Book International, The World Book Encyclopedia, 1994, World Book Inc. USA.

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