Interpreting the mythology of a work of art may fall under the domain of the art sleuth, and an intrepid one at that.Take for example Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece, ”Primavera”. Those who are willing to settle for a poetical tableau and a virtuoso’s exercise in arabesques will be amply satisfied. For those who want to read the mythology, the answers are not easily forthcoming. There are many sidetracks leading to inconclusive way stations.In addition, the historical subtext remains central to this period of transition resulting in a clash of opposing visions that continues to influence to this day.
”The Renaissance concept of the dignity of man did not draw on a new secularization of culture as is generally taught, but rather on a synthesis of ancient esoteric religious and philosophical ideas enumerated by Pico in hisOration. These ideas, mostly of oriental origin, had inundated Italy since the time of Marco Polo, but flowed in with greater impact after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Foremost among these were Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and the Orphic Mysteries combined with the Neo-Platonism of, Plotinus, Proclus and Iamblichus.”
The painting insists on looking like what it is, which is a complex allegory that has been waiting several centuries for the discovery of its original literary inner structure and its precise iconographic program. It needs that program in order to become fully coherent and expressive as visual art in the same way as an opera score requires a libretto to become musically coherent and expressive.
Primavera asks more questions than there are answers. For whom and when was the picture painted?, Does it contain topical allusions? What philosophy guided the artist in his striking mixture of sensuousness and idealism? Who are the flower people on the right, the beautiful people on the left and the young matron in the middle? Is the idealism focused on specific ideals?, If the return of spring, ”La Primavera”, is the subject, why are the trees carrying an autumnal load of ripe, golden fruit? Botticelli’s actual ”libretto” may well be hidden somewhere, in a cave in the Florentine hills like the Dead Sea Scrolls, but until that discovery is made, we have to write our own, under conditions of fading light, but aided by a spirit willing to rebel against routine. Centuries of excavations have yielded results have been paltry, intermittent and less than satisfactory.
The painting, it seems, was ordered for Lorenzo de Medici’s second cousin. The drawing does not have much of the dramatic wiry vigor that Botticelli favored a couple of years later; it show instead the tendency toward soft gracefulness that can be seen in Uffizi’s ”Adoration of the Magi” which was painted in 1476-77. Botticelli was in the midst of one of the most productive periods in his career, and perhaps the happiest period of his life, although with Botticelli happiness seems to have been relative.
Giorgio Vassari’s ”Lives’, published in 1550, forty years after the death of Botticelli said the painting was about Venus denoting Spring; whose presence an ordinary viewer might not suspect. Nearly everybody now agrees that she is the young matron in the middle under the Cupid, although her being fully clothed has provoked a few doubts. Spring motifs account for some of the personages and decor , but it leave enough unexplained to look into additional theories. One class of interpretations are based on the ”simple theory” These are that the picure simply celebrates womanhood, or it depicts a meeting of lovers. Still another is that it allegorizes the round of the seasons; beginning with the wintry wind on the right, move through spring, summer and autumn, and back through the laden trees to winter again. The problem with these theories is their being too easy and abridged an explanation given the exhaustive data available.
Another theory is the ”topical-sentimental” in which different gods and prominent Florentine personages, events and legends fill in the blanks. For example, the puffing god on the right is Zephyr, and the windblown nymph in his grasp is Chloris. The last set of theories is that the ”Primavera” is primarily a philosophical picture and that the philosophy behind it is Florentine Neo-Platonism. This system of thought mixed a good deal of eclectic mysticism and occultism with standard Neo-Platonic doctrine as the idea of reaching the heavenly kinds of love and beauty through the earthly kinds. There are documents to support such speculation, but none so far can be called an explicit, comprehensive program for the picture.nter">