For many, Spring is the start of the year. In the countryside around the city of Florence, as in much of Europe, it was the time when livestock could return to life outdoors, rather than being cramped in with families, when the often undernourished people could start eating again, and would give thanks for surviving another winter. Even for rich patrons of the arts like Lorenzo de’ Medici, it was a time of great relief.
What better way to celebrate Spring than with a painting by the great master Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi – that’s Sandro Botticelli to you and me? But what resulted looks, to modern eyes at least, something of a puzzle.
Botticelli’s magnificent masterwork, still known reverentially by its Italian title Primavera, is an intricate allegory based on Roman myth recorded by Ovid, not in his popular Metamorphoses, but his less well-known Fasti, a book of days.
Let me introduce the characters first, starting at the right:
- Zephyrus, the warm and moist west wind, who is borne on wings and grasps the body of
- Chloris, who looks back in fright at Zephyrus, and from whose mouth a chain of plants emerges;
- Flora, who is dressed in a robe bearing images of many different flowering plants, wears a garland of flowers in her hair, and appears to be casting flowers from within her robe;
- Venus, the mother of Cupid and (often) of the three Graces, who appears pregnant, and holds her right hand up in greeting or blessing;
- Cupid (above Venus), who is about to loose a flaming arrow from his bow, and is borne on wings;
- the Three Graces, Aglaea (splendor), Euphrosyne (mirth), and Thalia (good cheer), linked by their hands, the nearest (with her back to the viewer) being the target of Cupid’s arrow, and looks at
- Mercury, the son of Maia (as in the month of May) and messenger of the gods, who holds his caduceus up to quell a small group of dark clouds, but faces away to the left, looking up at those clouds.
As you might expect, the story behind this beautiful pastoral painting is thoroughly pagan, and all about sex and violence.
Chloris was a nymph, who was wandering in the Spring when she was seen by Zephyrus, who followed her. In her modesty, the nymph fled, but couldn’t escape the god, who of course flew like the wind after her. Boreas his brother had told Zephyrus that he could rape Chloris as a reward for stealing from Erechtheus’ house, which Zephyrus did once he had caught her.
To make amends (!) for his violence to her, Zephyrus then made Chloris his bride, and she became Flora, who enjoys perpetual Spring. Her husband stocked her garden with flowers, and made her the mistress of them. When the dew has dried in the morning, the Hours gather in their colourful clothes, collecting flowers from Flora’s garden. Then the Graces join her and bind their hair with her flowers.
Ovid also told the completely spurious story that the origin of Flora’s new name was a result of the Romans’ inability to pronounce her original name Chloris: in fact, Chloris is derived from the Greek for the colour green (as in chlorophyll), which is appropriate for Spring, and Flora comes from the Latin for flower, as in floral.
Botticelli’s masterpiece has proved influential to generations of artists since.
Bartolomeo Veneto is alleged to have painted Lucrezia Borgia in his Idealised Portrait of a Courtesan as Flora from about 1520, one of many portraits of women ‘as Flora’. Whether it is plausible that the Duchess of Ferrara would have exposed her left breast in that way is another matter, but Flora is often depicted as baring one or both breasts probably as a reference to her fecundity.
Nicolas Poussin painted Flora too, most notably in his masterpiece The Empire of Flora in 1631, which is even more complex than Primavera, and set itself as another precedent for painters. Its figures include:
- a herm representing Priapus, his phallus wreathed in the greenery of gardens and fertility;
- Ajax, falling on his sword and his spilled blood turning not into the purple hyacinth but a white carnation;
- Narcissus and Echo, the former enraptured by his own reflection, with Echo gazing longingly at him, and the narcissus flower;
- Clytie, who fell in love with Apollo and pined away into the sunflower (heliotrope);
- Apollo in his sun chariot, with a band containing the signs of the zodiac;
- Flora herself, presiding over her floral empire (detail below);
- Hyacinthus, killed by his own discus for falling in love with Apollo then turned into the flower, and Adonis, fatally wounded when hunting and turned into the anemone;
- Smilax and Crocus, unrequited homosexual lovers, who were turned into saffron and rough bindweed flowers;
- Cupid, with his quiver.
Poussin’s Empire of Flora is thus a sequel to Botticelli’s Primavera, and a wonderful collation of floral transformations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
In about 1685, Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter painted this Allegory of Spring, which refers mainly to Poussin’s painting. Flora is now aloft, with Zephyrus behind her, and signs of the Spring zodiac emblazoned in the sky. Below them is a selection of the cast of Poussin’s Empire of Flora, including Ajax falling on a spear in the centre. Birds and ‘May’ blossom set the seasonal reference.
Later, in 1712-16, came Sebastiano Ricci’s simpler Flora. Zephyrus stands behind Flora, and there are sundry winged cupids and accessory winds, as well as a display of flowers, but the intricate references to Roman myth have faded.
In the next and concluding article, I will follow the theme of Flora and Spring through into the early twentieth century.