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What Is La Primavera?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

La Primavera is the title of a famous painting by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. It depicts an array of figures from Greek mythology. Many of these figures may have been modeled after Botticelli’s contemporaries or benefactors, a common practice at the time. The exact meaning of the 1482 painting has been the subject of ongoing debate among art scholars and critics. La Primavera is considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art.

Botticelli’s real name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. He was raised in Florence, Italy, which was the starting point of the cultural and artistic revolution known as the Renaissance. Florence’s masterpieces included Masacchio’s Trinity Fresco, the first painting to employ perspective, which creates the illusion of depth on a flat surface. Botticelli apprenticed as a goldsmith before turning to painting. By the 1470s, he had established himself as an acclaimed painter of portraits and religious scenes.

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Little is known for certain of the circumstances surrounding the painting of La Primavera. It was created for the Medici family, who were wealthy patrons, or supporters, of many Florentine sculptors and painters. Guiliano de Medici and his mistress Simonetta Vespucci are considered the likely models for the Greek gods Mercury and Venus in the painting. “Primavera” is the Italian word for “springtime.” According to some scholars, this suggests the painting may have been commissioned as a wedding or christening gift.

La Primavera is more than six feet (2 m) tall and 10 feet (3 m) wide, meaning the nine figures portrayed are roughly life-sized. The figures are believed to be Mercury, the Three Graces, Venus, Cupid, Flora, Chloris, and Zephyrus, arrayed in an orange grove. The painting seems to be inspired by a classic verse from the Roman poet Lucretius, which would have been familiar to Botticelli and his audience. The poem describes how Chloris, a nymph, was abducted by the wind god Zephyrus and transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring. This idea of the painting's meaning is mostly conjecture, as no records survive to describe the intent of Botticelli or his patrons.

The highly detailed painting hung for years in an anteroom in the mansions of the art-rich Medicis. It was one of many masterpieces Botticelli created in the 1480s, including the celebrated Birth of Venus, which portrays the nude goddess standing on a giant clamshell. Botticelli’s style fell from favor soon after his death in 1510, and many of his paintings were forgotten or ignored outside his native Italy until the 19th century. At that time, a revival of interest in Renaissance art led to new appreciation of La Primavera. Since 1919, it has been on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

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