Signs of spring

Anthony Grafton

  • The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent by Charles Dempsey
    Princeton, 173 pp, £35.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 691 03207 6

Exactly a hundred years ago, Aby Warburg took a short walk on what proved to be a long pier. In his doctoral dissertation on Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Spring, he used fewer than fifty packed pages to analyse the two paintings. He treated them as a set because Vasari had seen them both at Duke Cosimo’s villa, Castello, and described them together. Two points in particular worried Warburg, one stylistic and one substantive. Why had Botticelli, a painter whose natural bent lay in the portrayal of still, dreamy figures, here used ‘bewegtes Beiwerk’, fluttering hair and clothing, to give a sense of violent motion and emotions? And why had Botticelli decided to depict original combinations of myths drawn from Classical sources, like the Homeric Hymns and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on so grand a scale?

One set of facts yielded answers to both questions. Angelo Poliziano, the tutor of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son Pietro, described mythical scenes – strikingly like those Botticelli painted – in the Stanze which he wrote to celebrate a joust sponsored by the Medici and won by Lorenzo’s younger brother, Giuliano, in 1475. An elegantly eclectic poet in both Latin and Italian, Poliziano drew his images of goddesses and nymphs from the Greek and Latin poetic texts he later taught in the Florentine Studio or university. Like Botticelli, he combined his borrowings in new ways. And he described figures in motion – and the fluttering clothing and flying hair that expressed it – more obsessively and vividly than Ovid himself. Botticelli, whose deviations from the ancient sources matched Poliziano’s, must have shared the poet’s sensibility and relied on his advice in his mythological paintings. The details of Primavera came not only from Poliziano’s Italian Stanze, but also from a range of Latin poetry, above all Lucretius’s De rerum natura. Poliziano must have combed these works for the painter, as he did when he adapted them in his own austerely Alexandrian poetry.

Scholarship and sensibility, poetry and painting interacted in the cultural alembic of Laurentian Florence in the 1470s; the result was the magical revival, in Renaissance Italy, of a Dionysian ancient world. Long before Winckelmann founded the cult of noble simplicity and the still, white statue, still longer before Nietzsche rediscovered Dionysus, the Italian scholar-poet had realised that Classical art was not always calm. The power of Poliziano’s verbal images, and the discovery of Classical forms that seemed to embody them, transformed Botticelli’s graceful late Gothic style into a classicism at once rich and strange.

This economical explanation, richly documented and precisely stated, established Warburg’s presence in art history and formed the approach of later scholars to Botticelli’s mythologies. Warburg’s fellow Florentine scholar Herbert Horne, for example, praised his ‘admirable little work’ and followed him in describing Primavera as ‘no mere illustration of some particular passage, but a cento of many ideas’. But almost no one followed him in every detail; Horne, for his part, denied the popular notion that Botticelli had portrayed a real woman, Simonetta Vespucci – a notion which Warburg accepted. Moreover, the substance of Warburg’s argument, with its emphasis on the visual elements of the image, aroused less interest than his method, which connected the painting to Classical and modern texts. This, in turn, has provoked argument without end.

Generations of scholars have reworked, debated and embroidered on Warburg’s original thesis. He himself later hinted that the picture might have an astrological, as well as a mythological sense. Members of his Institute have both denied and reasserted the connection he drew between Botticelli and Poliziano. Some scholars have tried, as Warburg did not, not only to identify the Classical texts that supplied Botticelli’s characters and their attributes but to reconstruct the elaborate programme, either pedagogical or philosophical, that he (and his learned adviser) must have hoped to express. They have scrutinised bits of the painting and purportedly related texts, showing the relentless attention to helpful details and the resolute blindness to unhelpful ones familiar to anyone who has read the work of Kremlinologists or believers in the Baconian authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Under the glare of their hermeneutical spotlights, the work has undergone metamorphosis into everything from a horoscope to an embodiment of Plotinus’s Enneads.

The more cautious interpreters admit the difficulty of turning a work of visual art into a statement of abstract thought. More than one has eloquently evoked the buzz of suggestions and implications that Botticelli’s mythologies broadcast, as indiscriminately as a dandelion releasing seeds. Others, meanwhile, have tried to follow another path broken by Warburg: to embed the work in a social as well as an intellectual landscape. Pierre Francastel, for example, connected Primavera’s dancing Graces and striding nymph to the elegant public festivals and balls with which costumed Florentines welcomed the first day of May, celebrated princely marriages, and forwarded requests for dates (when these were made by gentlemen of standing to ladies of high position, the government cleared the streets to let the floats, pages, and ever-burning hearts go by on their way to the lady’s house). The painting thus appears as the equivalent, in panel form, of the spectacular illustrated manuscripts and painted chests that recorded the visual side of Renaissance weddings – not so much a product of the high philology of the humanists as a record of the high art of Renaissance social life. The major single piece of progress has consisted in a documentary discovery made by John Shearman and Webster Smith. They showed that the painting originally hung not in the villa of Castello, which belonged after 1477 or 1478 to Lorenzo’s cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, but in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s city house – a discovery which does not resolve, and may even aggravate, the interpretative problems.

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