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.

Warburg, in short, brought his colleagues not peace but a sword. And even those who tried to avoid the narrow path of interpretation have found themselves going straight to the infernal regions on what they thought of as the wide, clear path of description. None of Sir Ernst Gombrich’s justly celebrated footnotes is wittier than the one in which he let previous authorities speak for themselves about the central figure, Venus, whom they variously described as sweet, reflective, austere, melancholy, pensive, gay, tired, pregnant and consumptive. Every detail of the painting has attracted contradictory appraisals.

Charles Dempsey’s erudite study of The Portrayal of Love begins from the history of interpretation. His full and exacting review of the literature is one of the most useful features of his useful book. But knowing that the erudite have disagreed does not make him sceptical about the larger enterprise on which they have been engaged. He argues, in fact, that for all the son et lumière which rattle and blaze about Primavera every year at conferences and in journals, the painting has provoked little substantive debate and can be read in a straightforward way.

The texts that Warburg associated with the painting, plus one or two more, still identify its dramatis personae. Botticelli, like other painters of his time, considered the ‘invention,’ or subject-matter, of his painting its crucial part (this belief supported painting’s earnest claim to the status of a liberal, not a mechanical, art). He found his matter in ancient descriptions of the Roman rustic calendar and the gods associated with the spring. Following these, he portrayed, from right to left, the nymph Chloris, whom the wind Zephyr turned into Flora; the goddess Aphrodite, after whom the Romans named April; and Mercury, who was worshipped especially in May, and went everywhere with the three Graces who accompany him here. The main figures of the painting are thus identified, and the painting itself is deciphered in a novel and convincing way, as a literal, almost month-by-month representation of Primavera.

Botticelli’s renderings of individuals drew their central features, as Warburg suggested, from poetry – from the vernacular poetry of the Tuscan tradition. The painter emulated the Petrarchan lyric poets of his time, who described women not as organic wholes but as aggregates of supremely beautiful bits, with every mouth a cherry, every tooth a pearl: ‘the faces of his women are ... the embodiment of the familiar Petrarchan metaphorical conventions comparing the perfect face of the beloved’s beauty to a privet tinged with roses.’

Primavera as a whole, as Francastel suggested, represented not idealised ancient gods and nymphs, set in a world without time or location, but modern Florentines costumed for a pageant. Dempsey analyses their clothing in instructive detail. The Graces sport translucent period chemises, Venus is draped in an unusual, sumptuous mantle adorned with pearls, and Flora wears a spectacular dress which must have been created specially for the occasion (since its pattern of flowers does not repeat, Dempsey argues the pattern must be painted, not woven; but only a costume would have had its design painted on, as costumes often still do). Botticelli, in other words, did not reconstruct the ancient gods with the marmoreal correctness of an antiquary. Instead he used the costumes and aesthetics of the Tuscan culture of his time to give new life to the Classical gods about which Poliziano informed him. Dempsey eloquently praises the ‘philological’ precision with which Botticelli wedded the Classical and the vernacular, the modern and the antique. He himself shows a similar combination of eclecticism and critical insight as he weaves ideas and observations from Warburg and Wind, Cropper and Francastel into an original and striking explication of the painting. Only Gombrich, whom Dempsey repeatedly flagellates, remains outside the capacious borders of his sympathetic interest.

Precision does not mean literalness. Botticelli was not a camera, and in conjuring up this pageant, he did not record a historical event. Rather, he used forms that he and his contemporaries knew intimately to embody a profound message about love. In his Comento and love poetry, Lorenzo told an elaborate story of how his love had been awakened by beauty and purged by suffering, drawn off course at first by being directed at the wrong woman, Simonetta Vespucci, and made sublime at last by the realisation that the true loved one, Lucrezia Donati, represented ‘perfect goodness and gentility’. Both women appear in Primavera, Simonetta as Flora and Lucrezia as the sublime Venus in the centre. Evidently Botticelli’s work provides not a simple illustration of, but a profound visual parallel to Lorenzo’s writing about love. The evocation of an ancient spring thus sets the stage for a pageant with a moral purpose. By uniting the personal with the spiritual, Botticelli’s work teaches a neo-Platonic lesson – but one that emerges from the Italian poetry that he knew, not a recondite one extracted from Greek texts Botticelli never saw.

Dempsey tells a cogent tale. His prose is not consistently lively or vivid, though it rises to eloquence when he argues for the historical greatness and uniqueness of Laurentian culture. But his sharp observations of detail, apposite quotations and fine analyses of Botticelli’s social and cultural world hold the attention. He displays leep knowledge of literary sources and traditions as well as images. Social historians will learn much from him about the forms of sexual intrigue at the Florentine dinner-party. Intellectual historians stand to learn even more about the vernacular side of a culture they have sometimes too insistently treated as Classical.

Like all important works of humanistic scholarship, The Portrayal of Love stimulates at least as much dissent as agreement. Dempsey’s style tends to the peremptory, and he sometimes confuses argument with assertion. He clearly feels that on some matters – like the identification of Botticelli’s textual sources – he has spoken, and the case is closed. But in fact, like Warburg himself, Dempsey has done more to open up debate than to close it off.

Consider, in the first place, his analysis of Primavera as a calendar, He argues that Botticelli meant to evoke the ‘rustic calendar’ of the Roman Republic – a calendar which had only ten months, and in which Aphrodite was clearly associated with April, Mercury with May. Julius Caesar’s reform of the calendar would have obscured these relationships, since it changed the relation of the calendar months to the seasons. In portraying them, accordingly, Botticelli showed formidable knowledge of history and antiquities. And in recovering them, Dempsey has had to chase down Botticelli’s (and Poliziano’s) sources with the dapper relentlessness of a Sam Spade. Only in the mean streets of Martianus Capella, the most unreadable of ancient encyclopedists, did he turn up the relationship between May and Mercury. No wonder that this piece of research, first published some twenty-five years ago, established Dempsey’s reputation. Certainly his interpretation remains attractive – especially when one remembers that the calendar provided the frame for a remarkable set of frescoes of the late 1460s, which combined the modern and the mythological, the erudite and the courtly, in ways that look forward to Boccaccio: the decorations of the Salone dei Mesi in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.

Unfortunately, Dempsey’s arguments are disfigured by several historical and textual errors. Renaissance intellectuals knew the history of the Roman calendar, like the structure of the Julian ecclesiastical calendar by which they lived, far better than we do. The charming versified history offered by Ovid in the Fasti and the learned bombilations of the antiquaries recorded by Macrobius in the Saturnalia provided them with many interesting facts and stories, which, as Mary Beard and others have shown, reveal a great deal about the Roman sense of religion and history even if they are not literally reliable. These were helpfully assembled by none other than Poliziano, Botticelli’s supposed adviser, in his lectures of 1482 on the Fasti, the manuscript of which was first studied in detail a generation ago. His remarks, and a look at the relevant sections of the texts he used, are enlightening.

Poliziano knew that Romulus had created a ten-month calendar because, as Ovid helpfully explained, he was better at fighting than at counting. But he also knew that Romulus’s successor, Numa Pompilius, had added two more months to the Roman year before the end of the eighth century BC, and that this twelve-month calendar had lasted through both the monarchy and the Republic, coming to an end only with the Julian reform. In the course of time, the months of Numa’s calendar had drifted far from their original positions in the seasons, to which Caesar’s reform restored them. Yet Mercury never lost his place in the calendar; Macrobius explicitly remarked that in his own time, around AD 400, merchants still sacrificed to Mercury in May. The Julian reform, far from obscuring this point, would have made it clearer, by restoring May to its proper place in the late spring.

These facts have a number of consequences, some more unpleasant than others, for Dempsey’s thesis. They do not undermine his larger argument that Primavera was a pictorial calendar. But they do refute his notion that Botticelli hoped to illustrate an ‘archaic ten-month rustic calendar’. Botticelli had no reason to think that such a thing had ever existed – as opposed to the short-lived ten-month calendar of Romulus, which seems quite irrelevant to Primavera. In connecting Mercury to May, moreover, Botticelli did not recreate a religious situation that the Julian reform altered; rather, he gave concrete embodiment to a tradition that must have been familiar to any well-read humanist. Nothing in Macrobius supports the theory that Primavera’s calendar was primitive.

A reading of the Saturnalia, however, does prove another point: that Roman scholars disagreed about the origins and meaning of their calendrical terms and rituals, waxing as passionately erudite as Jews debating the implications of every feature of the ritual of the Passover seder. The identification of Botticelli’s work as a calendar, then, far from fixing its meaning, may reveal it as irrevocably unfixed. At all events, any future reading of the work in the calendrical key must deal with Macrobius – as well as other texts not cited by Dempsey, but quoted by Poliziano in his lectures.

All scholars miss relevant primary texts and misinterpret those they manage to find; this is not an individual weakness but the tribute erudition must pay to fallibility. All scholars see conclusive connections and unmistakable resemblances where their readers see weak ones, or none at all. It is not odd that Dempsey’s identification of the women in Primavera, though phrased in strong language, rests on a shakier base of evidence than his unravelling of the picture’s calendrical programme. But it seems curious that he has not confronted all the secondary sources. In particular, he refers only in passing to the most exciting work of recent years on Primavera – Horst Bredekamp’s brilliant, light-hearted essay on Florenz als Garten der Venus, which appeared in 1988. Bredekamp performs the rare service of rethinking an established problem from its beginnings. He redates the picture on stylistic grounds to the 1480s. Like Ronald Lightbown he argues that it was painted at the behest not of Lorenzo de’ Medici but of its eventual owner, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. And he interprets it as staking out political, not Neo-Platonic, ground for its patron. Primavera, he argues, evoked the paradisal state to which Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco hoped to restore his city, if he ever managed to become its ruler. Bredekamp finds fascinating new textual evidence to support his claim – and to suggest that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco possessed ample intellectual resources to appreciate, and even to have created, the picture’s programme.

Bredekamp’s compact, aphoristic essay makes a fascinating counterpart to The Portrayal of Love. For example, both he and Dempsey offer cogent, original descriptions of the painting. But they concentrate on entirely different details, and work from remarkably different methods and assumptions. Dempsey, who emphasises subject-matter, analyses costumes with loving precision. Bredekamp, who emphasises methods of execution, highlights Botticelli’s rendition of trees and flowers. Dempsey uses the written conventions of Petrarchan poetry to explain the qualities of Botticelli’s faces. Bredekamp relies on observation to identify two fascinating details that Dempsey does not discuss: that Venus, though she looks straight at her viewers, offers her gesture of welcome not to them but to someone offstage on her right; and, even more striking, that she looks out, to borrow the words of Shakespeare’s Claudius, with ‘one auspicious and one dropping eye’ – with her eyes, that is, disturbingly different in shape and oddly open to different extents (could this too be a Petrarchan antithesis, in visual form?). And though Bredekamp, like Dempsey, sees the painting as fusing the Classical and the vernacular, the Roman and the Tuscan, he locates the process in a very different moment and milieu and traces it through very different details. It seems incomprehensible that Dempsey devotes so much space to an attack on Gombrich’s old theories, and none to a debate with his most challenging contemporary. One hopes that a translation of Bredekamp’s little book will soon enable English and American readers to stage the confrontation for themselves.

As a mere historian, I tread the charming meadow of Primavera with due caution and an eye for landmines. But I must say that Bredekamp, like Dempsey, seems especially revealing when he concentrates on the visual – and that he has identified vital features of the work for which Dempsey does not account. Bredekamp is certainly right, for example, to call attention to Primavera’s flowers, leaves and fruit, which the recent restoration has rendered far more visible. Like the spectacular landscapes that frame so many of Leonardo’s paintings, these brilliantly detailed renderings of nature’s works stake a dramatic claim on the viewer’s attention. Yet Botticelli hardly made a speciality of landscapes. Leonardo remarked, in a passage quoted by Warburg, that Botticelli had said that the study of landscapes ‘was of no use because by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape ... And the painter in question makes very sorry landscapes.’ Primavera’a glowing oranges and colourful Tuscan spring flowers demand interpretation, precisely because they stand out from, as well as in, Botticelli’s work.

Future interpreters will have to respond to this point. They will also have to make room for another of Bredekamp’s elegantly argued theses – that the relation of the figures to one another is as anomalous, even enigmatic, as their indecipherable facial expressions, to which Rosenthal and Gombrich called attention long ago. Dancers and actors normally respond to one another in some way. Botticelli’s Graces, however, ostentatiously cut one another dead, as Bredekamp shows in meticulously observed detail. Flora ignores the rape of her earlier self, which lakes place immediately behind her. And Venus’s gesture of welcome offers no obvious response to the drama at the centre of which she stands. One is almost driven to sympathise with Stephen Spender, who took the painting as an allegory of Venus acting as matchmaker for a shy young woman, pushed forward by Boreas, and a standoffish young man, represented by Mercury. Opacity has a provocation all its own.

But opacity, like ignorance, can often be dispelled. Here, it seems to me, art historians could cast themselves, in the manner of Mantegna, as the heroes of a vast allegorical panorama of ‘Knowledge Driving Away the Dark Clouds of Ignorance’ – if they would only combine their combing of the infinitely expandable body of texts that might be relevant to Primavera with a more imaginative investigation of the body of visual evidence which is certainly connected to the picture, and which they are incomparably qualified to read. Bredekamp suggests that when Botticelli picked out his delicate flowers and crisp sprays of leaves, he responded to the challenge of Flemish oil-painting; the work of van Eyck and van der Goes, then, should join the Stanze in a reconstruction of his cultural context. But so might the thousands of lovingly detailed flowers and animals, vines and fruits that curl invitingly up the margins of the Italian illuminated manuscripts of the 1450s and 1460s. Like the depiction of flowers, the representation of grouped bodies in formal motion was a technical problem, one which many Renaissance artists set themselves. Wedding-chests and illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, prints and panels offer a spectrum of contemporary counterparts to the strange dances of Primavera – counterparts whose relevance and bearing only the expert eye can detect and assess.

The book of nature, Galileo told his contemporaries, is written in the language of numbers, and only the mathematician can read it. Paintings are not books at all, and their components are irremediably visual, even when they embody a bookish lesson. Recasting the study of Primavera in visual terms would enable scholars to exploit both Dempsey’s and Bredekamp’s most pointed and illuminating observations. It would also enable them to use Gombrich not as a straw man but as a model; many of the essays in Norm and Form and New Light on Old Masters offer splendid examples of the sort of analysis that Primavera still needs.

Above all, it would enable everyone to remember more clearly that Warburg himself set out to explain not a story or a theory but a pictorial convention. Dempsey, for all his deep respect for Warburg, knows more than Warburg could about both Primavera and its con temporary context. He shows, by implication, that Warburg’s own historical environment shaped his analysis of the picture, making him focus more sharply on its Classical, Dionysian side than on its Tuscan elements. He has written an erudite and stimulating book on a subject that one might have thought exhausted. But he has not always remembered, as Warburg did, to look intensively as well as to read extensively. It will take a more Warburgian reading of Primavera to account for both the dancers and their dance.