Botticelli’s Primavera: The Enigma of a Masterpiece

Primavera is one of Botticelli’s most outstanding works. But when trying to explain the enigma of the scene, the interpretations become astoundingly foggy. It is this very confusion that leaves us at complete liberty to interpret it ourselves, if very vaguely, which perhaps suits Botticelli’s mysterious masterpiece better than anything else.

Primavera, c. 1482. Tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Primavera, c. 1482. Tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

We see a sacred lemon forest, a dark cluster of trees laden with golden fruits, pierced by the whiteness of a pale sky. Eight figures rise at the forest’s edge, on a multicoloured flowery meadow. They seem more like fleeting visions of a dream than actual people. These eight figures are set up in five different scenes and it takes some discernment to detect a link between them.

In the middle of the painting, in the background before a shrub of fine greenery, there is a blonde woman in a white veil and a bluish robe. She is holding a rich red cloak up to the level of her waist. Her right hand seems to be raised in a blessing; her glance addresses no one. Then there is the charming group of three blonde Graces who are holding hands and dancing. Two bare arms, two joined hands rise above the group in a symbol of unity.

TB 089.tifAt the far left of the composition, we see an almost nude young man with a violet drapery folded around his middle and with headdress and shoes in the style of Mercury. Not towards him, but toward the three Graces flies a little Amor, fluttering over the head of the woman in the white dress with his bow drawn, ready to shoot his arrow.

To the right of the viewer, a young girl is winding out of the arms of an aerial demon, a rather evil-looking greenish spectre with large wings that are stuck between the trees. She is about to run in front of the Primavera, but the woman personifying spring is in no way disturbed by the girl’s distress.

TB 089.tif

Primavera is a majestic creature. Very tall, svelte, with forms that are marvellously refined and full, she is walking at a solemn pace. One marvellous bare foot is gliding forward on the velvety grass and makes her appear even taller. The garlands of petals and leaves that adorn her blonde head and shoulders, as well as the flower bouquets that are sewn to her white silk robe, give her a sort of cheerful majesty. Violet and red carnations, golden narcissus, white daisies, cornflowers, roses, hyacinth and snow lilies… all this ambrosial finery makes this young woman the triumphant epitome of Nature.

After all, the very uncertainty to which this masterpiece condemns us has a great charm; deciphering the secret of an artwork is a subtle pleasure of the mind. And should an artist of such fiery imagination not leave some riddles to posterity?


And posterity did indeed make something out of this uncertainty: Botticelli Reimagined at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 5 March to 3 July 2016. For those who want to see more of Botticelli’s work, this is the link to follow:

TS Botticelli

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