Important Art by Sandro Botticelli
This important early work by Botticelli was commissioned by Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker who had built a chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novelli in Florence. It is possible that del Lama chose this subject to decorate his chapel because one of the Magi, traditionally known as "Caspar", or "Gaspare", is his namesake. According to Vasari's Lives of the Artists, the work depicts several members of the Medici family, including Cosimo the Elder, and his sons Piero and Giovanni, who were all deceased at the time the painting was made, as the three Magi. The Medici family often associated themselves with the Magi or Three Kings from the Nativity story, even riding through the streets of Florence dressed as them every Epiphany. The Medici were friends of the del Lama family, and important patrons for Botticelli himself. Although del Lama's intentions in commissioning these portraits as part of the painting are not known, it was common for religious scenes painted at the time to contain portraits of nobility, and points to the important connection art had with money and power in Renaissance Florence.
Botticelli was probably the first artist to depict the Adoration of the Magi with the holy family at the center, set back "deep" into the painting, with the other characters arranged symmetrically on either side. Previously, the scene had always been depicted as a linear narrative flowing across the space of the canvas, as in the Gothic painting by Gentile da Fabbriano (1420) or Benozzo Gozzoli's famous fresco in the Palazzo Medici (1459).
Intriguingly, the painting also contains a self-portrait of Botticelli - the only one known to be in existence. The artist stands on the right edge of the painting and looks directly out at the viewer. Although he was probably only around 30 years old when this was painted, Botticelli depicts himself as confident and masterful, and his confidence is justified by the accomplished style of this work, which compares to some of his more mature masterpieces.
One of the most famous paintings in Western art, the Primavera depicts a series of figures from classical mythology in a garden or woodland. Rather than representing a scene from a specific story, it is believed that Botticelli either presents the figures in this arrangement purely for aesthetic reasons, or if there was a narrative, it is unknown to us today. Either way, the mysteriousness of the painting is part of its great appeal.
It is generally agreed that the painting is an allegory about the season of Spring, as suggested by its title, but there is no agreement as to the exact message being conveyed. It is likely that the central character is Venus, the goddess of love, while the three graces dance beside her, and Chloris, the goddess of flowers, is chased by the figure of the West Wind before transforming into Flora, echoing a myth described in Ovid. The messenger god Mercury stands to the left, as the figure of Cupid floats above the scene, about to fire an arrow.
The Primavera is particularly significant as it is one of the earliest examples in Western post-Classical painting of a non-religious scene. As The Guardian's senior art critic Jonathan Jones puts it, "Botticelli's Primavera was one of the first large-scale European paintings to tell a story that was not Christian, replacing the agony of Easter with a pagan rite. The very idea of art as a pleasure, and not a sermon, began in this meadow." To see this in a painting of this scale (80 x 124 inches) makes Primavera a particularly exciting milestone for the development of Western art.
In this panel painting, Botticelli turns once again to a mythological subject. Venus, the goddess of love, reclines on the grass while her lover Mars, the god of war, lies asleep and disarmed before her, presumably tired out by love-making. Several young fauns are playing in the scene, attempting to wake Mars by blowing in his ear with a conch shell. The painting also features some wasps ('vespe' in Italian), which may be a reference to the Vespucci family, who lived near to Botticelli, or may refer to the stings of love. The basic message of the work could be read as 'love conquers war'.
The painting, which was probably intended to be incorporated into a piece of bedroom furniture, is essentially a joke at the expense of men. Mars is undone by his sexual encounter, disarmed and vulnerable, while Venus looks calmly on, fully clothed and awake. Mars is wearing only a small swathe of fabric, leaving his almost-bare body on view to both his lover Venus and, implicitly, the viewer, becoming the object of desire in the painting.
Though Venus is fully clothed having "conquered" Mars, the portrayal of her powerful sexuality is equally as enticing. As art historian Patricia Rubin points out, "Botticelli's Venus, posed with her exhausted lover Mars, is, by definition, the pagan adulteress. The emphatically sensuous curves and sculptural surfaces of her body signify her physical desirability and use tactics studied from ancient sculpture." In this way, Botticelli emphasizes Venus' power, but also eroticizes her, showing her divine beauty and drawing attention to the feminine body underneath her dress.