Primavera was painted in Renaissance Italy around about 1480 by the artist Sandro Botticelli. It’s quite a big thing, almost life size, measuring 2.03m by 3.14m. If you want to see it first-hand, you will need to visit the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Plant Curator would love to tell you it was writing this while sipping on an expresso in Piazza della Signoria post-viewing, but alas, it is not. The digital image is rather good though. You can click on the picture above for a full-screen sensorama and scan every inch in detail.
There is quite a lot going on in the painting and experts have debated for centuries what exactly is going on. A celebration of love and spring is one popular interpretation, hence its other name: Allegory of Spring. It is not hard to see why, set in a garden full of lush growth with flowers blooming everywhere, this and an array of mythological characters suggest such themes. Primavera (spring in italian) shows Venus, the roman goddess of love, presiding over the party with her son Cupid hovering overhead shooting love inducing arrows. Mercury, the messenger to the gods, is on the far left and he is either gay or pretending to ignore the trio of dancers known as the Three Graces behind him. On the right side is a rather blue looking guy called Zephyrus or god of the west wind. He is about to embrace (and pollinate) a rather startled looking nymph with flowers dropping from her mouth. In doing so, he miraculously turns her into Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring, ie the person standing by her side. After her transformation she appears calmer and can be seen strewing more flowers about the place.
The vegetative elements have been so well done that the BBC film below states: ‘For some it’s not so much high culture as horticulture’. We like that. It is widely reported that the meadow has over 500 individual flowers, each one uniquely painted. We assume this number has been reached by someone painstakingly counting them all. The species count this translates to seems less clear and varies from around 170 to 200 in different accounts of the painting. No one seems to know the fruit either – oranges, pomegranates and golden apples are all mentioned as possibles.
Wikipedia cites Gloria Fossi and Elena Capretti as its source for plant numbers.
In Fossi’s book Primavera she writes:
“On the flowered lawn we can recognise over one hundred and ninety different botanical species. At least one hundred and thirty of them are real such as the daises, buttercups, corn-flowers, poppies, violets, small chrysanthemums, crocuses, irises, lilies, jasmine and forget-me-nots.”
Hmmm…What does she mean by ‘real’ if they are not real how can they be botanical species? She goes on..
The species of flowers are not always depicted with their natural leaves-reality and fantasy…”
Then unfortunately Plant Curator gets cut off, with Google books saying “Pages 10-11 are not shown in this preview”. We are left wondering what she can possibly mean by ‘leaves-reality and fantasy’. Is she saying some are real species and others are Botticelli’s own fantasy hybrid species?
Capretti in her book Botticelli writes:
“The painting shows around 500 recognised species of plants; around 190 are flowering plants. It is a botanic representation of the vegetation growing around Florence between March and May.”
All plants depicted are flowering plants you would think, I don’t think Botticelli, as good as he was, tackled Bryophyta. So maybe she means currently in flower rather than just with vegetative parts.
Another blog reports “Mirella Levi D’Ancona (1992)… performed a meticulous and painstaking identification of the vegetable species present”. Plant Curator tries to find this book or paper online, but to no avail.
Jonathan Jones for the Guardian writes:
“The painting teems with life: the myriad shades of the flowers in the dark grass have been analysed by botanists, who identified 200 accurately depicted plants.” Where did you get this from Jonathan? Who are these botanists you speak of and where is their species list?
Primavera was a long time before Linnaeus, so who knows how plant names were recorded in 15th Century Florence (time to reread Anna Pavord’s brilliant The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants), most likely some kind of local name. Is it possible that any of the ‘fantasy’ species listed above have gone extinct in 500 plus years? Has anyone got a plant id guide from 15th Century Florence? Has anyone got a species list for La Primavera? Mirella? Anyone? Plant Curator would love to know exactly how many of the plants in the picture have been identified as real species that exist today.
Anyhow, Primavera forms part of our Classic Artwork series because it has magic, it has mystery and most importantly it has lots and lots of plants.