A nice lit­tle thing to hang above the bed

It is sug­gested Mer­cury, turn­ing away from the women in the pic­ture, is gay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

Private Life of a Mas­ter­piece: La Pri­mav­era 6.10pm, BBC World

THE most beau­ti­ful room of any art mu­seum any­where is the Bot­ti­celli gallery at the Uf­fizi in Florence. It is a magic cham­ber of im­pos­si­bly good­look­ing madon­nas, an­gels and fig­ures from classical mythol­ogy. It con­tains two stun­ning paint­ings that could al­most be a pair: The Birth of Venus and La Pri­mav­era .

Bot­ti­celli de­picts gods and god­desses from an­tiq­uity with an ide­alised beauty that al­most places them be­yond our abil­ity to em­pathise with them. His cool colours in­tro­duce a tone of melan­choly into oth­er­wise joy­ful scenes of birth and re­newal.

But as re­vealed in this latest episode of the BBC’s Private Life of a Mas­ter­piece , Bot­ti­celli painted La Pri­mav­era with very real hu­man emo­tions and ap­pre­hen­sions in mind.

The pro­gram, like oth­ers in this se­ries, un­cov­ers the drama and mys­tery be­hind what is, on the sur­face, just an­other very pretty paint­ing from the Re­nais­sance.

La Pri­mav­era de­picts the fe­cun­dity of spring, with the cen­tral fig­ure of Venus — a pa­gan god­dess, mind — given some of the at­tributes of a madonna. Ar­rayed from left to right are Mer­cury, the three Graces, Flora, Chlo­ris and Ze­phyr, with a winged Cupid fly­ing over­head.

The pic­ture was painted for Lorenzo di Pier­francesco de’ Medici ( a nephew of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Mag­nifi- cent), on the oc­ca­sion of his wed­ding. The voice- over tells us, in rather too sen­sa­tional tones, that the mar­riage was ar­ranged (‘‘ love had noth­ing to do with it’’) as part of a greater po­lit­i­cal scheme en­gi­neered by the young man’s un­cle.

There was cer­tainly noth­ing un­usual about ar­ranged mar­riages be­tween im­por­tant fam­i­lies in the 15th cen­tury. But this his­tor­i­cal de­tail helps ex­plain the tense scene at the right of the paint­ing. Ze­phyr is giv­ing chase to the wood nymph Chlo­ris; he rapes her, and she is trans­formed into Flora, the very pic­ture of a blush­ing bride. It’s an al­le­gory for the fears of mar­riage, turned to con­tent­ment.

Art his­to­ri­ans lift the sheets, as it were, on other de­tails that may not have been ap­par­ent to view­ers in ear­lier cen­turies. Camille Paglia sug­gests that Mer­cury, turn­ing away from the women in the pic­ture, is gay, and plucks for­bid­den fruit.

Private Life of a Mas­ter­piece is now in its third se­ries, and this pro­gram has the familiar tropes: dra­matic re­con­struc­tions ( of young Lorenzo and his bride’s mar­riage); demon­stra­tions of artists at work ( us­ing egg tem­pera paint); and a pop sound­track ( Dean Martin singing That’s Amore ).

Still, the pro­gram man­ages to fill more than 45 fas­ci­nat­ing min­utes about a pic­ture that was not in­tended for a gallery wall, but for a bed­room. Who knew?

Matthew West­wood

Spring wed­ding: Bot­ti­celli’s mas­ter­piece was painted as a wed­ding gift from one Medici to an­other

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