A nice little thing to hang above the bed
It is suggested Mercury, turning away from the women in the picture, is gay
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?
Spring wedding: Botticelli’s masterpiece was painted as a wedding gift from one Medici to another