Magnus Linklater’s favourite painting
John Mcewen comments on Primavera Primavera by Botticelli
The journalist chooses a Botticelli that holds significant family memories
Grand mythological painting was a 15th-century Florentine invention and Botticelli was the greatest of its early masters. Primavera (Spring) has an exceptionally long provenance and has been subject to endless interpretation. Current understanding depends on two simple discoveries: its fidelity to Classical literary sources—especially Ovid’s Fasti, which identifies the figures and actions—and inventories, which show the painting was commissioned for the bedchamber of Semiramide appiani, wife of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a junior member of the Florentine dynasty.
Giorgio Vasari called it ‘The Spring’ in the 16th century and the title fits the later revelation that it’s a ‘wedding present’. In Fasti, Ovid describes the spring wind Zephyr in pursuit of the virginal nymph Chloris, who, at his touch, is transformed into Flora, goddess of spring and gardens. For Ovid, too, this scene symbolised marital fecundity, with references to wooing, abduction, marriage and dowry.
The dynamic transformation occupies the painting’s right, with fleeing Chloris literally exhaling roses before she stands as Flora in all her spring glory. On the left, Mercury, wing-shod messenger of the gods and spring’s herald, dispels the winter clouds with his serpentine staff (caduceus). His followers, the Three Graces (Chastity, Beauty, Love), attend Venus, goddess of love and beauty and protector of marriage, who stands centre stage. Overhead, her winged courier, the blindfolded Cupid, takes arbitrary aim with his bow.
The Medici palace had a sacred orange grove. Flora, symbolising Semiramide, merges with an orange tree. Myrtle (chastity/fertility) girdles her waist and frames Venus. She scatters roses (children).
The floral decoration of The Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 was inspired by Botticelli’s Flora.
‘Botticelli’s Primavera has a special place in our family, because it bears my father’s DNA– literally. In Italy in July 1944, writing a history of the Eighth Army campaign, he arrived, with the broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas, at the Castello di Montegufoni, owned by the Sitwells and newly liberated from the Germans. There, he and Wynford found a treasure trove of pictures, stored for safety by the Uffizi in Florence. Among them was Primavera. My father, seizing the chance, climbed onto a chair and planted a kiss on the lips of the loveliest of the three graces. ‘Ever afterwards,’ he used to say, ‘when I stood in front of her among the crowds, I thought I detected a look of shared complicity
Primavera, 1480–82, by Sandro Botticelli (1444/5–1510), 6½ft by 10¼ft, Uffizi, Florence, Italy
Magnus Linklater is a journalist and former editor of The Scotsman