Mag­nus Lin­klater’s favourite paint­ing

John Mcewen com­ments on Pri­mav­era Pri­mav­era by Bot­ti­celli

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Mag­nus Lin­klater

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

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