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Europe 1300 - 1800

Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 3

Lesson 3: Painting in central Italy

Botticelli, Primavera

Botticelli, La Primavera (Spring), 1481-1482, tempera on panel, 80 x 123 1/2" (203 x 314), Uffizi, Florence Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker http://khan.smarthistory.org/botticelli-primavera.html. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

- [Steven] We're at the Uffizi, and we're looking at one of the great Sandro Botticellis. And also one of the most enigmatic. The "Primavera." - [Beth] Which means spring. (light piano music) In the center, we see Venus in her sacred grove looking directly out at us. - [Steven] The figures in the foreground are parted to allow Venus an unobstructed view of us and for us to look back at her, and perhaps even to enter into this space. - [Beth] And if you look, there's a way that the trees around her part to show us the sky, so there's almost a sense of a halo around her. (angelic music) - [Steven] Actually, I read that half circle as almost architectural, almost as an apse. And it reminds us that usually what we would find in a space like this from the Renaissance would be the Virgin Mary in an ecclesiastic environment. But here we have Venus, and we have a natural or mythic environment. - [Beth] Right, I mean, here we are. We're in the Renaissance. One definition of the Renaissance is that it's a rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman culture. And here we have an artist in the 15th century in Italy who's embracing a pagan subject, the subject of Venus. And also other elements from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. - [Steven] Actually, yeah. Lots of ancient Greek and Roman figures. - [Beth] We have the three Graces on the left. - [Steven] This is a subject that was very popular in Roman statuary. And it was an opportunity that allowed for a sculptor to show the human body from three sides simultaneously. So that is, you multiply the figure, and you just turn them slightly each time, so that you really see a figure in the round. - [Beth] And then on the far left, we have Mercury, the messenger god. - [Steven] He's is at peace in her garden. - [Beth] Who wouldn't be at peace in her garden? (chuckling) Look at it. It's fabulous. And we're not sure exactly what he's doing. He's got a stick in his hand. He may be pushing away the clouds that appear to be coming in from the left. - [Steven] Only a sunny day in paradise. - [Beth] Absolutely. And then on the right, we have three more figures. Zephyr, a god of the wind who is abducting the figure of Chloris, who you can see has a branch with leaves coming out of her mouth that elides with the figure next her, who is the figure of Flora. So they may be one and the same person. - [Steven] In other words, the actual abduction of Chloris might actually result in Flora. And what Flora is doing here is she's reaching into her satchel, which is full of blossoms, which she seems to be strewing or sewing on this sort of carpet of foliage below. This is after all, primavera. This is spring. - Spring. And so there's a sense of the fertility of nature. - [Steven] There's one other figure which is Venus's son just above her, blindfolded. This is, of course, Cupid, who's about to unleash his arrow on one of the unwitting Graces. And he doesn't know who he going to hit, but we can sort of figure it out. - [Beth] Typical of Botticelli, we have figures who are elongated, weightless, who stand in rather impossible positions. Things that we don't normally expect from Renaissance art. - [Steven] So this really is at odds with many of the traditions that we learn about when it comes to the 15th century. This is not a painting that's about linear perspective. There's a little bit of atmospheric perspective that can be seen in the traces of landscape between the trees. But beyond that, this is a very frontal painting. It's very much a freeze, and it is referencing what we think be a literary set of ideas. Art historians really don't know what this painting is about, and we've been looking for texts that it might refer to. - [Beth] And in a way, it doesn't really matter to the throngs of people who come to see it, and to me, because it's incredibly beautiful. And it may be that because it has no specific meaning, it's easier for us in the 21st century. - [Steven] There are lots of passages here that are just, I think, glorious. If you look at the diaphanous quality of the drape that protect the Graces and the tassels there, they're just beautiful. I'm especially taken where the hands of the Graces come together in those three places, creating wonderful complexity and beauty, and visual invention that is playful, and an expression of a complex notion of beauty. One of the ways in which this painting is understood is possibly as a sort of Neoplatonic treatise or a kind of meditation on different kinds of beauty. - [Beth] Venus herself is astoundingly beautiful. She tilts her head to one side, and pulls up her drapery, and motions with her hand, and looks directly at us. And in a way it's impossible not to want to join her in the garden. (light piano music)