Aesthetics and the Renaissance
Final Paper – Botticelli’s Primavera
W. Thomas Grové
The Primavera, a masterpiece by Botticelli, is a quintessential illustration of the Neo-Platonic revival of the Renaissance. It is a beautiful image that incorporates and embodies many of the Renaissance themes; love in all of its forms, reason, harmonics, and non-dual direct spiritual realization are all present. The Platonic virtues of The Good, The True, and The Beautiful are created with exquisite techne.
I would like to set forth, as my main observation, that the Primavera is a depiction of a Platonic non-dual realization. It is important that I mention this because there are many who would look at the Primavera and, from a dualistic or ascending perspective, and state that this piece is an example of psychomachia – a medieval notion of virtue being assaulted by vice and prevailing.
Why is this piece not a psychomachia and why is it non-dual? “Zephyr, the winged male on the right, personifies human love and the life-force of nature, he seizes Chloris, who is whence transformed into Flora. Venus, the central figure, with the assistance of Cupid kindles this carnal love and guides it, via a process of intellectual sublimation – shown by the grouping of the three Graces – towards a final goal of contemplation, Mercury.” (Newland)
If one were to stop their analysis at this point, they would only be honoring the first half of Plato’s philosophy: the ascension of the many towards the One, towards the Good, and they would miss the second half of Plato. The result would be a full blown example of psychomachia. The social circle of the Medici, in whose company the Primavera was created, however, was composed of full blown Neo-Platonists; to them the finer details of the second half of Plato would certainly not be lost. In speaking of Plato’s philosophy, Lovejoy notes that “the most notable-and the less noted-fact about his historic influence is that he did not merely give to European otherworldliness its characteristic form and phraseology and dialectic, but that he also gave the characteristic form and phraseology and dialectic to precisely the contrary tendency-to a peculiarly exuberant kind of this-worldliness.” In other words, Platonism is the integration of Ascending and Descending currents; “because both were grounded in the unspoken One of sudden illumination.” (Wilber 330)
In this light, the narrative of the Primavera takes on new dimensions. The words of Plato are relayed through the genius of Plotinus and fall thunderously upon the ears of the Medici circle. Zepher can be read as Thanatos, in this case exhibiting carnal desire, abduction, and rape, but maybe it is just a miss understanding on the part of Chloris? Zepher can also be read as Agape, heavenly love reaching down to the mortal realm (descending). The result? Chloris is transformed by Agape and becomes a Goddess herself! Mercury represents Eros, ascension, self-transcendence. “`The two together make a vast circle of love through the universe.’ The Great Circle, that is, of refluxing Eros and effluxing Agape.” (Wilber 349)
With the descriptions given thus far, a dualistic reading could still be gleamed. Where is the glue that unites Eros and Agape or Eros and Thanatos in this composition? Freud found that “human misery could be reduced to a battle and disharmony between the Path of Ascent and the Path of Descent… … and that the only solution to our suffering is the union of Eros and Thanatos.” (Wilber 341) Hillman, it appears, would be in agreement with Wilber. When speaking of the “delicious divinities whom Botticelli painted” and the “obsessive preoccupation with love and beauty” in the Renaissance, Hillman says that we should “regard these events from the perspective of the soul-making that takes place through the intercourse between anima and eros… …They are something we each do. They are inherent in the movement of soul, the activity of the anima, which seeks eros. For the corollary reason, for an eros with soul, for a psychological eroticism which has been correctly called platonic, we may turn to these writings and paintings. This style of love-dialogue and obsession with beauty is no longer our fashion. Indeed we suffer from the division between eros and psyche, a soulless eroticism, and an unloved desexualized soul.” (Hillman 211)
The element that cuts through any dualistic reading of the Primavera is Venus. Standing between Zepher and Mercury is the Goddess of Love: Venus. She embodies Eros and Thanatos, Eros and Agape, and she stands alone, untouched in a radiant bliss, and timeless. She, of all characters in this scene, is given the most serene face and is surrounded by a halo created by arching tree branches. Another clue to the non-dualistic message of this piece is the line of action in the postures of both Mercury and Zephyr; They both create arcs leading the eye towards the head of Venus. The Primavera is just as The Mask of Eternity seen in the Power of Myth TV interview of Joseph Campbell. This mask has three faces, one in the middle looking at the viewer and one on each side facing away from each other. As Campbell says, “the dual principles emerge from the transcendent.”
In order to manipulate these mythic symbols into a statement of the all pervading divineness of reality, it was necessary for the men of the Renaissance to have been at the rational level of development. “In other words, a myth is being a “real myth” when it is not being taken as true, when it is being held in an “as if” fashion. And Campbell knows perfectly well that an “as if” stance is possible only with formal operational awareness. Thus, according to his own conclusions, a myth offers its “release” only when it is transcended by, and held firmly in, the space of possibilities and as-ifs offered by rationality.” (Wilber 247)
This rational level of development would have been useful when trying to incorporate subtle references to harmonics into a work of art. The reading of the Primavera by Dr. Newland, while not widely accepted or know of as far as I know, was incredibly interesting to me. Newland makes a case for the Primavera as Hermetic Octave. “…Looking at the movement of these two deities in the `Primavera’, Zephyr literally blows into the painting and initiates the octave, while Mercury indicates through his upright stance the end of the octave, but also with his gesture and look that he begins an octave at a higher scale.” So while Venus in the Primavera represents the One; timeless, and available instantly in this very moment of experience, the ascending narrative of the piece can be viewed of in terms of developmental psychology. This is a cycle of soul-making in which each level of development has its inception and its omega… but just as in music, the omega of one octave is the alpha of the next. “As Inge puts it: `Nature presents us with a living chain of being [holarchy], an unbroken series of ascending or descending values. The whole constitutes a harmony, in which each grade is “in” the next above. Each existence is thus vitally connected with all the others, a conception that asserts the right of [all] existences to be what and where they are.'” (Wilber 347)
If the Primavera is a penultimate expression of the Renaissance, its creator must have been a Renaissance man, liberated from dogma and engaged in modernity… but what would cause such a person to burn his own pagan themed creations in the Bonfire of the Vanities? I am at pains to allow that the architect of the Primavera would regress into fundamentalist Christendom, and am thus led to only two possible explanations. One would be that Botticelli was not the architect of the Primavera; that is to say that the themes and elements of that piece were carefully laid out by Lorenzo Medici, Botticelli’s Patron, one of the key driving forces of the Renaissance, and a known Neo-Platonist. The other conclusion would be that Botticelli was the architect of the Primavera, fully aware of the Neo-Platonic ideals he was implementing. If this were the case, Botticelli could simply have been following the path of least resistance and avoiding heretical accusations by becoming a follower of Savonarola as control of Florence had briefly fallen from the hands of the Medici and into the anti-renaissance hands of the religious zealot Savonarola.
Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Boston: Shambala, 2001.
Lovejoy, A. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Newland, Dr. Paul. “Botticelli’s Primavera: Depiction of the Hermetic Octave?”
Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly. Vol. 1 No.1 March 1995
Devillier Donegan Enterprises. “Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance.” PBS: Empires. 2004.
Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1977.
Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Translation. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.