Research paper – Neoplatonic Enigmas of Sandro Botticelli

Neoplatonic Enigmas of Sandro Botticelli

Why, amidst the abundance of Christian themes, do I find Botticelli turning to ancient myths? Why does he choose Venus as the heroine of his “mythologies”? What served as his visual or textual source for the image of the Greek goddess? Who was the painting intended for, and what was its purpose? With which circles was Botticelli associated? I will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the plot of the artwork and its significance for the humanists of the Renaissance.

Many renowned humanists were connected with the Platonic Academy, including Christophoro Landino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni Nesi, and poets like Angelo Poliziano, Girolamo Benivieni, Naldo Naldi, and the artist Sandro Botticelli. The academy’s sessions, which had no fixed membership, welcomed anyone interested in philosophical problems. Cosimo Medici and later his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, often attended these gatherings.

A leading theme of the discussions was aesthetics (the study of beauty). The soul of the circle was the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who argued through complex philosophical constructs that Plato’s ideas foreshadowed Christianity. The Neoplatonists’ pressing task was to reconcile ancient and Christian beliefs. In Venus, they saw a prototype of the Madonna, interpreting the myth of the goddess of love and beauty born from sea foam as the soul’s striving towards God. According to Ficino’s teachings, “beauty is the divine light that permeates all existence, and love is the binding force moving the world towards God.” Botticelli was meant to embody this reverence and prayerful exaltation before the divine (whether pagan or Christian) that brings love and beauty to the world in his creation.

Botticelli’s painting may have reflected his impressions from the poems of philosopher and poet Angelo Poliziano, who was also a Neoplatonist. In his 1475 poem “Stanzas for the Joust,” Poliziano describes the very scene depicted by Botticelli: “A girl of divine beauty / Sways, standing on a shell, / Drawn to the shore by the lustful Zephyrs, / And the heavens marvel at this sight.”

As revealed in a 1975 inventory from 1498, the painting was located in the sleeping quarters of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici, who, after his father’s death, was taken under the protection of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent. The painting hung above a sofa called a “lettuccio.” In the same room were two other paintings: Botticelli’s “Pallas and the Centaur” (1482-1483) and an unknown artist’s “Madonna and Child.” Given that on July 19, 1482, Lorenzo the Magnificent married off the 17-year-old Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco to Semiramide, a noblewoman from the Appiani family, researchers believe that the painting was commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent as a wedding gift for his nephew. Such gifts were common at the time. In this case, Botticelli knew where the painting would hang and that it would be positioned two meters above the floor.

Some researchers believe the painting represents the backrest of a “lettuccio”—a bench combining the functions of a sofa and a chair for daytime rest. The dimensions of the board on which “Primavera” was painted match the size of a “lettuccio.”

Botticelli’s first source was a fragment from Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of Things”: “Spring is here, and Venus comes, and her winged herald Precedes her, and before them, following the Zephyr, Mother Flora walks, spreading flowers on the path, Filling it with colors and sweet scent… Winds run before you, goddess; with your approach, The clouds leave the sky, the earth-artisan spreads a lush Flower carpet, the waves of the sea smile, And the blue sky shines with spreading light…”

From this, Botticelli included: Venus, Flora, Cupid (“the winged herald of Venus”), and Zephyr in his painting. The next four characters came from a passage in Ovid’s poem “Fasti” (Book 5, May 3, Floralia): “I am called Flora, but I was Chloris… One spring day Zephyr saw me; I left, He flew after me: he was stronger… Zephyr justified his violence by making me his wife, And I never complained about our union. I bask in eternal spring, spring is the best time: All trees are green, the earth is all green. The fertile garden blooms in the fields given to me as a dowry… My husband adorned the garden with a beautiful floral attire, Saying to me: ‘Forever be the goddess of flowers!’ But I could never list all the flowers scattered everywhere, There are too many of them… Following them are the Graces, weaving wreaths and garlands, To adorn their heavenly hair and locks.”

Why are Botticelli’s heroines ideal muses, inspiring humanity? If the Renaissance is the cradle of European civilization, then Botticelli’s work is one of the precious pearls of this period. As part of the Renaissance era, the Italian’s works have a unique recognizable style, blending mythology with religion, and Platonic philosophy with poetry and music. Why, centuries later, are his female images considered ideal and continue to inspire?

The Birth of Venus

Another renowned painting by Botticelli is “The Birth of Venus.” Both “Spring” and “The Birth of Venus” are often compared and discussed together due to their thematic and stylistic similarities.

“The Birth of Venus” depicts the goddess Venus emerging from the sea on a shell, symbolizing her birth. Zephyrs blow her to the shore, where she is met by a nymph ready to cover her with a cloak. This painting, like “Spring,” embodies Neoplatonic ideals, merging classical mythology with Renaissance humanism. The depiction of Venus as an ideal of beauty and the divine light aligns with the philosophical teachings of the time.

Both paintings celebrate beauty and love, central themes in Neoplatonic philosophy. While “The Birth of Venus” focuses on the moment of Venus’s emergence, symbolizing the birth of beauty and love in the world, “Spring” elaborates on the dynamics of these themes within a lush, allegorical garden.

“Spring” features a more complex composition with multiple figures interacting, each symbolizing different aspects of love, beauty, and nature’s renewal. In contrast, “The Birth of Venus” centers on Venus herself, highlighting her divine and eternal nature.

These masterpieces by Botticelli not only reflect the artistic brilliance of the Renaissance but also serve as enduring symbols of the era’s intellectual and cultural aspirations. Through these paintings, Botticelli invites viewers into a world where classical mythology and philosophical thought intertwine, offering a timeless exploration of human beauty, love, and the divine.

The Mysterious “Barrel”

Little is known for certain about the life of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). The primary source of knowledge about the painter’s personality is Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”—the first collection of biographies of Italian Renaissance artists. From it, we learn that the resonant “Botticelli” means “little barrel” and comes from the nickname of the artist’s plump older brother.

Botticelli attended the Platonic Academy in Careggi, where Florentine philosopher-humanists, led by Marsilio Ficino, developed the ideas of Plato and the Neoplatonists. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato based his theory on the postulate of the soul’s immortality and the primacy of the soul and spirit over the body and matter. According to Plato, before birth, our soul lived in a world of perfect ideas, and all life is a process of “recollection”—a kind of nostalgia for the divine world. Within Christian Neoplatonism, the beauty of things was understood as an expression of their divine nature, and in Ficino’s philosophy, beauty is “grace,” a special kind of beauty related to the beauty of movement and expression.

Botticelli’s depiction of Venus and other mythological figures draws from classical sources such as the “Venus de Medici,” a marble copy of a lost original from the 1st century CE, and the “Aphrodite of Knidos,” a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 2nd century CE.


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