Until the 1920's, all the writers, authors and art historians considered these two paintings to be two distinct works, because one of the paintings is 37 cm smaller than the other. It was thought that the first painting had been commissioned and, as it was pretty, the second one was then commissioned. The more we look at these paintings, the more we realize, with absolute certainty, that these paintings were made to be with one another, side by side, if not one in the other. Not only their pictorial style, but also the artist's intention match: one lays the groundwork for the other. With today's techniques, the works were reexamined, and it was revealed that 32.5 cm of the top of the Birth of Venus had been planed down, creating this size disparity which, even today, means that the Ufizi's curators don't dare put them side by side, even though they were made to be together. These are works which contain a message which we shall decipher together, intellectual progress which we shall see together, while we admire the beauty of Botticelli's painting.
It should be recalled that we are in Florence of the 1480's where artists clustered around the princes, the Medicis in particular, but also the Vespuccis, the Tornabuonis, etc., Botticelli and the others as well as the humanists This new race of humanists cannot be forgotten, these men of science whose mission was to make the past live again, to translate Virgil, Homer, Hesiod and Pindar and to update them. These humanists were surrounded by their disciples, the great thinkers and philosophers, and all these people lived together. Every day, Lorenzo the Magnificent assembled these humanists and artists and, together, much like a literary society led by Prince Apollo, the art of Florence was created, and the humanists' ideas were then translated by the artists, painters, sculptors, goldsmiths and musicians. Several generations later, musical Neo-Platonism was born. We know that this Birth of Venus and Spring, which is its direct continuation, was launched as an idea by Lorenzo the Magnificent himself, set to verse by his favorite humanist, Ange Poliziano, interpreted by the tiny genius, Pico della Mirandola, approved by the patriarch, Marsilio Ficino, and the notebook was wrapped up for delivery to Botticelli. It went from Lorenzo the Magnificent to all of Florence's humanism of this second half of the 15th century to finally be given to Botticelli, who thus scrupulously followed a text: the profane Birth of Venus and the coronation of the sacred Venus. It was written by Ange Poliziano, based on an ode by Hesiod, and the work was, in fact, paid for by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. We shall now see the two paintings, but one can only hope that, one day, they will be arranged side by side so that they can be shown on a single slide.
The Birth of Venus
We see the story's birth with the winds, Zephyr and Aura, who, on the first day of Creation, elevated this shell bearing Venus' triumphant nudity from the unknown depths of the sea. And, approaching the earth on which she will assume her true role, her true power, she is suddenly modest, and we should note the stance, which Botticelli borrowed directly from the beautiful examples of the antique Venus Pudicae that were being discovered at that time. He really painted her like a Venus Pudica. For this modesty to take on its sacred nature, one of the Graces, in the name of all three, is there to cover her with her cape.
The Graces have the privilege of covering Venus' nudity and transforming her into the mother and patron saint of all the forces of creation. Venus is in the process of landing. It should be pointed out that the shore she is landing on is very rugged and already has tall trees, both laurel and myrtle, and that the trees are crowded together, their foliage obscuring one another.
Here are several details to make us aware of Venus' triumphant splendor
. We know that until recently, this Birth of Venus had been lavishly covered with varnish, which means that the successive coats of varnish had finally completely opacified. The two paintings were superbly cleaned, and we have now discovered a new Botticelli: pearly flesh, nearly translucent, skin so fine that we have the impression that we can almost see the sea through it. All of the marvelous qualities of Botticelli's painting only appeared after it had been cleaned.
This is the heroic group of winds.
. In fact, in their disorder, they represent the original chaos, as Venus was born from this chaos which thus pushed her to take over the world. An admirable Grace
with the cape which she has prepared to cover Venus with the flowers and fruits of the earth, as she shall become Venus Flora and Pomona. She will be all that and, as the sacred Venus, she will be the mistress of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. This Grace has a superb face, which Ingres had always maintained was the most beautiful face ever painted (he always liked chinless women).
The apparent movement in the light of the white dress covered with cornflowers
does not come from its folds, but rather from the play of the cornflowers' blues, the sunlit parts, the shaded parts, the parts in the foreground, the parts in the background all sculpted by the cornflowers covering these fields which cause the beauty of this Grace's body to dominate the painting, who is one of the most beautiful parts of the Birth of Venus.
From the start, it should be pointed out that this is the same forest, the same trees, the same foliage, the same spacing between the trees, the same land, the same ground, the same flower patches. In other words, Venus was born and landed in this second painting which is Spring - it is the continuation. We still find her as the composition's central focus, but dressed as a sovereign. From the profane Venus we saw earlier, nude, we now progress to the sacred Venus, dressed as a matron in the noblest sense of the term. As such, she is truly the patron saint of the forces and elements and is surrounded by everything she needs to triumph over the twelve months of the year, the four seasons and, thus, eternity.
Mercury extends his caduceus to stop the wind which had been blowing earlier with Zephyr and his brother and, at the same time, stops winter from becoming spring. The striking group of the three Graces, perhaps the most beautiful ever painted, is the affirmation of Primavera, that is, Spring, which Venus is still facing. Then time passes, and we see the affirmation of summer, represented here by Flora, whose robe is now, so to speak, made of flowers and who is strewing flowers, the product of her generosity, on the ground. And autumn by Chloe, who is nearly timidly turned toward a blue and somewhat terrifying character who is trying to catch her. This character is Zephyr who, at one time, forgot to blow, because he was chasing the nymph, Chloe through the woods.
What is absolutely extraordinary, if one thinks back to the Birth, is that we have Zephyr, Venus and a Grace in the first painting, and here, we have Mercury, the Graces, Venus, Flora, Chloe and Zephyr. It all begins and ends with Zephyr; the two paintings thus form a complete cycle of seasons - winter, spring, summer and autumn. This was all done in order to show us nature's cycle which is so inherent to the Hesiodic Neo-Platonic inspiration for people such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and others who dreamed of that period. But it also shows us the primacy of sacred love, as it is incarnated here, over profane love, over the fragility of the water and the shell in the preceding work. In fact, all the allusions could be studied at much greater length to show all the similarities between the two paintings. For the time being, let's take a walk through Spring.
On the left, Mercure
and the Graces
and, above all, the very beautiful image of Mercury raising his caduceus to stop the clouds and the wind in order to allow the Graces to dance peacefully - nothing could be more beautiful. The robes appear to be transparent but aren't, as one can barely make out the bodies. The bodies are part of the dance
, as the cloth really dances and the arm movements, in particular, are sublime. Then we have Venus
in the center of the composition, in this nearly solemn pose she has assumed, a matron presiding over the year, as it develops with the character of Flora, one of the loveliest details of Spring, and Chloe and Zephyr
, the last three characters whose dancing, here again, is the exact counterpoint to the group of the three Graces.
Details of Flora's face
, the best-known in Botticelli's works, of Flora's robe
which is like a rendering of the Grace's robe in the Birth of Venus. All of her movements are also the result of a deliberate distortion of the flowers and the bouquet of flowers she is preparing to throw to the world. Finally, Chloe, pursued by Zephyr
who, in both instances has the same distended cheeks; in one case, he is blue, this is the winter Zephyr, in the other, the Birth of Venus, he is nearly yellow, this is the spring Zephyr.
Leaving these paintings which represent one of the heights of Botticelli's profane painting, we hope that we have succeeded in demonstrating the extent to which it responds to an iconographic program, the extent to which this program is a myth and the extent to which the myth is meant to educate us about the primacy of sacred love over profane love. It is paramount to be aware of this, as we can already note that in the Christian paintings, Botticelli never even tries to educate. On the other hand, in the pagan paintings, from Mars and Venus on and mostly with the Birth of Venus and Spring, we can see that there is an attempt at education. It is rather extraordinary to realize that Botticelli is more at ease in this mythical didactic role with the "pagan" gods than with his perennial Christianity.