Wednesday, January 18, 2012

An Analysis of Botticelli's "Primavera"

Botticelli’s “Primavera” or “Spring” is an ethereal piece that encompasses love and spring through the style of early Italian Renaissance.  It’s a fun piece that has many complex details throughout the scene and is a good example showing the characteristics of the early Italian Renaissance.  The artists uses a color and light to create contrasts, uses texture to add more realism to the figures and adds contrast between different fabrics, and uses composition to draw the eye to the central figure of Venus in the center.  It also helps depict the interest of artists of that period in humanism, which is a celebration of the human form and human accomplishments, and their interest in perfection, harmony and balance.

The painting is rather large in size, 6’ 8” by 10’ 4” and was painted on wood with tempura.  The large size, which is more typical of tapestries, would make the figures seem more real and lifelike to the viewer.  Tempura, which is pigment suspended in a type of binder such as egg yolk, was usually applied thinly and multiple layers were built up to create more saturated colors.  There doesn’t appear to be any texture of brush strokes to the painting but there is the illusion of texture that is given to the figures and to the surroundings in the painting.  The hair on the women is very textured with individual strands blowing in the wind and this detail helps add to the realism of the figures and add the illusion of wind.  The figure of Venus doesn’t show this type of detail, which might mean she is wearing a type of veil.  The flowers in the foreground help to add texture to the ground and makes the figures appear more grounded.  The different textures of the garments add lines and curves that help to draw the eye and draws attention to the anatomy of the human forms underneath the garments.
The colors of the painting help to form a contrast between the background and the figures in the foreground.  The dark green and brown background of orange trees creates a dark almost silhouetted pattern in the background where only some blue of the sky is allowed to show through the branches of the trees.  They form an arch like pattern around the Venus figure in the middle, which helps to emphasize her importance in the scene.  The ground although landscaped with colorful and lifelike flowers, is dark and contrasts with the pale and glowing skin of the figures.  The figures, along with having very light, almost white skin, except for the figure of Zephyrus, also have very light or bright colored clothing.  There also seems to be an unnatural light that can be seen in the highlights of the clothing and the skin and makes the figures glow in this otherwise dark setting.

The composition of the figures is very triangular.  The placement of the figures starting with the chubby figure of Venus’s son Cupid at the top of the painting, then going to the central figure of Venus, and then spreading outward and down to the other figures in the scene form a triangle.  The triangular composition is a characteristic of early Italian Renaissance, along with the balanced composition as well.  Venus is centrally located in the scene and is balanced by the light skinned figures of the women and by the male gods who are both darker in color and flank the group of female goddesses.
The early Italian Renaissance artists were interested in naturalism but it was often coupled with idealism.  The face of Venus is very smooth and idealized, it seems youthful and doesn’t really show individualized characteristics of scars, or wrinkles, or even tan lines. She appears to be very composed and calm compared to all the others who are in different poses of action.  Her garments although they seem naturalistic with the folds and lines that suggest texture, they don’t appear wrinkled or blown around by the wind, which seems to be affected the garments of the other figures in the scene. 

There are efforts of naturalism through the modeling of the arms, neck, and draperies of her clothing.  We can also see some suggestion of her anatomy through the thin dress at the knee and draping over her curved belly.  We can see the Greek influence of the contrapposto stance in her pose.  Her right foot bears her weight, while her left foot is bent and relaxed, which causes her hip to jut out to the left.  Her arms though have the active raised arm on her right side of the body and the relaxed arm on her left.  Her head seems to curve to the left to help balance her body, and we can see the s-curve used during the Hellenistic period and during the Gothic period. 

Stylization can be scene in the other figures and include the rounded bellies of the women, the somewhat elongated figures, the rounded chubby figure of cupid, and of course the blue figure of the flying god of wind.  The plants also seem stylized.  The orange trees in the background all seem to have perfectly straight trunks, and with the sky peeking in between the trunks, they look like pillars.  The unnatural arrangement of branches that help to form an arch around Mary adds to the illusion of architecture.  The canopy of perfectly idealized oranges adds the illusion of a roof.

We can see the artist’s interest in humanism with the almost nude forms of the women, which can be seen as an almost sexual celebration of the female form.  There is some interest in showing the male form as well.  There is suggestion of muscles in the arms and on the chest of Hermes on the left side of the picture, which suggests strength and the health of the figure’s body.

This scene of spring, which shows a renewed interest in Greek figures (Venus, Hermes, Flora, etc.) and styles (contrapposto stance), and ideas, such as humanism, also integrates many of the characteristics and ideas of the Early Italian Renaissance.  These characteristics included naturalism coupled with idealism,  which could be seen in the figures of the gods and goddesses, and of balance and harmony through the use of colors, light and dark, and with the grouping of people.


  1. Hi Sarah! I thought that Italian Renaissance art concentrated mainly on naturalism and making their art works reflect the real world. In this piece, I noticed that there was quite a bit of idealism and humanism used, especially in the "almost nude" body shape of the subjects and in the "young" face of Venus, like you mentioned. This piece in particular, seems a bit too perfect to look natural. Great post!

  2. Thanks for pointing out that the Italian Renaissance artists, though more interested in naturalism than previous, still hang onto some of their idealistic ways. The Northern Renaissance was more known for going totally naturalist and painting the wrinkles and "flaws" of people. Nice discussion on how Boticelli uses the stance of the people's bodies and their clothes to suggest moods.

  3. I believe the technique is tempera not tempura which is a japanese dish, although I believe both use egg :-) Typos are the curse of this online age aren't they?