La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1477 and 1482
Commissioned by? Lorenzo de’ Medici as a wedding gift to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici
What do you see? Eight figures in the meadow, surrounded by hundreds of different flowers. The blue figure on the right is Zephyr, the god of the west wind. Zephyr is chasing the nymph Chloris, who is associated with flowers and spring. Zephyr’s breath turns Chloris into the woman with the dress decorated with flowers (who is thought to be the goddess of Spring, called Flora). The central figure in the middle is Venus.
To the left of Venus, the three Graces (Charites in Greek) are dancing. The Graces are minor deities in Greek mythology. To the left of the Graces is Mercury (Hermes in Greek), the messenger of the Greek gods, who is scattering the clouds with his staff. Some people say that Mercury may be modeled after Lorenzo de’ Medici who commissioned this painting. On top on Venus is Cupid (her son) aiming his flaming arrow at one of the Graces.
Backstory: The painting only got his name, La Primavera in 1550 when Giorgio Vasari saw the painting, but it is also known as the Allegory of Spring ('primavera' is Italian for 'spring'). The painting is full of allegories (hidden meanings), which leads to much debate on how to interpret the painting. While many interpretations have been given, a popular interpretation is that the painting is inspired by a story from the poet Ovid. In his book Fasti (Amazon link to the book), the nymph Chloris is naked and attracts the first wind of the spring, which is represented by Zephyr. When Zephyr captures her, flowers sprang from her mouth and she turns into the goddess Flora.
After Botticelli completed the painting, it was placed in the summerhouse of the Medici family, where it would hang next to The Birth of Venus which Botticelli completed a few years later.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Venus and Mars are the parents of Cupid. In art, Cupid is often depicted together with his mother, Venus.
Why Venus? Nudity was the natural state of Venus, which provided a good excuse to include nudity in an artwork. This was an important reason for her popularity in Renaissance art. Whereas in this painting Venus is still dressed, this will quickly change. A few years later Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in which she is already largely naked.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter who belonged to the Florentine school of painters. The name Botticelli means “little barrel”. He got this name because people described his brother as “fat like a barrel”. Botticelli was initially trained by his brother to become a goldsmith, but at the age of 14, he became an apprentice to the successful painter Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), known from the painting Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Later in his life, Botticelli became a mentor to both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Fun fact: The painting contains over 500 individual flowers and between 170 and 200 different varieties. Most of these flowers were growing in the spring around Florence. Botanical experts are already inspired for centuries by these flowers. They have been able to identify about 130 flowers, including daisies, forget-me-nots, jasmine, lilies, and violets. For the remaining flowers, there is quite some debate on whether these are fantasy flowers created by Botticelli or real flowers that existed in 15th century Florence but are now extinct.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 7 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1430 and 1435
Commissioned by? The nuns of the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence.
What do you see? Jesus and the Virgin Mary are on top of a series of small clouds, floating in the sky. This painting depicts paradise. Jesus is crowning the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Mary has her arms crossed on her chest, slightly bends forward, and has a humble look on her face, while Jesus is decorating her golden crown with a jewel stone.
Surrounding Jesus and Mary is a crowd of angels, blessed people, and saints. A choir of angels is playing music and dancing. You can see several angels scattered throughout the painting, recognizable by their wings, who are either playing music or are dancing. Three angels are dancing directly to the left of Mary, and you can see three others directly to the right of Jesus. On the top right and top left you can see some trumpets high up in the air and in the center foreground you can see two angels playing musical instruments. The angel in blue, turned with the back towards us, is playing a portable organ, and the angel to the left is playing a string instrument.
Backstory: The painting probably formed an altarpiece together with two side panels, Wedding of the Virgin and Death of the Virgin, which are now both located in the Museum of San Marco in Florence.
The painting contains both elements that are Gothic and elements that are typical for the Renaissance. For example, the golden background is gilded and is an element that was common in Gothic painting. The use of halos is also typical Gothic. The realistic way in which the people are depicted and the three-dimensionality are examples of the Renaissance style.
Symbolism: The gold crown signifies both power (by being an advocate of the king) and wealth (regarding God’s promises). Jesus and Mary are surrounded by bright rays of light, symbolizing their divinity.
What is the Coronation of the Virgin? Mary is crowned by her son Jesus as the Queen of Heaven. This occurs after Mary has been assumed into heaven. In ancient times it was common for the king’s mother to be crowned queen. This subject was quite popular in art since the 13th century.
Why is Mary the Queen of Heaven? One of the many titles that Catholics have given to Mary is Queen of Heaven (Regina Caeli in Latin). Historically, in the Bible, the mother of the king had important powers in counseling the king and she was referred to as the Queen Mother. The reason that Mary is sometimes called the Queen of Heaven is that, according to the Catholic Church, Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In Heaven, she is crowned as the queen (which is the coronation of the Virgin) as she is the mother of Jesus, who is the heavenly king of the universe.
On October 11, 1954, Pope Pius XII decided that Catholics should celebrate the Queenship of Mary. Since 1969, the Queenship of Mary is a public holiday on August 22 in several countries, such as France and Spain.
Another work of Fra Angelico on the Coronation of the Virgin? The current version originally belonged to the Church of Sant'Egidio in Florence and is shown in the Uffizi since 1825. However, Fra Angelico has painted another well-known version of the Coronation of the Virgin. This version is currently in the Louvre in Paris. In that painting, you can see that blue skies replace the more old-fashioned Gothic golden background.
Who is Fra Angelico? Fra Angelico was born around 1387 as Guido di Pietro and died in 1455. He was a Dominican friar and was widely respected because of his gentle personality. While he started in the monastery as an illustrator of manuscripts, he became known as a masterful painter of altarpieces.
Only after his death the name Fra Angelico was given to him. In his work he freely interpreted biblical stories, rather than accurately depicting the stories, to trigger spiritual responses of the people seeing those paintings and to stimulate prayer. Among his well-known works is The Adoration of the Magi, painted together with Filippo Lippi, in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: Fra Angelico was known during his life as Il Beato Angelico or simply Il Beato (which means ‘the blessed’). He was a devout friar during his life and only painted religious works. He prayed before every painting, and once the painting was done he did not alter them anymore as he believed that God inspired his work. While he was already called ‘the blessed’ during his life, Pope John Paul II officially beatified him in 1982, praising his immaculate lifestyle and divine paintings.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1482 and 1485
Commissioned by? Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), ruler of the Florentine Republic and one of the most important driving forces of the Renaissance.
Symbolism: Violets, the flowers of love, are blowing in the wind on the left. The shell represents feminism. The dress of Ores and the robe she is holding for Venus are decorated with various spring flowers related to the birth theme, including red and white daisies, blue cornflowers, and yellow primroses.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. According to the myths, she was born from the foam of the sea. This happened when the Titan Cronus castrated Uranus, his father, whose genitals fertilized the sea and led to the birth of Venus. The goddess Venus is known in Greek mythology as Aphrodite. In Latin, Venus means ‘sexual desire’.
Venus is the mother of Aeneas who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. As such, Venus was considered the mother of the Romans and therefore a very popular goddess among the Romans. Perhaps because of this, Julius Caesar claimed to be an ancestor of Venus.
Why Venus? Whereas Mary was the ideal woman to paint from a Christian point of view, Venus represents the moral dangers and shame of the human body. Christianity taught the people to be ashamed of the nude human body. Botticelli was trying to blend the Christian worldview and the arising humanist worldview. From that background, you can understand why Venus is still partly covering her nakedness with her hair (the Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 by Titian will show you a much more explicit depiction of Venus). This is a transition from religious art to Renaissance art. In some sense, Venus represents the opposite of Mary.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter that belonged to the Florentine school of painters. He was a student of Filippo Lippi. Botticelli was in love with Simonetta Vespucci (a cousin-in-law of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), who was already married to Marco Vespucci. Simonetta was known as the greatest beauty of her time and died in 1476. As a result of that Botticelli never married. Throughout his life, he has been inspired by Simonetta, who has served, according to popular belief, as the inspiration for many of his paintings (including this painting). According to his wish, Botticelli was buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci. Other masterpieces by Botticelli include La Primavera in the Uffizi and Venus and Mars in the National Gallery.
Fun fact: Many people have noted the ‘cadaverous’ color of Venus, which is not considered very attractive. This was not some macabre fantasy of Botticelli, but merely a consequence of the deterioration of the pigment over time. And if you look carefully, the neck of Venus and her left arm are longer than you would expect. Botticelli incorporated these elongations on purpose as they were considered a form of beauty.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster and canvas.
Bacchus by Caravaggio
Where? Room 97 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a present to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
What do you see? A young Bacchus is holding a glass of wine in his left hand. He has a wreath of vine leaves and grapes on his head. It seems that he is wearing some makeup on his face. With his right hand, he is playing with the drawstrings of his half-opened robe. Bacchus is sitting on a chaise longue (a Roman type of chair/bench – also called a triclinium). On the stone table in front of him are a ceramic bowl of fruit and a jug of wine. The bowl of fruit contains both healthy and spoiled fruits as well as fresh green leaves and spoiled yellow leaves.
Bacchus already seems a bit drunk and extends an invitation to the viewer to join him for a glass of wine and maybe something more… If you look carefully, you can see the ripples in the glass of wine to indicate the movement of the left arm of Bacchus towards the viewer.
Backstory: This painting was created when Caravaggio was staying with his first patron, Cardinal del Monte in Rome. True to his unconventional style, Caravaggio painted an imperfect, limited, earthly version of Bacchus. This may be close to some of the figures he met in the many taverns and brothels that he liked to visit.
Cardinal del Monte gave the painting away in 1608 to the Grand Duke of Tuscany on the occasion of the marriage of the Grand Duke’s son Cosimo II. The painting has long been unknown to the public as it stayed for centuries hidden in some of the private quarters of its owners. It was rediscovered in 1913 in the storage of the Uffizi Museum after which it was attributed to Caravaggio.
Symbolism: The bowl with spoiled fruit is an example of a vanitas, which means ‘emptiness’. Vanitas refers in the traditional Christian view to the emptiness and worthlessness of all earthly goods and ambitions. Spoiled fruit is one common way to present this. It was appropriate to depict this fruit with Bacchus as he was associated with fertility and agriculture. Notice also the dirty fingernails of Bacchus. Some interpret this as a warning of the consequences of earthly pleasures, while other just attribute this to the style of Caravaggio (he painted in great detail what he saw, including dirty fingernails).
The vine leaves in Bacchus’ hair are one of his sacred symbols, and that is how we can easily recognize him. Finally, it seems that Bacchus is wearing some makeup on his face, which is often associated with sexuality and strengthens the idea that he is inviting the viewer for more than a glass of wine.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus (in Greek Dionysus) is the god of the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He is the son of god Zeus and the mortal Semele.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings.
Caravaggio had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and he served in prison. However, his sheer brilliance as an artist has given him a place in the history books. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Among his many famous works are his Medusa in the Uffizi Museum and The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Many experts believe that Caravaggio used a mirror to draw this painting such that he did not have to make the drawing first, but could immediately work on the painting. This means that the model for this painting offered the wine with his right hand, instead of the somewhat awkward way in which Bacchus is using his left hand. Another reason to believe that Caravaggio was using a mirror for this painting is that after a cleaning of the painting a very small self-portrait of Caravaggio working on a painting was revealed in the reflection of the jug of wine (but it is difficult to see).
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Venus of Urbino by Titian
Where? Room 83 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Guidobaldo II Della Rovere (1514-1574), the Duke of Urbino (a sovereign of central-northern Italy), commissioned this oil painting for his wife, Giulia Varano (1523-1547).
What do you see? A representation of a beautiful and sensual Venus, the goddess of love, is looking you straight in the eye. She lies naked on top of a white sheet in a room of a big Renaissance palace. Notice the beautifully painted folds in the sheets and the pillows. Venus is only wearing a gold bracelet with black enamels on her right arm, a ring on the pinky of her left hand, and a pearl earring.
Venus has roses in her right hand, and you can see that one of the roses has already fallen on the red bed which has a pattern of black flowers. Her hair, partly woven in braids, is falling over her shoulders. Her body is contrasted with the dark background on the left, emphasizing her nakedness.
Notice how the straight lines of the architecture nicely contrast with the curviness of Venus. The two maids in the background are apparently searching for Venus’ clothes in one of the two bridal chests.
Backstory: Guidobaldo II Della Rovere gave this painting to his young wife (who was 15 at the time of the painting), and the painting provides the meaning of marriage. Some people consider this as one of the most erotic paintings in history. But others have a less flattering opinion. The American author Mark Twain described the work as follows in 1880: “The foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses.”
Reclining nude: The theme of this painting is referred to as a ‘reclining female nude’, a genre that became popular in the early Renaissance. For this painting, Titian was inspired by a painting of the Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus) which was started by Giorgione and finished after his death by Titian. And this painting has inspired many future variations on the reclining nude, including Olympia by Édouard Manet.
Symbolism: The painting provides three lessons of marriage for Giulia Varano. She needs to be erotic, faithful, and become a mother. The clear eroticism in the painting should remind Giulia of her sexual obligations in the marriage. The dog laying on the bed is a symbol of marital faithfulness. The maid on the right side, who is overlooking a kid, is a symbol of motherhood. T
he chests on the right were a typical wedding present in Italy at that time. The white sheets on which Venus is laying represent purity. Venus holds some roses in her hand, which were a symbol of love. Similarly, the red bed on which she is laying also represents love.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. One of the two children of Venus is Aenaes, who was one of the few people to escape from Troy according to Virgil’s poem Aeneid. Two of the descendants of Aeneas were Remus and Romulus, who founded Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was a symbol of love and sensuality. As this painting was for private use, Venus was a symbolic inspiration for this painting. In reality, a contemporaneous model has been used to depict Venus, most likely Angela del Moro, a friend of Titian.
Who is Titian? Titian (c. 1489 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Many of the paintings of Titian throughout his long career contain nudity.
Fun fact: More than 300 works of Titian survived, partly because Titian became very old for his time. While there is quite some discussion about his actual year of birth, he claimed in a letter to the Spanish king, Philip II, to have been born in 1474. That would mean he died at the age of 102.
The consensus nowadays is that Titian grossly exaggerated in that letter and that he was born around 1488-1490. Another characteristic of Titian was that, while he was considered to be the leading painter in Venice, he was notoriously greedy.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Where? Room 35 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Mary sits on a paved terrace in front of a palace-like building and is reading at a richly decorated desk carved from marble. She gets surprised by a visit of the youthful Archangel Gabriel, who explains to her that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel raises his right hand to greet Mary and holds a white lily in his left hand. Mary hesitantly raises her left hand to greet the angel.
The landscape in the back shows mountains, a sea, and cypresses, all typical elements present in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. All perspectives – height, width, and depth – converge on Mary, making her the center of attention. Interestingly, the desk of Mary and the palace-like building seem somewhat out of place in this setting, and the figures of Mary (who is usually described as a simple woman) and Gabriel seem to fit better with the bed of flowers and the nature-like background.
Backstory: This painting has been in the Uffizi since 1867. Before that it hung in the San Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveta Church in the countryside of Tuscany. There has been a constant debate on who painted this work. The consensus is now that this painting was created in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.
A popular explanation is that the painting was started by Andrea del Verrocchio, who left a note to his pupil Leonardo da Vinci to finish the painting. This painting is now considered by many to be Leonardo’s first major work, as he made the background, the wings of the angel, and the finishing touches to the painting. The painting is based on Luke 1: 26-38, where the Archangel Gabriel foretells the birth of Jesus to Mary.
Symbolism: The angel holds a Madonna lily in his left hand. This lily represents the purity of Mary and is also the symbol of the city of Florence. Mary can be identified by her dress which is largely blue. The enclosed garden in which Gabriel is kneeling is a symbol of Mary’s virginity. The marble desk or sarcophagus in the middle has been painted after the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici which was carved by Verrocchio.
Who is Mary? The Virgin Mary has been the most popular subject in Christian art. She represents four Roman Catholic dogmas, which are at the basis of Catholicism: Perpetual Virginity (when she gave birth to Jesus), Mother of God, Immaculate Conception (Mary was already without sins in the womb of her mother), and the Assumption into Heaven at the end of her life.
Why the Annunciation? The ‘Annunciation’ has already been the subject of art since the fourth century. It has been a very popular theme in Florentine art. It shows the moment that the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. He is known to be one of the biggest multi-talents the world has ever seen. The fact that he studied science and nature extensively helped him in his artwork.
He has produced a large number of sketches in which he practiced to draw specific human features, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, bone structures, and other anatomical features. Some of his most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another version in the National Gallery in London.
Fun facts: The wings of the Archangel Gabriel are painted by Leonardo da Vinci and are most likely copied from a bird in flight. However, if you look carefully, these wings have been extended later on by another unknown artist.
People have also noticed some rookie mistakes in this painting, indicating that the young Leonardo was still mastering the tricks of perspective. For example, look at the right hand of Mary, which rests on the reading desk. The desk is closer to the viewer than Mary. However, that makes it strange that Mary’s right hand is on the left side of the reading desk. In other words, her right hand is too close to the viewer compared to the rest of her body.
Finally, the painting lacks some of the emotions in the faces of the angel and Mary. But Da Vinci would learn over time how to include these emotions, which is clearly visible in his Mona Lisa.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster