Artibus et Historiae no. 48 (XXIV)

2003, ISSN 0391-9064

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MAX MARMOR - From Purgatory to the Primavera: Some Observations on Botticelli and Dante

Botticelli's Primavera has been studied by more eminent art historians than perhaps any other work of Renaissance art. The chronicle of these readings would make for a representative anthology of 20th-century art historical methodologies, and yet no consensus about the painting's "meaning" has emerged. In this article, the Primavera is discussed in the context of what we know and what we can surmise about the artist's own literary and intellectual culture and especially his lifelong engagement with Dante's Divina Commedia. The painting is studied as an attempt on the artist's part to translate into his own medium the thematics surrounding Dante's Earthly Paradise episode at the end of the Purgatorio. These thematics are explored in the context of Cristoforo Landino's 1481 commentary on Dante, with which Botticelli, who devoted many years to illustrating Landino's edition, was intimately familiar. Landino saw in Dante's Earthy Paradise episode an allegory of the soul's moral and spiritual pilgrimage from the vita voluptuosa through the vita activa to the vita contemplativa, a passage occurring, like Dante's pilgrimage as a whole, under the influence of Celestial Venus. The Primavera is discussed as a visual variation on the same theme, presented all'antica in a manner that resonates with Dante's classical allusions, especially as interpreted by Landino. In addition to reflecting Botticelli's own artistic and intellectual interests and aspirations, as well as those of his presumed patron, the Primavera echoes still with a rivalry that brought Botticelli into competition with such other close students of Dante as Leonardo and Michelangelo. This paragone awaits further study.

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