The Medici and Botticelli’s Primavera

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera is one of the most important works of the Italian Renaissance, known and admired all over the world. There are still many question marks over the work, starting with the names of all the plants and flowers that appear: 138 are known but there are many more. One certainty is the commissioning family: the Medici. The commissioning member of the family, however, is not certain, i.e. we do not know whether it was commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin or by the Magnifico himself. The only certainty is that at the end of the 15th century, the work was in the house in Via Larga (today Via Cavour) of the heirs of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and then in the villa in Castello, where Giorgio Vasari in 1550 described it together with the Birth of Venus, hence the name Primavera.

There are at least two hypotheses as to the motivations for the commission: the marriage of the Magnifico’s cousin to Semiramide D’Appiano, niece of Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s great muse, or the birth of Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s brother, who would later become Pope Clement VII. Up to this point, this second hypothesis might be correct, but then comes 26 April 1478, a very important date for Florence: the Pazzi conspiracy. On that day, the Pazzi, a rival family of the Medici, plot an assassination attempt in which Giuliano de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s brother and father of little Giulio, who will be born the following month, is murdered. At that moment, the canvas is already being worked on.

Thus, following some modifications, the Magnifico chooses to give the painting to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco for his future marriage. The painting, which is currently in the Uffizi Gallery, has many interpretations more or less close to a possible reality, but in the paragraphs to come we will only discuss the Medici hypothesis. Thanks to the scholar Mirella Levi d’Ancona, we can get to the bottom of the characters in this famous painting and find similarities, comparing them to other paintings, with some members of the Medici family. Venus was originally supposed to represent Fioretta Gorini, Giuliano de’ Medici’s lover and Giulio’s mother. But after the attack by the Pazzi, the general meaning of the work changes and so Venus becomes the symbol of universal love. Mercury represents the future groom Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and one of the three Graces, the central one, his bride, Semiramide D’Appiano.

But in another option of the same hypothesis, there are at least two of the three Graces that are women linked to the Medici family: the one on the right would be Caterina Sforza, mother of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, and taking a step back, the central Grace would not be Semiramide D’Appiano but Simonetta Vespucci since this woman is said to have had an affair with Giuliano de’ Medici, who before the Pazzi Conspiracy is portrayed as Mercury instead of his cousin. A detail not to be overlooked to support this hypothesis is the fact that the central Grace is the only one with her gaze turned towards Mercury. This theory that makes the Medici not only commissioners but also protagonists certainly remains the most fascinating. There is one point on which all the theses, or almost all of them, agree: the canvas remains a celebration of the power of the Medici family and the Magnifico, a jubilation of beauty, prosperity and wealth that the city of Florence experienced under their leadership at that time.


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