The Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring by Sandro Botticelli



Against the grain of art criticism, the only way to look at Botticelli’s enormous paintings from the mid to late 15th century is as a matched pair: A diptych.

Even the Wikipedia casts a vote on the matter “the two [paintings] are now known not to be a pair” [retrieved September 2017]. The two paintings under discussion are:

La Primavera (The Alegory of Spring), tempera on panel (202 x 314 cm; 80 x 124 in); date uncertain, mid to late 1400s; and

Nacita di Venere (The Birth of Venus), tempera on canvas (172.5 x 278.9 cm; 67.9 x 109.6 in); date uncertain, mid to late 1400s; both in the Uffizzi, Firenze.

The visual evidence collected by looking at the two paintings and then joining them together in Photoshop seems conclusive. The eyes see past the opinion of the centuries…

  1. The paintings are not the same size. However, the Venus—painted on canvass—is believed to have been resized. Several details along the top of the canvass suggest the composition was trimmed after it was completed. It is improbable that a Renaissance artist would have cut off the wings of the pagan gods at the edge of the canvass; the orange tree canopies in the Venus lack the substance they posses in the Primavera and appear to have been lopped off; and the head of the Venus is too close to the top edge of the painting for a work from this period.
  2. The same cannot be said of the bottom of the Venus where there is ample room to complete all details. Thus, the images can be joined simply by aligning the bases or bottom edges.
  3. Aligning the paintings at the bottom results in the eyes of the central Venus figures, and the heads of the winged figures, aligning on the same horizon. It is true, the painted horizon we see on the Venus is slightly higher than a horizon visible only between the first two trees on the left side of the Primavera. On the one hand the Primavera is more properly described as an picture without a visible horizon, so this minor discrepancy may be overlooked. On the other, the two spaces between tree trunks where the Primavera shows the sky down to the level of the waist of the male figure cloaked in red—the first and fourth gaps in the trees counting from the left—can simply be checked for signs of retouching. If overpainting is present then the issue is resolved.
  4. A new overall composition results from joining the two panels. This is probably the single deciding factor revealing the intention of creating a diptych. It accords to the most important tenet of classicism: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Achieving this result is the raison d’être for the diptych. It proves ‘intention’.
  5. Just as importantly, the awkward imbalance characteristic of each of the two pictures when considered individually dissolve when the diptych is joined. In the individual compositions winged figures enter—respectively one from the left and the other from right—with nothing to balance them on the opposite side. This is unconscionable in classical art. Arranged as a matched pair the winged pagan gods frame the diptych one entering from the left, the other from the right, leading our attention to the center of the composition. The arrangement as a diptych also resolves the awkward placement of the only human male figure on the left side of the Primavera. Paired with the Venus the male figure is given to occupy the center and most important part of the composition. This too speaks to a fundamental concern in Renaissance design: symmetria.
  6. The land mass in the Venus is filled out as a round orange grove when the panels are joined creating a dramatic panoramic effect.
  7. A 1:2 relationship is represented between sea (1) and terra firma (2) in the diptych. That too is new. It reverses the proportions in the Venus when seen alone. In the Venus the sea occupies two-thirds of the composition and the land one-third. This reversal of properties is another clever ploy for an age obsessed with expressing proportions as mathematical ratios in design.
  8. The underside of the tree canopy flows uninterrupted from left to right and back again. The proportions of the tree trunks and scale of the trees is also consistent across the two images.
  9. The cloak that the Venus is offered on the left panel would not be out of place in the garden fête taking place on the right side of the diptych.

Nevertheless, there are a number of issues in the pairing of the paintings that appear not to be resolved by assembling the diptych…

  1. Over time the Venus has lightened and the Primavera has darkened in tone. The darkening is reported as taking place in the tree canopy. The lightening in the sea and sky. Yet, one presumes skin tones and all other pigments and color values will have been affected contributing to the sense of discontinuity between the pair.
  2. The shore line in the Venus rises all the way to the horizon. As pointed out in No. 3 above, in the Primavera the horizon is lower, about waist height to the male figure. The problem may be resolved simply if the Primavera is analyzed and overpainting is discovered in the two small areas indicated. This is likely since this area of the panel looks brighter from the rest. In plain point of fact what we are confronted with here are problems with the representation of space in perspective view. The landscape in the Venus lacks pictorial credibility where it is rendered as so many “teeth” projecting from the left of the outstretched, flowing cloak.
  3. There are plants growing along the right edge of the Venus that are not continued in the left edge of the Primavera. 
  4. At the interface between the two panels—as we have it today—a tree trunk is joined and made whole from slices that are painted on the corresponding edges of each picture. That in itself would be conclusive proof for the diptych. However, the halved tree in the Venus continues almost to the base of the painting. Whereas the corresponding half in the Primavera ends much higher up, somewhere above the knee of the male figure.
  5. Oranges are visible in the Primavera but not in the Venus. The intention here may be to follow a thematic program representing the changes of the seasons. Nowhere is the theme of the differences between the seasons better represented than in the quality of the light that falls on the two winged figures rendering their flesh tones completely different.
  6. The water at the feet of the right figure in the Venus does not appear to flow into the Primavera.

We surmise from these differences that the intention was not to make a ‘perfect matching pair’ but rather to create an overall effect that would be surprising, and thus more delightful, when joined together.

The requirement that each viewer ‘complete the picture’ engages the intellect, and captures the imagination, making each one of us equal parts victims of a ploy and accomplices in its realization.

The diptych is a suitable conceit for an age when pagan ideals were surging while Church authority was beginning to sag. For example, the nudity in these pictures garnered attention right from the start. Consider that these works are contemporary to the life and teachings of the crazed ascetic Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98).

Commonly, a diptych is described as an altarpiece painted on two hinged wooden panels. There is no “hinge” in the Botticellis and only the Primavera is painted on wood panel. Nonetheless the curious figure of the Medici man cloaked in red—the sole male in view—serves as a ‘visual’ hinge when the panels are shown together.

Another common use of the term diptych describes an ancient writing tablet made of two hinged leaves with waxed inner sides. The Medici as patrons, and the Renaissance epoch in its entirety, were all about rediscovering ancient documents, studying and preserving them in their many elaborately constructed libraries. Marvelling over diptychs would have been common currency among the learned classes in the period.

Thus, the final reading of the Venus-Primavera diptych is as a painterly folio proclaiming one of the greatest classical ideals: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The more panoramic presentation carries the greater sense of completion and makes by far the greatest visual impact. Across the surface of the diptych, reading from left to right and back again, four or five stanzas join together to make a whole composition.

   *    *    *

It is now up to the curators of the Uffizi to give the public an opportunity to see for themselves whether or not yet another Renaissance truth can be revealed that has been otherwise right in front of our eyes yet covered from view for five and a half centuries.


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