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The Nexus between Dante's Commedia and Botticelli's Primavera
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-11-28 11:36:05
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Quelli ch’anticamente poetaro
  l’età de l’oro e suo stato felice,
         forse in Parnaso esto loco sognaro.
     Qui fu innocente l’umana radice;
           qui primavera sempre e ogne frutto;
           nettare è questo di che ciascun dice.

  (They who in olden times sang of
      the Age of Gold and its happy state
                  perhaps in Parnassus dreamed of this place.
           Here the root of mankind was innocent;
         here is always spring, and every fruit;
       this is the nectar of which each tells)
             --Dante: Purgatorio xxviii, 139-144)


Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) 

These brief reflections on the nexus between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Botticelli’s Primavera have  largely been inspired by the ongoing conversations on aesthetics in the Ovi symposium and an intriguing article by Max Marmor (former director of the Yale University Arts Library) titled “From Purgatory to the the Primavera: Some Observations on Botticelli and Dante,” which first appeared in 2003 in the journal Artibus et Historiae (24, n. 480). What follows is a distillation of this lengthy article which I highly recommend to all those Ovi’s readers and lovers of genuine beauty who have been following the Symposium’s discussions. 

In the above mentioned article Max Marmor observes that with Primavera, Botticelli seems to havedefined a new genre that emerged in Italy in the 1470s: the monumental mythologicalpainting. There is little doubt that Botticelli, like Michelangelo and Leonardo had an abiding interest in Dante’s Divine Comedy to the point that he had embarked on an illustration of the deluxe edition of the Commedia by the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino, the preeminent authority on Quattrocento Dante exegetes. There exist 92 drawings by Botticelli illustrating the Commedia (dated 1490) which are now in the possession of the Berlin Museum and the Vatican Library. Unfortunately, they were never printed.

In any case, as Marmor suggests there is a “kinship in style, imagery, and sensibility between the evocative renderings of the Earthly Paradise as described in the final cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio and Primavera.”

He further points out that “cantos xxvii-xxxi of the Purgatorio represent a distinct and enchanting pastoral interlude in Dante’s narrative, in which the barren wasteland of the Inferno and Mt. Purgatory yields, suddenly, to the Earthly Paradise’s sylvan setting of lush verdure, flowing waters, and gentle resonant breezes...At dawn the poet experiences a prophetic dream that anticipates in its imagery his imminent arrival in the Earthly Paradise:

Ne l’ora, credo, che de l’orïente
prima raggiò nel monte Citerea,
che de foco d’amor par sempre ardente,
giovane e bella in sogno mi parea
donna vedere andar per una landa
cogliende fiori; e cantando …

(In the hour, I think, when [Venus] Cytherea, who seems always burning with the fire of
love, first shone on the mountain from the east, I seemed to see in a dream a lady young
and beautiful going through a meadow, gathering flowers, and singing …)
                                           (Purg. xxvii,94-99).

This “lady young and beautiful” identifies herself as the biblical Leah and introduces her silent companion as her sister Rachel, who sits motionless in the grass before a mirror. In this, one of Dante’s several “prophetic morning dreams,” both the sylvan setting and the encounter with Leah herald the poet’s imminent entry into the Earthly Paradise, situated atop Mt. Purgatory. Landino, in his commentary, stresses the importance of Dante’s dream of Leah and Rachel, which he insists is not a mere dream but a “vision” for Dante’s entire Earthly Paradise narrative. The following day, Dante encounters the maiden Matelda, singing as she gathers flowers among the trees, meadows, and waters of the Earthly Paradise. In response to the poet’s query, Matelda explains the nature of this place, where flowers bloom without seed and waters need no replenishing. She further explains that this is — “perhaps” —the very Golden Age dreamed of by the poets of antiquity:

Dante’s dream or “vision” of Leah in Canto xxvii, in which he beholds “a lady young and beautiful,” becomes a reality in the following canto with the first appearance of Matelda:

… e là m’apparve, sì com’ elli appare
subitamente cosa che disvia
per maraviglia tutto altro pensare,
una donna soletta che si gia
e cantanto e scegliendo fior da fiore
ond’ era pinta tutta la sua via.

(… and there appeared to me there, as appears of a sudden a thing that for wonder drives away every other thought, a lady all alone, who went singing and culling flower from flower, with which all her path was painted) (Purg. xxviii, 37-42). Marmor asks: “Do not the goddesses in the Primavera — the three dancing Graces; Chloris, fleeing the embrace of Zephyr even as she is transformed by his warm breath into Flora; and Venus, presiding over the scene — inevitably come to mind upon hearing Dante’s description of Matelda? Their path, too, is “painted” with flowers — more than forty kinds, according to one scholar’s botanical tabulation. And though none of them culls flowers, Chloris is transformed before our eyes into the very goddess Flora herself…”


The Poet Dante (1265-1321)

Obviously Botticelli sees the Divina Commedia through the eyes of his teacher (also teacher of Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino who inspired that other Botticelli masterpiece The Birth of Venus), Cristoforo Landino. As Marmor correctly points out:  “In his several extensive commentaries on the poets, Landino adopted two distinct but overlapping interpretive models. As a humanist, he excelled in philological, linguistic, rhetorical, and stylistic analysis, an approach that characterizes his commentaries on Persius (1462), Juvenal (1462), Horace (1482), and Virgil (1488). In other works, however, and most especially in his Dante commentary, Landino sought, above all, to elucidate for his fellow Florentines the esoteric, philosophical sense of the text, by means of an allegorical method deeply indebted to Florentine Renaissance Neoplatonism.”

The defining philosophical theme of Landino’s Dante commentary is that of the soul’s moral and spiritual pilgrimage from what Landino called, emulating the ancients, the vita voluptuosa, through the vita activa, to the vita contemplativa. This key theme was already elaborated in Landino’s reading of the Aeneid, first presented in Books III and IV of his Disputationes Camaldulenses, composed around 1472 and published in 1480. He made it a keystone of his commentary on Dante.


The Painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

Thus the Proemio to Landino’s Dante commentary Dante, accordingly, assumes the role previously played by Aeneas, and his journey, too, is said to symbolize the soul’s moral and spiritual pilgrimage (Aeneas’ “itinerarium animae”) from the knowledge of sin in the Inferno, through purification in the Purgatorio, to the “contemplatio rerum divinarum” in the Paradiso. Landino consistently traces this pilgrimage across recurring tracks of sylvan imagery, interpreting Dante’s “selva oscura” at the beginning of the poem as an allegory of the vita voluptuosa and the Earthly Paradise at the end of the Purgatorio as the setting for the perfected vita activa. Finally, Dante ascends to the vita contemplativa in the Paradiso, receiving the vision of divine perfection. What is intriguing in this commentary is that it is not written in Latin, as the one for the Aeneid was, but in the vernacular. This allegorical reading of the Divine Comedy was thus available to every Florentine, including Botticelli.

Landino has taught Botticelli that the poet’s entry into the Earthly Paradise and his encounter with Matelda were prophetically foreshadowed in the poet’s “vision” of Leah and Rachel, in which, as we have seen, he beholds Leah “going through a meadow gathering flowers and singing,” while her sister sits motionless before a mirror (Purg. xxvii, 98f.) In medieval biblical exegesis as in previous Dante commentaries, Leah and Rachel were invariably regarded as types of the active and contemplative lives.

Landino believes that the perfected vita activa is a life in which “civic virtue and the true Christian religion” — that is, the vita contemplativa — are conjoined, in a precarious but essential balance that itself demands“assiduous meditation” and that a union of the two “forms of life” are essential to moral and civic well-being. Yet Marmor points out that “Landinoremains fully mindful that even this Earthly Paradise, in which civic virtue and thecontemplative life are harmoniously united, is ultimately no more, but also no less, thanan enchanting episode on the soul’s pilgrimage. For this fugitive moment mustultimately yield to the soul’s pursuit of “the heavenly Jerusalem, where we find not Leahbut Rachel, that is the vita contemplativa” – much as Matelda yields to Beatrice in theParadiso.

Marmor’s concluding comment is this: “Could the Primavera be Botticelli’s attempt at a “paragone”: a tour de force intended to demonstrate that the painter can…rival the poet, in this instance by powerfully evoking an allegorical paradiso terrestre all’antica, resonant with classical and Christian paradises lost?” This is an intriguing question which brings us back to the considerations of the symposium where we have ascertained that indeed all genuine art is poetical and expresses the ancient Greek sense of arête, perfection and sublimity. In that sense Botticelli Primavera remains the most sublime and poetical of Renaissance paintings. No wonder it continues to be one of the most discussed works of art in the history of Western art and aesthetics.


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