Many of the commissions given
to Botticelli by these rich patrons were linked to Florentine
customs on the occasion of a marriage, which was by far the most
important family ceremony of that time. A chamber was usually
prepared for the newly married couple in the family palace of the
groom, and paintings were mounted within it. The themes of such
paintings were either romantic, exalting love and lovers, or
exemplary, depicting heroines of virtuous fame. Botticelli's
earliest known commission of this kind was for the marriage of
Antonio Pucci's son Giannozzo in 1483, a set of four panels
narrating a story from Boccaccio. Mythological figures had been used
in earlier Renaissance secular art, but the complex culture of late
Medicean Florence, which was simultaneously infused with the
romantic sentiment of courtly love and with the humanist enthusiasm
for classical antiquity and its vanished artistic traditions,
employed these mythological figures more fully and in more correctly
antiquarian fashion. A new mythological language became current,
inspired partly by classical literature and sculpture and by
descriptions of lost ancient paintings and partly by the Renaissance
search for the full physical realization of the ideal human figure.
Among the greatest examples of
this novel fashion in secular painting are four of Botticelli's most
famous works: the "Primavera"
(c. 1477-78; Uffizi), "Pallas and the
1485; Uffizi), "Venus and Mars"
(c. 1485; National Gallery, London), and
"The Birth of Venus" (c.
1485; Uffizi). The "Primavera,"
or "Allegory of Spring,"
and "The Birth
were painted for the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici at
Castello. All four of these panel paintings have been variously
interpreted by modern scholarship. The figures certainly do not
enact a known myth but rather are used allegorically to illustrate
various aspects of love: in the "Primavera,"
its kindling and its fruition in marriage; in
subjugation of male lust by female chastity; in "Venus and Mars," a
celebration of woman's calm triumph after man's sexual exhaustion;
and in "The Birth of Venus," the birth of love in the world. The
and "The Birth of Venus"
contain some of the most sensuously beautiful nudes and semi-nudes
painted during the Renaissance, though medieval decorum still
regulates some of their costuming. The four paintings' settings,
which are partly mythological - that of the
"Primavera" is the
Garden of the Hesperides - and partly symbolic, are pastoral and
idyllic in sentiment.
Botticelli's frescos from a
chamber in the Villa Tornabuoni, celebrating the marriage of Lorenzo
Tornabuoni and Giovanna degli Albizzi in 1486, also draw on
classical mythology for their subject matter. In these frescos, real
personages mingle with mythological figures: Venus, attended by her
Graces, gives flowers to Giovanna degli Albizzi, while Lorenzo
Tornabuoni, who is called to a mercantile life, is brought before
Prudentia and the Liberal Arts.
The influence of the Renaissance
humanist Leon Battista Alberti's art theories is apparent in
Botticelli's classical borrowings and his meticulous use of linear
perspective. In fact, Botticelli took himself so seriously as the
reviver of the lost glories of classical painting that he inserted
miniature reproductions of his own works into
"The Calumny of Apelles"
(c. 1495; Uffizi), a subject recommended by Alberti, who took
it from a description of a work by the ancient Greek painter Apelles.
Botticelli also drew inspiration from classical art more directly.
While in Rome in 1481-82, for example, he reproduced that city's
Arch of Constantine in one of his Sistine frescoes. Three of the
figures in the "Primavera"
are taken from a classical statue of the Three Graces, while the
figure of Venus in "The Birth of Venus"
derives from an ancient statue of "Venus Pudica."