In 1481/1482 renaissance artist Botticelli finished the immense painting ‘La Primavera’, which he created for the occasion of the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world and can be admired in its place of ‘birth’ Florence.
The flowers and plants in Primavera (spring) are an important and very striking part of this work of art. The antique gods Mercury (to the left) and Venus (in the center) are surrounded by colourful fruit trees with juicy oranges that arise from a fresh green meadow, and flowers in bloom scattered all over the place. Botticelli portrayed these flowers with such great care and detail that they are actually recognizable as real specimens. Guido Moggi – former director of the Botanical Garden in Florence –and Mirella Levi d’Ancona identified almost 200 of them in 1984.
These and most other scholars discuss the visual beauty of the botanical specimens and the myths they were mentioned in as an explanation for Botticelli’s choice of depicted flora. But what about their aromatic dimension? This painting is one big open window exuding the most wonderful and characteristic scents of Tuscany in spring. Is there an olfactory iconography to this work of art? There is in fact proof Botticelli has intentionally added olfactory – yet visually represented – symbols.
Botticelli most probably took several renaissance texts as a starting point. In ‘De Rerum natura’ by Lucretius, there is a very clear reference to both the visual and olfactory appeal of spring, which is represented by the goddess Venus. I found a good English translation:
“Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus’ boy, / The winged harbinger, steps on before, / And hard on Zephyr’s foot-prints Mother Flora, / Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all / With colors and with odors excellent”
In another Latin (sorry) contemporary poem called Rusticus by Poliziano – which the painter most probably also used as a source of inspiration – again, Venus’ fragrant exalations are central:
“Semper odorati Venerisque stipendia flores. Vitarumque altrix urbi male nota voluptas”
Venus is always fragrant, it says. It is clear that the poems visually quoted by Botticelli do not just revolve around the sense of sight and visual aesthetics. Taking that into account, we take a closer ‘look’ at the flowers. In fact, ALL (!) of them aren’t just colourful, but highly fragrant. Coincidence?
Love is fragrant, and so is Venus
Venus in the centre of the painting, is surrounded by myrtle, beautifully defined against a pale blue sky. This is a smell informed choice. This plant with its very strong scent was well known in ancient Greece and Rome for its healing properties and associated to the island of Cyprus, the birth place of Venus. Myrtle was used as a fragrant offering to statues representing the goddess of Love, known in Greece as Aphrodite. Its perfume is fresh and warm at the same time, sweet yet savoury, and smells slightly medicinal or anti-septic (which it actually is).
In 2006 archeologist Maria Rosario Belgiorno excavated an ancient perfume factory on Cyprus in which she found several traces of the essential oil of this plant. Many of the oils and perfumes produced there, probably had both esthetic, medicinal and spiritual purposes. She reconstructed some of them by doing chemical analysis and replicating ancient maceration and distilling techniques. This ancient heritage scent eventually lead to one of the modern perfume categories ‘Chypre’.
The other very fragrant flower dedicated to Venus is the rose. It is very (very very) likely that this flower was chosen as an attribute of the goddess exactly for its aromatic properties. Aromatic plants were thought to be a manifestation of divine presence in ancient Greece and Rome. The attar of roses was one of the most costly perfumes. It was praised by the likes of Pliny the Elder for its sweet, long lasting scent. Until the present day lovers still give each other roses.
In the hair, dress and hands of Flora – standing right next to Venus – besides roses we encounter tiny blue myosotis flowers, also known as ‘forget-me-nots’ or in Italian ‘non-ti-scordar-di-me’. It goes without saying they are strong smelling. This would certainly enhance their memorability.
On Flora’s dress we also see embroidered carnations (painted representations of embroidered representations of real flowers, clever Botticelli), which exude a somewhat green, sweet, yet bodily scent. Both the light pinkish colour and heady indolic scent refer to sensuality. The way these flowers are placed on her body, along with the position of her hand, definitely has an erotic touch to it.
The Smell of Victory
Other very strikingly scented flowers exit from the mouth of Chloris on the extreme right. Chloris was a nymph chased by Zephyrus, one of the winds. The moment he catches her, she turns into Flora. This transformation is depicted by Botticelli by placing Flora and Chloris right next to each other. The flowers she seems to exhale are probably sweet smelling roses or anemones, strawberry flowers and cornflowers. Zephyrus is surrounded by laurel, which gives of a very sweet and refreshing scent. This freshness was the reason for Romans to coronate heroes with laurel wraths so they could literally breath the sweet smell of victory, as could fellow soldiers.
In the field below the feet of all these figures we find a whole amalgam of flowers that have been used in perfumery for thousands of years, such as the iris, jasmin and the grape hyacinth.
Figure showing a very small depiction of a grape hyacinth, almost absorbed in the background.
Depiction of iris flowers, very precious perfume ingredients, and also the symbol of Florence.
An allegory of the senses?
Furthermore art historian Marieke van den Doel, came with an interesting analysis of the painting as the representation of the hierarchy of the senses as a whole. The pleasure seeking Zephyrus, Chloris and Flora represent the ‘lower senses’ of smell, taste and touch, whereas Mercury and two of the three graces (the dancing figures) stand for the higher senses of seeing and hearing. The lower senses were associated to youth, lust and foolishness, whereas the higher senses were linked to the intellect and to true beauty, according to renaissance humanist Ficino. Venus, symbolically located at the center, supposedly forms a bridge between these opposites.
So what we have here is the visual representation of all the senses, which together might lead to the marriage, not just of two people, but also that of the senses, of love and carnal desire, through a synthesis of seeing and smelling.
- Marieke van den Doel, Ficino en het voorstellingsvermogen. ‘Phantasia’ en ‘imaginatio’ in kunst en theorie van de Renaissance’, 2008
- Mirella Levi d’Ancona, Botticelli’s Primavera. A botanical interpretation including astrology, alchemy and the Medici, Olschki, 1983
by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian