“Primavera”, 1482, 80 x 124 inches, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli. (Photo submitted)
“Primavera”, 1482, 80 x 124 inches, tempera on panel, by Sandro Botticelli. (Photo submitted)
In the Middle Ages, there were no mandatory birth certificates, and many records have crumbled to dust. However, it is believed that in 1445, in a working-class district of Florence, a boy was born to the family of the tanner Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. The boy's birth date was calculated from a note in the Florence Registry filed by the youngster's father, who complains that his 13-year-old son, Sandro, is "unhealthy" and "reading."

We can see from this that the boy, who became the great painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), had already formed his personality at this young age. He was rather frail, possibly melancholy, and loved independent intellectual pursuits -- a passion obviously not shared by his father.

"Botticelli" means "little barrel". Sandro's husky, barrel-shaped brother was given this playful nickname by co-workers. Although Sandro was slender and not at all barrel-shaped, the nickname fell to him as well -- and he became known as Sandro Botticelli. It was unusual for him to sign a painting, but when he did, he used this name.

"Primavera," also known as "Allegory of Spring" is a tempera painting on panel completed by Botticelli around 1482. Although its history is not completely known, it may have been commissioned by one of the Medici family. It has been called one of the best-known paintings in Western art.

There are many interpretations of the painting's meaning. The scene is a beautiful garden with fruit hanging overhead. Gathered there are six female figures, one male, and a blindfolded putto (a little naked boy with wings, often seen in Renaissance art). According to Botticelli himself, the woman in the flowered dress on the right side of the picture is Primavera (the personification of Spring). Her companion is Flora, who is being seized by Zephyrus, the sharp wind of March. Flowers spring from Flora's mouth at the touch of the wind god.

In the center of the picture, Venus, the goddess of love, presides over the garden, accompanied by the Three Graces at the left side of the picture. The Graces bear jewels in the colors of the Medici family, and they are targeted by the putto, who represents Cupid.

At the far left side of the painting is Mercury, who holds up his caduceus (the symbolic herald's staff, usually shown with intertwined snakes and wings at the top -- you may have seen it as the symbol of physicians). The caduceus is keeping the garden safe from threatening storm clouds.

The names of the models are not known, but it has been speculated that the model for Venus was Simonetta Vespucci, possible mistress of Giuliano de Medici, who is said to have been the model for Mercury.

Another interpretation of the painting says that it may be an illustration of spiritual Neoplatonic love, represented by the Three Graces, as opposed to the earthy carnal love represented by Zephyrus. Notice that the central Grace has turned her back to the lustful Zephyrus and Flora, and she seems unconcerned by the threat of Cupid's arrows. Instead, she gazes at Mercury, who is himself gazing beyond the canvas. Some experts think he was gazing at another painting. There may have once been a companion piece, "Primavera: Pallas and the Centaur," in which love oriented toward knowledge triumphs over lust.

The painting may have been inspired by a poem, "De rerum natura," by Lucretius. The poem includes the lines, "Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus's 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."

Whatever its inspiration, the painting has captured the imagination of the world. It now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was restored in 1982, although it has darkened considerably over the centuries. It must have once been as bright and shining as springtime itself, and it still has the power to stir many viewers to a feeling of joyful anticipation.