Gombrich - Botticelli

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    Botticelli's Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His CircleAuthor(s): E. H. GombrichSource: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 8 (1945), pp. 7-60Published by: The Warburg InstituteStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/750165 .

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    BOTTICELLI'S MYTHOLOGIESA STUDY IN THE NEOPLATONIC SYMBOLISMOF HIS CIRCLE

    By E. H. GombrichThe history of Botticelli's fame has still to be written. In such a historythe fascination which his 'pagan' subjects exerted on his discoverers inthe nineteenth century would form an important part.' To generations ofart lovers these pictures provided the back-cloth, as it were, for the stage ofthe Florentine quattrocentond the colourful drama of the Renaissancewhich they saw enacted on it. As this dream begins to recede, the need for amore strictly historical interpretationof Botticelli'smythologiesbecomes moreapparent. We have become too much aware of the complex cross-currentsof the late fifteenth century to accept the picture of the period which theliterature on Botticelli still presents to us.2 The interpretation to be putbefore the reader in these pages tries to provide a hypothesismore in keepingwith the available evidence, some of which has not been considered before.It takes its starting point from sources which show that Marsilio Ficino wasthe spiritual mentor of Botticelli's patron at the time the 'Primavera' waspainted and that the Neoplatonic conception of the classical Gods was dis-cussed in their correspondence. While it does not aspire to give 'proofs' inmatters of interpretationwhere proofs cannot be given it tries to show that acoherent reading of Botticelli's mythologies can be obtained in the light ofNeoplatonic imagery.The examples from Ficino's writings quoted in support of these argumentsshould not obscure the fact that vast tracts of this literature still remain un-explored and that a further search may yield better and closer parallels.Though a polemic against earlier interpretationscould not be wholly avoidedit should not be taken to imply that anything like finality is claimed for thepresent attempt. There is, in fact, an important assumptionwhich this inter-pretation shares with all previous theories. It is an assumption which mayany day be overthrown by a lucky find: the hypothesis that Botticelli'smythologies are not straight illustrations of existing literary passagesbut thatthey are based on 'programmes'drawn up ad hocby a humanist. That suchprogrammes for paintings existed in the quattrocentoe can infer from con-

    1 For full bibliographical data on Botticelliup to 1931 see R. van Marle, Italian Schoolsof Painting, XII, The Hague, 1931, pp. 14 if.To this should be added the monographsby C. Gamba, Milan, 1936; L. Venturi("Phaidon edition"), Vienna, 1937; J.Mesnil, Paris, 1938 (with a bibliographieraisonnie); S. Bettini, Bergamo, 1942; S.Spender ("Faber Gallery"), London, 1946;P. Bargellini, Florence, I946. Among con-tributions not listed in ArtIndexI should liketo quote further C. Terrasse, Botticelli, LePrintemps, aris, 1938,T. del Renzio, "LustfulBreezes make the Grasses sweetly tremble,"Polemic, May 1946, and H. Stern, "Eustathe

    le Macrembolithe et le 'Printemps' de Botti-celli, L'Amourde l'Art, 1946 (IV).-R. Salvini,"Umanesimo di Botticelli," Emporium,anu-ary 1944 was not accessible to me.2For a comprehensive survey of recentdiscussions see A. Chastel, "Art et Religiondans la Renaissance Italienne, Essai sur laMethode." Bibliothiqued'Humanismeet Renais-sance, VII (I945), and P. O. Kristeller,"Humanism and Scholasticism in the Re-naissance" Byzantion, XVII, I944/45; twobooks not mentioned in these articles: C. E.Trinkaus, Adversity's Noblemen, New York,I940, and A. Dulles, Princeps Concordiae,Cambridge, Mass., 1941.7

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    8 E. H. GOMBRICHtemporarysources;but only one early example of this strangekind of literaturehas come down to us-Paride da Cesarea'sdetailed instructions to Peruginoconcerning the painting for Isabella d'Este'sStudiolo.1The chance of recover-ing similar documents for Botticelli's paintings is, alas, extremely slight. Intheir absence the reconstruction of these missing links between the works ofart and the modes of thought prevailing in the circles of the artist's patronwill always remain a precarious venture. Such conjecturescannot hope tocarry conviction with every one. They should nevertheless be more thanidle speculations if they throw light on new aspects of the problem in handand provoke discussion which may lead to a better understanding of theartist's intentions.2

    I. THE CPRIMAVERA'I,. PastInterpretations

    Anyone interested in problems of method can do no better than to studythe conflicting interpretationsof the 'Primavera'(P1. 9a) and the discussionswhich centred round them.3 We can save ourselvesa detailed recapitulationas each succeeding writer has usually pointed out the weak points in hispredecessor'sefforts; but the residue of these interpretations,both sound andfanciful, has come to cover the picture like a thick coloured varnish, and abrief analysis of its main ingredients is necessaryfor its removal.There is, in the first place, the suggestivepower of the name which Vasariconferred on the picture when he described it somewhat inaccurately as"Venus whom the Graces deck with flowers, denoting the Spring."4 Thishas led scholarsto garner from classical and Renaissance literature a numberof quotations mentioning Venus and Spring,5 forming in the end a veritable1F. Foerster, "Studien zu den Bildern imStudierzimmerder Isabella d'Este Gonzaga,"Jahrbuch der preussischenKunstsammlungen,XXII, i9oI, p. I66. For an English trans-lation see Julia Cartwright, Isabella d'Este,London, 1904, I, p. 331 f.2I should like to take the opportunity ofthanking the members of the Warburg Insti-tute who freely gave of their time to assistme in the preparation of this study, althoughtheir opinion on matters of interpretationsometimes differed from mine.3There is a brief summary in A. Venturi,Sandro Botticelli, Rome, I925; see also thebibliographies in J. Mesnil's monograph andin Van Marle, loc. cit.4Vasari, Milanesi, III, p. 312. "Venere,che le Grazie la fioriscono, dinotando laprimavera." We have no reason to attachovermuchimportanceto thisdescription,madesome 75 years after the picture was painted.Wherever we are able to check Vasari'sdescriptions from independent sources wefind that he was prone to muddle the subject-matter. Botticelli's biblical frescoes in the

    Sistine chapel did not fare better in thisrespect than did Michelangelo's ceiling orRaphael's stanze. An example more nearlycomparable to our own subject is Vasari'sdescription of Titian's Venus' feast. Vasaridid not know the source, Philostratus, whodescribes the votive offerings given to Venusby nymphs. He therefore took Titian'snymphs for allegories of Grace and Beauty.(Vasari, ed. cit., VII, p. 434.) The doublesignificance implied in Vasari's account ofBotticelli's picture "Venus . . . signifyingspring" is very likely a similar guess on thepart of Vasari. It conforms suspiciouslywellto the practice of the 'Mannerist' period andmilieu n which he moved. There is a Venus'signifying spring' (indicated by three signsof the Zodiac) by Angelo Bronzino whichVasari may have had in mind (E. Panofsky,Studies in Iconology, New York, 1939, quotedhereafter as Studies,p. 85).5 The most important of these quotationsfrom Lucretius, De RerumNatura,will be dis-cussed more fully in a different context (seebelow, p. 28).

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    BOTTICELLI'SMYTHOLOGIES 9anthology of charming songs of May and Love. Then there is, secondly, thespell which Poliziano's Giostrahas exercised over the interpreters ever sinceWarburg attempted to establish a connection between the poet's and thepainter'smodes of visualizing classical antiquity in terms of movement. In hisfamous doctor's thesis on the subject' Warburg not only proved a connectionbetween the 'Birth of Venus' and Poliziano's stanze;he also drew attention topassages in the same poem whose atmosphere and imagery were reminiscentof the 'Primavera.' In a more detailed comparison Marrai and Supino after-wards pointed out that the correspondencebetween the picture and the poemis really rather slight, but Poliziano's mellifluousstanzecontinued to be quotedside by side with Botticelli's painting which was even described as an 'illus-tration' to the Giostra.2This intimate fusion of the picture and the poem lentsupport to a legend which was particularlydear to the aestheticmovement andthus formed the third ingredient of the myth which grew round the picture.It is the legend of the 'Bella Simonetta.' If the 'Primavera' is inspired by theGiostra, here may be no need to say good-bye to the long cheris