Botticelli and the
rhythm of love

Veronica Berenice

 . . . What descends to the earth as the breath of passion, returns to heaven in the spirit of contemplation . . .

Many times I have found myself admiring a piece of art, and having found myself completely left out; as if it were an oyster, with the thought of there being a pearl, I feel like using my nails and forcing its opening.

This occurs mainly because I am often missing the interpretative means: the knowledge of the historical timeframe in which the work was created, or the contemporary way of thinking.

I cannot imagine how many times this same drama repeats itself in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, a place that attracts millions of visitors every year.

On my behalf, there is a strong belief that even a well-educated mind with a good culture has some dark spots; after all, wisdom that increases is to increase in torment [1], which can be applied to those things we do not know as well. Therefore, one of the most oneiric works of Italian Renaissance art could turn out to be just like an oyster, especially for those who have never experienced lessons or lectures of art history.

Let’s give ourselves a Pindaric tour and discover Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, exposed in the Uffizi and, for our luck, painted by a fine mind that has gifted the world a journey through the theory of love.

Botticelli’s Primavera is tied to a pagan past thanks also to the re-discovering of the themes and iconography of greek mythology that goes throughout the entire 1500 century  – and beyond. It goes without saying, that on one hand, this generates admiration, whilst, on the other, outrage, particularly in the Christian culture of the time. However, the peculiarity of the painting is in the way the author unravels his tale. Like a matryoshka doll, we find more than one interpretative layer: he is proposing a truly enigmatic game of metamorphosis that reveals his intellectual vicinity to Ovid, whose writings he certainly knew. And, as if we were reading in Arab, we enter the piece of work observing – on the right end of the picture – three characters that the art historian Edgar Wind identifies as Zephyr, Chloris, and Flora.


When Flora adorns the world of flowers [2]


Zephyr, which is pictured with swollen cheeks, in the act of blowing, is the incarnation of passion that turned towards the character on his side – Chloris – produces the effect of a flight from his clearly not desired attentions. Out of prudery, she reflects an already known fate, that of Dafne who in order to flee Apollo’s desire, begged the gods to be transformed into a plant. We can observe her metamorphosis if we take a close look at her mouth, from which flowers begin to flourish, which fall onto the third character of this first triad: a beautiful Flora. By paying attention to the clothes, the distinction between the two characters is precise: plain white for Chloris; a triumph of decorations for Flora.


In the guise of an Ovidian fable, the progression Zephyr – Chloris – Flora spells out the familiar dialectic of love. E. Wind  [3]

In doing so, we have, therefore, outlined the first phase of the Metamorphosis of Love that manifests in the garden of Venus. The goddess, who oversees all these events, is in the centre of the picture and, over her, a blindfolded and impetuous Cupid acts as an antipode that opposes his same hand in a gesture of warning, an appeal. Botticelli depicts Venus as the centre of gravity around which the whole work orbits: here, the goddess is most certainly not a mere simulacrum of foolish pulsions. Hovering above her, Cupid aims his arrow towards the triad on his left: the three Graces, representing the triple rhythm of generosity.

Here, Edgar Wild shines a new light on Roman mythology, on the path of Seneca that represents the three goddesses covered, symbolizing the rhythm of generosity: offering – accepting – returning – with their hands intertwined.

He goes on by affirming how, within the Neoplatonism in which Botticelli is immersed, the triad is composed of Chastity, Pleasure, and Beauty — like Pico Della Mirandola proudly illustrated in his medallion of The Three Graces (fig 2). 

Having now dealt with the nature of these three sisters, we have to take a step back to Cupid who, as we have already said, directs his arrow towards the Grace that is showing her back and, on closer inspection, this one is less adorned; indeed, she symbolises chastity or, in the more ancient version, represents the Grace who turns because she donates and does so with modesty.  She is in Cupid’s sight and, because of this, has the instinct of moving. In which direction? Towards her sister on her left: Pleasure, who in turn looks to the third sister, who is quieter, but much more inebriating: Beauty. This is an eternal motion represented by their circling dance.

A detail that, however, cannot escape our eye, takes us back to Chastity who acts as the link to the last character of the painting; on the left side of the canvas her gaze rests, maybe in search of a guide, and it is destined to the most enigmatic character of the painting: Mercury. Engrossed, with his mind somewhere else, he seems not to care about what is happening behind him, but, as we have seen, Sandro Botticelli was an artist who knew the philosophical movements of his time very well; and, therefore, we cannot believe that the gods’ messenger was painted there only to ‘fill the picture in’. It seems more fit to look for an interpretation that begins from that mystical initiation that, in those years, was the heart of many philosophies.

Therefore, always under the guidance of the art historian Wind, we move forward into the deep comprehension of Mercury, who is not only the gods’ messenger but also the connection between them and humans: in other words a psychopomp. He is a sacred God to scholars, that in the painting, moves the clouds with a contemplative attitude, giving the impression, yes, of wanting to clear out the view, but not completely; he obviously wants to reveal the Mystery, but he also wants to keep some opacity so that Truth is not blinding.  Mercury is the Graces’ guide because he is the symbol of divine transcendence towards which Cupid’s passion pushes Chastity.

In this short but long voyage, Mercury has one more secret to reveal: he is walking away from the world to come back in the guise of Zephyrus, two symmetrical and complementary figures of love.


What descends to the earth as the breath of passion, returns to heaven in the spirit of contemplation.  E. Wind [4]

A work dense with meaning, that puts love in its widest deepness at its centre. It should have maybe deserved a different title. What we can certainly say is that many clues are there, hidden for those who love Beauty and for those who are en route in search of a treasure that enriches the soul and life.  

[1] Qohélet, colui che prende la parola. A cura di Guido Ceronetti, Biblioteca Adelphi,  2001.

[2] Edgar Wind, Misteri pagani nel Rinascimento. Traduzione di Piero Bertolucci, Gli Adelphi,


[3] Edgar Wind, Misteri pagani nel Rinascimento. Traduzione di Piero Bertolucci, Gli Adelphi,


[4] Edgar Wind, Misteri pagani nel Rinascimento. Traduzione di Piero Bertolucci, Gli Adelphi,


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