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The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli's 'Primavera' and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Charles Dempsey's book is magnificent, whether Lorenzo and his time were. This work is the most thoughtful and thorough examination of a stunning and gorgeous ikon of the Laurentian Renaissance. Its meaning and derivation have been studied and argued over for the past one hundred years by the most potent palladins of the Warburgian school of cultural history beginning with Aby Warburg himself in 1893. Warburg searched the origins of Botticelli's "Spring" and some of his other mythological paintings in Roman (and Hellenic) mythological poetry and in the vernacular Tuscan poetry arising out of the vicissitudes of the Medici court. Differing importantly among themselves, E. H. Gombrich (1945, 1970), Edgard Wind (1958, 1968) and Erwin Panofsky (1960, 1969) turned to contemporary Renaissance Platonism, principally that of Marsilio Ficino, as the source of the philosophical and theological ideas the painting seemed to convey.

Dempsey returns to Warburg's placement of the Primavera in the Latin and Tuscan poetic traditions, influenced also by the work of Pierre Francastel of the 1950s. Painting, especially symbolic and mythological painting, functions more like a poem than like a philosophical proposition. And rather than turning to logic and dialectic to discover its meaning, grammar and rhetoric would provide the key. Dempsey treats the painting as a visual poem and titles his four major chapters: "Poetry as Painting," "as Public Myth," "as History," and "as Historical Fiction." His final and key concluding chapter is "Reading the Poem."

He shows in his first chapter how the materia, or visual subjects, are derived from an amalgam of passages from Lucretius, De rerum natura V; from Ovid, Fasti V; Horace, Carmina I, 30; Seneca, De beneficiis I. However the meaning projected through these figures goes far beyond the arrangement and identities of the personages of the scene.

Dempsey finds this meaning by establishing the literary and the historical human contexts which by analogy approach most closely to the painting, as in all interpretations lacking a specific explanatory program. The test will be which contexts are most congruent with the form and content of the painting. Dempsey finds it at first in the civic rituals of Florence and Tuscany such as the Calendimaggio. Then in Lorenzo il Magnifico's Commento on certain sonnets addressed to or concerning Lucrezia Donati, his love in the sense of Petrarch's Laura or Dante's Beatrice. In order to claim that this Lorenzo commissioned the work he has to dispose of the theory that it was his second cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. This he does on the basis of the researches of John Shearman and Webster Smith of 1975. Two other poets and holidays were also involved: Luigi Pulci's La giostra di Lorenzo di Medici which tells the story of Lorenzo and Lucrezia, and Angelo Poliziano whose Stanze per la giostra di Giuliano di Medici is well known. Whether or not they are actual likenesses, Venus and Flora in the Primavera are modelled on Lucrezia Donati and Simonetta Cataneo, Giuliano's lady-love celebrated in Poliziano's Stanze. Dempsey says: "The Primavera is addressed, not to an otherworldly Christian concept of love such as might be expressed in the personification of charity or in the Madonna, but to the worldly idea expressed in Venus and in the poet's madonna. No matter for whom the Primavera may have been originally intended, it is Lorenzo's donna who is celebrated there. She is the figuration of the new concept of love and gentility, the new humanist muse created out of the traditions of the Latin and Italian pasts, transfiguring them in Venus, who is in her essence, and by definition the perfection of love and beauty."

Such is Dempsey's thesis, elaborately and meticulously argued with a plenum of supporting texts. Ficino is given credit only for the general concept of love. Otherwise it is Stil novo, Dante and the Medicean poets. Is it my romanticism, or Dempsey's, to find this Laurentian romanticism congruent with the Primavera? I do not think so. Neither, apparently did Savonarola.

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Article Details
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Author:Trinkaus, Charles
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
Previous Article:Palma Vecchio.
Next Article:Due quadri del Botticelli eseguiti per nascite in Casa Medici.

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