The avoidance of controversial art history is no way to resolve issues of confusion over patronage or a work’s intended subject matter. The other day I was editing research notes I’d gathered on a work that has been an ancient mystery for specialists and critics on a well-debated art history topic: Botticelli’s Trilogy and the vague circumstances surrounding origin and rightful patron. So far, I can only describe my own theories as unprecedented, yet weak due to a necessary, logical deduction that only documented facts can be relied upon. So, because patronage is an impelling influence on artifacts and their history, my theories must reflect specific facts. If this is also true of art history’s goal, then what about circulating, yet unfounded theories based on centuries of guesswork? Some myths still appear strong. Here lies the conflict between history and art – or reality and fancy.
For example, no one recently mentioned a Renaissance custom of having noble dead maidens’ portraits commissioned to artists in need of work. Because there were no cameras in the Renaissance, an artist worked from fresh memory, often as a maiden lay on her deathbed. People would rather believe that Botticelli was madly in love with Simonetta, though that idea had no real merit. Yet it still survives. Nevertheless, there will always be those who reject accomplishments of given historical figures because of linked establishments. An example of this is the categorical negation of Columbus as America’s discoverer, 1492. It is fair to assume that Columbus established a sea route to America from Europe, which, however, produced an ongoing cycle of negativity century after century.
Vespucci, a journeying navigator who worked with the Medici after 1484, was Botticelli’s alleged childhood friend. The most stable evidence for Vespucci’s patronage of Botticelli is Vasari’s documented account in reference to an earlier fresco, and Botticelli’s own dealings with the Medici. There is no solid evidence that Primavera was first intended for Vespucci and his nephew, Simonetta’s husband, but later given to Giuliano.
As to Vespucci, the navigation guild was a new discipline that made it as a mechanical art due to Alberti and the Medici (who did not always see eye to eye), and so in reality, Vespucci was an adept navigator who later led the Spaniards in their own discoveries. (That is discoveries, not conquests.) In this context, Vespucci as a subject matter makes much better logic in context of hidden subjects. It is easy to confuse the patrons, for they were colleagues, even Simonetta and Giuliano, who the Pazzi assassinated two years after Simonetta died of consumption. Hence, persistent inferences to Vespucci’s noble niece, Simonetta, throughout the Trilogy certainly pertain to homage of this outstanding explorer with deep ties to the Medici – whoever the patron happened to be.
That logic boosts the credibility of diverse ideas on patronage, for the Trilogy may have been intended for one patron, but ended up in another’s inventory list. Disputes about intended subject matter usually resulted from abrupt rifts between artist and patron, due to fallen leadership, death, or bitterness.
Though the Medici Dynasty fit this pattern with others, this may have been simply a case of mistaken patronage, as there is no evidence of dispute over the commission. Despite Botticelli’s interpersonal ties to the friar master Fra Filipino, Trilogy was not inspired by Grand Inquisition, or Spanish-Italian popes who later turned the art industry inside-out with rigid Counter-Reformation demands. No. That context does not fit.
Could it be that Primavera pertained directly to a Neoplatonic humanist movement led by Spanish-Italian Medici bankers with their new academy? Alberti’s recommendations that painting reflect images of beauty and poetry? Da Vinci’s idea that painting was as intellectual an art as science? Responses to these ideas should be enthusiastic and resounding confirmations.
Although the concept of a virginal Madonna was focal to Botticelli’s transient, shape-shifting works, they were nevertheless strictly secular and partly functioned to celebrate the return of the Medici to power in Florence in 1478, a date which precisely corresponds to the Trilogy’s production.
If critics accept that artists expressed ideas in covert, layered contexts to subvert their true meanings, we can better impart that truth to others. So then, Primavera as an allegory of spring also corresponds to its complete contrast as an allegory of death, particularly in a realistic context of political conspiracy, world discovery, and medicine.
In fact, if one looks at Primavera as a historical painting as well as an allegory, medicine becomes as profound a narrative as it is with allegorical springtime. Could this be why Botticelli was never as famous in his lifetime as he would have been if better understood?
Centuries later, it seems we still just are not smart enough for his brand of thought. In fact, looking at Botticelli’s layered, unordered treatment of form in space, a multi-layered context is fairly consistent with his style in Primavera. Take the origin of medicine, for example. Botticelli’s first clue is a caduceus toward which the hero god reaches.
With respect to historical context, it is a well-documented fact that Vespucci was a first European to discover cocoa’s medicinal effects. Furthermore, Vespucci learned that quinine relieved malaria fever. Could that have been a purpose for some of his Spanish voyages after Trilogy’s production? If so, how did these facts tie into Botticelli’s iconography?
The answer, of course, hidden within the layers of Botticelli's masterpieces, virtually stares right out at us. Primavera’s entire surface, for instance, is coated with plant life, some of which imitate the star-shaped Quina Flower and Quinine tree, which grow wild in Peru’s Altiplano region and Lake Titicaca. Moreover, images of medicine embedded into the Trilogy’s natural landscapes correspond precisely to Montezuma’s Gardens, Texcotzingo, in a cultivated “pharmacopeia”, or lab. Unbelievably, that curved, circular patch of Peruvian royal land is shell-shaped, just as that upon which Venus stands. All in all, this probably is not enough to absolutely confirm that the Medici only represented one part of Botticelli's dualistic themed patronage, and thus, message. Don't forget, you read this here first!
Though we could extend this list for miles, the point is that there is a conscious effort to suppress the truth about message on both the side of artist, historian, and art historian. If we are to extract precise messages from these works of art to get at the truth, then definitely they must be more thoroughly examined with respect to context.
In this spirit, the most worthwhile lessons in art history do not dwell on mundane, disconnected facts, but focus on those which emerged directly from the age and secular spirituality of the artist and his patrons. This would mean examining meaning from multiple themes and purposes, and then assessing those facts logically.