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The voice of the daemon

Inspiration and the poetic arts in Boticelli’s ‘Primavera’
Philippa Berry
p. 13-26

Texte intégral

  • 1  The thematic preoccupation of this painting with breath was noted by Edgar Wind who observes: ‘Sin (...)

1My aim in this paper is to offer an analysis of Botticelli's famous painting which is not that of a specialist in art history, but rather that of a cultural historian and literary critic. I have a comparative interest in the philosophical and cultural aspirations of the Florentine Renaissance and, currently, in the ways in which key aspects of this cultural context may help us to reasses the linked and extremely ambiguous preoccupation which characterises the European Renaissance: on the one hand, with quasi-esoteric modes of signification, and on the other, with the interpretation of such signs. I hope that my comments about the ‘Primavera’ in this connection may help to further the specific concerns of this volume with questions of voice, since I interpret Botticelli's painting as being centrally concerned with the motif of breath as spiritus: as alluding to a secret interior voice, here depicted as a divine afflatus emanating from the wind-god Zephyr and to the ambiguous or uncertain value of its abundant cultural fruits.1 I will also suggest that, for particular historical reasons, Botticelli may have imagined the spiritus or afflatus depicted in this painting as an event which was temporally specific; even, perhaps, as a breath or voice that derived its specific meanings and effects from an interweaving of the unfolding patterns of history with those of particular stars. But I will return to this question in the latter part of my essay.

2My starting point, however, is the question of this painting’s internal dissonance. Although this problem has been little discussed in recent years, a vivid apprehension of the painting’s internal contradictions prompted the comment of Jean Lorrain, made over a century ago, that the ‘Primavera’ was ‘satanique, irrésistible et terrifiante’ (Chastel 2). What Lorrain was presumably alluding to in this comment is created by Botticelli’s juxtaposition, alongside his lyrical evocation of a Golden Age scene, of what could also be described as a contextual frame for this scene (since restoration of the painting revealed that the three figures in question were added late in the process of composition), as Lightbown has pointed out. While the painting’s perspectival centre is a tranquil pastoral scene presided over by Venus, Roman goddess of love and representative of the Renaissance conception of humanitas, who is flanked by the three Graces, Botticelli supplemented this image, late in his composition, by the evocation of a very different mood, in the graphic convergence of superhuman force, intense fear, and exquisite beauty which is depicted in Zephyr’s rape of Chloris, the Greek goddess of nature, and her simultaneous metamorphosis into her Roman namesake, Flora.

3What I want specifically to argue in this paper is that the violent irruption of Zephyr into the painting’s idyllic and festive centre dramatises a potent combination of pleasure with anxiety that may have had a specifically contemporary referent (as I shall explain), and that reconsideration of the function of this dissonant pictorial ‘frame’ adds an important qualification to our view of the ‘Primavera’ as an artistic evocation of the Golden Age. For not only does the pictorial group on the right of this scene evoke the question of time and timing, through these figures’ widely acknowledged calendrical associations (which I will describe later); it also appears to allude to the activity of aesthetic production, in what I read as an oblique reference to contemporary anxieties about the rapid proliferation and dissemination of new aesthetic signs which was the hallmark of the new culture. When we look from this vantage-point, or with this perspectival detail, at the peaceful pastoral idyll that is depicted in the centre of Botticelli’s painting, it seems highly plausible that the Golden Age vision, if such it is, is conceived, paradoxically, as being both created and menaced by the troubling figure of Zephyr.

  • 2  I am indebted to François Laroque for this observation.

4For the focal event in the painting, the action which the painting depicts as effectively inaugurating the new golden age, is the abrupt advent of what appears to be an ambivalently speechless ‘voice’. This is the inseminating – and disseminating – outbreath of Zephyr. Although usually interpreted by art historians as a representation of carnal passion, such an account of Zephyr’s function neglects his obvious connection with spiritus (as breath), and hence with creativity. My own assumption is that this striking representation of passion as breath has a figurative affinity with the highly specific conjunction of intellectual and aesthetic passions that characterised the complex cultural transition of the Rinascimento. Viewed in this context, the agent of pagan spiritus, who stages a pagan equivalent to the Annunciation,2 is not simply inaugurating the archaic Golden Age, but may also be interpreted as seeding a new cultural era. For the specific result of his passion appears to be a Golden Age not of unqualified harmony with nature, but rather of superabundant creativity, of which Zephyr is as it were the presiding Zeitgeist.

  • 3  For the figurative affinity noted in some works of the Florentine Renaissance between Flora and he (...)

5Zephyr’s act of fecundation has multiple results, in the form of the diverse flowers which, from their first appearance at Chloris’ mouth, are subsequently scattered – or birthed – by Flora. Each of these flowers, as we shall see, encodes the wind-god’s act of generation with further levels of meaning. The appearance at her mouth of the first sign of Chloris’ metamorphosis affords us a clear implication, I think, that this breathy fertilisation is connected with speech. Indeed, the use of ‘flower’ as a common figure for the poetic trope during the Renaissance implies that one aspect of this Golden Age metamorphosis involves an abrupt transition from ordinary speech into poetic (or divinely inspired) modes of communication. In Lucretius' De rerum natura (a text which was much studied in Florence during the late Quattrocento) he reports that it was ‘the zephyrs [or west winds] whistling through hollow reeds’ that ‘first taught the countrymen to blow into hollow stalks’ (Lucretius 5,1382-3). And the association of the zephyrs with that vocal musicality (or music made from the breath) which ultimately produces poetry is certainly a suggestive one in the context of this painting. Yet it is also interesting to note in this connection that Flora’s attributes of flowers are depicted as textural or painted (in the highly decorated detail of her dress) as well as natural, thereby reinforcing the implication that the Chloris-Flora metamorphosis has an important tropical or aesthetic dimension, as a transition from undifferentiated nature (Chloris) to supremely refined art (Flora). It seems, in other words, as if Flora represents a coming renovatio or a second Golden Age, putatively centred on Florence, that is to be a figurative and decorative embellishment (in a mimesis which far exceeds its original model) of an earlier and simpler epoch (Chloris).3

6But if, in this apparently belated incorporation of the wind-god and his suggestively two-personed consort into his painting, Botticelli appears to have been celebrating the cultural flowering of his city and his time, this group also appears to personify and problematise a suggestive moment of hesitation: a reflective and reflexive pause, as it were, amidst the superabundant flowering of Renaissance culture which is so vividly represented by the pregnant and flower-scattering Flora. The religious and moral anxieties engendered by the pagan-inspired poetry, art and philosophy of the early Renaissance have frequently been commented on; poetry seems to have had an especially ambivalent place in this context, because of its condemnation by Plato in The Republic. While the production of classically-inspired verses by noble poets like Lorenzo de’ Medici and learned scholars like Politian was taken as a sign of refined humanist knowledge, uncertainty as to whether the pagan muses were angelic or demonic provoked increasing hostility on the part of the church – anxieties which Savonarola would bring to a head in the Florence of the 1490s. Even among the humanists there was persistent anxiety about poetry; Stanley Meltzhoff notes that a concept variously described as ‘theologia poetica’ (by Pico della Mirandola) or ‘theologia poetarum’ (by Coluccio Salutati) was developed by humanism in defence of its recourse to pagan sources of inspiration (Meltzhoff 6), while Michael B. Allen has recently reemphasised Marsilio Ficino’s ambivalence towards ‘popular poetry, even while he commended the ‘oratorical and poetical flowers’ that adorned Plato’s academy – in other words, poetry and rhetoric in the service of philosophy (Allen 1998,chapter 3). In the figure of Zephyr, Botticelli seems momentarily to acknowledge the complexity of this debate. The metamorphic and creative impact of the god on his environment vividly evokes the passionate enthusiasm for the hidden mysteries of the pagans, and the delight in new forms of aesthetic display derived from pagan sources, which characterised the new cultural movement. But Zephyr’s violence, and the sudden shock of its effects – so vividly expressed in Chloris’ expression as she half-turns towards her assailant and lover – also hints at anxiety about the rapidity of this cultural change, while the god’s oblique and indirect entry into the painting, through an obscure portal of vegetation, may evoke unease concerning the morally ambivalent, pagan, sources of this new cultural fertility. Through his incorporation of this pictorial element, then, I see Botticelli as framing and even qualifying his sublime vision of a restored Golden Age, in an oblique evocation of troubling questions of both cultural and historical agency: questions which were becoming increasingly prominent in the Florence of the 1480s.

What Kind of Golden Age?

7Yet another, temporal, ambivalence informs Botticelli’s depiction of a Golden Age, inviting us to ask not just ‘Which golden age?’ but also, ‘What kind of Golden Age?’. This is subtly communicated by both the object and the effects of Zephyr’s desire. For in the first place, thanks to Botticelli’s inspired depiction of the mystery of metamorphosis, his consort has a somewhat troubling duality: thus the nymph whom the wind god inseminates by his breath is both Chloris and Flora. A significant consequence of this configuration of Zephyr’s victim-spouse as two-personed is that the desire which the wind god here represents is invested with a complex temporal duality, in that it is both for a former state of undifferentiated nature (Chloris) and also for the anticipated future which it not only engenders but to which Zephyr will be wedded (Flora). A not dissimilar ambiguity informed the Renaissance desire for a renovatio of learning, as it looked back to a classical era of pristine knowledge, but also forwards, to a hoped-for restoration and embellishment of that wisdom.

8What I regard as the temporal ambiguity of the ‘Primavera’ has been implicitly acknowledged by art historians in their identification of its debt to Latin calendrical lore, and notably to Ovid’s Fasti (a key source for the myth of Zephyr, Chloris and Flora). Some debt to the Fasti seems especially likely given the use of this text by Angelo Politian in his ‘studio’ lectures of the early 1480s; however, Mirella Levi d’Ancona and other commentators have shown that the ‘Primavera’ also appears to be subtly indebted to diverse other texts which were also valued and translated by Florentine humanists, such as Pliny’s Natural History (a text which contained much calendrical as well as botanical lore). In calendrical literature such as the Fasti of Ovid and some parts of Pliny, time is conceived of, necessarily, not as unique and singular, but instead as a repetitive process, in the form of the more or less predictable cycles of temporal repetition. These seasonal cycles are augured by different signs such as the first blowing of the west wind (normally dated by the ancients to the 7th or 8th of February), but above all, by the regular movement of the stars. If the painting contains calendrical allusions, then, these should surely alert us to the idea of renovatio, not as a singular historical event, but rather as a complex process which had a vital repetitive or cyclical dimension, and whose comprehension, above all, required that the observer be attentive to a succession of subtle signs. So, when writing of the day which announces the beginning of Spring, when Zephyr or Favonius first blows, Pliny emphases that ‘This [moment] must be watched for with sharp attention, and is a signal possessed by a day in that month [February] that is observable without any deception or doubt whatever...’ (Pliny, V, XVIII, lxv, 238).

9If we read the finished painting from right to left, Zephyr is its first sign of renovatio, the harbinger of both spring and the golden age, since his passionate desire for Chloris is responsible for her dissemination, as Flora, of a veritable profusion of seeds and flowers. In his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus, Ficino would link the imaginative and the vegetative functions, observing that, in contrast to the power that lifts the soul towards divine things, ‘There is a[nother] power in the soul dragging it downwards towards sensibles [things], namely the power responsible for imagination and vegetative functions’ (Allen 1981, 106-7). The passage aptly expresses the ambivalence which was always felt by Ficino and other Platonists towards the descent of spiritus into matter or material forms, and the dissemination and fragmentation of the One into the Many. Yet as Pliny observes just after an allusion to Favonius’ springtime arrival: ‘these matters [agriculture] do chiefly depend on the weather... Virgil enjoins first before all else to learn the winds and the habits of the stars, and to observe them in just the same way as they are observed for navigation’ (Pliny V, XVIII, lxv, 205-6). The extent to which Zephyr’s wind-like function in the painting encompasses not merely imagination but also inspiration is metonymically implied by his passage through the branches of a laurel tree in order to inseminate Chloris; while it alludes punningly to a Lorenzo (to Lorenzo de’ Medici or Lorenzo di Pierfranceso de’ Medici) the tree was also emblematic of Apollo, and hence of both poetic inspiration and prophecy.

Daemonic Principle of Inspiration

  • 4  D. P. Walker comments that ‘His vacillations and hesitations when discussing daemonic magic are du (...)

10This metonymic association of Zephyr with the laurel tree suggests that this pictorial element has fruitful implications for our understanding of the ambiguous status, within the Renaissance, of that secret interior voice that engenders artistic and intellectual inspiration. My inference is that the passionate and fecund creativity which the wind-god furiously introduces into this painting may allude to that daemonic principle of inspiration whose violent impulsiveness is so well evoked in Plato’s much-cited concept of the divine furors or frenzies, but whose highly problematic daemonic source was only described in detail in other Platonic and Neoplatonic texts. In my assumption that the painting owes an important debt to Neoplatonism, my approach has of course been inspired by the early work of several Warburg scholars, notably Warburg, Gombrich and Wind, some of whose opinions have recently been revalidated by Charles Dempsey’s study of the ‘Primavera’. However, my suggestion that the painting is plausibly informed by contemporary interest in the problematic faculty of daemonic inspiration, as defined by Plato and the Neoplatonists, is, I believe, original. It was the meaning and ancient cultural efficacy of this faculty, understood primarily as the mediation and interpretation of hitherto secret signs and correspondences, which Marsilio Ficino was at that time attempting to recover from the texts of the ancient philosophers. (Allen 1998, chapter 4). But although humanist reformulations of the Platonic conception of inspiration would be widely influential in succeeding centuries, its attribution to a supernatural agent – to the secret voice of the daemon – was an element in the formulation by which Ficino and his contemporaries were both fascinated and troubled: understandably, given its heretical implications.4 In consequence, this disturbing figure of supernatural agency is typically absent from most Renaissance accounts of inspiration, and the lacuna created by the daemon’s repression is only partly filled by use of the much more generalised poetical conception of the muse.

  • 5  Michael Allen points out in Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedran Charioteer that the Phaedrus was one (...)

11Ironically, the passage that is most often cited to illustrate the Platonic model of inspiration probably owes its popularity, in the later Renaissance and subsequently, precisely to its omission of any mention of daemons. In this justly famous account, from the Phaedrus, furor or mania is defined as a divine inspiration which, through its sudden and sometimes violent impact upon the gifted individual, impels them to adopt different modes of formal – and vocal – expression within a given historical context. The four furors are ranked by Plato, in terms of their moral and spiritual efficacy, as follows: poetic, hieratic or priestly, prophetic and finally that of love, or the desire for divine beauty. Plato tells us, however, that the soul which has fallen into the body ‘first requires the poetic madness’, which ‘tempers discords and dissonances ... it can arouse the torpid parts by way of musical sounds...’. (Allen 1981, 222-3.) In his 1484 introduction to his translation of the Phaedrus (a work he attributed to Plato’s youth), Ficino imagined the effects of this first furor, that of poetic inspiration, upon the young Plato; in writing the Phaedrus, he tells us: ‘Our Plato was pregnant with the madness of the poetic muse, whom he followed from a tender age or rather from his Apollonian generation. In his radiance, Plato gave birth to his first child, and it is itself almost entirely poetical and radiant.’ (Allen 1981, 9)5

  • 6  In his discussion of Socrates’ daemon, Allen explains Ficino’s distinction between the familiar da (...)

12But although, in the Phaedrus’ description of the four madnesses, the role of the daemon is not specifically mentioned, elsewhere in the dialogue the diverse activities of daemons is a recurring topic. Most importantly, the contribution of the daemonic ‘voice’ or ‘sign’ to the most sublime workings of human intelligence and discourse is underlined when Socrates alludes (as in several other Platonic texts) to his personal daemon. Like that in the Phaedrus, several of Socrates’ references to his daemon stress its refraining power, in instructions not to do a certain thing; others, however, emphasise the inspirational powers conferred by this ‘voice of a god’, including its occasional bestowal of divinatory knowledge.6 The daemon of Socrates was of such interest to late antiquity that two essays were specifically devoted to the subject, by Plutarch (De Genio Socratis) and Apuleius (De deo Socratis. See also Plotinus, Enneads, 3, 4).

13Plato’s best-known definition of the daemonic function is in The Symposium, where we are told by Diotima that

Daemons are the envoys and interpreters that ply between heaven and earth, flying upwards with our worship and prayers, and descending with the heavenly answers and commandments, and since they are between the two estates they weld both sides together and merge them into one great whole. They form the medium of the prophetic arts, of the priestly rites of sacrifice, initiation, and incantation, of divination and of sorcery, for the divine will not mingle directly with the human, and it is only through the mediation of the spirit world that man can have any intercourse, whether waking or sleeping, with the gods. And the man who is versed in such matters is said to have daemonic powers ...There are many daemons, and many kinds of daemon, and Love is one of them. (Plato, 202C-203A)

  • 7  The daemonic themes of De Triplici Vita are very usefully placed in the wider context of Ficino’s (...)
  • 8  Marsile Ficin. Théologie Platonicienne. III, 140-1 (XVI, vi). See also Plutarch’s treatise De Geni (...)

14Ficino’s increasing preoccupation with this concept in the last decades of his life is evidenced by the final section of his Opera Omnia, where he translates and comments on key ancients texts that discuss the function of daemons (by Iamblichus, Proclus and Porphyry); and also by the third, dangerously heretical, book of his De Triplici Vita.7 In the De vita, Ficino allies daemons to his concept of the mediating and inherently magical ‘spirit of the world’, and intriguingly, Pliny had described Zephyr/Favonius as ‘genitalis spiritus mundi’, ‘the generating breath of the universe’ (Pliny, XVI xxxix, 93). (The role of air in the transmission of the daemonic message to those able to hear it is also stressed in Ficino’s Platonic Theology, where he explains that it is the airy bodies of the daemons that enable them to insinuate themselves so profoundly into our own airy spirit[s].8) But Hesiod describes Zephyr as ‘brightening’: he clears the sky, and is for that reason helpful to the navigation of ships, because in a clear night skies sailors can see the stars (Hesiod 379); and the De Vita follows several ancient texts, astrological as well as philosophical, in indicating that the daemonic faculty has a intimate connection with the stars and so (by implication) with processes of stellar timing (book 3).

  • 9  Allen (1998, 143) points out that Ficino, following Plato, distinguished between the daemon who re (...)

15Ficino’s growing interest in daemons was therefore rather more than merely an arcane topic of research, indeed, it appears to have been informed by a sense of historical urgency. Michael B. Allen has shown that Ficino believed the mysteriously creative as well as disruptive effect of the divine realm upon human history was both mediated and interpreted by certain ‘ingeniosi’: these were especially gifted men who, like Socrates (or Shakespeare’s Prospero), were able to receives the daemonic communication.9 Significantly, Ficino argues in his commentary on Plato’s Ion that the ‘furor’ or divine inspiration which possesses such men can issue not only in the expected modes of poetry, prophecy, love and priesthood listed in the Phaedrus, but also in the scholarly task of interpretation in which he himself was engaged, as a commentator upon the texts of Plato. Clearly, he regarded himself as one of these ingeniosi. In describing Ficino’s meditations upon this rare and precious faculty, Michael B. Allen suggests that:

We must imagine an exchange, as it were, of mirage-like images, of musical voices, of Ariel music, an exchange that can occur equally during wake or sleep. Ficino refers us to the theory he associates with Avicenna: that the prophets similarly communicated with the angels, “seeing” aethereal angelic forms and “hearing” aethereal voices with a common aethereal sense; intuitively sensing presences that elude ordinary sensation. (Allen 1998, 141).

Florence in the early 1480s

  • 10  Donald Weinstein. Savonarola and Florence: prophecy and patriotism in the Renaissance. (Princeton: (...)
  • 11  See also A. Chastel,‘L’Antéchrist à la Renaissance’, Actes du Congres d’Etudes humanistes, Rome, 1 (...)

16Most art historians have sought to link the production of Botticelli’s painting with specific events in the late 1470s or early 1480s; but an important study of the ‘Primavera’ by Horst Bredekamp has recently produced compelling evidence for a date shortly after 1483. Bredekamp observes that the extraordinary richness and diversity of vegetation in the painting marked a decisive technical departure for Botticelli, and he attributes this new preoccupation with floral and vegetable decoration to the impact of the exquisite floral imagery depicted in the retable of the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, painted for Tommaso Portinari and displayed at the church of San Egidio in Florence on May 28 1483 (Bredekamp. 24-5). If the painting was produced after this exhibition, then its production coincided very closely with an event which, according to a scholarly consensus, imbued the years around 1484 with a heightened sense of historical urgency and anticipation. Studies by Donald Weinstein, James Hankins, André Chastel, and Michael B. Allen relate this cultural and social tension to nervous expectation of a major astrological event: a Great Conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which was to occur in the enigmatic sign of Scorpio in November 1484.10 In this climate, these scholars maintain, quasi-millennial expectations of a more or less dramatic historical transition lasting twenty years (the expected duration of the conjunction’s effects), was fuelling an intense interest, even an obsession, with prophecy, as the heterodox but Christian-based teachings of Joachim of Fiora (which had long been influential in Florence and its environs) became mingled with a new enthusiasm for pagan models of divination and prediction. According to the chronicler Luca Landucci, this was a time when ‘the whole world was stirred up in expectation of great things from God’ and supernatural signs were multiplying apace. (Chastel 345)11 Ironically, it was in the wake of this atmosphere of tense eschatological anticipation that the Dominican priest Savonarola was to return to Florence in 1490, and to begin a prophetic sequence of sermons, fulminating against the pagan-inspired culture of the humanists – and against poetry in particular – and warning of divine judgement upon Florence if she did not repent.

  • 12  See Luigi Aurigemma. Le signe zodiacal du Scorpion dans les traditions occidentales de l’Antiquité (...)

17In anticipation of the Great Conjunction of 1484, the ordinary man or woman in the street, probably knowing something of Joachimist expectations of a third age of the Holy Spirit, may have expected something like the second coming. But the circle around Ficino appears to have expected a quite different renovatio; thus Gentile, Hankins and Allen have argued (to quote Hankins) that ‘it is difficult to believe that the appearance of Ficino’s Platonis Opera Omnia in the year 1484 was not related to Ficino’s millennial hopes for a renewal of Christianity through the pia philosophia of Platonism’; for Ficino, the ‘conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter signalled the conjoining of wisdom and power, the precondition for a Golden Age’. (Hankins I, 304). Moreover, the sign of Scorpio had an especially potent reputation, bestowing, according to the Roman astrologer Firmicus, high religiosity and prophetic gifts. Its other attributes included, more ambivalently, passionate desire and fecundity, and a secret, possibly venomous power, paralleling that of the scorpion.12 Yet the humanists must have noted with interest as well as relief that the conjunction was to occur in the sign’s third and last decan (or subdivision of ten degrees), which was traditionally ruled by the benevolent goddess of love and humanitas, Venus. The most serious study of this conjunction, the Pronosticon of Paul of Middleburg, a friend and correspondent of Ficino, was published in 1484. Writing to Ficino a few year later, in 1488, Janus Pannonius referred to his credulity on this matter: ‘when some time ago I travelled to ... Florence, I remember I heard from two of your astrologers that, from the position of the stars, you were about to renew the ancient utterances of the philosophers’ (Hankins I. 303, note 91). Pannonius’ phrasing is striking for its association of the reported event with a renewal of ancient, implicitly secret, voices.

Reading Flowers as Tropes

18I hope this brief sketch of the peculiar cultural climate of Florence in the early 1480s shows that it may have a suggestive relevance to what I interpret as the ‘Primavera’’s covert ambivalence towards the desired inauguration of a new Golden Age, as personified by the figure of Zephyr. But what then of Flora’s flowers? To what kind of cultural flowering – or cultural process – do they allude? In her study of the botanical symbolism of the ‘Primavera’ Mirella Levi d’Ancona has shown that flowers and plants could function poetically in the context of a Renaissance painting – that is, as highly specific emblematic signs; moreover, she notes that many of the flowers included in this painting appear in the love poetry of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Politian. If we are to read these signs as ‘poetical flowers’, however, d’Ancona’s interpretative focus, which argues that these flowers are emblems of marriage (on the assumption that the painting was produced for the wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici and Semiramide Appiani in 1482) adds little to the implicit philosophical dimension of the work. And amatory symbolism alone does not account for Botticelli’s inclusion of flowers and fruits such as the cornflower, hellebore, carnation, violet, plantain and strawberry around the figures of Flora and Chloris; nor, on the other side of the painting, the association of the god Mercury (whose skyward gaze appears to balance and complement the earthward descent of Zephyr) with planets such as linen and starwort. Instead, it might be more accurate to regard these emblems of a new Golden Age as poetic tropes that are not monovalent, but may instead create petal-like layerings of signification, delineating the cultural renewal which is at stake as a multiple event with diverse aspects and possibilities.

  • 13  Gertrude Jobes. Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 196 (...)

19I am only a beginner in the art of reading flowers as tropes (rather than flowery tropes), but apart from the inclusion of the iris, symbol of Florence, and the rose, whose symbolism is primarily of love, it is notable that several of these flowers were often associated with the imagery of apocalypse, resurrection, spiritual fruits (the strawberry) and salvation: thus violets, strawberries, plantain, cornflowers, daisies and carnations all figure both in this painting and in The Last Judgement of Roger van der Weyden, painted for the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune between 1453 and 1454. Cornflowers, or centaurea, which are the most prominent flowers on Flora’s clothing and headdress, were also used by Dante, in the Purgatorio, to crown the heads of the 24 elders of the Apocalypse. Yet by metonymic association (which seems to be an important aspect of Botticelli’s use of floral and vegetable detail), it is the centrally positioned violet on Flora’s forehead that seems to assume heightened significance: like the rose, the violet is a flower of love, but it also has a funerary association, being linked with the passage between life and death as well as with the latter stages of alchemical transmutation. This suggests that Flora may be intended to represent a pagan image of the fruition of spiritual wisdom, and as engendering not simply a process of birth but one of regeneration. The hypothesis would account for Flora’s gesture of scattering flowers: the funerary associations of this gesture have often puzzled critics. That there is anxiety associated with the process of cultural regeneration as well as hope is further suggested by the traditional vulnerary application (to wounds) of several of these flowers, most notably the cornflower; indeed, in possible connection with the astrological event I mentioned earlier, the grains of the lychnis and the violet are recommended by Pliny as remedies against the sting of scorpions. The hellebore and violet were also said to be remedies against the black bile or melancholy, the inspirational but also potentially negative state attributed to the influence of Saturn. Interesting also is the comment of many ancient authorities that the hellebore could cure madness or a bacchic frenzy.13

20The connection of the pregnant Flora with these floral tropes suggests that Zephyr’s fecundation is a more subtle process than many initially appear, producing a mass of beauty and fecundity certainly, but with hidden layer of potentiality that can be revealed only if the deeper meaning of beauty is understood. The skyward-gazing Mercury on the other side of the picture, who thereby seems to act as an important complement and antithesis to the earth-bound fecundity of Zephyr, reinforces this theme of the observation of signs, just as he hints at the relationship of inspiration’s fruits (possibly symbolised by the oranges about his head) to the movements of the stars: not only to the movement of the year from spring into summer and autumn, but also, perhaps, to the arrival of the conjunction from which Ficino and his fellows Platonists appear to have expected so much. Finally, minute observation of the painting has found tiny seeds scattered around Mercury’s feet and groin. Like the still pregnant, yet already flowering Flora, these seeds reinforce the implication that Botticelli conceived of this golden age flowering as a process whose ultimate meaning – whose spiritual fruits, as opposed to its poetical flowers – was yet to be revealed.

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ALLEN Michael J. B., Synoptic Art, Marsilio Ficino on the history of Platonic interpretation, Florence, Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1998.

BREDEKAMP Horst, Botticelli, Le Printemps, Florence, jardin de Vénus, trans. Cécile Michaud, Paris, Gérard Monfort, 1999.

CHASTEL André, Art et humanisme à Florence au temps de Laurent le Magnifique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1961.

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FICIN Marsile, Théologie Platonicienne de l’immortalité des âmes, 3 tomes, trad. Raymond Marcel, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1970.

HANKINS John, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, (2 vols), Leiden, Brill, 1990.

HESIOD, ‘Theogony’ in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn White, London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1967, 379.

LEVI D’ANCONA Mirella, Botticelli’s Primavera, a botanical interpretation including astrology alchemy and the Medici, Florence, Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1983.

LIGHTBOWN R, Botticelli, London, Elek, 1978.

LUCRETIUS, On the Nature of Things, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, London, Heinemann, 1975.

MELTZHOFF Stanley, Botticelli, Signorelli and Savonarola, Theologia poetica and painting from Boccaccio to Poliziano, Florence, Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1987.

PLATO, Symposium. trans. Robin Waterfield, Oxford, Oxford U P, 1994.

PLINY, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, 10 vols., London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1961.

WALKER D. P, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, from Ficino to Campanella, London, Warburg Institute, 1958.

WEINSTEIN Donald, Savonarola and Florence, prophecy and patriotism in the Renaissance, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1970.

WIND Edgar, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, London, Faber and Faber, 1955.

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1  The thematic preoccupation of this painting with breath was noted by Edgar Wind who observes: ‘Since breath and spirit are but one afflatus (the Latin word spiritus signifying both), Zephyr and Mercury represent two phases of one periodically recurring process. What descends to the earth as the breath of passion returns to heaven in the spirit of contemplation’ (Wind 125).

2  I am indebted to François Laroque for this observation.

3  For the figurative affinity noted in some works of the Florentine Renaissance between Flora and her attributes of fiori (flowers) and the city of Florence (as Firenze and Florentia) see Bredekamp 5.

4  D. P. Walker comments that ‘His vacillations and hesitations when discussing daemonic magic are due, I think, not only to prudence, but also to real doubts in his own mind; he was both attracted by it and afraid of it.’ (Walker 53).

5  Michael Allen points out in Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedran Charioteer that the Phaedrus was one of the most esteemed of Plato’s newly recovered texts in the circle of Florentine humanists, several decades before the publication of Marsilio Ficino’s detailed commentary in 1494.

6  In his discussion of Socrates’ daemon, Allen explains Ficino’s distinction between the familiar daemon and the daemon of the mind (1981, 143).

7  The daemonic themes of De Triplici Vita are very usefully placed in the wider context of Ficino’s later work in the introduction to Marsilio Ficino: Three Books on Life, an edition and translation of the text by Carol V. Kaske and John R. Clark (Binghampton, N.Y., 1989).

8  Marsile Ficin. Théologie Platonicienne. III, 140-1 (XVI, vi). See also Plutarch’s treatise De Genio Socratis, on the daemon of Socrates, while the connection of wind with the Apollonian faculty of prophecy is stressed in Plutarch’s De Defectu Oraculorum.

9  Allen (1998, 143) points out that Ficino, following Plato, distinguished between the daemon who represents the highest part of the human intellect, and the familiar daemon.

10  Donald Weinstein. Savonarola and Florence: prophecy and patriotism in the Renaissance. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); Hankins. I, 302-4; Chastel, Art et humanisme. III; Michael J. B. Allen. Nuptial Arithmetic: Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on the fateful number in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic (1994). 81-2.

11  See also A. Chastel,‘L’Antéchrist à la Renaissance’, Actes du Congres d’Etudes humanistes, Rome, 1952.

12  See Luigi Aurigemma. Le signe zodiacal du Scorpion dans les traditions occidentales de l’Antiquité gréco-latine à la Renaissance. Mouton : Paris, 1976.

13  Gertrude Jobes. Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. New York: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1962; Ad de Vries. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam, 1974; Jennifer Speake. The Dent Dictionary of Symbols in Christian Art. London: J M Dent, 1994. Jobes also notes that the colour violet stands for 'a symbolic connection between movement of time and experience; between sleeping and waking or state of transition, condition between death of the wordly and birth of the spiritual' (hence the colour of Lent, Advent). (Jobes, 1651)

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Philippa Berry, « The voice of the daemon », Sillages critiques, 7 | 2005, 13-26.

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Philippa Berry, « The voice of the daemon », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 7 | 2005, document 2, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2009, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Philippa Berry

King's College, Cambridge

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