Selecciona una palabra y presiona la tecla d para obtener su definición.


ArribaAbajo The Concept of Venus-Humanitas in Cervantes as the Key to the Enigma of Botticelli's Primavera

George Camamis

La crítica nunca se ha dado cuenta de la importancia capital de las obras maestras de los pintores del Renacimiento italiano en por lo menos dos de las obras de Cervantes. Este ensayo es un esfuerzo original por demostrar que Cervantes, en La Galatea y La gitanilla, fue inspirado profundamente por los varios cuadros de Venus -especialmente la Primavera- de Botticelli, y por el concepto de Venus-Humanitas como cifra y concretización de las artes y letras, tal como fueron concebidas por los neoplatónicos florentinos. Al examinar de cerca varios pasajes en La Galatea y La gitanilla descubrimos que Cervantes siguió detalladamente la iconografía de la Primavera, y que tanto Galaea como Preciosa surgen como figuras de Venus hondamente imbuidas del concepto de humanitas de Botticelli. Esta revelación sorprendente nos lleva en su turno a una penetración intrigante del sentido enigmático de la Primavera como el triunfo del humanismo platónico sobre la concepción cristiana del arte y del hombre en la Edad Media.

Strange as the title of this article may seem to those familiar with the enigmatic nature of Botticelli's allegorical paintings, Cervantes, beginning his literary career a full century after the Florentine painted the Primavera, left us clear proof of his knowledge of this and the other Venus paintings by Botticelli in two of his least read novels: La Galatea and La Gitanilla. As I shall demonstrate in the course of this study, Cervantes was extremely sensitive to the visual arts, especially painting. Besides the numerous explicit references to painters and their art, the Spanish author has dotted the enormous complexity of his works with ingeniously hidden, but nevertheless extremely precise, allusions to at least two great masters of yesteryear: El Greco and Botticelli.

The iconographic and other proof that I shall bring forth will show that Cervantes not only had seen and contemplated the Primavera, the Birth of Venus and Venus and Mars, but, what is much more surprising and revealing, that he had penetrated the very essence of these masterpieces, capturing their hidden meaning as only could a veritable genius of the Renaissance. What is just as important is that, at the same time, we arrive at the true and engrossing meaning of the works in which Cervantes showed clearly that he was inspired by the Florentine's canvases. Art and literature thus join hands to present us   —184→   two geniuses, one at the flowering of the Renaissance and the other at its waning moments, who epitomize the opposite poles of that great period which their contemporaries baptized as the rebirth of art and learning.

This study should not be construed as merely an essay on the Renaissance spirit of Botticelli and Cervantes based on a community of ideas existing in the Spaniard's works and the Florentine's paintings. First of all, I shall establish that E. H. Gombrich, in his history-making study, «Botticelli's Mythologies», was perfectly right when he stated that Ficino's concept of Venus-Humanitas was the guiding motivation in the Primavera, the Birth of Venus and Venus and Mars. And it was precisely this highly interesting philosophical conception of the Venus of the Renaissance that inspired Cervantes to write La Galatea and La Gitanilla. The feminine protagonist of each of these novels presents a series of details, some very precise in nature, which links her not merely with a vague idea of the goddess of love, but with the very same Venus painted by Botticelli. The Venus-Humanitas concept then permits us to uncover completely new and profound meanings in the two works by Cervantes, hitherto unsuspected, and which in turn prove to be the key to Botticelli's allegories concerning Aphrodite, especially the Primavera and Venus and Mars. These new meanings, once revealed, will dispel practically all the aura of centuries-old mystery surrounding them and show that Gombrich was at the very threshold of piercing the occult sense of the Primavera, lacking only the key which Cervantes now provides so opportunely.

Ut Pictura Poesis

One of the paradoxes of the history of literary criticism is that no one has fully realized the tremendous importance that Cervantes on many occasions attributes to painters and their art. In his last novel, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, posthumously published in 1617, the author repeatedly makes use of painters and canvases to unfold the strange wanderings of his pair of protagonists as they wend their way from the barbarous islands of the North Atlantic to the gentle and sunny climate of Rome. And, surprisingly enough, all these allusions to the art of painting converge in a scene placed conscientiously by Cervantes exactly in the center of the novel; a scene in which Periandro, the protagonist, orders a large painting to be made by a famous painter depicting the principal episodes of his story. Cervantes goes on to describe in detail all the interesting highlights of that curious work of art, leaving it to the imagination of the reader to   —185→   figure out how exactly the artist was to present it all in one painting. The important point, however, is that Cervantes carefully situated this scene in the most significant part of the novel: its precise center. The huge canvas, so strategically placed, thus becomes symbolic of the fusion of art and literature, of an author who is constantly inspired by the works of Renaissance masters and one who further on in the narration asserts that

Prose narration, poetry and painting are mutually symbolic and resemble one another to such an extent that when you write prose narration, you paint, and when you paint, you write19.

What we have here is an author, more fortunate in prose than in poetry, who has extended the classical dictum of Horace's ut pictura poesis to include the prose narrations (la historia) in which he alone was the unique master of his time. Cervantes thus establishes an important and highly effective relationship between prose and art painting, one which he sums up in Don Quijote when the knight-errant tells Sancho: «pintor o escritor, que todo es uno», («a painter or writer, it is all the same»)20. If we bear in mind that the painter or writer of whom Don Quijote speaks is indeed Cervantes himself -the hidalgo uses these terms to refer to the author of his adventures- we have a precious example of the blending of ars pictoria and ars poetica in the creative genius of the Spaniard.

This intimate fusion, nevertheless, was not merely on a theoretical plane. In Part One of Don Quijote we find more than one interesting passage pointing to inspiration in specific works of art by El Greco21. Cervantes is, to be sure, making original use of the Renaissance principle of ekphrasis which was in vogue during the Florentine Quattrocento and which led painters to search enthusiastically classical literature for poetic descriptions worthy of plastic representation on canvas. Cervantes, however, merely reversed the principle and used paintings for his literary inspirations.

Botticelli's Primavera in La Galatea

With Cervantes's reputation as a painter-writer firmly established, we can now confidently approach the descriptions in La Galatea which appear to have come directly from Botticelli's great Quattrocento masterpiece. La Galatea is a pastoral romance in which two shepherds vie for the love of the incomparably beautiful shepherdess Galatea. But interspersed in this central plot, which is rather weak in itself, are a number of episodes and seemingly extraneous stories concerning the love affairs of a large group of other shepherds. Actually, Cervantes is telling the story of the great Spanish poets of his time, for several of the shepherds are easily identifiable by their verses and by certain clear allusions to facts already known about them. Yet little is known about Galatea herself and the other female characters.

One of the peculiarities of La Galatea which strikes us in particular is the absence of the world of the classical gods and nymphs of antiquity, a world ever present in such pastoral romances of Golden Age Spain as Montemayor's Diana and its continuation, Diana enamorada by Gil Polo. Since the gods and nymphs form an integral part of pastoral romances -an attempt to contemporize the Arcadia of the pagan world- their absence in La Galatea must be construed as symptomatic of Cervantes's intention. As we shall see, Cervantes presented the fictional and idealistic world of Greek mythology as intimately coexisting with that of his shepherd-poets. The shepherdesses, on a symbolic level, are in fact the goddesses and nymphs who are so conspicuously absent on the literal level of the novel. Cervantes, ever so careful to present his episodes devoid of fantastic elements which would detract from the verisimilitude of his narration, simply transforms them into living personages that mix in with our real world with such ease that we cannot suspect or detect their real allegorical identity. Thus the divinely beautiful and aloof Galatea, «in whom the three Graces are seen to converge», becomes, as we shall see, Ficino's Venus-Humanitas, the spirit of Renaissance arts and letters and a truly worthy object of the love of shepherd-poets inspired by the humanistic spirit of those times22. The concept of Venus-Humanitas, of a goddess of love who is the inspiration of   —187→   humanistic arts and letters, was first expounded by E. H. Gombrich. In his article on «Botticelli's Mythologies», he suggests that Botticelli was influenced by Ficino's doctrine of Venus set forth in a letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici exhorting him to accept the Humanity of this goddess as a guiding moral principle. The letter in which the Venus-Humanitas theme occurs must certainly be considered to be of momentous importance, for Ficino followed up this letter with another to Giorgio Antonio Vespucci and Naldo Naldi, urging the two men to have Lorenzo, a youth of fifteen at the time, «to learn it by heart and treasure it up in his mind». Gombrich quotes the letter to Lorenzo in English; several mentions are observed in which Ficino refers to Venus as Humanitas, and in one in particular he states that «Humanity (Humanitas) herself is a nymph of excellent comeliness, born of heaven and more than others beloved by God all highest». Finally he tells his young pupil, Lorenzo, that he should accept the goddess as his spiritual bride: «My dear Lorenzo, a nymph of such nobility has been wholly given into your hands. If you were to unite with her in wedlock and claim her as yours she would make all your years sweet»23. The interesting hypothesis that Botticelli was influenced by this special notion of Venus was accepted by such leading art critics as Edwin Panofsky and André Chastel, to mention two of the most important.

That Venus-Humanitas, thus conceived, exemplifies the spirit of arts and letters, of humanism as it was known in fifteenth-century Florence, becomes quite evident when we turn to Botticelli's frescoes of the Villa Lemmi and observe that in one of them Venus introduces a young man to the Liberal Arts. If we are to believe in the inherent Neoplatonic spirit of Botticelli's works, then it follows that these arts   —188→   and letters are the unorthodox list that Ficino, in his Theologia Platonica, proposes as the culmination of Renaissance thought: «This Golden Age, as it were, has brought back to light the Liberal Arts which had almost been extinct: Grammar, Poetry, Rhetoric, Painting, Architecture, Music and the ancient art of Singing to the Orphic Lyre». (The translation is from Gombrich, p. 59). Thus, in the Villa Lemmi fresco, Venus, as the goddess who introduces a youth to these Arts, now arises as an encyclopedic symbol which epitomizes the spirit of arts and letters as conceived by the Florentine Neoplatonists24.

The identification of Galatea as Venus-Humanitas becomes quite evident when we realize that both the spirit and the imagery of the Primavera pervade La Galatea in its most intimate and profound moments. As we uncover the various pictorial elements which Cervantes incorporated in his pastoral romance we shall, at the same time, appreciate his tremendous creative genius. What he has indeed done was to analyse the Primavera and perceive that it was fundamentally a composition of light on dark, the light being that of the new awakening of learning and the darkness that of the Middle Ages25. Hence his inspiration unfolds in two separate moments, one in the dark, the other in bright sunlight. The first is when the shepherd Elicio leaves his but in the middle of the night to seek a solitary place in the woods where he could give free rein to his amorous thoughts. With this thought in mind he penetrates «the thickness of a dense wood» until he comes across a shepherd:


And so, proceeding little by little and enjoying a warm zephyr that was blowing against his face -a breeze full of the delicate aroma that it would gently steal from the air in which the sweet-smelling flowers, copiously present on the green ground, were enveloped as it passed over them- he heard a voice as if coming from one who was complaining dolefully...26

We now have the first elements from the Primavera: a thick, dark wood, Zephyr blowing his wind, and the green ground covered with sweet-smelling flowers. Elicio thereupon hears the lament of the shepherd Lisandro who also recites a somewhat long poem which does not concern us for the time being. Upon completion of the poem, Elicio breaks through the thorny thicket and encounters the shepherd standing in a little clearing in a rather strange stance:


Botticelli Primavera
Courtesy: Art Resource

And breaking through the thorny brambles, so as to get more   —190→   quickly to where the voice was coming from, he came out into a small clearing -similar to an amphitheater and enclosed all around by very thick and entangled branches- in which he saw a shepherd who, with energetic pose, was standing with the right foot forward and the left foot behind, and the right arm raised in the manner of one who expects to execute a forceful throw. And it really was so, because, with the sound made by Elicio as he broke through the branches, thinking it to be some wild beast from which he should defend himself, the shepherd of the forest had put himself on the verge of throwing a heavy rock which he had in his hand27.

The additional details which the text provides are quite significant and require careful analysis. First of all, the shepherd's curious posture is of capital importance. He is standing in an energetic pose with his right foot forward, his left foot behind, and his right arm raised as if to execute a «forceful throw». Furthermore, he is standing in a small clearing which is enclosed all around by thick branches. Cervantes has actually reproduced exactly the figure of Mercury in Botticelli's Primavera. We now have a clearing in a dark, thick wood with thick branches on all sides and a green ground covered with sweet-smelling flowers. A zephyr is blowing across the scene, and in the clearing someone is standing in precisely the same iconographic position as Mercury in the painting. The correspondence and similarity of the two scenes could not be more impressive.

If we examine further Cervantes's text, we can detect a definite incongruity which cannot be explained away by its literal comprehension. The author says that Lisandro had his right arm raised because he was about to throw a heavy rock which he had in his hand. This is in direct contradiction with the position of his legs. When someone who is righthanded gets set to throw a heavy object -Cervantes does specify that the rock was heavy and in his right hand- his feet invariably assume the position of left foot forward and right foot in back, exactly the opposite of Lisandro's strange stance. Cervantes, therefore, is not describing someone throwing a stone but the very special and unique image of Mercury's figure in the Primavera28.


Cervantes does not complete this partial representation of the Quattrocento masterpiece until the final book of the six that comprise La Galatea. To the dark and gloomy half of the Primavera which he paints near the beginning of Book I, he later superimposes the resplendent scene of Venus and Flora which now takes place in the brilliant light of Spanish sunshine. It is the beginning of the climax of the romance, when shepherds from all the neighboring valleys gather in the morning sunlight to head for the Valley of the Cypresses. There they will pay tribute to the deceased shepherd Meliso, who is none other than the famous sixteenth-century humanist, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. There, too, they will witness the miraculous appearance of the muse Calliope and listen to her sing praise of all the great living poets of Spain.

In the presentation of the dark portion of the Primavera, we saw Elicio beleaguered with sad and melancholy thoughts that the gloomy atmosphere seemed to magnify; and we heard Lisandro's sorrowful lament as he grieved over the death of his lady. Now the picture is the exact opposite. The darkness of the forest at night gives way to the bright and cheerful landscape of the valley of the Tagus as seen in the sunlight. Elicio's melancholy mood turns into one of joyful contemplation of Nature's beauty, so much so that he is snatched away in a rapture of pure delight -the most beautiful moment of the entire romance- and his fantasy presents us with the significantly symbolic vision of the eternal Spring:

Here smiling Spring, in any season of the year, is seen walking with beautiful Venus in succinct and amorous attire, and Zephyr who accompanies her, with Mother Flora in front, sprinkling about handfuls of various sweet-smelling flowers29.

Cervantes here has presented one of the chief Renaissance themes,   —192→   that of the eternal Spring, in its most exaltedly allegorized form: Venus accompanied by Zephyr and Flora who is sprinkling about handfuls of sweet-smelling flowers30. Adding these elements to the first half of the painting described in Book I, we get an almost complete Primavera. Only the three Graces and Cupid are lacking. Cervantes, however, is reserving the three Charites as a final culminating touch, for, at the end of his ecstatic vision, Elicio stops and with his staff points out Galatea as the embodiment of beauty and discretion. Since Cervantes already told us that in the shepherdess the three Graces are subsumed, all that remains to be done to complete Botticelli's picture is unfold her into her threefold symbol placing her, along with Venus and Flora, into our reconstruction of the Allegory of Spring31.

Galatea as Venus-Humanitas

La Galatea thus is a deeply symbolic bucolic idyll that takes us from the dark night of gloomy and melancholy contemplation to the brilliant and resplendent triumph of Galatea set within the ecstatic vision of the eternal Spring in which Venus and Flora, with the aid of Zephyr, transform the valley of the Tagus into a magnificent garden of Alcinoüs. But the beautiful and discreet shepherdess is more than a mere symbol of the goddess of love; she is the humanity of Venus which Ficino mentions several times in his letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, urging him to embrace her and unite himself with her in spiritual matrimony. This Venus is indeed the spirit of the Florentine Renaissance, for she seems to be, amidst the imprecision of her exact nature, a converging point towards which are drawn, as if by some strange attraction, all the most sublime aspirations of the artists and writers of the new Athens imbued with the spirit of reawakening.

Cervantes has left us numerous indications which couple his protagonist with Venus. Besides telling us explicitly that the three Graces are subsumed in Galatea -a very obvious allusion to Pico della Mirandola's conception of a Venus subdividing into Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia- he has one of his shepherds stress her divine nature in these verses:

pero como ella debe ser diosa,
el alma querrá más que no otra cosa32.

Though such comparisons of feminine beauty with goddesses were quite frequent in Renaissance literature, these verses, in their true sense, signify that Galatea is actually a goddess who cares for nothing else except the possession of the shepherd-poet's soul. And on another occasion, when Elicio claims that she is «la gloria de nuestra edad» -the glory of our age- and the shepherd Erastro in turn stresses her beautiful eyes which can cause «the pen to soar up to heaven from the humble ground»33, they are telling us she is in fact the epitome of the Renaissance and the inspiration of poets, of men who desire to break with the world of platitudes and ascend the highest spheres of poetic achievement.

Two of the commonest attributes associated with Venus are the   —194→   apple and the myrtle tree. Both of these appear in the romance intimately coupled with the divine shepherdess. The apple, frequent in the presentation of the Graces34, is alluded to when Erastro compares Galatea's cheeks to «two beautiful red apples»35. Although this could conceivably be considered a not unusual metaphoric application, it is definitely not the case in Cervantes's use of the myrtle tree in conjunction with his heroine. In Book I, we find Galatea significantly hiding among a group of thick myrtle trees36, a detail which is repeated a little further on in the story when she again hides under the pleasant shade of some thickly foliated myrtle trees37.

In each case Cervantes stipulates that the trees are either thickly set togethercerrados mirtos») or densely covered with leavesacopados mirtos»). Both descriptive details are plainly visible in Venus and Mars, where the closeness and the heavy foliage of the myrtles stand out clearly in the background. The relationship is an important one because Cervantes does not select names of trees at random under which to place his shepherds. Each tree is unique in its symbolic impact and serves an intrinsic purpose in Cervantes's narrative plan. Throughout La Galatea he mentions a number of different trees: elm trees, laurels, willows, olive trees, poplars and even palm trees. And when a certain shepherd or shepherdess sits beneath a specifically named tree to bewail his or her misfortunes, the tree becomes symbolic of the very special nature of that personage.

In the case of the myrtle tree, Cervantes mentions it only three times throughout the entire story and all three become highly significant. He mentions twice, as we have seen, that it is among close, densely foliated myrtles that Galatea hides, and the third comes immediately after the quoted passage on the eternal Spring made possible by the presence of Venus38. The three mentions, twice in the presence of Galatea and once in the important procession led by Venus, are strongly indicative of symbolic typology being the motivating principle and should incline us to accept Cervantes's divine shepherdess as the spirit of Aphrodite and the glory of her age.


Cervantes was not the only Spanish writer to make use of the Venus-myrtle symbol. A rapid perusal of Spain's greatest Renaissance poet, Garcilaso de la Vega, uncovers, in his Egloga III, the following pertinent verses:

   El álamo de Alcides escogido
fue siempre, y el laurel del rojo Apolo;
de la hermosa Venus fue tenido
en precio y en estima el mirto solo;
el verde sauce de Flérida es querido,
y por suyo entre todos escogiólo;39

The poet not only tells us here that trees such as the poplar, laurel and willow -all of which are repeatedly mentioned by Cervantes- are symbolic of mythological figures, but that the myrtle, in each case in conjunction with the presence of Galatea or Venus herself, plus the fact that it is the only tree alluded to when it concerns the divine shepherdess, constitute an interesting element of proof in the task that I have undertaken.

In concluding this section on Galatea, it becomes imperative to discuss her name. No discussion of a great symbolic figure would be complete without an explanation of the name that the author applies to his enigmatic creation. In the case of our nymphlike shepherdess, Cervantes must surely have been guided by the story of Pygmalion's statue. As the tale relates, when Pygmalion fell in love with his work of art, he prayed to Aphrodite to give it life. His prayers were miraculously answered, for the Greek goddess brought the statue to life by breathing her own spirit into the cold ivory. The name of this strange creation was Galatea, a unique blending of classical art and beauty with the spirit of Aphrodite, and precisely what the Renaissance humanist had in mind when he first conceived his Venus-Humanitas.

Venus Disguised as a Gipsy

The realization that La Galatea, Cervantes's first adventure in prose literature, is centered around the cherished idea of a Venus-Humanitas would lead one to suspect that he could easily return to his first great inspiration. This is exactly what we encounter a quarter of a century later in La Gitanilla, a short novel with which its author begins his Novelas ejemplares. It is the story of Preciosa, the little gipsy girl who suddenly appeared in the streets of Madrid, capturing the hearts of the madrileños with her songs, dances and delightfully sparkling wit. She is Cervantes's second and most successful Venus inspiration. When the Spanish novelist wrote this work he was already enjoying the belated fame which Don Quijote had brought him in 1605. His second inspiration in the concept of Venus-Humanitas bears proof of an experienced writer who is a master of subtle irony and profound meaning.

The plot of La Gitanilla centers around the strange passion that a young nobleman, Don Juan de Cárcamo, suddenly feels for Preciosa, causing him to abandon his family and military career to become a gipsy in order to win the favor of his precious little gipsy girl who is only fifteen years old. The story comes to a rapid close when Andrés Caballero, the name the young Don Juan assumed when he became a gipsy, is involved in a murder and it is discovered that Preciosa is really the daughter of a magistrate who was abducted, when still a baby, by an old gipsy woman who raised her as her granddaughter. Andrés Caballero, exculpated of the murder charges, now can at least marry Preciosa and return to the social world he so readily left only a few months before.

The most extraordinary aspect of this enchanting story is that when Don Juan becomes a gipsy, he is not just any nobleman living a life of ease in Spain. He is actually a miles Christi, a knight of the Order of St. James, about to be sent to Flanders to battle against the enemies of the Catholic Church. As a miles Christi, his arms are the arms of Christ which he surrenders to the beauty of Preciosa, who is none other than the spirit of Venus-Humanitas, the guiding force of the Renaissance. As we shall illustrate, this short novel will become essentially a dramatic confrontation of the arms of this miles Christi and the overpowering beauty of a strange gipsy goddess. Cervantes, in his second Venus inspiration has far outdone his previous creation of a quarter of a century earlier. Preciosa is a perfectly enchanting spiritual creature who captivates the hearts of all who see and hear   —197→   her. Full of spirit, she is very conscious of that extraordinary spark within her, for she tells Andrés at a very crucial moment: «Sir knight, even though I am a gipsy girl, poor and humbly born, I have, here inside of me, a little fantastic spirit that leads me on to great things»40. This is the spirit of the Renaissance; Preciosa, as her name indicates, is talking about that precious and fantastic spirit which transformed Western civilization and opened the path to the Modern Age41.

Cervantes was much more successful in his second presentation of the Venus-Humanitas theme. This was so because he hit upon the felicitous idea of transforming the artificial and stereotyped bucolic world of the shepherds into the realistic one of the gipsies42. But the story he tells is basically the same. Preciosa becomes the center of her gipsy world just as Galatea was of her shepherd followers. Just as Cervantes's bucolic world exists apart from and in opposition to the courtly milieu of traditional Spain, so it is with his gipsy world43, for   —198→   there the opposition becomes one of confrontation between arms and letters: the arms of the miles Christi, the knight of Christ with his conspicuously prominent red cross adorning his bosom, and the humanistic letters of Preciosa-Venus, in whose bosom we significantly discover twice the letters of poetry.

Cervantes does not present in La Gitanilla, as he did in La Galatea, any direct and detailed iconographic correlations with Botticelli's paintings. But he does give a series of excellent and very precise allusions together with an unmistakably profound comprehension of the Florentine's essential meaning. It is precisely this clear manifestation of having pierced the hermetic sense of Botticelli that will allow us to solve the enigma of the Primavera by means of Preciosa's symbolic identity. The first piece of evidence indicating a Venus figure is encountered in her rather unique name. She is called Preciosa because she is a precious jewel, one of the attributes of the Renaissance Venus. In Poliziano's Stanze per la giostra, one of the sources for the Birth of Venus, the Palace of Aphrodite is enclosed with jewel-incrusted portals that sparkle with a thousand iridescent hues:

   Mille et mille colori formon le porte
Di gemme, et di sì vivi intagle chiare44.

When Venus finally emerges from the sea and the three nymphs begin to crown her, jewels become a prominent feature:

   Questa con ambe man le tien sospesa
Sopra l'umide trecce una ghirlanda
D'oro e di gemme orientali accesa:
Questa una perla agli orecchi accomanda:
L'altra al bel petto e bianchi omeri intesa
Par che ricchi monili intorno spanda...45

Jewels are also a distinguishing element in such medieval representations of the goddess as the Tournai tapestry, The Court of Venus, and the anonymous fourteenth-century Italian poem, Visione di Venus46. But the best symbolic presentation of the gem, in this   —199→   context, is found in Spenser's Faerie Queene when he describes a fourth Grace sitting like a «precious gemme» in the midst of the three Graces47. Since the fourth Grace is simply Spenser's way of arriving at Venus by combining the three Charites into a fourth Grace who then becomes the epitome of Venus, we are confronted with a precious Spenserian citation which equates Venus with precious gem, the essence of Preciosa's name. Cervantes, in fact, calls his protagonist a precious pearl (preciosa perla), or a precious jewel (joya preciosa), on more than one occasion. The importance of this attribute is nowhere more evident than in the poem that Clemente, one of her worshipers, dedicates to the gipsy girl:

   Gitanica, que de hermosa
te pueden dar parabienes:
por lo que de piedra tienes
te llama el mundo Preciosa48.

Precious gem, then, is the derivation of the gipsy girl's name, a chief attribute of Aphrodite and one which establishes a close link between Preciosa and the goddess of love. This bond will become even more evident when we now turn to the special relationship between Preciosa and the chorus of three dancing gipsy girls that always accompany her in the same way that Venus is frequently represented with her chorus of three Graces.

When Preciosa first appears in the streets of Madrid to enthral its inhabitants with dance and song, she dances with a group of eight gipsy women, four of whom are old and the other four young49. This precise designation by the author is meant to indicate that Preciosa is   —200→   dancing with three other young gipsy girls as her chorus. This chorus of three thereupon becomes a chief feature of Preciosa's presentation, for the next time that she returns to the city Cervantes specifies that she came with three girls to present a new dance50. From that moment on he rarely mentions the girls that dance with Preciosa without stipulating that their number is three51. On one occasion, however, the three gipsies go into a corner of a room to discuss a secret; but the manner in which the situation is described becomes indicative of the author's intent:

At this, the three little gipsy girls that were with Preciosa, all three of them, huddled in a corner of the room, and they joined up, putting their mouths close together so as not to be heard52.

The italics are mine and serve to stress that Cervantes, in being unnecessarily redundant with the number three, is making an important point: the three gipsies, when they get in the corner with their mouths close together for secrecy, are assuming a configuration which is similar to the three Graces in Botticelli's painting. The three gipsy dancing-girls are thus a representation of Botticelli's masterful chorus which in itself is one of the finest and most beautiful examples of Renaissance art.

Cervantes, nevertheless, does not offer us any precise iconographic features taken from the Primavera. He does not do so because all the charm, beauty, grace and other qualities of the Charites are subsumed within Preciosa herself, who then becomes the fourth Grace (Venus). Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene of Preciosa's triumphant success in Madrid's Church of Santa María, for it is here that she captivates the madrileños while dancing in the company of three young girls. There can be no doubt in my mind, now, that when Cervantes describes her movements he is epitomizing the beauty, charm and grace of Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia whom ancient and Renaissance artists and writers invariable depicted as treading the ground with light and nimble foot. The idea of   —201→   classical nymphs singing, whirling and treading the ground with nimble foot is best illustrated by the Horae -frequently confused with the Graces- in a passage by Philostratus:

And the golden-haired Horae yonder are walking on the spikes of the ears [of grain], but not so as to bend them; nay, they are so light that they do not even sway the stalks... they are very charming and of marvellous art. How they sing, and how they whirl in the dance!53

In the Renaissance, Poliziano continued this tradition in his Rusticus:

It Venus, et Venerem parvi comitantur Amores:
Floraque lascivo parat oscula grata marito:
In mediis, resoluta comas nudata papillas,
Ludit et alterno terram pede Gratia pulsat...54

Poliziano does not mention the nimbel feet, as in Philostratus, but what is just as important is his representation of the three Graces as only one nymph and his description of her dance as being primarily that of treading the earth. Returning now to Cervantes, we observe that all the traits which were underscored in Philostratus and Poliziano are found in Preciosa's dance. Cervantes first says that the little gipsy began her dance by performing «en redondo largas y ligerísimas vueltas», that is, spinning around in wide and nimble circles55. While thus dancing, the enthusiasm of the crowd inside the church reaches a climax, of unprecedented proportions for a church festival, in which the onlookers are carried away with ecstasy over the new joy and charm which has literally invaded their temple. One after another the men shout their approval, and as the last gentleman cries out his praise, we see the very essence of the Graces: «Go to it, my child! Dance, my   —202→   love, and tread the fine dust of the finely ground earth!»56, to which Preciosa responds in words impossible to translate: «¡Y pisárelo yo atán menudó!» These are really the words of an old refrain sung while dancing and which went thus;

Pisaré yo el polvico
atán menudico;
pisaré yo el polvó
atán menudó.57

The refrain is a charming play on the words polvo (dust) and menudo (fine); but its real essence is the act of treading the earth with nimble feet, one of the chief characteristics of the Charites. The words of the enthusiastic onlooker, as he urges the gipsy to tread the fine earth, constitute a definite reminder of the nimblefooted nymphs of the ancient world, nymphs who come to life again as Preciosa, the fourth Grace, whirls about while treading the ground «atán menudó». The amazing art of Cervantes has literally embodied the spirit of Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia in a fourth Grace, a precious gem disguised as a gipsy that suddenly made her appearance in Madrid filling its streets and temples with unprecedented grace and beauty. Preciosa, then, is the spirit of Venus, a fourth Grace that subsumes and magnifies into one all the attributes of the other three. She is the spirit of the Renaissance which appeared in the night of medieval Spain, bringing joy and beauty to replace the somber atmosphere of a long night, a night of fifteen centuries that came to an end when her nimblefooted steps trod the earth «atán menudó».

The inexperienced Cervantes of La Galatea thought it necessary, fortunately for us, to capture the spirit of the Primavera by reproducing a good deal of its precise imagery; the veteran master of the Novelas ejemplares did much better in his second attempt by embodying that spirit in an enchanting gipsy dance58. Since in La   —203→   Gitanilla, Cervantes does not reproduce detailed imagery, we must look elsewhere for parallels with Botticelli's paintings. These we find in the scene at Doña Clara's house where, as Cervantes tells us, the household was expecting the arrival of Preciosa and her gipsies «como el agua de mayo», like April showers, a clear allusion to the basic meaning of the Allegory of Spring59. But in the same scene the author presents several physical features which tie in rather closely with the Birth of Venus. When Preciosa enters the house, Cervantes states that among the others «Preciosa shone like the light of a torch among other lesser lights»60. After thus describing her appearance as a resplendent sight overshadowing the others around her, he draws attention to two important physical traits by placing them between exclamation marks: «This hair certainly can be called golden hair! These eyes certainly can be called emerald eyes!». A third and capital trait is added when Doña Clara notices a beautiful dimple in Preciosa's chin:

Oh, what a dimple! In this dimple all the eyes that look at her will stumble... ¿Is that what your grace calls a dimple, my lady?


Well, either I know little about dimples or that is not a dimple, but a tomb of vital desires61.


Botticelli Birth of Venus
Courtesy: Art Resource

By turning to the figure of Venus in the Birth, we realize that the same three traits are found to be quite prominent, especially the golden hair and the cleft chin, the latter being clearly visible on even the smallest prints. The cleft chin, in fact, is an outstanding Botticelli trademark. Besides the Birth, it is also seen on the same goddess of the Venus and Mars, on the Portrait of a Man with a Medal (Uffizi), on the Virgin of the Madonna of the Pomegranate (Uffizi), and most prominently on St. John the Baptist in the St. Barnabas Altarpiece (Uffizi). The   —205→   curious way in which Cervantes calls our attention to Preciosa's dimple, making it the center of attraction and exclamatory remarks by Doña Clara and the squire, who calls it The tomb of vital desires, all this, which is unique in literature, can only mean that the author had Botticelli's Venus in mind. If we also consider that in the poem that immediately precedes this scene Cervantes alludes to the birth of Preciosa in such terms as «in the age in which you were born» and «How was such beauty born?»62 we get a rather clear indication that the emerald eyes, the golden hair, the dimple, Preciosa's arrival like a Spring shower and like a resplendent light that outshines all others, are all reminders of the Anadyomene, more commonly known as the Birth of Venus.


Botticelli Venus and Mars
Courtesy: Art Resource

The significance of all this is that Cervantes has created his pastoral romance and his gipsy novela around the hidden allegorical meanings of the four Botticelli paintings depicting Venus, three of which -the Allegory of Spring, the Anadyomene and Venus and Mars- being key works in any profound understanding of Renaissance art. Just as in Botticelli's Venus, Galatea and Preciosa now appear to be symbols of the very essence of the Renaissance: humanism. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in Preciosa's words when she tells Don Juan, who has just been overcome by her discretion and beauty, that she embodies «a certain fantastic spirit that leads her on to great   —206→   things». There can be no doubt now that the mysterious spark within her is the spirit of humanism, the animating force of the Renaissance which drove the men of those times on to great achievements. Only a genius like the author of Don Quijote could so perfectly embody in a little gipsy girl the spirit and driving force of an age that changed the entire world. Preciosa now looms before us as a symbol of universal proportions and one of the truly great creations of literature.

The spirit of the Renaissance, however, was the rebirth of one that man had possessed in Antiquity and had lost in the Middle Ages. In La Gitanilla, after a series of episodes involving Andrés and Preciosa, the latter's identity is finally recognized by her true parents of noble birth. In the end Andrés abandons the life of a gipsy and marries his companion in a traditional manner, the couple thus being reincorporated into the established Christian society of Spain. What Cervantes seems to be saying in this dénouement is that humanism and the Renaissance spirit finally overcame the initial militant opposition of the Church and, in the end, was accepted even by the clergy, many of whom became great humanists. In this context, an important element comes to light when the old gipsy woman reveals to Preciosa's parents the exact day and hour that she stole their child:

I caused her to disappear on the day of the Ascension of the Lord, at eight o'clock in the morning, in the year fifteen hundred and ninety five63.

The word that the old woman chooses to say that she stole the child is in no small measure significant, for she does not state that she stole Preciosa, which in Spanish would be robéla, or that she made off with her (me la llevé), but that she caused her to disappear (desparecíla) on the day of the Ascension of the Lord, a most significant day indeed. The old gipsy, who may be a representation of Fortune's fickleness, caused the spirit of classical humanism (Preciosa) to disappear on the very day that the history of the Church began, for on that day of the Ascension of the Lord, Peter became Christ's vicar on earth.

Cervantes, on the allegorical plane of his novel, need not adhere to a strict chronological order. The fact that the humanism of Antiquity did not really disappear in 33 A.D. is really impertinent. What the   —207→   author has done is merely mark its symbolic end on the day of the birth of the institution which was finally to cause its demise. On that day, the Ascension, old Lady Fortune, for some fickle reason, caused the spirit of humanitas to disappear; and fifteen centuries later -Preciosa's fifteen years of age are symbolic of these fifteen centuries- she decides to bring her to Spain in the person of a little spirited gipsy girl who, accompanied by three dancing girls, begins to tread the earth with fascinating charm. It is not just anywhere that she is dancing; it is before the statue of St. Anne64, mother of Mary, within the very temple of the Virgin herself. She is the fourth Grace who embodies all the gracefulness of the Charites. She is grace, beauty and discretion all in one; and as she dances with nimble foot, treading the earth with nymph-like steps, the people in the temple of the Mother of God, and the temple itself, are overwhelmed by a new spirit of joy and beauty. A precious gem, the lost spirit of humanism has come home again, and the fantastic spirit of this fifteen-year-old gipsy girl will lead them on to great things.

The Enigma of the Primavera

In the preceding sections we have observed how it is possible to pierce Cervantes's innermost secrets by means of his inspiration in Botticelli's allegorical paintings. We shall now see that this deep penetration into the inner sanctum of an authentic literary genius will in turn permit us to solve the mystery of the Florentine's enigmas. It could not be otherwise. No writer could demonstrate such a keen interest in a great painter without having discovered exactly what the artist has to say.

The Primavera, as the greatest fifteenth-century painting, is also   —208→   one of the outstanding mysteries of Renaissance art65. Although critics are almost unanimous in accepting Vasari's brief description of the panel as an allegory of Spring, they have been at a loss to proceed any further. The stumbling blocks encountered are the curious demeanor and overall appearance of the figure taken to be Venus, and Mercury's strange behavior and stance. As far as the so-called Venus figure is concerned, her grave and melancholy glance, in a scene depicting the joy and triumph of Spring, have been a perennial bafflement to critics. How could this 'Venus' be so detached and even sad in a picture that «is indeed the anthem of the new faith, of the joy of life and earthly existence»; a picture that depicts the «Realm of Venus, the triumph of the love that Spring awakens in all nature and quickens to redoubled vigour in men's hearts?»66 If G. Fiocco could say of the Primavera «absolutely no other painting could be considered more symbolic of the Renaissance than the Primavera»67; and if for Botticelli Venus is a symbol of the spirit of humanitas, how do we explain the strange demeanor and melancholy glance of the central figure?

The wild attempts at exegesis, in an effort to solve her anomalous stance, only serve to stress the enigmatic nature of the figure. One critic saw in her the awareness of «the pain that comes with birth and of the sorrow that is entwined with human rapture»; another asserted that «her face is sweet and reflective, as becomes the mother of the human race»; still another claimed that «her right hand appears to bless». A. Schmarsow wondered whether the «Venus» is actually «pining for Mars to share her bed in the forest, or dreaming of the fate of bygone Adonis»68. Such romantic musings are legion and it is not necessary to repeat the long list that E. H. Gombrich has so conscientiously collected.


From the above it becomes evident that a serious problem is centered around the key figure assumed to be the goddess of love. Interspersed among the esoteric reveries of past criticism, we now and then stumble upon certain reflections which, although they do not penetrate the mystery, focus the problem in its proper light. Mela Escherich, for example, approaches in some degree the intrinsic emotional and religious spheres of the enigmatic figure «whose half-blessing, half-defensive gesture of the hand seems to express a profoundly serious Noli me tangere»69. But even more interesting is the excellent appraisal of the central figure in an article by Emil Jacobsen:

Let us now turn to the only figure in the background, who by the very fact of her isolated and central position shows herself to be the main character of the composition. She is a young lady with singular features and appears somewhat indisposed... Her head is turning with doleful expression to the left, profoundly engrossed or as if expecting to hear far-off sounds; at the same time she is in the act of defending herself with her right hand. Why? What is this young lady upset about? What kind of thoughts assail her? Why does she raise her hand to defend herself? If we could guess the secret of this melancholy lady, we would at the same time solve the enigma of the painting70.

Of particular interest are Jacobsen's keen observation of the sickly look on the figure's doleful expression and the fact that her head is turning to the left while deeply engrossed in thought or listening to far-off sounds. His description of the hand, however, sums up the problem perfectly, as we shall see later, when he describes it to be in a position of defense. In this demeanor Jacobsen saw clearly that to find an explanation for it would be tantamount to solving the enigma of the Primavera. His analysis of the mysterious lady is fundamentally sound because he has rejected her identification as Venus. A little further on in his article, he makes a detailed comparison of the figure with Botticelli's other Venus paintings, and reaches this conclusion:

However, the main figure of our painting does not resemble in the least the type described above [Venus in other Botticelli works]. Her face shows the marked lines of a drawing, and her expression does not at all bear the usual stamp of the master. Inherent in Botticelli's figures, even when the painter does not intend creating   —210→   an ideal type, are a certain refined and spiritual quality that distinguishes him markedly from his contemporaries, and a peculiar lively movement combined with a fresh and vivid aspect in the expression and glance. Of all this, even though it is found in ample measure in the other figures, nothing appears in the so-called Venus of our painting. She appears to the beholder exactly as if she were experiencing great grief. Though she still looks young, the flower of her first youth has already wilted71.

Jacobsen, according to this passage, has clearly shown the contradictions involved in accepting the principal figure as the goddess of love. Moreover, he has shown its physiognomy to be quite unique in that it bears no relation to Botticelli's refined and spiritual characteristics which distinguish him from his contemporaries. Nevertheless, what is even more striking is when he asserts that she appears to the beholder as if she were seriously griefstricken, and that, though still young, the flower of her youth has already wilted. Jacobsen thereupon poses the question of what this strange creature is doing in the magic garden:

What is she doing in this magic garden, where the exuberant branches bend under the weight of the golden-colored fruit, where the flowers sprout from the ground with miraculous abundance? It seems that she could only have entered it as a somnambulist. Withdrawn into herself, engrossed in deep thought, she sees nothing of that which is going on around her, and she is there as if in a dream. Why? What is troubling this young lady? What thoughts assail her? To what is she extending her ear? Why does she put up her hand in front in an act of defense? In truth, here we have nothing of that divine tranquility and self-assurance; she is completely human72.

Although the critic cannot answer the questions, his perception of the anomalous nature of this figure, who appears to have entered while walking in her sleep, cannot be impugned. Other critics have also been aware of a contradictory situation that surrounds the chief figure of the Primavera. In spite of the anomalies, Wilhelm Bode   —211→   identifies the central figure as Venus because of the presence of her companion Cupid, but goes on to assert that «her fully clothed figure, her almost shy bearing and her melancholy glance would not otherwise suggest this goddess»73. These examples should suffice to demonstrate that the mystery of the Primavera is intimately tied in with the baffling demeanor of the figure usually taken to be Venus. Bode's solution, that of a Venus identification based on the presence of Cupid, is the one that most critics have followed. The many esoteric solutions proposed in the past have lent the Allegory of Spring no small measure of charm; and since many art historians are convinced that its true meaning will never be established with certainty, they do not condemn those who claim that the panel holds a number of possible subjective meanings.

Besides the imaginative romantic interpretations to which we have alluded, there have been several serious and scholarly studies on the Primavera. The best of these is undoubtedly the study published by Gombrich three decades ago. Despite the fact that his interpretation, based on the description of Venus and her train in Apuleius's Golden Ass, was not well received -he later admitted that it was merely hypothetical- his conception of Ficino's Venus-Humanitas as the animating force behind Botticelli was acclaimed by leading art historians74. I now consider it a most felicitous discovery without which this study would have been impossible. But Prof. Gombrich also makes several other keen observations which put him at the threshold of penetrating the true meaning of the Primavera. The only thing that he lacked was the key that Cervantes now conveniently provides to dispel the haunting character of Botticelli's masterpiece.

The key observation that Gombrich and others have made, and   —212→   one which has greatly facilitated my study of the Primavera, is the Madonna-like appearance of the so-called Venus. The trees behind this figure, by bending and arranging their boughs in a certain way, form a rather geometric arch above her75. This led C. Terrasse to describe the figure thus enclosed as a «madone sylvestre dans une chapelle de verdure»76. The parallel between Botticelli's central figure and the iconography of the Virgin is so close that art historians were able to discover the model which the painter appears to have followed: the figure of Mary in Baldovinetti's Annunciation. A comparison shows that both figures are draped in similar fashion and that the position of the hands corresponds rather closely, with one slight difference which will become significant further on: the hand of   —213→   the Primavera figure, unlike that of Baldovinetti's Virgin, has her palm turned away from her as if warding off something. It was precisely this position of the hand, that so intrigued Emil Jacobsen, which will prove to be a key feature in my interpretation. With this close correlation between the «Venus» in the Primavera and the Virgin in mind, we can now turn again to Cervantes for the solution to the great Quattrocento masterpiece.


Botticelli Primavera, detail
Courtesy: Art Resource


Baldovinetti The Annunciation, detail
Courtesy: Art Resource

Cervantes: Key to the Primavera

The Cervantine passage that opens the door to Botticelli's mystery is the one at the very beginning of La Gitanilla where the band of gipsies comes into Madrid for the first time:

And the first entrance that Preciosa made in Madrid was one day on the feast of St. Anne, patroness and mediator of the town, with a dance consisting of eight gipsy women, four old women and four girls, and one gipsy man, a great dancer, who was leading them; and even though all of them were cleanly and neatly attired, Preciosa's neatness was such that all eyes that looked upon her fell in love with her77.

As we have already mentioned in the discussion of Preciosa's symbolism, the precise four-four-one grouping of the gipsies constitutes a direct allusion to the nine figures in the Primavera, which can also be grouped similarly: Zephyr, Chloris, Flora and the central figure forming one group of four on the right, and Cupid and the three Graces giving us another group on the left, with Mercury, who seems to be completely detached from the others, constituting a third unit. With the exception of Mercury -who obviously is represented by the one gipsy, the only male in the group, whom Cervantes calls a «great dancer»- I do not believe that the author intended the four old gipsy women and the four young girls to correspond with the other figures in a specific way78. He probably was merely thinking of an   —214→   allusion to the total number of figures in the painting and their constituting a four-four-one grouping. Whatever the case may be, the total number does indeed represent the nine figures of the Primavera because it is in this scene that Preciosa attains her most ecstatic moment as a dancing fourth Grace that subsumes all the attributes of the three Charites.

Furthermore, the role of the single gipsy man as the leader of the group corresponds quite well with Mercury's in the painting, so that when the dancers enter the church we are actually witnessing a procession of nine being led by a gipsy Mercury. If we recall now what was said about the significance of Preciosa's dancing inside the church, the mystery of the Primavera will begin to unfold. The fifteen-year-old little gipsy girl, who has disappeared as a baby, finally returns and makes a triumphal appearance in Madrid. Since she is the symbol of Venus-Humanitas -the lost spirit of classical humanism which triumphs over the darkness of the Middle Ages- her entry into the church becomes a key factor. This church in which she dances is not just any house of worship. Cervantes gave us the name because it is of prime importance; it is the Church of Santa María, the temple of Holy Mary, Mother of God. Preciosa's graceful nymphlike dancing in the very temple of Santa María represents the victory of the spirit of the Renaissance over the long period of darkness of the Middle Ages dominated by the spirit of the Virgin.

In the Primavera, it now becomes obvious that the central figure, the one that produced so much bafflement and so many esoteric elucidations, must be the very person that she so readily recalls: the Virgin Mary. With this central point cleared up, the confusion begins to vanish. If the figure that was thought to be Venus is really the Virgin, then it follows that the garden is not the magic Realm of Venus, but the traditional medieval paradisiacal one in which Mary and the Christchild are usually represented79. The rest of the painting is now   —215→   readily elucidated by means of the parallel established with Preciosa and her gipsies being led into the Church of Santa María by a gipsy Mercury. In view of this parallel, what we now observe in the Primavera is the invasion of the Virgin's paradise garden by the spirit of the Renaissance in the form of a procession led by Mercury. The Renaissance thus comes into the realm of the Holy Virgin as a triumphant allegorical procession of Spring. Zephyr, by blowing his west wind, seduces the nymph Chloris and transforms her into Flora, the symbol of Spring. At the same time, Mercury, the leader of the procession, moves across the panel from right to left preparing the way for the three dancing Graces behind him80. This explains why, with his back to the rest of the figures he appeared to some critics to be unconcerned with the rest of the scene. As to the thin layer of clouds and the action he is performing with his caduceus, the explanation is that he is simply dispelling from the air the centuries-old murky mist of the Middle Ages.

The thin layer of clouds that Mercury is dispersing, though occasionally questioned by critics in the past, is plainly visible in the original according to E. Wind who also states that, in the present condition of the painting, one can even distinguish the serpents entwined around the caduceus81. The attribute of Mercury as a god who disperses the clouds from the air was known to the men of the Quattrocento. What is crucial about this is that they interpreted this action as one of reasoning dispelling the mist of ignorance of the Middle Ages, and since in the Primavera the mist is none other than that of the Virgin's garden, Mercury could then typify Reason dispelling the dark clouds of ignorance82.


Another factor which could shed new light on the figure of Mercury, a factor which has not been neglected by art critics, is the precise relation that the god's stance bears with the naked figure of Truth in the Calumny of Apelles. The correspondence is so close that each figure is seen with the right arm reaching upward with the elbow bent, the index finger pointing up and the other fingers folded into the palm; the head and glance in each case is also directed upward; furthermore, the left arm is similarly in an almost identical position, and in each instance we see the right foot forward and the left a little behind. If we recall now that Cervantes copied this stance in La Galatea when he described the shepherd Lisandro standing with his right arm raised and with his feet exactly in the same position as Mercury's, we can be sure that the detailed correspondence in the configuration is not merely fortuitous. Cervantes reproduced Mercury's curious stance not only to give us a clue as to his intention but, as we might now suspect, because the stance in itself is symbolic of the naked Truth. Proof of this can be observed in a letter by Ficino to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco in which he tells his pupil that «it is Mercury who, with that certain vital and prompt liveliness of his, exhorts us always to research into the truth of matters»83. The words italicized underscore not only Mercury as a symbol of Truth but also recall quite clearly the words with energetic pose that Cervantes employed to describe Lisandro standing in a position similar to Mercury's. In fine, what we now observe in the Primavera is a god of speed who is a vitally energetic symbol of Reason and naked Truth clearing the air of the dark clouds of ignorance which still hover above the dark medieval garden of the Virgin and the Infant Jesus.


Mercury's strange behavior and the fact that he is moving across the panel from right to left are of crucial importance. Normally the direction of the movement would be just the opposite, from left to right as in reading the lines of a printed page or as in the entrance of characters on the stage of a theatrical production. Other art critics have also noticed this anomalous situation; C. Dempsey, for one, considered the succession of figures from right to left as «an apparently eccentric reversal of our normal tendency to read a painting as we read print, from left to right»84. He then attempts a new interpretation of the Primavera involving the months and seasons of the Roman calendar. However, the interesting point about this new elucidation is that he illustrates an engraving entitled Spring by Virgil Solis of Nuremberg (1514-1562)85, which depicts a procession of Spring, moving from left to right and being led by Mercury. As in the Primavera, Mercury has reached the far end of the scene, but on the opposite side, and has his back to the rest of the procession: Flora riding in a triumphal car, blindfold Cupid hovering above her, and in the rear Venus entering in the embrace of Mars.

The crucial significance of all this, when we compare this engraving with the Primavera, is that Botticelli has reversed the normal left to right direction of a Spring pageant, involving almost the same deities, because of the extraordinary nature of his procession as an antagonistic invasion of the medieval paradise garden86. What the painter is doing is indeed identical to the entry of an antagonist, in a theatrical piece, who appears on the stage from the opposite direction of that normally expected so as to enhance the adverse effect of his role. In the Primavera, this antagonistic role of the procession is observed not only in the succession of the figures from right to left but also in the morbid color and aspect of Zephyr's demeanor, one not at all in keeping with a normally joyous Spring pageant. If we compare Zephyr in the Primavera with the wind god in the Birth, the difference is quite remarkable, for in the latter painting the morbid color and   —218→   facial expression are gone and Botticelli has significantly displaced the winged deity from the right in the Primavera to the left side in the Birth of Venus. Thus we have a benign wind god in one case (the Birth) and, in the other (the Primavera), an antagonistic one with a definitely nonbenign influence on the garden whose central figure is the Virgin. This is so because Botticelli has presented the twofold aspect of the Allegory of Spring: a blithesome pageant of flowery smiles and sprightly dances of beautiful nymphs to herald the birth of a new age, and, at the same moment, a morbid wind god whose enraged demeanor and destructive effect on the trees of the garden mark the passing away of the 'wilted' age of the Virgin.

The problem of Venus, that is, of her absence from the panel, need not trouble us in the least. The goddess of love is indeed present, but this presence is manifested in her threefold form of the Graces, definitely the most beautiful part of the entire painting and that which attracts the eye much more than the figure which was usually thought to be the goddess. It would be inconceivable now to think that the master who painted the fresh, radiant beauty of Aphrodite in the Anadyomene and Venus and Mars could possibly permit his goddess in the Primavera to be relegated to the background, completely overcome by the unsurpassable physical attractions of the chorus of Graces. The central figure is much less beautiful than, and bears no resemblance to, Botticelli's Venuses simply because she is not the goddess of love. She is the old Virgin of the Dark Ages whose first flower of youth -as Jacobsen so intuitively remarked- has already wilted.

Her identification as the Virgin now explains why critics noticed in her a certain melancholy and even indisposed look. It also gives a rather precise answer to Jacobsen's repeated questions as to what she was doing with her right hand which he interpreted to be in a definite position of defense. Looking at the central figure, we perceive that the hand is pointing toward the Graces who, as the unfolded attributes of the love goddess, are indeed identical to her87. The   —219→   Virgin, with a sad, melancholy look, is thus observed to be warding off with her hand the pernicious effect of Venus's invasion of her holy domain. Botticelli, who evidently had in mind Baldovinetti's figure of Mary, deviated from this master's configuration only in turning the palm outward, thus giving us a slight but definite indication of his intention.

The significance of the figure hovering above the one in the center also acquires now a completely new and surprising meaning. As we have stated, it was only the presence of Cupid above the central figure that led critics to assume that the mysterious lady was Venus. With her real identity now revealed, Cupid can only be the Christchild whose presence in his Mother's paradise garden is a necessity to which tradition bears witness88. The bow in Cupid's   —220→   hand, with an arrow poised and pointing at the Graces, now becomes the weapon of an aroused Christchild who is defending his Mother's domain from the evil effect of a pagan goddess who has just invaded the garden. Surprising as it may appear, Cupid's action is in no way illogical or contradictory, for he is only repeating, with more impetus, the defensive attitude of his Mother. The scene now is one of momentous proportions, for what we are witnessing is indeed another striking instance of the arms and letters theme: Cupid (Infant Jesus), armed with a bow and flaming arrow, soars up in defense of the Virgin and aims his arrow at the three Graces, the symbol of humanitas. Christ and the Virgin, Mother and Child, are now seen defending their holy realm from the sudden intrusion of the pagan spirit of the Renaissance.

The representation of the Christchild in the figure of Cupid should in no way surprise us. There are two seventeenth-century Spanish religious plays (autos sacramentales) in which the protagonist is Christ disguised as Cupid. The first of these is Psiquis y Cupido, Christo y el Alma by José de Valdivielso in Doze Actos Sacramentales y dos comedias divinas, (Toledo, 1622). The second was written by Calderón de la Barca in 1640 under the title of Psiquis y Cupido, one of several autos in which the great seventeenth-century playwright Christianizes pagan themes. Throughout both these one-act plays Christ appears as the god of love who woos the soul (Psyche). In the play by Calderón, an interesting point arises when Cupid refers to himself as «the son of that chaste, pure and spotless Venus (hijo de aquella / casta, pura y limpia Venus). The Christianization of the two pagan gods is thus so complete in Calderón that even Venus becomes the Virgin Mother of Christ.


These are not the only examples of a Christianized Cupid. In the same period as Valdivielso, and a little before Calderón, the Dutch engraver Otto Vaenius (1560?-1629?) published his Amoris divini emblemata (Antwerp, 1615), an interesting series of engravings in which the Infant Jesus is transformed into a beautiful frolicsome Cupid who pierces tiny Psyche with arrows of divine love. The identification of Cupid as the Christchild is evident in the Prologue -of the Paris, 1790 edition- when the author makes his protagonist the object of this prayer:

O Verbe fait Enfant, ô Parole muette;
   O Seigneur Souverain de la terre et des cieux,
Devenez aujourd'hui, par grace, l'interprète
De cette immensité qui se cache à nos yeux.
   Je ne vois qu'un Enfant, et c'est le Dieux suprème.

The engravings, too, with their inspired captions, attest to this important transformation of the god of love. The second engraving shows a haloed Cupid with the words AMOR DIVINUS inscribed within the halo itself and which could easily be explained by the caption to another illustration in the same book:


Otto Vaenius Cupid and Psyche
Courtesy: New York Public Library


Otto Vaenius Cupid Embracing Psyche
Courtesy: New York Public Library


Ceste figure signifie,
Que qui reçoit l'amour divin,
Possede et iouit de la vie,
Ie die, d'une vie sans fin.
Et qu'au rebours l'ame infidelle,
Laquelle ne loge l'amour,
Souffre une mort continuelle,
Et ne peut pas vivre un seul iour.

Another engraving depicts an extremely divine Cupid embracing Psyche while holding his bow in his left hand. Its caption again stresses the fact that we are indeed witnessing a winged Infant Jesus:

Aimons celui qui voulut naistre
Tant seulement pour nous cherir
Aimons qui dans ce val terrestre
(Pour nous aymer) voulut mourir.89

These sources from both art and literature are ample proof that Cupid, in the Renaissance, could readily be baptized and appear as the Christchild himself. There can thus be no serious objection to an interpretation of the Allegory of Spring which similarly transforms the god of love into a striking representation of the Infant Jesus, notwithstanding the fact that Botticelli executed this painting more than a century before Calderón and Otto Vaenius.

Another important point to note in the Primavera is that Botticelli, in depicting the Renaissance as a pagan procession invading the Virgin's garden, produced that curious and puzzling mingling of classic and medieval imagery. Art critics have long been at a loss to explain the seemingly strange blending of Renaissance and Gothic art forms. They noticed, for instance, that the figures in the composition appeared flat as in a tapestry, and that the Primavera, even though a good example of Botticelli's Neoplatonism, was, of all his works, the most medieval in spirit90. Emil Jacobsen, who has demonstrated on more   —223→   than one occasion his intuitive capacity to perceive the transcendent nature of certain features, touched upon the very essence of the painting when he asserted that: «while the Venus [of the Birth] is light on light, the Primavera (one could perhaps now say symbolically) is light on darkness»91. No one has stated so clearly, and in so few words, the fundamental difference between the Birth and the Primavera. The Anadyomene, depicting no medieval elements, becomes a composition of light on light, while the Primavera remains one of light on dark, the light of the Renaissance against the darkness of the Middle Ages92. What we have, indeed, is a resplendent vision of the nymphs and gods imposing their light on the gloomy darkness of the realm they have come to conquer, while Mercury dispels with his staff the murky mist that still can be seen in the air above him. The Allegory of Spring, then, becomes a composition of the triumph of light over darkness, of joy over melancholy, of the Renaissance over the Middle Ages. In sum, it is a triumph of Venus-Humanitas over the Virgin and Infant Jesus.