From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
8.2 (1988): 183-223.
Copyright © 1988, The Cervantes Society of America
TRANGE 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
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
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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 write.1
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).2 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 Greco.3 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.
trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, Lib. III, cap. 14. Unless otherwise
specified, all translations in this study are my own.
2 El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, Nueva edición crítica de F. Rodríguez Marín (Madrid, 1948), VIII, p. 223.
3 For an example in which Cervantes uses an El Greco painting, the Pietà, consult my article on El hondo simbolismo de la hija de Agi Morato, published in January, 1977 in Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos (Madrid).
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 times.4 The concept of Venus-Humanitas, of a goddess of love who is the inspiration of
principal Renaissance source for considering the Graces as the unfolded
attributes of Venus, in whom the three converge to produce a whole of
extraordinary beauty, is Pico de la Mirandola: Qui profunde et
intellectualiter divisionem unitatis Venereae in trinitatem Gratiarum
. . . intellexerit, videbit modum debite procedendi in Orphica
Theologia. [P. 187] (Conclusiones,
XXXI, 8). The translation is as follows: He who profoundly comprehends
the division of the unity of Venus into a trinity of Graces, will see how
to proceed into Orphic theology. This process of infolding within Venus
herself the attributes of the Graces appears to be what Spenser was thinking
of in The Faerie Queene (VI, X, 15) when he says that all that
Venus in her selfe doth vaunt, / Is borrowed of them. More will be
said of this in another section when we witness a veritable apotheosis of
this mystic phenomenon in the person of the gipsy girl Preciosa.
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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.5 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
5 E. H.
Gombrich, Botticelli's Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism
of his Circle, London University. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld
Institutes, VIII (1945), 16-18. Reprinted in Symbolic Images: Studies
in the Art of the Renaissance, London: Phaidon, 1972. An important point
which must be borne in mind is that young Lorenzo is also the
destinataire of the Primavera; i.e.,
both the letter and the painting were composed for the same person.
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 Neoplatonists.6
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 Ages.7 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:
critics have been, for the most part, favorable to Gombrich's Venus-Humanitas
theory. Proof of this is seen in A. Chastel (Marsile Ficin et l'art,
Genève-Lille, 1954, p. 119): Venus qui désigne dans l'univers
pacifié et souriant, la puissance pacificatrice de l'amour,
devenait ainsi l'une des grandes divinités du cercle platonicien;
. . . Elle inspire l'idéal d'Humanitas. See
also, by the same critic: Art et humanisme à Florence au temps
de Laurent le Magnifique, (Paris, 1959), pp. 267-69, and 383, where he
calls Venus divinité tutélaire de l'éducation
humaniste. Though not as enthusiastically as the Frenchman, Panofsky
(Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, New York, 1972, pp. 194-95)
appears willing to accept the Venus-humanitas equation, as does G. C. Argan
in Botticelli, Skira, 1957.
7 In the section on the meaning of the Primavera, we shall observe that the enigmatic composition is essentially one in which the light of the Renaissance invades the dark medieval garden in the form of a glorious and resplendent procession, marking the triumph of the new spirit of humanitas. Cervantes, in perceiving correctly this essential feature, presents his literary interpretation in two parts corresponding to the light on darkness theme of the Primavera (see Fig. 1).
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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 . . .8
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:
And breaking through the thorny brambles, so as to get more
Galatea, Clásicos Castellanos, I, pp. 30-31.
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 hand.9
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 Primavera.10
Galatea, I, pp. 34-35.
10 Whether Lisandro is indeed meant to be a true representation of the god Mercury is, at this point, difficult to determine. Cervantes gives us several clues which tend to point in this direction when he, on more than one occasion, refers to Lisandro as the swift-footed shepherd (ligero [p. 191] pastor), and particularly when he describes what appears to be his superhuman speed in overtaking, in just a few steps, another shepherd who was already running at the greatest speed in the world, (corriendo a la mayor priesa del mundo). La Galatea, I, p. 28. See also p. 29, where Cervantes mentions how Lisandro darted away from Elicio, with such speed that Elicio lost all hope of catching him even if he tried to follow him. Another detail in which Cervantes seems to be evoking Mercury is when he describes Lisandro as standing in the clearing with energetic pose (con estremado brío), a characteristic which ties in rather neatly with the Ancients' conception of Mercury as a god who besides his tremendous speed had a certain vital, prompt and energetic liveliness about him.
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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
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 flowers.11
Cervantes here has presented one of the chief Renaissance
Galatea, II, p. 170.
themes, 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 flowers.12 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 Spring.13
the only mention of Venus in the entire novel, indicates that Cervantes was
reserving her appearance for the special occasion of this vision which completes
the second half of the Allegory of Spring.
13 As it becomes apparent that Cervantes indeed was profoundly influenced by Botticelli's imagery, it also becomes necessary to explain whether he had the opportunity to contemplate the Florentine's paintings. Cervantes spent approximately six years in Italy, during which time he was absent for brief intervals when participating in the naval campaigns that Don Juan of Austria led against the Turks. His exact itinerary during these six years is, of course, not known; but it is generally conjectured, according to the numerous Italian cities that he describes in his works, that he traveled extensively throughout the peninsula. Perhaps the best opportunity he had of a leisurely stay in Florence was when he journeyed from Barcelona to Rome by the land route. This would take him very close to the great center of art, and it would seem difficult to believe that a young man of such artistic penchant would not decide to see its art treasures. Cervantes resided in Rome for at least a year, during which time he could have made precious contacts among its artists and humanists while serving on the staff of Cardinal Acquaviva. One of these contacts could well have been El Greco himself who, in 1570, was painting in the Vatican for Cardinal Farnese. Thus Cervantes had ample opportunity to visit Florence and mingle in the Vatican with the greatest artists of Italy's last period of Renaissance glory.
As to the location of Botticelli's Venus paintings, we do know that the Primavera as well as the Birth of Venus, now at the Uffizi in Florence, originally came from the Villa di Castello, an estate belonging to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of Lorenzo de' Medici. Access to this villa should not have proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for a young Spanish army officer who had been the secretary of Cardinal Acquaviva. Moreover, hand drawn or painted copies of famous paintings circulated to some extent even in the sixteenth century.
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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 cosa.14|
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,15 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
since she must be a goddess, she will desire more my soul than any
other thing. La Galatea, I, p. 27.
15 La Galatea, II, p. 87.
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 Graces,16 is alluded to when Erastro
compares Galatea's cheeks to two beautiful red
apples.17 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 trees,18 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
In each case Cervantes stipulates that the trees are either thickly set together (cerrados mirtos) or densely covered with leaves (acopados 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 Venus.20 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.
apple, as a common attribute of Venus, can be observed in the hand of each
one of the Graces in Francesco Cossa's The Triumph of Venus and in
Raphael's The Three Graces.
17 La Galatea, I, p. 26.
18 La Galatea, I, p. 59.
19 La Galatea, I, p. 64.
20 La Galatea, II, p. 170.
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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;21|
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.
poplar was always chosen by Hercules, and the laurel by red Apollo; by
lovely Venus was prized and esteemed the myrtle only; the green willow
is loved by Flérida and for her own from among all she chose it.
(Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, with English Prose
Translations, ed Elias Rivers (New York, 1966), p. 81). The italics are
mine. The myrtle is such an important attribute of Venus that more than one
critic has utilized it to establish the identity of the central figure in
the Primavera. Consult, for example, C. Dempsey,
Mercurius Ver: the Sources of Botticelli's
Primavera, Journal of the Warburg
and Courtauld Institutes, XXXI (1968), p. 255.
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
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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.22 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 Age.23
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 gipsies.24 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 world,25 for
señor caballero, aunque soy gitana, pobre y humildemente nacida,
tengo un espiritillo fantástico acá dentro, que a grandes
cosas me lleva. Cervantes, Novelas ejemplares, ed. F.
Rodríguez Marín, (Madrid, 1962), I, p. 38. (All future references
will be to this edition). That this little spirit is an essential
factor in Preciosa's personality is also illustrated by the words of the
old woman when she declares that the little gipsy speaks como
. . . una persona espiritada, (as a person dominated by a
spirit), op. cit., p. 43. Preciosa's espiritillo fantástico
thus emerges as one of her most important attributes, and I am convinced
that it is intimately coupled with the romantic concept developed by the
Florentine humanists who claimed that man was inspired by a divine spirit
dwelling within him. Thus far my attempts to document this with first-hand
sources have not been fruitful.
23 Since my interpretation of La Gitanilla the same can be said of La Galatea breaks with traditional exegesis of this novela, I shall, with one or two exceptions, not refer to the many studies on this work and on the Novelas ejemplares in general. One of these exceptions is the study by Alban K. Forcione (included in Cervantes, Aristotle and the Persiles, Princeton, 1970, pp. 306-19), who seems to have approached the essential point of Cervantes's novela when he suggests (p. 313) that Preciosa is a symbol of Poetry and a siren of the Platonic tradition, and when he speaks of the ritualistic celebration of death and rebirth which lies behind the plot of the Gitanilla.
24 For mention of close connections between the pastoral world of La Galatea and the gipsies of La Gitanilla, consult Agustín de Amezúa y Mayo, Cervantes, creador de la novela corta española, (Madrid, 1958), II, pp. 27, 33.
25 This opposition is best noted when a gipsy asserts that their realm has nothing to do with the old refrain: Iglesia, o mar, o casa real, (Either Church or sea or Royal House), a saying which really sums up the aspirations of the nobility in Spain. When the gipsy rejects this refrain, he is indeed rejecting the traditional Spain of Santa Teresa, Lepanto and Charles V.
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
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 chiare.26|
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 . . .27|
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 Venus.28 But the best symbolic presentation of the gem, in this
Thousands and thousands of colors are given off by the gems of the
portals and by the very bright and lively carvings. Lib. I, 97.
27 One nymph with both hands holds above her moist locks a garland bright with gold and oriental jewels; another sets pearls on her ears; still another appears to be draping around her bosom and white shoulders precious necklaces . . . Lib. I, 102.
28 La Visione di Venus: antico poemetto popolare, edited by Alessandro D'Ancona in Giornale di Filologia Romanza, I, (1880), 111-18; esp. p. 115.
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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 Graces.29 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 Preciosa.30|
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
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 young.31 This precise designation by the author is meant to indicate that Preciosa is
29 Gerald Snare, Spenser's Fourth Grace, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXXIV (1971), 354-55. The quotation is from The Fairie Queene, VI, X, 12:
|And in the middest of those same three, was placed|
|Another damzell, as a precious gemme|
|Amidst a ring most richly well enchaced,|
|That with her goodly presence all the rest much graced.|
Little gipsy girl, who can for her beauty be praised; because of the
stone that is part of you, the world calls you Preciosa. La
Gitanilla, p. 22.
31 La Gitanilla, p. 6. The precise manner in which Cervantes describes the procession of gipsies four old women, four young and one male gipsy constitutes in both the total number (nine) and in the grouping (four plus four plus one), an important allusion to the number of figures in the Primavera and stresses the ease with which they can be grouped into a four-four-one arrangement. More will be said on this in another section.
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 dance.32 From that moment on he rarely mentions the girls that dance with Preciosa without stipulating that their number is three.33 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 heard.34
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
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
Gitanilla, p. 10.
33 La Gitanilla, pp. 19, 47 and 105.
34 En esto, Las tres gitanillas que iban con Preciosa, todas tres, se arrimaron a un rincón de la sala, y cosiéndose las bocas unas con otras, se juntaron por no ser oídas. La Git., p. 53. Although at first sight this might not appear to be excellent proof, I consider it important, for it was this curious huddle of three gipsy girls in a corner that first led me to suspect an inspiration in Botticelli.
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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!35
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 . . .36|
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 circles.37 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
Imagines, ii, 24; Fairbanks's translation, Loeb Library. The italics
36 Venus comes and is followed by the little loves; Flora offers welcome kisses to her eager husband, and in their midst, with loosely hanging hair and nude breasts, Grace dances, playfully treading the earth with rhythmic step. (vv. 210-21). The italics are mine. For more on the confusion between Horae and Graces see C. Dempsey, Mercurius Ver, p 264. Dempsey also is the source for my quotations from Philostratus and Poliziano. His well-documented descriptions of dancing Horae and Graces have been very useful, in particular his observation (p. 255) that the Graces in the Primavera assume their double function as the attendants of Venus (and the followers of Mercury) and as the springtime Horae.
37 [p. 202] La Gitanilla, p. 8.
love, and tread the fine dust of the finely ground earth!,38 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|
|pisaré yo el polvó|
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 dance.40 Since in La
¡A ello, hija! ¡Andad, amores, y pisad el polvito atán
menudito! La Git., p. 10. The man that so enthusiastically shouts
this encouragement is described by the author as being más humano
. . . más modorro (more human . . . more
lethargic) than the others; and since he is the one most influenced in a
positive way by Preciosa's dancing, we can readily identify him as the
drowsy humanist who awakens after a long sleep of utter dullness.
39 I shall tread the fine dust / so finely ground / I shall tread the dust / so finely ground. F. Rodríguez Marín includes this refrain in his footnote on p. 10.
40 In a way, the arrival of the gipsies in Spain, towards the middle of the [p. 203] fifteenth century, coincided with the first breezes of Italian humanism that blew westward across the Mediterranean in approximately the same period. The gipsies actually made their first appearance in Barcelona in 1447, during the reign of Alfonso V of Aragon, a king who was called El Magnánimo because of the favors he bestowed on the men of letters of the early Renaissance in Italy and in Spain. There is also a parallel in the Italian Renaissance, since the arrival of the gipsies there, at the very beginning of the 15th century, corresponds quite well with its earlier rebirth of letters. In addition, they could, since they brought with them more joyful and animated dances, be considered, on an artistic level, the heralds of the new spirit.
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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 Spring.41 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.42 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?
Git., p. 25. 1 believe that the mention of Spring showers is the only
allusion to springtime in the entire story. Curiously enough, Preciosa does
not make her entry into Madrid in the Spring, as might be expected in a
reenactment of Botticelli's Primavera. She
arrives on the feast of St. Anne, that is, on the 25 of July, and her subsequent
visits to the court take place in August. The explanation lies, perhaps,
in a similar anomaly in Botticelli's painting, where, though the flowers
on the ground might suggest Spring, the heavy foliage and the full grown
fruit on the trees, in particular, point towards the latter part of the Summer.
But this need not surprise us, since the Allegory of Spring is indeed
that of the eternal Spring which comes not as an annual springtide, to be
repeated once a year, but as a permanent transformation that comes in an
age that is already mature and rapidly approaching its Fall.
42 resplandeció Preciosa como la luz de una antorcha entre otras luces menores. La Git., p. 25.
Well, either I know little about dimples or that is not a dimple, but a tomb of vital desires.43
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
BOTTICELLI Birth of Venus
43 ¡Ay, qué hoyo! En este hoyo han de tropezar cuantos ojos le miraren . . . ¿Ese llama vuestra merced hoyo, señora mía? Pues yo sé poco de hoyos, o ése no es hoyo, sino sepultura de deseos vivos. La Git., p. 26. Cf. this with the detail of the Birth of Venus that prominently shows a cleft chin.
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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?44 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.
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
BOTTICELLI Venus and Mars
la edad en que has nacido. . . ¿cómo
nació tal belleza? La Gitanilla, p. 22.
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 five.45
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
Desparecíla día de la Ascensión del Señor,
a las ocho de la mañana, del año mil y quinientos y noventa
y cinco. La gitanilla, pp. 115-16. It would be difficult, at
this point, to surmise exactly what Cervantes had in mind when he specified
the time of the day and the year.
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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. Anne,46 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
The Primavera, as the greatest fifteenth-century painting, is also
significance of Preciosa's dancing before the statue of St. Anne requires
comment. Since her cult arose in Europe towards 1485 exactly when
Botticelli was executing his mythologies as a reaction to the growing
spiritual crises caused by humanism, her mention by Cervantes becomes a point
of interest. With Preciosa dancing in the Church of Holy Mary, and before
the image of St. Anne, the scene becomes immensely symbolic not only of the
invasion of the realm of the Virgin by the spirit of humanism, but also of
the triumph of humanitas over the reactionary forces (the cult of
St. Anne) set in motion to destroy it. On the rise of the worship of St.
Anne as a reaction to humanism, see A. Chastel, Art et humanisme,
one of the outstanding mysteries of Renaissance
art.47 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?48 If G. Fiocco could say of
the Primavera absolutely no other painting
could be considered more symbolic of the Renaissance than the
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
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.50 Such romantic musings are legion and it is not necessary to repeat the long list that E. H. Gombrich has so conscientiously collected.
the studies on Botticelli which I cite in this article, other important works
are: A. Warburg, Sandro Botticellis Geburt der Venus and
Frühling,(Leipzig, 1893), included in Gesammelte
Schriften, I, (Leipzig, 1932); Adolfo Venturi, Botticelli, Rome,
1925; R. Van Marle, Italian Schools of Painting, XII, The Hague, 1931;
a good recent bibliography in Roberto Salvini, All the Paintings of
Botticelli, New York, 1965.
48 Wilhelm Bode, Sandro Botticelli, (New York, 1925), p. 55.
49 non mai altra pittura si potrebbe porre piu di questa a simbolo del rinascimento. La pittura toscana del Quattrocento, (Novara, 1945), p. xxvi.
50 I have borrowed these quotations from Gombrich's article (pp. 11-12). Though he gives the titles and dates of publication of his sources, he does not provide page references.
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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.51 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 painting.52
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 o£ 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
Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft, XXXI (1908); quoted by Gombrich,
52 Emil Jacobsen, Allegoria della Primavera di Sandro Botticelli, Archivo Storico dell'Arte, III (1897), p. 328.
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 wilted.53
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 human.54
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
cit., p. 336. Walter Pater (The Renaissance: Studies in Art and
Poetry, London, 1910, p. 60) has even gone further than Jacobsen in
describing the wilted condition of this figure; he [Botticelli]
paints the goddess of pleasure . . . but never without some shadow
of death in the grey flesh and wan flowers.
54 Op. cit., p. 336.
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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.55 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 historians.56 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
Sandro Botticelli, pp. 58-59. C. Dempsey (p. 255), besides Cupid's
presence, gives two additional reasons for a Venus identification: It
is Cupid in attendance, the fact that the scene is set in a garden of apple
trees (a fruit proper to Venus; see, e.g. Philostratus, Imagines,
i, 6), and that the central figure is framed in a spray of myrtle, which
clearly establishes her identity as Venus. The reasons that Dempsey
adduces in the problem of identity are, a priori, valid and bring
up the crucial point that Botticelli, in order to confuse the beholder with
an ambiguous and enigmatic character, conscientiously portrayed his central
figure with a minimum of Venus attributes. That he was entirely successful
in this, goes without saying.
56 E. H. Gombrich, Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, p. 34. In this recent book, the critic included his famous article on Botticelli's Mythologies and presented a re-appraisal and criticism of it, after a lapse of a quarter of a century.
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 her.57 This led C. Terrasse to describe the figure thus enclosed as a madone sylvestre dans une chapelle de verdure.58 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
BOTTICELLI Primavera, detail
BALDOVINETTI The Annunciation, detail
Courtesy: Art Resource
Courtesy: Art Resource
Botticelli's Mythologies, p. 41.
58 Botticelli, Le Printemps, (Paris, 1938), p. 4. A. Chastel, Art et humanisme, p. 383, also sees the central figure in a similar light: Vénus surgit comme une madone sous l'arcature des orangers du bois sacré. Cf. Botticelli's central figure with the Virgin in Baldovinetti's Annunciation.
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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.
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 her.59
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 way.60 He probably was merely thinking of an
la primera entrada que hizo Preciosa en Madrid fué un día de
Santa Ana, patrona y abogada de la villa, con una danza en que iban ocho
gitanas, cuatro ancianas y cuatro muchachas, y un gitano, gran bailarín,
que las guiaba; y aunque todas iban limpias y bien aderezadas, el aseo de
Preciosa era tal, que poco a poco fué enamorando los ojos de cuantos
la miraban. La Git., pp. 6-7.
60 Besides the significance of the total number, and the singular characteristic of a gipsy Mercury who is the leader, the division of the remaining eight figures into two groups, one of old gipsy women and the [p. 214] other of young girls, may be meaningful in that it personifies the spirit of humanism as something old, and at the same time something new; that is, the old spirit of Ciceronian humanitas reborn as a new spirit of Renaissance humanism.
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 represented.61 The rest of the painting is now
few examples of the Virgin and Child in this type of setting are: Paradise
Garden by a German Master; Paradise Garden by Pisanello or Stefano
da Verona; and Madonna in the Wood by Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), a
Florentine painter who in his later years was a contemporary of Botticelli.
All of these works depict Mary and the Christchild in beautiful garden settings
with trees and a great abundance of flowers.
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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 him.62 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
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 caduceus.63 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 ignorance.64
have long suspected that Botticelli may have had in mind a processional
representation of the figures on his canvas; see Bettina Wadia,
Botticelli, (London, 1968), p. 15: The row of figures in the
Primavera across the flat screen of trees
is processional, in a slight right to left movement set up by the gesturing
hands and the direction of the bodies. W. J. Stellman Italian
Old Masters: Botticelli, The Century Magazine, XL (Sept. 1890),
503-04 also interprets the figures in a similar way: In the center
. . . is a fully-draped woman in the costume of the epoch, and
evidently a portrait, in the attitude of listening or admiring, as if
the other characters were part of a pageant displayed before her.
The italics are mine.
63 Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (New Haven, Conn., 1958), p. 106.
64 This function of Mercury as a disperser of clouds is discussed by Wind (p. 107) in his exegesis of the Primavera: The removal of clouds would indeed be a proper occupation for a god who presides over the reasoning soul, particularly as Ficino himself used the simile to characterize in [p. 216] Plotinus's Enneads the enlightening force of intellectual contemplation. Another source quoted by Wind to the same effect is Boccaccio's Genealogia deorum (XII, lxii): Ventos insuper hac virga medicus [i.e. Mercurius] amovet, dum stultas egrotantium opiniones suasionibus et rationibus veris removet, auferendo timorem. (With his staff the healer stirs the winds above, simultaneously doing away with the fears and silly opinions of the sick by means of true persuasive reasoning.) The translation is mine and unfortunately it does not tell us exactly what Boccaccio had in mind when he referred to Mercury's healing of the sick. Nevertheless, the idea of removing the opinions of stupid ignorance with his staff is definitely there, and it constitutes a solid concept which could easily be utilized by Botticelli to portray the god of speed removing the dark mist of medieval ignorance and revealing the mysteries of the ancient scholars.
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.65 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.
Ficino, Opera Omnia, Basle, 1576, p. 864: Mercurius enim lovis
vitali quadam promptaque mobilitate sua, ut res ipsas assidue investigetis,
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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.66 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),67 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 garden.68 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
Mercurius Ver, p. 254.
67 Adam Von Bartsch, Le peintre-graveur, IX, 133: Le Printemps. Flore dans un char, traîné par deux boeufs, précédée par Mercure, et suivie par l'Amour, Clio, Uranie, Melpomène, Mars et Vénus.
68 Besides the engraving Spring by Virgil Solis, Vicenzo Cartari includes in his Imagini delli dei de gl'antichi (Venetia, 1947, p. 290) an engraving of Mercury leading the three Graces in a dance procession which again moves, as in Virgil Solis, from left to right. These two examples thus clearly indicate that the normal direction should be from left to right and that Botticelli has introduced a drastic deviation from the usual procedure.
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
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 her.69 The
far I have not been able to determine if Botticelli had any specific symbolism
in mind when he conceived the extraordinary image of the three Graces. It
is quite possible that Cervantes, in the three gipsy girls that accompany
Preciosa, was not evoking any individual typology for each one of the three
dancing girls. Shadowy most of the time and rarely ever expressing distinguishing
features only one of them is named by Cervantes they seem rather
to function as a an ever present chorus that enhances Preciosa's symbolic
representation of a fourth Grace who in turn is Venus. This leads me to suspect
that both the Spaniard and Florentine [p. 219]
discarded the many classical and Renaissance attempts to clothe each Grace
with a precise meaning. One of the most accepted interpretations is that
which attributes the quality of verdure to Thalia, happiness to Euphrosyne,
and splendor to Aglaia, all three meanings being derived from the etymology
of the names in Greek. Notwithstanding the possibility of specific meanings
in Botticelli's chorus, since each one presents strongly individualistic
physiognomic traits which distinguishes her beauty from the others, Botticelli's
main concern appears to be the depiction of a chorus of three extraordinarily
beautiful Graces who, when infolded, becomes the goddess of love herself.
Cervantes, on the other hand, if he did have any precise meanings in mind
for the Graces, may have conceived his Preciosa-Venus as gathering within
herself the threefold attributes of grace, poetry and
music, qualities which are subsumed perfectly in the characterization
of her role and which Ficino applies to Venus in a dedication to Lorenzo
il Magnifico: Quamobrem et a Pallade sapientiam et a Iunone potentiam
et a Venere gratias poesimque, et Musicam reportavit. Opera omnia,
Basle, 1576, p. 920. Cf. Gombrich, p. 31. For more on the Graces, see Gombrich,
pp. 55-61, and especially the extensive and scholarly treatment they receive
throughout E. Wind's study, esp. pp. 31-56. C. Dempsey, to whom I referred
when discussing the confusion between Horae and Graces, provides useful
reflections on these two groups of nymphs, esp. p. 265, where he speaks of
one Grace that in Pindar's eighth Nemean ode becomes, so Dempsey tells us,
the Queen of Youthful Beauty, being described by Pindar as the
harbinger of the divine desires of Aphrodite. This concept of the Graces
as harbingers could now be used to explain their presence in the
Primavera without the corresponding presence
of Venus herself: as forerunners of the goddess of love, they prepare the
way and herald the arrival of the true and undivided Venus who will appear
in all her radiant, unadorned beauty in the Anadyomene.
|8.2 (1988)||Cervantes and Botticelli's Primavera||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 witness.70 The bow in Cupid's
can now see that Gombrich was indeed very close to solving the mystery of
the Primavera. He sensed that there was something
entirely new here that went far beyond all previous secular art, something
conceived not only on a larger scale but altogether on a higher
plane. Though he could not fully perceive the profoundly religious,
or better yet antireligious, message of the
Primavera, yet he intuitively realized that
Botticelli executed the composition with the fervour and feeling usually
reserved for objects [p. 220] of worship, which
was a departure of momentous significance. Gombrich, moreover, could
see, as did critics before him, an affinity between Botticelli's
Venus and the Virgin: but, unlike former critics, he did not
find such a close tie as being naïve or paradoxical, and even saw in
it a tendency to conceive Venus in such terms of sacred art that
the Bower of Love would of itself take on the appearance of
Paradise. Hence he saw that there was clearly a confusion of two
diametrically opposed ideals which tended, on an artistic level, to merge
the imagery of Paradise and the Realm of Venus to such an extent that Jean
Gerson, in the fifteenth century, condemned in the strongest terms Jean de
Meung's blending of carnal love with his descriptions of Paradise in the
Roman de la Rose. These interesting and discerning reflections by
Gombrich, in addition to his concept of Venus-Humanitas, proved to be key
factors in my interpretation. (The quotations are from Botticelli's
Mythologies, pp. 41-42).
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
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.
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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
OTTO VAENIUS Cupid Embracing Psyche
Courtesy: New York Public Library
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.71|
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 spirit.72 Emil Jacobsen, who has demonstrated on more
and the previous quote are from the Antwerp, 1615, edition, pp. 116 and 118
respectively. Seznec (Survival of the Pagan Gods, pp. 76, 103 and
273) was familiar with Otto Vaenius's engravings and briefly alludes to the
Cupid-Christ transformation, without, however, reproducing any of the Dutchman's
significant illustrations. In Panofsky's chapter on Blind Cupid
in Studies in Iconology, I am not sure whether the critic was aware
of Cupid's representation as the Infant Jesus, since his one illustration
of a haloed god of love is merely described as relating to the early
Christian idea of the Fisher of Men.
72 Bettina Wadia, p. 13. Among other critics who stress this notable characteristic is J. Mesmil: Dans l'ensemble . . . ce Royaume de Vénus [p. 223] rappelle les peintures du moyen âge, où sous le couvert d'arbres raides, des chevaliers à l'air dolent . . . chantent les peines de leurs coeurs fidèles à des belles étroitement enfermées dans leurs robes. Bien beaucoup de détails soient exactement rendus, le bosquet est sans vie, l'air ne joue pas entre les troncs, la sève ne circule pas sous l'écorce des arbres et l'on n'a point sensation de l'espace infini. Botticelli, (Paris, 1938), p. 51. If we also consider the sad countenance of the central figure, it becomes apparent that Botticelli was portraying that prevailing atmosphere of melancholy gravity which characterizes the mood of the Middle Ages. (The quote is from Huizinga, Waning of the Middle Ages, p. 298).
|8.2 (1988)||Cervantes and Botticelli's Primavera||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.73 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 Ages.74 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.
mentre la Venere [of the Birth] è luce nella luce, la
Primavera (si direbbe forse oggi simbolicamente) è luce
sull'ombra. Op. cit., p. 324.
74 This is exactly how Cervantes understood the Primavera, since, as I have stressed, in La Galatea he presents his inspiration in two very meaningful parts: the first in the darkness of the forest, and the second in the sunlight. Just why Cervantes depicts Mercury in the dark portion of the Primavera is difficult to answer at this point, since it depends on the allegorical nature of the shepherd Lisandro's story.
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