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From Botticelli to Ovid’s Flora

John F. Miller

Art historians of the Renaissance have exhaustively investigated the Ovidian and other sources of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (e.g. Warburg 1969 [1893], Gombrich 1945, Dempsey 1992), particularly Ovid’s depiction of the goddess Flora in Book 5 of the Fasti. This paper reads in the opposite direction. I take Botticelli’s painting as a touchstone for exploring Ovid’s imaginative construction of an otherwise little known ‘minor’ divinity—and Flora’s construction of herself in her long conversation with the poet. How does Botticelli’s interpretation shed light back onto Ovid’s text? T. P. Wiseman (2004) adumbrated this approach by briefly considering the whole of ‘Primavera’ in terms of Ovid’s Floralia, taking Venus and Mars to demarcate Flora’s feast by virtue of their own festivals respectively in April and May, and seeing the dancing Graces as a tamer version of the notorious mime shows and stripteases featured at the ludi Florales.  The present paper focuses more squarely on the presentation of Flora herself.  Reading Ovid via Botticelli’s reception can, I suggest, illuminate three aspects of the Ovidian Flora.

1) The pairing in ‘Primavera’ of the diaphanously clad nymph (Chloris) becoming Flora and the stately goddess herself plays off a similar duality in the characterization of Ovid’s mater florum.  Newlands (1995) in an important discussion characterizes the Ovidian Flora as a mediating figure, located half way between matrona and meretrix. One may add that her bifurcated nature in Ovid’s view is played out in the structure of this calendrical entry, with punch line effect. After 140 verses of her long conversation with the poet without mention of the meretricious associations, the subject is finally raised by the poet, but not directly to the goddess as if to preserve decorum; then, near the close the goddess herself soon follows with acknowledgement of her festival’s license.  

2) Botticelli’s staging of Flora’s seizure by Zephyrus in terms of familiar Ovidian rape scenes (especially those in the Metamorphoses—Apollo vs. Daphne is a close equivalent; Barolsky 2000) points up both the virtual erasure of the rape in the Fasti (cf. Richlin 1992; Murgatroyd 2005) and the motivation behind this in Flora’s personal history. When we read backwards, the painter’s metamorphic reorientation of Flora’s story (which only implies metamorphosis) draws attention to the distinctiveness of the original in the Fasti, which in fact is a unique take on the generic rape scene (e.g. no fear). Flora downplays the violence and highlights her present married status, in essence excusing the rapist; as a great goddess now, or one who would be great, she seems not to want to highlight her former weakness.

3) The painting’s placement of Flora within the realm of Venus as the officiating deity of primavera invites consideration of the Ovidian Flora’s many links with Venus, some forged out of vernal kinship, some apparently arising from Flora’s rivalry of the Olympian goddess. The latter are a neglected part of how Flora here ‘creates a past for herself, building a history out of analogies with long familiar stories’ (Boyd 2000).  For instance, she appropriates from Venus the Charites, the Horae, and the rose.  Particularly important for expressing linkage with Venus are intertexts from Lucretius, Virgil, Callimachus, and Theocritus. Most striking is the evocation of Lucretius 5.737–40, where spring’s divinities parade in a hierarchical display—Zephyrus, Flora, Cupid, and Venus (perhaps accompanied by Ver if springtime is personified here). Botticelli clearly alludes to these verses, with Flora again sprinkling flowers in attendance upon Venus.  No one seems to mention that Ovid alludes to the Lucretian picture of mater Flora in his own opening invocation of the mater . . . florum (5.183); later the Ovidian text picks up on Zephyrus and the scattering of flowers.  Botticelli thus offers a kind of window-reference from Ovid to Lucretius that opens up the Ovidian construction of Flora as a venereal goddess.


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Looking Both Ways: Dialogic Receptions in Practice

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