An ardent member of Ficino’s group was Botticelli, and his two great portrayals of Venus, The Birth of Venus and Primavera, take on a most interesting significance when they are viewed in light of Ficino’s doctrine of the emeatio, raptio and remeatio of love and beauty. The Primavera is an allegory of this underlying loving and harmonious numerical order that moves the universe. Botticelli takes his theme from a myth retailed by Ovid. The eight characters in the painting are meant to correspond to the eight harmonious notes of the octave, and the second and seventh figures are half-turned away from us to represent the half tones of the second and seventh notes of the octave of C Major – a conceit that takes on an even vaster importance when it is related to developments in Renaissance music and, in turn, to Galileo’s own discoveries. On the right hand side of the picture there is an awkward and clumsy trio, that of Zephyr the wind god, Chloris a wood nymph who, according to Ovid, is sexually desired by him, and Flora, goddess of flowers and also the fruit of that union, a physically lusty country girl who is stepping out of the picture towards us resplendent with the glories of spring. In the centre of the picture is Venus, Dame Nature herself surprisingly depicted in the iconography of the Virgin Mary, who is beating time to the elegant and ethereal dance of the three graces, into which the boorish, earthy motions of the first trio has become transformed. Ficino and Pico saw art as an initiation into the great cosmic mystery of beauty, in the sense, that is, that the ancient world understood a mystery as an initiation into sacred knowledge, the transformation of the soul which Plato saw as the aim of philosophy. Through art, the picture tells us, the natural delight that we feel when we contemplate the beauties of nature, represented by the clumsy woodland trio, is transformed into a yet more beautiful and delicate voluptas represented by the three graces, far more ravishing and exquisite still. It is this experience that assures us that there is a supernatural delight even beyond that of nature. One of the graces looks towards Mercury, another wind god corresponding to Zephyr, who completes the harmony on a higher note as the eighth note of the octave resonates perfectly with the first. . He is looking away from the other characters out of the picture, and with his caduceus he points us towards heaven. It is a portrayal of the cosmic dance itself.
There is a second interpretation of the Primavera when it is seen in relation to the Birth of Venus that is more intriguing still. Both pictures were painted for Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, and we know that they hung together in his bedroom. When the Birth is placed next to its partner on its left, the trees in the background form a continuous landscape. In the Birth there are four figures, three female and one male. Two wind gods, the male Zephyr and the female Aura, are blowing Venus ashore, where she is clothed by the nymph Hora in a cloak covered in a design of natural creatures. It is a symbol of the heavenly beauty entering the earth, Ficino’s emanatio. Put together, the pictures form three groups of four figures, in each case three female and one male. On this interpretation, Mercury is looking away from the other figures in Primavera because he is the god who oversees transitions from heaven to earth and vice versa. Beauty when it comes to earth – we are now reading the two joined pictures from left to right, not from right to left as we read the Primavera on its own – first takes the abstract form of the three graces, Amor, Pulchritudo and Voluptas. Venus is pregnant with these beautiful things and gives birth to the materially beautiful creatures of earth, symbolized by the flowers on Flora’s dress. Flora is striding out of the pictured towards us because it is this world of materialized beauty that we ourselves inhabit. But earthly things are seized (raptio) by the dark figure of death, a masculine wind god corresponding to the male of the two wind deities who blew Venus ashore in The Birth, and so the circular process of emanation raptio and remeatio is completed and starts again.
Such an attitude to mathematics may seem very unfamiliar to us. As a sophisticated and cultured man of the Renaissance it would not have been unfamilar to Galileo. Few modern people have any appreciation at all of the allegorical mentality of the Middle Ages. An allegory is the presentation of one truth or reality in terms of another. When Medieval people saw portrayals of the devil cavorting about in the most humorous fashion in the mystery plays, for example, they didn’t imagine that this was what went on in hell every day. Rather, they understood that temptation comes in diverting and attractive guise. People reading Dante today often take it as if it were Tolkien, a journey that is supposed to have actually happened in some fabulously other dimension. But this is not what the Divine Comedy is about. It is not primarily about what happens in the next life at all, but an allegory of our moral progress through this one. Simple people in the Middle Ages probably did think that Dante had visited hell and heaven and was bringing back a traveller’s tale. Sophisticated thinkers like Pico and Ficino would certainly not have done, nor would Galileo. What the mathematical proportions of hell signified was that even hell is defined by the supreme truth and beauty of mathematics. It was the guiding principle of Galileo’s life. That was why he was talking about the dimensions of hell to the Academy of Florence.