A garland of primroses in stone: the Spring of Benedetto Antelami

One of the earliest depictions of Spring that we have in Italy is the statue of the season that Benedetto Antelami (Val d'Intelvi, c. 1150 - Parma, c. 1230) made for the cycle of the Months, now in the Baptistery of Parma.

The image of spring, in Benedetto Antelami’s sculpture, takes the form of an elegant, somewhat haughty young woman, dressed in a long tunic cinched at the waist by a leather girdle, and on her shoulders a cloak that defends her from the last cold, and which she is adjusting with her fingers, at the level of her neck. Spring has come, gentle as a goddess and solemn as a Madonna, to make the fields and meadows bloom again, to dispel the blankets of winter’s rigors, to give hope to us all. And now it is fixed in its austerity of Romanesque statuary. And yet, that stone, a difficult material, under Antelami’s hands seems to acquire an unusual lightness, made of folds that fall wide and slow following precisely the lines of the body and suggesting the shape of the knee until producing two volutes at the feet, made of the natural fineness of this figure at once delicate and distant, made of the suave gestures with which Spring offers a flower with one hand and holds the laces of her cloak with the other, made of those primroses that engulf her head. Roberto Tassi, a distinguished art historian, had decided to dedicate his collection of studies on the arts in Parma from the twelfth to the twentieth century to that floral wreath: The Crown of Primroses was the title of the book, a tribute to that garland of spring flowers that is perhaps the lightest and sweetest element of all antelamic statuary.

It is a purely masculine world, that of Benedetto Antelami. In the cycle of the Months in the Baptistery of Parma, Spring is the only woman. The sculptures were intended for the Cathedral portal: then, perhaps as early as the 13th century, the statues were dismantled and relocated to the Baptistery, where they are attested as early as the 1330s. Perhaps Benedict’s passing had prevented him from completing the work, perhaps the reasons were other: the fact is that, for almost eight centuries, the Primavera has been looking down on us from the top of the Baptistery loggia. Or at least this is what is assumed, since we do not know the original location of the works inside the Baptistery. In any case, the Primavera in 2020 temporarily descended to better show itself to the eyes of those regarding it, on the occasion of the celebrations for Parma Capital of Culture, for which all of Antelami’s Months were moved to the niches on the ground floor for a few months.

Benedetto Antelami, Primavera (1180 circa; pietra di Verona, altezza 143 cm; Parma, Battistero)
Benedetto Antelami, Spring (ca. 1180; Verona stone, height 143 cm; Parma, Baptistery)

Benedetto Antelami, Primavera, dettaglio
Benedetto Antelami, Spring, detail

The cycle was opened by Spring to which was counterbalanced by the figure ofWinter: these are the only two sculptures in the series to depict the seasons, as they also incorporate summer and autumn, and flank the twelve personifications of the months of the year, according to a widespread medieval iconography (though not so usual in baptisteries) that involved their translation into the typical activities of the month. Placed at the opening of the cycle, Spring becomes the bearer of the religious message of the Months, aimed at highlighting the salvific significance of work: it is the season of annunciation, which in ancient times marked the beginning of the calendar, and is therefore the origin of salvation. Spring and winter, however, are also the moments that mark and fragment the course of time, they are the beginning and the end, alternating in an eternal cycle: spring is the time of rebirth, of life beginning to flow with impetus once again, of the earth showing itself lushly again and beginning to prepare to bear fruit in abundance. These were images well known to medieval artists: the origin of the idea of a clash between spring and winter can be traced back to Conflictus veris et hiemis, an 8th-century poem written by Alcuin of York, which imagines the personifications of Ver (who, moreover, has his head girded with flowers: “Ver quoque florigero succinctus stemmate venit”) and Hiems in a kind of challenge in which each lists the merits of their season.

But Spring is also perhaps the statue that best conveys to us the image of woman in Benedetto Antelami, although it has not thrilled all scholars. Rossana Bossaglia, for example, thought it too rigid and fixed to consider it an autograph. Even earlier, Pietro Toesca, spotting similarities with the figure of the Queen of Sheba that decorates the exterior of the building, had written that of the Primavera “disappoints, in the little more than rough-hewn workmanship, the sought-after impression of grace, of lightness, of childlike wonder.” More positive words have also been spent on the Primavera , however: in 1965, for example, Lara Vinca Masini described it as “a sweet image of a maiden, drawn, in the elegant breadth of the dress opening in slow folds (it is the closest to forms from theÎle de France), like the inverted chalice of a flower,” and associated it with Modena’s Bonissima , the 13th-century statuette that decorates one of the corners of the Emilian city’s Palazzo Comunale. For Chiara Frugoni, too, Antelami’s image is approachable to French precedents, though not endowed with the same grace (in her view, the precedent is, if anything, the Queen of Sheba, of which it would constitute a variation): “it possesses on the other hand,” wrote the Pisan scholar, “a country freshness that contrasts with the fashionable attire.”

The freshness is that of the ruddy face, an Emilian face, young because young must be spring, the first of the seasons, the freshest, the most suave. However, there is also a fine nobility in the attitude, pose, bearing and composition, a nobility that immediately brings us back to classical art, despite the fixity of the image may seemingly suggest otherwise. Attilio Bertolucci, in his Arithmias, had well grasped this character of Benedetto Antelami’s Primavera , recounting a visit to his Parma with Giuseppe Ungaretti in February 1970, when the great hermetic was nearing the end of his days, and had allowed himself a stay in Salsomaggiore. It had been Ungaretti who had wanted to see Antelami’s sculptures again, including the Primavera: for Bertolucci, this statue “repeats the elegance of the ancient Athenian maidens, announces that of Parmigianino’s Vergini Sagge and Vergini Folli at the Steccata.” Bertolucci had captured the soul of this sculpture. Solidity of volumes, spiritual yearning and a desire to bring the classical back to life meet here in harmony. Benedetto Antelami’s Primavera is anchored in the earth like Wiligelmo’s sculptures, but it is also permeated, especially in the joy of those folds, by a fineness that preludes the Gothic, and it is classically posed. One can already sense in nuce the art of the late thirteenth century.

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