The Influence

For composer and conductor Richard Mills, Botticelli’s La Primavera is a masterpiece that mirrors his own preoccupation with beauty and metamorphosis in art. By Neha Kale.

Richard Mills on Botticelli’s La Primavera

Sandro Botticelli’s late 15th-century painting La Primavera
Sandro Botticelli’s late 15th-century painting La Primavera (Spring), and Richard Mills (below).
Credit: Uffizi Gallery (above), supplied (below)

Richard Mills is an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor. Mills has won many accolades over his 40-year career, including Helpmann and Green Room awards for his opera Batavia and work on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. He grew up in Toowoomba and was the artistic director of the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra and West Australian Opera. In 1999, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia. For more than a decade, Mills has been the artistic director of Victorian Opera, where he has commissioned 22 new works, including The Riders by Iain Grandage and Alison Croggon, based on a 1994 novel by Tim Winton, and a First Nations opera, Parrwang Lifts the Sky, by Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham Fraillon. This month Mills marks the end of his tenure at Victorian Opera with a new work, Galileo. The work, a study of faith, knowledge and power, revolves around the life of the legendary Renaissance thinker and brings together symphonies by La Compañia and Orchestra Victoria.

For The Influence, Mills spoke about La Primavera. The painting, made sometime in the 1470s or 1480s by Sandro Botticelli, first beguiled him as a student.

Why did you choose La Primavera as your influence?

When I was 19, I was a student in Queensland doing some work on the English Renaissance, the Elizabethan parts. I became very interested in the continental influence on England, especially the notion of allegory. There are many ties that lead back to the Florentine Renaissance and to the idea of re-establishing the Platonic Academy in Florence at that time. They read everything allegorically because they wanted to synthesise the culture of the ancient world with the post-pagan Christian culture. You can have a look from Fiesole down to Florence sleeping in the afternoon sun and think about how this small place can alter the course of history. This painting reads on so many levels. What’s interesting, is that it is static – of course it is! – it can’t move. But it has implied movement in it.

Going across the painting, you can see Zephyrus and the nymph Chloris who becomes the Roman goddess of flowers, Flora. And then there is Venus, Cupid and the Three Graces – Euphrosyne, Aglaia and Thalia. Euphrosyne was the bringer of joy and mirth, Aglaia was the bringer of light and Thalia was the bringer of festivity. The Three Graces are the three notes of the musical triad. Then you have Mercury, an emblem of knowledge. And the oranges are the symbols of the Medicis. On another level, it’s also in motion because it is an allegory of spring and the season in which the invisible world of form is made manifest.

Interestingly, the painting, which I’ve seen at the Uffizi, is not that big – it was supposed to go in a child’s bedroom. It’s the size of a coffee table. 

Some paintings occupy an outsize place in the imagination. It was originally meant to hang next to The Birth of Venus. Why do you think it is powerful?

There’s something about its form – it is kind of a circle that is in motion and yet static. It doesn’t reveal its meaning with a cursory glance. It is something to be read. As we know, it is an allegory, but it has a complexity of levels. It is so superbly painted, and the other thing is that it transfigures the ordinary. All those leaves – you can see them when you walk around Florence!

I read that Botticelli accurately painted the 190 plants that bloomed in Florence between March and May.

He takes that landscape and in its own kind of way makes something eternal out of it. There’s something about the idea of rebirth, I think, that’s very beautiful about the picture. It has this incredible proliferation of life.

La Primavera is one of the best-known paintings of the early Renaissance but was one of the first European paintings that wasn’t primarily a Christian story. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones writes that it helped introduce the idea that art could be a pleasure, not a sermon. Do you agree with that reading?

Yes and no. If you want, you can read the painting as a Christian allegory. It has to do with incarnation, the theological virtues of the Three Graces. I mean, there were many paintings that had motifs of Venus and the Virgin Mary. Don’t underestimate the plurality of thought of the Florentine Renaissance and multiple layers of meaning. They had a thirst to reconcile the totality of human experience into a beautiful and unified whole. And it was this thirst for unity as an expression of the dignity of man and the possibility of humanity that animated them.

In one sense, the painting is utilitarian. It was used to decorate the home. The idea of rebirth is a very important train of thought in all of this. And it’s a painting that emphasises the feminine genius, the feminine capacity. Instead of a whole lot of blokes with swords, it was gentle and life-giving.

It has a dynamic form – it comes from outside the picture, as it were. And somehow, its breadth puts the whole thing into motion. We do that in opera – we make ensembles, we freeze time. But in that freezing of time there is this motion. I think there was a thirst for the beauty of the ancient world. And this new sense of human potential which was emerging.

La Primavera has an exuberance and an energy – it is delightful. Delight is lacking in so much contemporary entertainment. Any evening on television, there is so much violence. There was certainly violence in Renaissance Italy, [but now] it is in such a state, it is extraordinary.

I think wonder and beauty are so important.

And I think it is important for me as an artist to affirm their place. They restore the human spirit. They integrate us, make us whole.

The painting appears to speak in a coded language. There seems to be something secret about it. Do you embrace mystery as a composer?

In anything worthwhile, there are always mysteries. There are structural mysteries. Subtext. Scaffolding. Every piece has an internal language. You can see that this painting has many layers – that is what interests me. It’s not one-dimensional.

You’ve got to go with the moment. Composers who stick to schemata, without following the energy of the moment, produce boring music. I think that will lead you in the wrong direction. Each of us change every day. And in the course of making a long work, you change. When you start writing an opera, you are not the same person at the end of it that you were in the beginning. I think metamorphosis is what makes life interesting. One learns from change – and not always good things.

Galileo, which revolves around the life of the great Renaissance thinker, will be your last work for Victorian Opera. What do you hope for it?

You take a chance for an audience and not for some abstract conception. It’s important that pieces communicate something, otherwise what’s the point? The piece has to speak to people about the human condition. It has to be interesting and work on many different levels. What I will say to the audience is don’t come expecting to see a biography. Galileo uses the elements of the life story of Galileo, his spiritual and metaphysical predicament, to reveal things about what it means to be human.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Richard Mills".

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