April with his sweet showers

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Venus Verticordia

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Tomorrow is kalendae apriles — the kalends of April — and in ancient Rome it was was marked by the festival known as the Veneralia, the feast day of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the changer of hearts”). April then would have been the month dedicated to the goddess Venus.

It seems an apt time to conjure up the notion of love when there’s a lot of hating going on the world: as Peter and Gordon sang in 1964 in the Paul McCartney song, “I don’t care what they say I won’t stay | In a world without love.”

Below I list ten related facts for your edification, but in honour of the better known association of the first day of April one of them will be a factoid or fake news; can you guess which one it is?

Bronze statuette of a female votary of Turan holding a pomegranate (4th–3rd century BCE), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

1. The temple of Venus Verticordia in Rome was built around 114 BCE, though its exact site is disputed. The goddess received her epithet, changer of hearts, for her ability to turn individuals from lust towards purity.

2. Veneralia came at the end of a set of Hilaria (“rejoicings”), which were days of festival focused on the vernal equinox and which honoured Cybele, the mother of the gods, and commemorated the violent death by castration and resurrection of her shepherd consort, Attis. In the Roman calendar the seventh day before the kalends of April was the 25th March, now called Hilaria Matris Deûm, the Festival of the Mother of the Gods. It was the first day after the vernal equinox, or the first day of the year which was longer than the night, and known as a feria stativa, or day set aside as free from work; it marked when Attis rose from the dead.

3. The Etruscan equivalent of Venus was the goddess Turan, though the month dedicated to her was July, not April. Early depictions show her richly clothed, she frequently appears on the backs of mirrors of the period, and her name, which is related to Greek tyrannos meaning ‘absolute ruler’, suggests her title is Mistress or Lady.

4. In Romagna, the part of Italy that stretches from the Appenines to the Adriatic, it’s claimed the memory of Turan survives in the person of Turanna, a spirit or fairy of love and peace. However, Charles Godfrey Leland’s Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition (1892) appears to be our only source for this snippet of information.

5. Venus was originally a minor Roman deity; of more significance was the Greek goddess Aphrodite whose origins lay at and beyond the Eastern Mediterrean, in the Phoenician Ashtaroth and the Assyrian Ishtar, all associated with lust as much as love, with pleasure and passion as much as beauty or procreation. She was the patroness of temple prostitutes, and was able to bribe Paris to grant her the prize of a golden apple which then led to discord between her and her rivals Hera and Athena.

6. The Indo-European root of Venus’s name means “to desire, to strive for,” so when the poet Ovid tells the story of Adonis (“Lord”) it’s the accidental touch of one of Cupid’s arrows that causes her to became infatuated with the mortal. It’s ironic that Adonis’s insistence on going hunting, which causes him to be gored to death by a wild boar’s tusk, is preceded by the prick of an arrow of desire.

Hunting [Adonis] lov’d, but love he laugh’d to scorn.

Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis (1593) line 4

7. Shakespeare published his Ovid-inspired poem Venus and Adonis in 1593, full of humour and tragedy, rhymes and bons mots. His contemporary, the comic actor and morris dancer Will Kemp, wrote in 1599 (before he left the company of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) that the following lines were inspired by the even then well-known proverb “April showers last ne’er an half hour”:

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun.
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies.

Lines 799-804
Rossetti’s watercolour version of the Venus Verticordia

8. The Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘s Venus Verticordia is supposedly the sole nude oil painting of his career. One model sat for the original study, but the head was replaced by that of another model for the painting, finally completed in 1869. Surrounded by pale yellow butterflies, roses and honeysuckles, Venus displays her prize, the golden apple of discord, in one hand and with the other hand points Cupid’s shaft at her heart. Rossetti has emphasised Venus’s allure and provocative look, whereas originally the epithet verticordia implied a turn away from lust to chasteness.

9. The naked body depicted in Rossetti’s oil painting was that of a unnamed model though it’s known she was a cook said to be over six feet tall: a contemporary described her as “a very large young woman, almost a giantess.” For the face Rossetti used that of Alexa Wilding, a woman whom Rossetti, always on the lookout for “stunners”, apparently stopped on the Strand in London and asked to model for him. Though socially Alexa was regarded as more respectable than the cook — she was the seamstress daughter of a piano maker — Rossetti apparently found conversing with her so tedious that he wrote that, apart from when he painted her, he wished he could shut her in a cupboard… Her face also appears in a watercolour version Rossetti made of the Venus portrait, which in 2014 sold at auction for nearly £3 million.

John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in happier times, perhaps because Ruskin was wielding the stick?

10. Venus Verticordia was the cause of  John Ruskin breaking his friendship with Rossetti. Unable to express his discomfort with the growing sensuality of the artist’s female portraits, Ruskin focused instead on the roses which he declared “awful in their coarseness” — Rossetti had had the blooms shipped in especially from France to get his representation right but they provided the excuse for Ruskin to direct attention away from his aversion to female nudity.

So there you have it, ten ways to see the first of April anew — but have you spotted the fake fact amongst them?

Well, it’s now past 12 noon GMT on 1st April, the hour after which those who play an April Fool jape are themselves’ traditionally rendered foolish. Let’s reveal what the factoid was.

I took the Will Kemp information from Joculators in the Tudor Age by Feste Dogberry (Trinculo Press 1999) which describes how the wandering entertainers of medieval Europe who specialised in minstrelsy, storytelling, dancing, juggling and mime found their way onto the Renaissance stage. Will Kemp was one of these, playing the part of the clown in Shakespeare’s earlier plays.

However, I regret to say he didn’t ascribe the origin of the lines in Venus and Adonis to the proverb “April showers don’t last a half hour.” I may have made that proverb up…

But this may be an opportune time to say I hope to join in Lory’s Reading the Theatre event which she’s hosting at Enter the Enchanted Castle.

27 thoughts on “April with his sweet showers

    1. All of number 3 or just one particular detail? 😁

      And in the UK mayflowers are seen on the hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) which flowers in late spring, May to early June, it’s blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) which flowers before the may: near us this has been the case for the last week or so. And I believe the pilgrim ship arrived in the New World in November — just in time for turkey…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. JJ Lothin

    What a fascinating compilation of “facts” (I have no idea which “fact” actually isn’t!) … And it makes a nice change to read an April article WITHOUT a TS Eliot reference!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: April with his sweet showers – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. JJ Lothin

    Just found the revelation of the fake factoid. If “April showers last ne’er an half hour” wasn’t previously a well-known proverb, I will do my best to ensure it is henceforth!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! I’ve always believed I as a kid made up this rhyming proverb (as ‘April showers don’t last half an hour’, here Tudorified!), based on being told that showers were generally short and sweet during this month. When I did a quick Google for the phrase nothing came up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a case of a false memory… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.