"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 13, 2013

"The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli (Stories behind paintings)

The Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere) is a large-sized painting by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), made between 1482-1485, and kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (one of the oldest museums in the world).

This painting not only celebrates the birth of Venus, but also that of the modern Western world which arose from the rediscovery of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome: most women painted in the Middle Ages had been motherly Madonnas with fat babies, here we have a pagan goddess, the goddess of love - and she stands stark naked before us.

What do we see? 

Venus comes ashore, standing on the shell of the king scallop which would centuries later become the mark of a famous oil company. She is naked but one hand covers her bosom and the other, holding a tip of her long red hair, covers her pudenda (of which the wide-open scallop is the blatant Freudian symbol). Note that Venus' eyes are modestly cast downward, she does not stare the viewer in the face. She is clearly ashamed of her nudity. Behind her is the calm sea from which she was born in a rather curious way: Cronus had usurped the throne from his father Uranus by cutting off Uranus' testicles and throwing them into the ocean - and from these genitals in the sea Venus came forth. As she was also said to have been born from the foam of the waves, Botticelli has painted rather manieristic, frothy wavelets behind her.

There are two figures flying through the sky on the left side of the painting: Zephyr, the god of the west wind, borne aloft on large wings, holding his wife Chloris in his arms. He is blowing with round cheeks, and we see the wind issuing from his mouth - it caresses the long hair of Venus. In the Mediterranean, the west wind is the gentlest of winds, the harbinger of spring. Zephyr's wife Chloris was a nymph associated with flowers and new growth and sometimes equated with the goddess Flora, the deity of spring. In the painting we see violets (symbol of love) tumbling through the sky around Chloris and Zephyr, as if springing from their presence. The arrival of Venus is also the coming of spring.

To the right, already on the shore, stands a handmaid carrying a cloak to cover the nude deity. This one of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons. The red cloak decorated with a pattern of the same violets that fly through the sky is realistically blowing in the wind. Behind the handmaid we see a luxurious forest of large trees with straight stems.

What is behind this great painting?
  • Although no paintings have come down to us, we know from written sources that "Venus Rising From the Sea" (called Venus Anadyomene) was a popular theme in the ancient world. A famous (lost) painting was ascribed to Apelles of Kos (4th c. BCE), who was said to have employed Campaspe, the mistress of Alexander the Great, for his model. Elsewhere we find the suggestion that the idea of Venus rising from the sea was inspired by the ancient Greek hetaera (courtesan) Phryne, who in festival time often swam nude in the sea. 
  • Also the particular pose of Venus in Botticelli's painting is based on Classical precedent: that of the Venus of Knidos, which although lost, was copied many times. The original was made by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles in the 4th c. BCE. The Medici possessed one of such copies (dating from the 1st c. BCE and today also in the Uffizi Galleries), and allowed Botticello to study it. The Venus of Knidos was called "Venus Pudica," or "modest Venus," because of her attempt to shyly cover her nakedness with her hand. The goddess is depicted in a fugitive, momentary pose, as if surprised in the act of emerging from the sea. Ironically, the asymmetrical pose serves to draw the eye to the very spot that is being hidden.
  • The theme of the painting is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, an important and popular work of Roman literature. In Botticelli's time this theme was also taken up by the Neoplatonic poet Agnolo Poliziano, who like Botticelli served at the Medici court. Neoplatonism tried to link Greek and Roman philosophy with Christianity. In the light of that philosophy, the painting represents the "birth of spiritual beauty as a driving force of life."
  • The Venus in Botticelli's painting represents the Italian Renaissance ideal of female beauty: red-haired, pale-skinned and voluptuous. There is a heated discussion among art historians whether she is based on a historical person, Simonetta Vespucci (1453-1476), or not. Simonetta was the most beautiful woman of her age - and certainly of Florence - and her image was enhanced by her tragic early death from tuberculosis. At age 15 she had married Marco Vespucci and the couple became popular at court. The Vespucci's were related to Florence's ruling family, the Medicis, who commissioned the present work. Simonetta was called "The Unparalleled One," and Botticello seems to have been very much impressed by her beauty (he even asked to be buried at her feet), and he made several portraits of her. As the Venus-painting was made several years after her death it would be a posthumous tribute.
  • The Birth of Venus is a large format painting, 172.5 by 278.5 cm, the image of Venus is life-size and therefore all the more impressive. It was made on canvas (then a novelty) with tempera (a painting medium in which pigment is mixed with water-soluble glutinous materials such as egg yolk), and an expensive alabaster powder was used to make the colors brighter and more timeless. 
  • The creator, Sandro Botticelli, was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance. He was born in Florence in 1437 as the son of a tanner, and died in the same city in 1510. He was an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi. By 1470, Botticello had his own workshop. During his lifetime Botticello was one of the most acclaimed painters in Italy. He was invited to take part in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and in his hometown he earned the important patronage of the Medici, the leading family of Florence. Although by the time of his death Botticelli's reputation was in decline, a complete reassessment has taken place since the 19th c. His work now is seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting. Among his best known works are The Birth of Venus,  Primavera and Venus and Mars.
  • The Medici family commissioned The Birth of Venus, including two other now famous paintings by Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur and Primavera (all now at the Uffizi). Family head Lorenzo the Magnificent may have given the commissions, but the paintings were meant for his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463-1503), whose Palazzo in the Via Larga they were to decorate - apparently in a room dedicated to his bride, Semiramide Appiano. Besides being an ode to Classical mythology and literature, via this commission Botticelli's masterwork also forms an homage to the wealthy Florentine family who commissioned the work: the reign of (spiritual) love comes to Florence thanks to the vast culture of the Medici.
[The Venus of Knidos -
Image Wikipedia]

Note: The early 20th c. Italian composer Ottorino Respighi in 1926 composed a suite in three parts called "Trittico botticelliano," illustrating three Botticelli paintings - the third part is about Venus Rising from the Sea. Respighi has managed to translate Botticelli's decorative lines into translucent musical textures.