The Mystifying Beauty of Venus
What: The Birth of Venus
Who: Sandro Botticelli
Where: The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
How: Tempra on canvas
Hello again and welcome back to Carivaggio. Today, we are rounding out our classical knowledge with another very recognizable image. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli.
Although many people know her face, she stands quietly behind centuries of stares. She poses for the pictures and watches millions of people marvel at her beauty - all the while she is stuck in her framed prison. Stuck in an eternity of belittling copies and pop culture thievery- it is time restore her true identity as a goddess among as all.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a Renaissance master. He belonged to the Florentine school under the patronage and watch of Lorenzo de Medici (ruler of the Florentine Republic). Although famous for his mythological scenes, he painted many religious paintings and was a devout Catholic. Considered an outsider among his fellow artists, he rejected many of the techniques used throughout Italy in the 15th century. His style differed from most other Renaissance painters in that he was less concerned with the major developments in painting like realistic depiction of anatomy, perspective, and landscape. Although he learned all these techniques, he was able to use them while maintaining both his originality and uniqueness. The Birth and Venus and Botticelli's equally breathtaking Primavera stand out as two of the most famous and recognizable paintings in the world. Since the two paintings are somewhat interconnected, I will be referencing the Primavera several times throughout this post (refer to Figure 1).
Although The Birth of Venus does not have many hidden meanings or images - it is one that should be understood altogether and not in pieces.
The Birth of Venus depicts the scene when the goddess Venus was born. She rises from the water fully grown with a beauty of celestial nature.
Let's do a quick visual analysis. Firstly, this picture appeals to all of our visual senses. It is strikingly etherial. The color palette overwhelms the viewer - it is so free flowing and coherent. They are muted yet vibrant, conveying the purity of the moment happening before us. We see Venus, standing on a clam shell. If you look closely she is riding a small wave approaching the shore. She is being guided by what looks like two figures in the sky, and is greeted by a figure on land. It sort of seems like she is being torn between the heavens and the earth. She is naked, using her hair to cover her genitals.
I ask several questions here - Why is that? Modesty is quite a modern human reaction, so why would this unearthly goddess feel the need to cover up? What is Botticelli trying to tell us? Why are we so attracted to this piece? What can it tell us about the historical context?
To the left of Venus, we see Zephyr, god of wind. He is holding another female figure that is not fully identifiable, however art historian Giorgio Vasari identifies her as Aura, the personification of a lighter breeze. They are both blowing Venus to shore. Notice how Botticelli painted the wind. How can one paint something invisible? This was one of Botticelli's greatest skills, especially when it came to fabrics. His ability to make the image move right before your eyes is a talent not of this world. This ability is especially evident in his Primavera (see figure 1).
There are other theories that identify the two women on either side as figures that also appear in the Primavera. The nymph held by Zephyr could be Chloris - a nymph married to Zephyr in some of her legends.
To the right of Venus is a figure on land - although she appears to be floating slightly. She holds a delicately decorated cloak for Venus to wear when she reaches the shore. She could be identified as one of the Greek Horae (hours), minor Greek goddesses of seasons and time. The floral decoration on her garment may suggest she is the hora of spring also known as Pomona.
She also could be identified as Flora, from the Primavera. Flora is essentially the same goddess as the Greek Chloris. In the Primavera, Chloris is transformed into the figure next to her, Flora.
Botticelli took much interest in painting her hair in this extremely luxurious way. It is an indication that he fancied when women wore their hair long. He has painted her face sweet and perfect, what was to him the ideal image of beauty.
Earlier, I asked why Botticelli would paint Venus covering her naked body. If she is the goddess of love, shouldn’t she embrace her nakedness? At this time it was uncommon for female nudity to be shown full frontal. It could be that he was modeling off of Aphrodite of Knidos (see Figure 2), a greek statue where Aphrodite is covering herself in a gesture of modesty. Obviously Botticelli did not want to break decorum, but maybe he was trying to connect the heavenly Venus with the human goddess she was about to become.
As we discussed earlier, Botticelli was not necessarily interested in anatomic exactness. Venus is evidence of that. Her body is anatomically impossible. Her neck and torso are far too long. Her pose is also quite strange. Although she stands in a classical Contrapposto pose,(a pose from classical sculpture where the figure would lean onto one foot - it conveyed a natural quality - see figure 3), her pose is very unnatural. Her weight is not distributed evenly enough for a real human being to pose like this.
The unnaturalness of Venus can tell us several things about this work. Not only does Venus look completely unnatural, but so do the supplemental figures. If you notice they cast no shadows, and there is not really a clear light source. The landscape seems to enclose on the figures, and the perspective is all a bit out of sorts. However, this connects with what we were discussing above. Botticelli was not committed to naturalism, which fits with this scene, as it is not a scene for the natural world. It seems as though the artist is creating his own world, where these figures live, all on their own and separate from us. I think he does this to remind us that we do not live amongst gods and goddesses - we cannot understand what it is like to witness such a scene. It is not meant to be natural.
There are many interpretations of this work. Some scholars believe that Venus is the personification of divine love. Plato described Venus as an earthly goddess who aroused humans to experience physical love OR she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love into them. Plato argued that the contemplation of physical beauty could inspire the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. It could be that Botticelli wanted to inspire divine love into his 15th century viewers.
There are other scholars who connect the composition with iconographic images of the Baptism of Christ (see figure 4). This could be entirely possible as Botticelli was a devout man. Actually, here I want to add a small historical side note. In the 15th century, among the Protestant reformers, a great resentment started to bubble in Italy. A movement that countered the Reformation (aka the Counter-Reformation) preached a dedication to the Catholic Church and a rejection of any and all non-religious texts, art, and culture. In 1494, Florentines expelled their ruling family, the Medici's, and at the urging of the radical Dominican Friar by the name of Girolamo Savonarola, established a popular republic. Savonarola would hold public bonfires, and would encourage his followers to burn any sacrilegious objects. Botticelli was a follower of the radical monk and even BURNED many of his mythological paintings as they did not represent the messages of the church. Art historian describes Botticelli as "impassioned by the preacher’s rhetoric, carrying some of his own paintings to the square to be burned". The Birth of Venus and The Primavera only survived because they were housed in Villa di Castello - a Medici country house.
Anyway, sorry for the small interruption but I just find the Counter-Reformation so interesting especially the way it formed the art produced during that period.
Personally, it is a bit hard for me to interpret this work. I see it through many lenses. Firstly, I think that the work is definitely meant to appeal to our most basic senses. It is so visually delightful, it is no wonder that it's so universally recognizable. The mystical quality about the work takes the viewer straight into Botticelli's world. The unnatural nature of the figures does not even strike me as unnatural. It just is how it is supposed to be. The painting itself seems like it was birthed from the ocean. However, I do think the jaw dropping beauty of the work takes away from its importance.
If you have ever been to the Uffizi and looked at this painting yourself, you will notice how no one is even really looking at it. They are all taking pictures on their phone or iPad. I took a picture of people taking pictures of the painting so you yourself can see the chaotic scene that many people find themselves in when trying to view such a magnificent piece of art (see figure 5). I do understand why everyone wants to document their visit, but I would encourage only taking pictures after you have experienced the painting with your own eyes- not through your phone screen. I promise you the experience in the long term will be far more memorable, and it will allow those around you to experience their own few moments with beauty. If you have a phone you can google the image later, but you may never again get the chance to stand before such a work of art, and it is that moment you will not forget.
Venus is the true embodiment of beauty. Maybe she is encouraging all of us to embody our own beauty. To create our own world of what we believe to be sacred. Botticelli did not paint within the academic standards of his day and yet still achieved the highest beauty known to man. We should all take a lesson from the Renaissance master - we do not have to color inside the lines to find perfection. All of us live in our own worlds and paint with our own strokes. Venus is just the guide - she is not the mold.
Thanks so much for listening, I hope you enjoyed this blog post.
I really hope to see you back here soon.
Until next time,
Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, 1477-1482, Tempra on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
The Ludovisi Cnidian Aphrodite, Roman marble copy (torso and thighs) with restored head, arms, legs and drapery support, Praxiteles, 4th century BC, Medium grained marble, Roman National Museum, Rome, Italy.
An example of Botticelli's modeling.
The Doryphoros of Polykleitos, Polykleitos, A Roman copy, Naples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.
An example of the classical Greek Contrapposto pose.
Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-1475, Oil on wood, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
An image used to show the comparison of this composition against that of The Birth of Venus.
An image I like to call: Botticelli and the Modern Gaze - 2018. *I own this image*
*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia (well, except for Botticelli and the Modern Gaze, a Cari original).