We went to Italy for our honeymoon, a major pilgrimage site for an art history nerd like me. There’s no doubt that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is one of the most famous paintings in the Uffizi. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, of course. Everyone has. But in person, I think I was mainly shocked by how big it is. When you study art history in school and then go out into the world to look at the works themselves, it seems like they’re always much larger or smaller than you’d thought. My patient new husband looked at me patiently, waiting for me to tell him about the painting, and all I could manage for the first few minutes was, “Wow. It’s huge.”
I’m eloquent like that.
But this is one of the most important paintings in the history of art for a reason. Let’s talk about that, shall we?
This is a painting of Venus Anadyomene, the name for Venus rising from the sea. Of course, she’s not rising here, but when Vasari saw the painting (or more likely heard of it second- or third-hand, since he probably wasn’t allowed to go wandering through Medici bedrooms, where this painting was hung) he described it as, “showing the Birth of Venus, with her Cupids, being wafted to shore by the winds and zephyrs,” and Birth of Venus it has remained.
Unlike the other Olympian gods and goddesses, Aphrodite wasn’t born, exactly, and she was never a child. According to Hesiod’s Theogony (ha! I knew reading that in college would come in handy someday), when Zeus’s father Kronos castrated his father, Ouranos, and threw his genitals into the sea, Aphrodite was created, fully-grown, from the sea foam. Venus Anadyomene has been a popular artistic motif throughout history:
This particular Venus Anadyomene was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificant, and was painted around 1486. The image is probably inspired by a poem on the birth of Venus, Stanze per la giostra by Angelo Poliziano, who was one of the leading humanists of the day. It’s painted in tempera on canvas, which was unusual for the time. Tempra paint is made with egg yolks, but Botticelli made his own with hardly any fat, and then covered the work with a layer of egg white. This was a highly unusual way to do it, but he got amazing results. To this day there are hardly any cracks, and the colors are still vibrant. Botticelli, who began work as a goldsmith, also applied gold leaf to the fringe of the red wrap the nymph is offering to Venus, the tips of the trees, and the highlights in the goddess’s hair. The effect is dazzling.
So, Venus floats to the island of Cyprus in a cockle shell, which symbolized the vulva in Renaissance art. In these types of paintings, you’ll find that everything symbolizes something. The people who knew the codes found spotting them highly entertaining. She’s standing in the classic Venus pudica (modest Venus) pose, with her right hand covering her breast and her left covering her private parts. It’s an asymmetrical pose that draws your attention right to what she’s hiding. Her pose was probably taken from the Venus de Medici sculpture in Lorenzo’s collection, which Botticelli would’ve been able to study.
But compare the ancient Venus to Botticelli’s. It’s the inspiration for the painting, certainly, but he didn’t copy the sculpture exactly. In the painting, Venus’s neck and torso are so long as to be anatomically impossible, though certainly very elegant. In giving her body its sensual S curve, Botticelli put her so deep into her contrapposto stance, her weight shifted so far over her left hip, that if she were real, she would fall. Go ahead, stand up and try it. I’ll wait.
The bodies of the other figures, the wind gods blowing her ashore and the nymph waiting to greet her, are equally unrealistic. The lightness and bodilessness of the winds move all the figures delicately. The draperies undulate, rose petals float to the water, hair billows. To Leone Battista Alberti, a famous writer in Botticelli’s time, motion in art symbolized energy. So much of Birth of Venus is motion: the rippling waves, the leaves of the trees, the figures’ cloaks. Everything is lightness, both gliding and swift. Nothing casts a shadow. This is clearly a fantasy image, graceful and poetic. This is notable because, at the time Botticelli was working, experimental art was on the cutting edge of science, especially regarding perspective and anatomy. There’s none of that newfangled naturalism here: the figures have little volume or weight, and are in a shallow perspectival space. But, they are lyrical and beautiful. Seeing them brings pleasure to the viewer.
But, Meg, you ask, what does it mean? That’s something scholars are still debating. An art historian named Ernst Gombrich has the front-running theory, which is that the work should be interpreted through the lens of Neoplatonism. In his commentary on Plato’s Symposium, Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote about the twin Venuses, “one clearly the ability of the soul to know divinity; the other, the ability of the soul to propagate lower forms. Therefore, let there be two Venuses in the soul, the one heavenly, the other earthly. Let them both have a love, the heavenly for the reflection upon divine beauty, the earthly for generating divine beauty in earthly.” For Plato, Ficino, and the Medici artistic circle, Venus was both an earthly goddess and a heavenly one, inspiring both physical and intellectual love. Plato believed that contemplating physical beauty allowed people to better meditate on spiritual beauty. So, as Gombrich applies those principles to Botticelli’s work, this is a painting of the harmonious intersection of Idea and Nature, or Spirit and Matter. The painting is so beautiful that looking at it raises the viewer’s consciousness above worldly things, to the realm of divine creation.
There are other interpretations in the running, like that the nymph on shore could be Flora, the personification of Florence, and Venus could be an allegory of the spirit of Humanism arriving there. Or that Venus represents Eve before the fall, but when she steps on land and puts on clothes she’ll become postlapsarian Eve, looking toward the Virgin Mary, who will give birth to Jesus, who will redeem humanity (I really doubt this one). Or even a complicated theory that Botticelli was trying to recreate a lost Venus Anadyomene by Apelles, one of the greatest painters of antiquity, and used a girl Lorenzo’s brother had a crush on as his model just as Apelles had used Alexander the Great’s girlfriend. I’m in the Gombrich camp, but you should obviously make up your own mind.
Simonetta Vespucci, a favorite of the Medici court and possibly Lorenzo’s younger brother’s mistress, may well have been the inspiration for Venus. I see a resemblance. That hair! Those eyes! She also looks like the female wind goddess in the top left of Birth of Venus, in my opinion. In a weird piece of trivia, she died when she was 22, and 34 years later when Botticelli died, he was buried at her feet.
As a postscript, it’s worth noting that it was fairly unusual at this time for an artist to paint such a large female nude. The Middle Ages hadn’t ended that long ago, and back then, it was against the law to paint nude figures, especially women. Botticelli’s painting a huge nude lady, especially in the ancient Venus pudica mode, could have gotten him charged with paganism and infidelity. But culture had changed so much by then, and the Medici were so accommodating and protective of their artists, that the work went unchallenged. Also, though many of Botticelli’s works were burned in Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities (some by Botticelli himself), this work was spared. Giant pictures of naked women did not go over well with Savonarola, so good thing for us it was in the Medici collection, kept in a villa outside of town.
Next week, Van Gogh!