Botticelli's Goddess - Breaking Down the Meaning of The Birth of Venus Painting
One of the most iconic paintings in the entire art history and the image which takes a significant place in popular culture as well is The Birth of Venus painted by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli in the mid-1480s. This impressive mythological composition is centered on the introduction of the figure of the bare naked goddess Venus emerging from the shell drifting to Cyprus shore. It practically embodies the rebirth of civilization, a new hope, geopolitical, social and cultural shift which occurred after the Middle Age turmoil.
Namely, this masterpiece is often associated with Botticelli’s other large-scale painting the Primavera, since both of them are considered as the icons of the Italian Renaissance and share some similarities. There was a conviction that both works were commissioned by the same member of the Medici family, which has now been proven to the present day. Furthermore, throughout the centuries the scholars led comparative analyzes of The Birth of Venus and Primavera in order to determine the influence of ancient painters and the context of wedding festivities, as well as the influence of Renaissance Neo-Platonism.
However, we can say that Primavera is much more complex and suffocated with different layers, while The Birth of Venus is aimed to evoke all sensory departments.
The Domains of The Birth of Venus by Botticelli
As it was already mentioned, in the spotlight of this painting is the figure of a newly-born goddess positioned within a giant shell emerging from the sea; she is practically introduced on the left by the winged wind god Zephyr and his female peer (Botticelli’s contemporary and art historian Giorgio Vasari claimed that this figure represent Aura, a personification of a lighter breeze) blowing at her, and on the right by a female figure holding out a lavish cloak or dress to cover Venus when she reaches the shore. She is the embodiment of one of the three Horae or Hours, minor Greek goddesses of the seasons (the floral decoration of her gown suggests she is the Hora of Spring).
There were various readings of the Venus figure and although her pose is classical and reminiscent of Greco-Roman sculptures, the overall treatment of the figure is largely influenced by Gothic art. One of the best-known art historians Kenneth Clark noted:
Her differences from the antique form are not physiological, but rhythmic and structural. Her whole body follows the curve of a Gothic ivory. It is entirely without that quality so much prized in classical art, known as aplomb; that is to say, the weight of the body is not distributed evenly either side of a central plumb line….. She is not standing but floating… Her shoulders, for example, instead of forming a sort of architrave to her torso, as in the antique nude, run down into her arms in the same unbroken stream of movement as her floating hair.
However we turn, this masterpiece presents an imaginary scene, a myth, rather than a scene from real life, so any disruption is justified. Furthermore, Botticelli never fully practiced any form of naturalism; he gave weight and volume to his figures and rarely used a deep perspectival space and the artist never painted landscape background with great detail or realism.
When it comes to the matter of the surface used for this large-scale composition, it is important to underline that it was released on canvas, which was at the times a novelty and was mostly used for secular paintings appropriate for country villas; they were decorated more simply than those for city palazzi, since their purpose was for the wealthy ones to enjoy and contemplate upon. The painting consists of two pieces of canvas, sewn together before the process with a gesso ground tinted blue.
Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503) was Botticelli’s major patron, so naturally it was thought for a long time that he commissioned The Birth of Venus; some scholars still accept this proposition, while others dismiss it.
However, a number of interpretations of the painting rely on this origin for its meaning, since it is said that this masterpiece is made to honor his cousin Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, better known as il Magnifico. Such a conclusion is enforced by the fact that the laurel trees at right and laurel wreath worn by the Hora are referring to the name Lorenzo. Namely, he and his brother Giovanni bought the Villa di Castello, a country house outside Florence in 1477 and since both of them were practically raised by il Magnifico, they wished to celebrate their guardian with this tender and pompous composition. Vasari mentioned in his writings that he saw it together with Primavera, although there were later analyzes according to which the timing does not match. Regardless of these differences in chronological terms, the two paintings were united at Castello, where they have remained together until 1815 when they were transferred to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Despite different analyzes found in ancient and modern texts, the exact reading of the imagery of the cannot be provided. The main source to properly decode the painting according to many art historians is to be found in the Neoplatonic interpretations, which claim that Botticelli wanted to represent the Neoplatonic idea of divine love in the form of a nude Venus. The 15th-century observer could relate the scene of The Birth of Venus to the traditional iconography of the Baptism of Christ, marking the start of his ministry on earth; the scene functions as an allegory of the Renaissance Neoplatonist ideas.
A short BBC documentary about Botticelli’s Venus
The Cultural Significance of The Birth of Venus Painting
Sandro Botticelli was apparently pleasantly haunted by the figure of Venus – he repeated it on another painting titled Calumny of Apelles, made in 1494–95. In it, a similar figure in a similar pose represented a nude personification of Truth. There we come to the conclusion that The Birth of Venus was not only a milestone for the artist himself, but it also became a referential point for the upcoming generation of artists. As the centuries passed by, its glory became greater, especially with the development of popular culture in the 20th century which embraced this painting as one of the greatest masterpieces ever made.
Its global cult status was confirmed with the appropriation undertaken by Adobe Systems in a period from 1987 to the early 2000s; the software used different edits of the painting in a drawing app Adobe Illustrator. There are various other reenactments, spanning from The New Yorker cover, a James Bond movie (cult scene of Ursula Anders coming out of water from the 1962 movie Dr.No), to Andy Warhol’s silkscreen from 1984, and more recently to David LaChapelle’s photograph Rebirth of Venus from 2009 and Lady Gaga’s video Applause from 2013.
Apparently, this early Renaissance painting has utterly changed the way we perceive the female body in terms of glorifying its divine beauty, as well as sensuality and subtlety. Therefore, it is not unusual that it became one of the pillars of the Western art historical canon and is still widely celebrated even today.
The art of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) remains the epitome of the Florentine accomplishment during the Quattrocento, under the golden age of the reign of Lorenzo di Medici. Painter of such classic Orphic allegories as “Primavera” (c. 1482), “Venus and Mars” (c. 1483) and “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1485), Botticelli is, like Vermeer, a relatively recent rediscovery for art history, having been elected to posthumous stardom by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites only after several centuries of neglect. The first monograph on Botticelli was published in 1893, and between 1900 and 1920, more books were written on him than on any other painter; today his name is synonymous with the aspirations and feats of Renaissance painting at its finest.
Featured image: Sandro Botticelli – Birth of Venus, 1485. Tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5 cm. Courtesy of Uffizi.