The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1482-1485)

Today, the lucky viewers of the ‘Birth of Venus’ marvel at the beauty of Botticelli’s work in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. From the bright greeny-blue of the ocean to the exquisite depiction of the female form, this work of art is undoubtedly a masterpiece. However, far from this modern perception of the ‘Birth of Venus,’ when the work was completed in 1485 it was deemed a disgrace – its very creation was a religious scandal.

‘The Birth of Venus’ was so shocking to its 15th century audience due to Botticelli’s nude depiction of a pagan idol – the goddess Venus. To paint such a form had not been done for over a thousand years, with very few artists daring to defy the more demure artistic conventions of the post-antique period. Such medieval conventions held nudity to be the outfit of the sinner, whereas here Botticelli presents the naked body as beautiful in the ideal. Moreover, Botticelli painted a figure symbolic of Italy’s polytheistic past, also deeming the work an insult to the church. Perhaps the only reason as to why the work still survives today was the hugely powerful Lorenzo de Medici, a great admirer of the classical antiquity and for whom ‘The Birth of Venus’ was commissioned.

In direct contrast to its 15th century reception however, modern audiences can easily perceive the modesty and gentility of the Venus figure. Notice how her arms and hair drape over her body, highlighting the godesses’ timidty (a stance, it should be noticed, very similar to the sculpture of  Venus Pudica which was discovered at the time). So gentle a figure, Venus and her shell are literally blown to the shore by the Gods of the wind, Aura and Zephyr, showering her with roses (tinged with gold) in the same moment. Equally, Venus’ downward glance and heavy lids distance the goddess from her viewer, desexualising the image further. Finally, although the pearly white of her smooth skin makes the image beautiful, it also creates Venus as sculpture-like, making the goddess all the more chaste and virginal. Look at how Ora of Spring, the female on the right hand side of the painting, stands poised to wrap a floral cape over Venus, covering her nudity. Therefore, far from attempting to be scandalous, Botticelli in fact stayed true to the mythical Venus; a loving figure of beauty and modesty. Indeed, the floral cape with which Venus is covered, is dotted with violets; a symbol of love.. Venus does not inspire desire within us, but tenderness.

Essential to understanding this painting is recognising the centrality of what Venus represents – love. This painting, assumed to be a wedding gift, has an evident sensual aura to it. The flamed-hair agitated in the wind, Aura and Zephyr perfectly interlocked legs, and even Ora’s dress which is suggestively sculpted by the wind, are all synonymous with joy and sensuality.  Within ‘The Birth of Venus’ there are clear references to the poem “Stanzas” by Agnolo Poliziano, a great Neoplatonic poet and a contemporary of Botticelli’s. According to Platonic theory, Venus had two aspects. The first was her earthly aspect, which inspired men and women to physically love one another.Yet, Venus also has a metaphysical aspect which inspires man to search for higher truths – that is to say, inspires man to intellectual love. On this basis, ‘The Birth of Venus’ stands as a stimulus for intellectual pursuit – something undoubtedly central to the Renaissance mindset.

However, much less nobly, it is equally justifiable to argue that the work was commissioned by the powerful Medici family to flatter their own vanity. In its clear equation to love, the work could be seen to assert a ‘reign of love’ in Florence under the rule of the Medici family. Similarly, some argue that Lorenzo de Medici was trying to heighten his personal stature by commissioning Botticelli to paint ‘The Birth of Venus.’ The Venus figure supposedly resembles the mistress of Lorenzo de Medici, Simonetta Vespuci, conveniently born in the coastal town of Portovenere; the port of Venus…

Regardless of how one chooses to interpret Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus,’ it is clear that it stands as one of the most magnificent examples of Renaissance art. While some features of the painting are typical of the Florentine Renaissance, such as Botticelli’s perfect outline of his figures in black, the vast majority of this painting goes above and beyond what other artists were willing or able to achieve. From his very subject matter  to his use of alabaster powder (to make the colours extremely bright), Botticelli went one step further than so many of his contemporaries. The result? A sublime masterpiece.

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