The Birth of Venus is a painting by Sandro Botticelli.
It depicts the Goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a full grown woman, arriving at the sea-shore (Venus Anadyomene motif). The painting is currently in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
This large picture by Botticelli may have been, like the Primavera, painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici’s Villa di Castello, around 1483, or even before. Some scholars suggest that the Venus painted for Lorenzo and mentioned by Giorgio Vasari may have been a different work, now lost. Some experts believe it to be a celebration of the love of Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici (who died in the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478) for Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who lived in Portovenere, a town by the sea with a local tradition of being the birthplace of Venus. Whatever inspired the artist, there are clear similarities to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti, as well as to Poliziano’s Verses.
The classical Goddess Venus emerges from the water on a shell, blown towards shore by the Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passions. She is joined by one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, who hands her a flowered cloak. According to some commentators, the naked goddess is a symbol not of earthly, but spiritual love, in the manner of an ancient marble statue (which might have inspired the 18th century sculptor, Antonio Canova, by its candor), slim and long-limbed, with harmonious features. The modest pose is borrowed from the Venus Pudica type of ancient sculpture then being rediscovered.
The effect, nonetheless, is distinctly pagan, considering it was made at a time and place when most artworks depicted Roman Catholic themes. It is somewhat surprising that this canvas escaped the flames of Savonarola’s bonfires, where a number of Botticelli’s other “pagan” influenced works perished. Botticelli was very close to Lorenzo de Medici. Because of their friendship and Lorenzo’s power, this work was spared from Savonarola’s fires and the disapproval of the Church.
The anatomy of Venus and various subsidiary details do not display the strict classical realism of Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael. Most obviously, Venus has an improbably long neck, and her left shoulder slopes at an anatomically unlikely angle. Such details only enhance the great beauty of the painting, and some have suggested it prefigures mannerism.
The Primavera, 1482. It is housed in Uffizi Gallery of Florence.
In 1550, Vasari wrote that a picture which according to him announced the arrival of spring (Primavera in Italian) was in the Medici villa in Castello, near villa de Petraia. In 1477, the estate was acquired by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who was a second cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. This is why it was long assumed that the Primavera, as the painting continues to be called, was painted for the fourteen-year-old Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco when the villa was bought. An inventory dating from 1499, which was not discovered until 1975, lists the property of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and his brother Giovanni and states that in the 15th century the Primavera had been displayed in Florence’s city palace. The painting decorated an anteroom attached to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s chambers.
Such large-format paintings were not unusual in the private residences of affluent families. The “Primavera” is, however, significantly illustrative of Renaissance classicistic iconography and form, depicting classical gods almost naked and life-size and a complex philosophical symbolism requiring deep knowledge of Renaissance literature and syncretism to interpret. While some of the figures were inspired by ancient sculptures, these were not direct copies but translated into Botticelli’s own, idiosyncratic formal language: slender, highly-idealized figures whose bodies at times seem slightly too attenuated and presage the elegant, courtly style of 16th-century Mannerism.
Venus is standing in the centre of the picture, set slightly back from the other figures. Above her, Cupid is aiming one of his arrows of love at the Charites (Three Graces), who are elegantly dancing a rondel. The Grace on the right side has the face of Caterina Sforza, also painted by Botticelli in a famous portrait in the Lindenau Museum as Catherine of Alexandria. The garden of Venus, the goddess of love, is guarded on the left by Mercury, who stretches out his hand to touch the clouds. Mercury, who is lightly clad in a red cloak covered with flames, is wearing a helmet and carrying a sword, clearly characterizing him as the guardian of the garden. The messenger of the gods is also identified by means of his winged shoes and the caduceus staff which he used to drive two snakes apart and make peace; Botticelli has depicted the snakes as winged dragons. From the right, Zephyr, the god of the winds, is forcefully pushing his way in, in pursuit of the nymph Chloris. Next to her walks Flora, the goddess of spring, who is scattering flowers.
Various interpretations of the scene exist. For instance, the Primavera was also read as a political image: Love (Amor) would be Rome (“Roma” in Italian); the three Graces Pisa, Naples and Genoa; Mercury Milan; Flora Florence; May Mantua; Cloris and Zephyr Venice and Bolzano (or Arezzo and Forlì).
Leaving aside the suppositions there remains the profoundly humanistic nature of the painting, a reflection of contemporary cultural influences and an expression of many contemporary texts.
One source for this scene is Ovid’s Fasti, a poetic calendar describing Roman festivals. For the month of May, Flora tells how she was once the nymph Chloris, and breathes out flowers as she does so. Aroused to a fiery passion by her beauty, Zephyr, the god of the wind, follows her and forcefully takes her as his wife. Regretting his violence, he transforms her into Flora, his gift gives her a beautiful garden in which eternal spring reigns. Botticelli is depicting two separate moments in Ovid’s narrative, the erotic pursuit of Chloris by Zephyr and her subsequent transformation into Flora. This is why the clothes of the two women, who also do not appear to notice each other, are being blown in different directions. Flora is standing next to Venus and scattering roses, the flowers of the goddess of love. In his philosophical didactic poem De Rerum Natura the classical writer Lucretius celebrated both goddesses in a single spring scene. As the passage also contains other figures in Botticelli’s group, it is probably one of the main sources for the painting: “Spring-time and Venus come,/ And Venus’ boy, the winged harbinger, steps on before,/ And hard on Zephyr’s foot-prints Mother Flora,/ Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all/ With colours and with odours excellent.”
The Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510) was one of the major Renaissance artists in Florence, which was the center for innovative painting in fifteenth-century Europe.
Sandro Botticelli was born several generations after Donatello, Masaccio, and their associates gave Florentine art its essential direction and just before it took a great turn in the High Renaissance work of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others. Botticelli worked in an established, almost traditional manner at a point just before the mode was generally perceived as no longer adequate.
Vagaries of Botticelli Criticism
A certain critical tradition has looked on Botticelli as a “decadent” artist, connected with the culture embodied in Lorenzo the Magnificent, de facto ruler of the city, poet, philosopher, and sophisticate. Successful in the 1470s and 1480s, then out of fashion and forgotten at the time of his death, Botticelli was greatly acclaimed in the 19th century, especially in England by the Pre-Raphaelites, who found that he legitimized their style, which combined the sensuous and the immaterial. Of late, scholars have considered this to be a misreading of Botticelli and have stressed his Florentine concern for solidly modeled form and religious exposition. Concurrently, however, admiration for his work has declined. Recent study has also tended to reject, as without contemporary support, the picture of him as first a member of Lorenzo’s intellectual circle and later a devotee of the religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola.
Son of a tanner, trained by a master whose name is not known, Botticelli followed in his first works the current version of the Florentine style, the prime practitioner of which was Andrea del Verrocchio. This style was not much concerned with the convincing rendition of space and emphasized the human figure, with dense modeling, sharp contour, and linear rhythm. Botticelli’s major early works are Fortitude (1470, one of seven Virtues for a merchants’ assembly hall; the other six are by Piero Pollaiuolo), two tiny panels of the story of Judith and Holofernes, and St. Sebastian (1474). In some of these he altered the appearance of muscular energy and physical action found in Verrocchio’s work in the direction of nervous fatigue and contemplative repose.
These qualities are most evident in Botticelli’s best-known works, Spring and the Birth of Venus, executed for a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, for his villa. They obviously reflect the contemporary literary culture, but their precise subject matter has been much debated and has never been agreed on; they were certainly designed in consultation with a scholar, but he may have invented an allegory for the occasion which was not recorded. Since Venus has a central position in both works, it is plausible to consider the two figures of Venus as a contrasting pair. There was a literary convention in philosophical-archeological writing of the time of contrasting the spiritual and the earthly Venus, which may well be a factor in the paintings, though not the entire theme.
Botticelli continued using this early style after 1480 (the Birth is perhaps as late as 1485), but meantime a new style emerged in frescoes such as St. Augustine (1480) in the Church of the Ognissanti, Florence; the Annunciation (1481) for S. Martino, Florence; and three frescoes (1481-1482) in the Sistine Chapel, Rome, executed during Botticelli’s only trip away from Florence. These frescoes show a new concern with the construction of stagelike spaces and stiffer figures, also seen in a series of altarpieces of 1485 and 1489. A bow to the newly fashionable work of Domenico Ghirlandaio and of Flemish painting is implied, but the tense linearity of the figure reveals that Botticelli’s art had not undergone any fundamental changes.
After 1490 Botticelli began to concentrate on paintings with many small figures, using the same cutting contour lines, so that the entire picture surface acquired a trembling vibrancy. Many works exhibited this new tendency, such as the Calumny of Apelles, a visualization of a description of a painting by an ancient Roman writer; the Crucifixion, with a rain of arrows descending on a view of Florence in the background, the only work by Botticelli definitely expounding Savonarola’s view of the sinning city; the Last Communion of St. Jerome, the most intense of several works portraying physical collapse of the body; and the Nativity, (1501), which employed an archaic design of Fra Angelico, with a stylized cave suggesting pre-Renaissance landscapes, and an inscription referring to current prophecies of the end of the world.
In his late years Botticelli was crippled and failed to receive commissions, but he may have continued to work on his set of drawings (never finished) illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy, remarkable for their consistent evocation of an energized irrational space. By about 1504, when the young Raphael came to Florence to observe the new modes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Botticelli’s art must have seemed obsolete, although it had been widely imitated in the 1490s.