Decoding Art: The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

the-birth-of-venus-botticelli

(The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli. Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Imagine the Middle Ages. Stilted, stagnant, ruled by superstitions. Fear governed the senses. Man felt helpless and was helpless. Imagine the stagnancy being replaced by life and movement – that was the Renaissance.

My love affair with the Italian Renaissance began more than a decade ago with an entirely historically inaccurate novel. Inaccuracies aside, it introduced me to this entire world to fantasize about – an era which might be almost said to have given birth to the modern Western Civilization (forgive the ‘slight’ exaggeration) through its immense contribution to literature, philosophy, commerce and banking, science, art, music and even book publishing. The scenes of everyday life in Renaissance – the smells that I could imagine and the chatter that I could almost hear. The art and artists. The flow of ideas. The powerful patrons – the Medicis! More than anything, the pursuit of beauty.

So I thought why not start something on my blog – every week or so I will discuss a painting/sculpture (from Renaissance or other eras) and try to write a short analysis based on what I know or what I have read – a record for myself. It will be an amateur attempt of course, so for any ‘experts’ reading this, do forgive the inaccuracies.

I have to start with my greatest and the longest lasting love affair of all: with The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. I had always preferred landscapes, until I came across Botticelli’s Venuses. That was a complete conversion for me. Not only my love of art began with Botticelli, I also understood the power of the beauty of the human body.

The Birth of Venus: The logistical details

Date: 1483-1485

Location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Historical Context

A story of almost mythological proportions with a dash of the romantic, much befitting the painting, is said to lie behind the Birth of Venus. The Venus of the fluttering gold red hair, Simonetta Vespucci, the ‘most beautiful woman’ was to take Florence by storm when she arrived with her husband Mario Vespucci (cousin to the man who gave America its name, Amerigo Vespucci). Much of a legend in her lifetime, she is still a legend – the intricate details of her life having passed into history with her death at 22 years of age.

So, let’s start with the first encounter – the artist meeting his muse.

January 1475, Piazza Santa Croce. A crowd is gathered and waiting – a mix of nobles and common men. There’s a flurry of excitement. It’s the annual jousting tournament. The excitement is enhanced by the grandness. The most powerful banking family of the time – unofficial rulers of Florence and great patrons of art – are present. These are the charismatic Medici brothers, Lorenzo (the Magnificent) and his handsome brother, Guiliano, who is competing. His banner is dedicated to the beauty of Simonetta – painted by a young Botticelli, the prodigy of Lorenzo Medici. It depicts Pallas (Athena) – her virtue and delicacy depicted by the setting of a meadow with flowers, her strength through a jousting lance and a shield (with Medusa on it) in her hands. Cupid is beside her, defeated and bound to a olive tree. On the branch of the tree, it says ‘La Sans Par’ – The Unparalleled one. She is the intertwining of the human and the spiritual – celebrating the ideal female beauty. Guiliano won and he dedicated his victory to this lady of aforesaid conflicting emotions. Eventually, this is where Botticelli meets his muse. And you will recognize the same face across some of his greatest works. Eventually, he was to be buried at her feet in the Church of Ognissanti, where I did end up in my Botticelli pilgrimage.

botticelli-primavera

(Spot Simonetta yet again as Venus in the middle. La Primavera, Sandro Botticelli. Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

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(Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Woman, after 1480. Staatliche Museen, Berlin, German)

sandro-botticellimadonna-of-the-magnificat-c-1480-81

(Sandro Botticelli,Madonna of the Magnificat. Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Now coming to The Birth Of Venus itself. The painting was most likely commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent.  It was intended for a private residence of the Medicis, Villa of Castello, where the ‘utimate fanboy’ (of the Renaissance greats, and an artist himself), Giorgio Vasari saw the work along with La Primavera in the 16th century.

The painting was a revolution in itself in its depiction of the nude female body, yet its significance was lost for many centuries until rediscovered in the 19th century. Well, the rest is history as today the painting is recognizable even to those who are least interested in art.

Meet the characters in the painting

  • In the center is Venus, Roman counterpart of Aphrodite, the goddess of love (physical and spiritual), sex and fertility, born when Saturn, god of renewal and wealth, castrated his father Uranus, father of the sky, and his blood fell in the sea – from thereon, Venus was born from the foam of the sea.
  • On the right is the Horae of Spring. Horae are the goddesses of the seasons- Thallo (Spring), Carpo (Autumn) and Auxo (Summer). One can assume that it’s Thallo depicted in the painting, given its association with spring and growth.
  • On the left, embracing each other are Zephyrus and Flora. Zephyrus is the god of the West Wind, also the god of spring. Flora (Chloris) is the goddess of greenery, harvest and flowering plants.

The Plot

Demure Venus approaches the shore on a shell after her birth. Her eyes gaze into a distance, her body uncovered and hair nearly lose, fluttering. She tries to cover herself, as the Horae comes towards her with a shawl painted with  daisies. Zephyrus and Flora aid her by blowing her towards the shore as roses surround them. She has approached, yet is distant, removed from the rest of her environment. The colours and the other players radiate towards her as if by gravity. There is peace and calmness depicted in colours and in her stance. The trees that greet the situation are bitter oranges and on the banks are reeds. There are ripples in the sea as if there is energy in it , yet the sea itself is calm as if to be in tandem with the goddess. She stands in ‘contrapposto’ – which is often seen in classical statues, where most of the weight falls on one leg. Like the Medici Venus ( 1st-century BC, made in Athens, in  Uffizi Gallery) or  Aphrodite of Cnidus (by Praxiteles of Athens), the stance is that of Venus Pudica (Modest Venus).

venus_de_medici

(Medici Venus. Uffizi Gallery)

The theme is sources in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also Agnolo Poliziano’s Giotra, who in turn was inspired by the classics.


In the stormy Aegean, the genital member is
seen to be received in the lap of Tethys, to drift
across the waves, wrapped in white foam, be-
neath the various turnings of the planets; and
within, both with lovely and happy gestures, a
young woman with nonhuman countenance, is
carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by
playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven re-
joices in her birth.

(Click for Source)

Themes or meanings

Rebirth & Change

The most immediate meaning when one looks at the symbolism (from Venus to the flowers) is that of birth and beginnings, given that Spring represents transitions as new life flowers. There’s a new wakefulness, a vitality to the surroundings. In the context of the period itself, this could refer to the birth of ideas and inventiveness.  Ambition and wealth was no longer confined to the privileged. Creativity was on the rise. In this sense, the painting almost represents Rebirth. The people of Florence rose from the slumber and slowness of the Middle Ages. There was great movement and progress in every aspect of the society. Thus, Birth of Venus can be seen as an allegory of hope and a forward outlook to the future as well.

At the same time, like most paintings in the period, one can also assume a political message. The citrus fruit (trees) represented in the Birth of Venus refer to the Medicis in several ways. Firstly, Medicis were famous for the various varieties of citrus growing in their gardens at Villa di Castello. Moreover, oranges in Latin also are called Medici.  Perhaps what the artist was trying to convey was that the rise of the Medici was also a herald of a new era in Florence – with their contributions to the politics, culture and economy.

The intertwining of the physical with the spiritual

The nude female body at an immediate level is supposed to evoke desire. But look again at the painting and it’s something beyond desire. What the artists tried to convey was that beauty confined to the mortal elements of desire was lesser than the higher order beauty that inspired contemplation .

Neoplatonism, which was discussed and written about in Lorenzo De Medici’s circle was based on the idea of the spiritual and the divine combining with the earthly and the physical – two radical opposites with the divine balancing the earthly desires/needs. These became the core characteristics of the ideal female beauty during Renaissance – the combination of great physical beauty with humility, purity with desire, delicacy with strength. The goddess Venus entwined these opposites of sensual with the pure.

Perhaps this was also a moral story then. The notion of balance as the ideal virtue to be embodied by man – that while man should aspire and desire, he should also keep these from getting out of control – only then he could achieve the divine.

The balance of Venus is also presented through the colours that add sereneness. Her posture almost defies gravity. The entire scene is constituted to be fantastical – otherworldly, beyond the grasp of human elements and almost evanescent. This is to say that beauty is not restricted to earthly needs.

Woman as the center of family life

Of course this is now essentially a dated notion, but if it is true that this painting was meant to commemorate a Medici wedding, then it symbolizes the woman as the center of domestic life – bringer of new life.

(Featured Image: The Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli. Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

(By Misha)

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