Birth of Venus by Botticelli
Birth of Venus (1484-6)
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A unique mythological painting from the Renaissance in Florence, and the first non-religious nude since classical antiquity, The Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere) belongs to the group of mythological pictures painted by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) in the 1480s, following his return from Rome after completing three fresco paintings in the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV. The other mythological works include Pallas and the Centaur (c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence), Venus and Mars (1483, National Gallery, London), and La Primavera (1484-6, Uffizi). Like these works, The Birth of Venus (1484-86) remains one of the profound treasures of the Florentine Renaissance. The work, painted with tempera on canvas, depicts the female nude figure of the goddess Venus standing on dry land having emerged from the sea. It was commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-92) of the Medici Family, whose quattrocento humanist circle was particularly interested in classical mythology, and marks the culmination of the revival of ancient myths, within the context of a humanistic Renaissance art. A perfect example of the type of picture targeted by the Dominican monk Savonarola, in his virulent 4-year campaign against profanity and frivolity (1494-8), the painting miraculously survived the monk's "bonfire of the vanities" in 1497. This, despite its obviously pagan narrative and the fact it contained one of the first full length female nudes since the classical era. This good fortune enables us to enjoy one of the greatest Renaissance paintings by one of the most stylish of early Renaissance artists.
According to the classical poet Hesiod, Venus was conceived when Chronus castrated his father, the God Uranus, whose severed organs fertilized the sea. But Botticelli received additional inspiration from the Florentine poet, humanist and classical scholar Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), protege of Lorenzo Medici, who wrote about this scene in his epic poem "Stanze per la Giostra". He described Venus as being driven towards the shore on a shell by Zephyrus, god of the wind, while the Horae of the seasons stood on the shore in white, flowing garments.
No doubt Botticelli borrowed from these and other accounts. At any rate, The Birth of Venus depicts the moment when, having emerged from the sea in a shell, Venus lands at Paphos in Cyprus. She is blown towards the shore by Zephyrus - god of the winds - and the breeze Aura, while a Hora of Spring stands on dry land poised to wrap a cloak, decorated with spring flowers, around Venus to cover her nudity. A wistful gaze under heavy eyelids lends the goddess an air of cool distance. The fine modelling and white flesh colour gives her the appearance of a statue, an impression fortified by her stance which derives from the sculpture of ancient Greece - in effect, a more fluid version of the Medici Venus (Venus Pudica) (1st century CE, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) - a medium which was highly regarded in Florence at the time. Despite the slightly unusual dimensions of her body - the elongated neck and her overlong left arm - Botticelli's Venus is an incredibly beautiful woman with smooth, delicate skin and golden curls. She is born to the world as the goddess of beauty, and the viewer is witness to this act of creation. As she lifts a foot to step off her gilded shell, the winds shower her with roses - each with a golden heart (according to mythology the rose flowered for the first time when Venus was born) - while the orange blossom on the tree in the middle ground is also fringed with gold.
According to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who inspired humans to physical love, but on the other hand she was a celestial goddess who inspired humans to intellectual love. Plato also argued that contemplation of physical beauty enabled the human mind to comprehend spiritual beauty. This means that when 15th-century Neo-Platonic viewers looked at The Birth of Venus they would have felt themselves being inspired to contemplate spiritual (that is, divine) love. If this sounds somewhat airy-fairy, note that The Birth of Venus and other similar works by Botticelli and others are now being seen as wedding paintings that recommend suitable behaviours for bride and groom.
The Birth of Venus has attracted a number of other explanations from a variety of scholars, historians and related experts. The painting was inspired by a Homeric hymn published in Florence in 1488 by the Greek writer Demetrios Chalcondyles; it was associated with Venus Anadyomene (Venus Rising from the Sea), a lost masterpiece of the artist, Apelles, mentioned by the classical historian Pliny the Elder.
Another explanation is that the painting was executed to flatter Lorenzo de' Medici, the powerful head of the Medici clan. The image of Venus in this picture (and also in La Primavera) is supposedly modelled on the stunning Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, the alleged mistress of both Giuliano de' Medici and his elder brother Lorenzo. After all, was it mere coincidence that Simonetta was born in the Italian coastal town of Portovenere (in English: the port of Venus)? Associating Lorenzo's mistress with Venus, triggered a number of other references, culminating in the equation of Lorenzo with Alexander the Great - a not unflattering comparison.
The nudity of Venus echoes that of Eve in the Garden of Eden. This has led some commentators to speculate that Venus is a personification of the Christian Church. One should note, for instance, that the title of the Virgin Mary is "stella maris": star of the sea. Perhaps the sea gives birth to Venus just as the Madonna gives birth to Jesus Christ.
Painterly Methods: Gothic Meets Renaissance
Botticelli trained first as a goldsmith before being apprenticed to Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69), the finest painter in Florence at the time, and noted in particular for his linear style of painting, his decorative motifs and pale lighting - a style, in short, which owed a great deal to the elegance and ornamentation of International Gothic art. Like his master, Botticelli was never fully reconciled to naturalism, either as a means or an end. Thus unlike contemporaries such as Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94) or northerners like Andrea Mantegna (1431-06), he rarely gave weight and volume to his figures, and maintained a narrow perspectival space. Thus the figure of Venus (like her counterpart in La Primavera), has an elongated neck and torso, while her classical contrapposto stance is gravitationally impossible. In short, realism is not high on Botticelli's agenda. He prefers to depict Renaissance humanism using the decorative aesthetics of the Byzantine tradition. (Compare the more naturalist contemporary painting Virgin of the Rocks 1484-6, by Leonardo.) Thus he highlights her hair with gold leaf, as well as the shell and orange trees, and contrasts the milk-like purity of her skin with the richly decorated draperies of the proffered wrap. The combination of cutting-edge humanism and Byzantine/Gothic decoration makes The Birth of Venus one of the greatest paintings of the Italian Renaissance.
Savonarola and Botticelli's Breakdown
For years Savonarola had criticized Lorenzo de Medici for corrupting the people with music, plays, art, and other "vanities' of life. After Lorenzo's untimely death in 1492, Savonarola and his followers succeeded in seizing control of the city government, whereupon the Medici were immediately banished from the city. After this, Savonarola maintained a four-year reign of fanaticism and terror. Botticelli himself was so influenced by Savonarola's sermons that he suffered a nervous breakdown - caused by guilt at painting pagan, mythological works - and even abandoned fine art painting for a while. The peak of Savonarola's power was reached in 1497. During the carnival that preceded the Lenten season, his followers built a huge 7-storey pyre in the Piazza della Signoria, containing thousands of "vanity items" including books, paintings, sculpture, mirrors, cards, dice, jewellery, and other objects. The painters Fra Bartolommeo and Lorenzo di Credi even brought their own paintings to this "Bonfire of the Vanities", around which monks and citizens performed a frenzied dance. Despite Savonarola's excommunication and execution in 1498, Botticelli's painting became noticeably more Christian and more spiritual. The phase of his glorious humanist expressionism, which so enriched Early Renaissance painting in Florence, was over.
Venus (1510) Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
and Ariadne (1520-23) National Gallery, London.
of the Andrians (1523-5) Prado, Madrid.
and Io (1533) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540-50) National Gallery, London.
of Paris (1632-6) National Gallery, London.
in Arcadia Ego (1650-55) Louvre Museum.
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