The Birth of Venus

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 (which is related to the Venus Anadyomene motif). The painting is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.


In the past many scholars thought that this large picture may have been, like the Primavera, painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici's Villa di Castello, around 1482, or even before. This was because Vasari, in his 1550 edition of the Lives of the Artists wrote: ", still at Castello, in the villa of the Duke Cosimo, there are two paintings, one the birth of Venus and those breezes and winds that bring her to land with the loves, and likewise another Venus, whom the Graces adorn with flowers, denoting the Springtime." But the Birth of Venus, unlike the Primavera, is not found in Medici inventories of the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, which has led some recent scholars to rethink the patronage, and hence the meaning, of the painting. In the last 30 years most art historians have dated the painting, based on its stylistic qualities, to c. 1485-87.


The iconography of Birth of Venus is very similar to a description of the event (or rather, a description of a sculpture of the event) in a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the Stanze per la giostra. No single text provides the precise content of the painting, however, which has led scholars to propose many sources and interpretations. Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting.


For Plato - and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy - Venus had two aspects: she was an earthy goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator. A Neoplatonic reading of Botticelli's Birth of Venus suggests that fifteenth-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.


More recently, questions have arisen about Neoplatonism as the dominant intellectual system of late fifteenth-century Florence, and scholars have indicated that there might be other ways to interpret Botticelli's mythological paintings. In particular, both Primavera and Birth of Venus have been seen as wedding paintings that suggest appropriate behaviors for brides and grooms.


Botticelli's art was never fully committed to naturalism: in comparison to the paintings of his contemporary Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli seldom gave weight and volume to his figures and rarely used a deep perspectival space. In the Birth of Venus, Venus' body is anatomically improbable, with elongated neck and torso. Her pose is impossible: although standing in a classical contrapposto stance, her weight is shifted too far over the left leg for the pose to be held. Moreover, were she actually to stand on the edge of the shell (which cannot be identified as real), it would certainly tip over. The bodies and poses of the winds to the left are even harder to figure out. The background is summary, and the figures cast no shadows. It is clear that this is a fantasy image.


Venus is an Italian Renaissance ideal: blonde, pale-skinned, voluptuous. Botticelli has picked out highlights in her hair with gold leaf and has emphasized the femininity of her body (long neck, curviness). The brilliant light and soothing colors, the luxurious garden, the gorgeous draperies of the nymph, and the roses floating around the beautiful nude all suggest that the painting is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer

The central figure of Venus in the painting is very similar to Praxiteles' sculpture of Aphrodite. The version of her birth, is where she arises from the sea foam, already a full woman.


In classical antiquity, the sea shell was a metaphor for a woman's vulva.


The pose of Botticelli's Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de' Medici, a marble sculpture from classical antiquity in the Medici collection which Botticelli had opportunity to study.


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Taken on April 12, 2010