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The Birth Of Venus By Botticelli: Great Art Explained:

Sandro Botticelli’s poetic sense of beauty 
captivated the Florentine court, but it was his   subject matter which distinguished him from other 
artists. He was one of the first Western artists   since classical times, to depict non-religious 
scenes. The idea that art could be for pleasure   and not just to serve God, was new and radical. 
When Botticelli revealed his latest painting   in Florence in 1485, he also revealed a dramatic 
shift in western art. Botticelli’s inclusion of a   near-life-sized female nude was unprecedented in 
Western art. This wasn’t Eve being expelled from   the Garden of Eden, shamed by her nudity. It wasn’t 
the naked hordes sent to Hell in Dante’s Inferno.   In fact this wasn’t nudity as a symbol 
of shame at all – or even sin – or wickedness.   This was a celebration of the naked 
human form, this was a celebration of sex. Renaissance translates as “Rebirth” and although 
dates are debatable, we can start in Florence   around the 14th century, when a renewed interest in 
ancient Greco-Roman culture led to an intellectual   and artistic rebirth. A rise in Humanist philosophy, 
and radical changes in ideas about religion,   politics and science. Ideas that would turn 
art on its head. New ways of thinking spread   throughout Europe inspired by ancient cultures, 
that focused less on religion and more on the   possible achievements of mankind. It was regarded 
as the beginning of the “individual”, the end of the   middle ages, and the start of modernity. In this 
period artists relied entirely on wealthy patrons.   Luckily for us the Medici banking 
family were the wealthiest of them all.  Botticelli’s patron was Lorenzo de’ Medici, who 
dominated Florence’s political and cultural life.   He was a cultured, intelligent man, who spoke 
Latin and Greek. He was also a Humanist.   Renaissance Humanism was not anti-Christian or 
atheistic, it was a revival of moral philosophy.   A move to purify and renew Christianity, Rather 
than the “collective”, emphasis was placed on   free-will the value of individual 
human beings and their capacities.   Without this new way of thinking, it is doubtful 
we would have had artists like Botticelli,   Michelangelo and da Vinci. Humanism would 
radicalise art, artists and subject matter.   Botticelli would bridge the gap between Medieval 
Gothic art and the emerging Humanism. We can see   the different styles in these two images. The 
first is late Gothic, the period that preceded   the Renaissance. It is heavily stylised and flat, 
flesh tones are pallid, expressions are vacant and   it is unemotional. The second, a work that inspired 
the young Botticelli, shows three-dimensionality,   the figures are more human, more fleshy. Mary 
is a mother not just a saint and Jesus is a   realistic child. It is an image we can relate to 
and empathise with. It wasn’t just style though,   Religious art had dominated the medieval period 
and the Renaissance gave artists like Botticelli   freedom to explore new subject matters… 
albeit within a Christian framework.   Narrator: “The island where Aphrodite the Greek goddess 
of love was born out of sea spray on this  very beach” The story of the goddess of love and 
beauty starts with a castration. The god Saturn   castrated his father Uranus and 
then threw his genitals into the sea.   Out of the seafoam an unbelievable 
beauty emerges fully formed – Venus.   The first thing to say is that the painting 
does not represent venus’s “actual birth”   but rather the next part of the story, when 
Venus arrives on the island of Cyprus on a shell.   If we take the characters one by one, the 
male figure on the far left is Zephyr, the   warm spring winds. He is blowing Venus ashore. 
Zephyr is locked in an embrace with his wife   Chloris, who herself is blowing gentle breaths. 
Roses fall around them – each with a golden heart.   According to legend rose’s first grew at Venus’s 
birth. We have seen both these characters before –  in the earlier mythological Venus painting by 
Botticelli, “Primavera”, Zephyr raped Chloris and   married her, and then turned her into Flora, the 
goddess of flowers. A woman welcomes Venus with a   red cloth covered in daisies. She is likely to be one 
of the “Horae” or personifications of the seasons,   summer in this case, as her dress is decorated 
with cornflowers and primroses, and at her feet   are anemones. All summer flowers. Hora wears a rose 
girdle and has a necklace of myrtle, a plant sacred   to the goddess Venus, an aphrodisiac, and a symbol 
of love. Then there is Venus herself, also known as   Aphrodite to the ancient Greeks. Botticelli 
has painted her twice before, for “Primavera”   and “Venus and Mars”. This time she is naked: The 
first full female nude of a non-biblical character.   Botticelli was probably inspired by an ancient 
marble statue in the Medici’s collection, now   known as the “Medici Venus”, the first ever female 
nude sculpture in classical art. Her modest pose   is known as “Venus Pudica”, a stance where a nude 
female uses her right hand to cover her breast,  while her left hand tries to hide her pubic 
area. It is a pose that makes voyeurs of us all.  The word “Pudica” in latin not only means “genitalia”, 
but also translates as “Shame”. We just don’t see   this coy sexually suggestive pose with male 
statues, either in antiquity or during the   Renaissance. Naked men were associated with active 
heroism, but women were passive sexual objects.   In many ways the statue was a blueprint for a pose 
that would have a cultural and artistic impact   felt across western art for the subsequent two and 
a half thousand years. The influence of sculpture   statue-like pose, but she has alabaster skin. She 
is unreal, an idealised figure not bound by natural   laws. Botticelli painted a dark line around the 
contours of her body making it easier to see her pale body against the equally pale background, and 
emphasizing the marble-like quality of her flesh.   Venus’s figure is elongated in the Gothic style, 
she appears graceful but she is not quite central   and her weight isn’t evenly distributed. The shell 
would tip over if she placed her full weight on the   edge like she does, but this is not the real world. 
It has been said that Venus has what is called   “The Gothic sway”, a pre-Renaissance variation on the 
Contrapposto pose, which places the weight of   the body on the forward stationary leg, creating an 
elegant curved pose often seen in Madonna figures,  a theme we will come back to. The wind deities 
are in an impossible convoluted embrace   and like all the characters, appear weightless with 
very little depth. They are all in the foreground,  all on the same pictorial plane, which creates an 
intense theatricality, and none of the figures cast   shadows. This is not a mistake, but heightened 
realism. If we compare this earlier painting   by Botticelli to The Birth of Venus, we see true 
realism – depth, shadowing and action taking place   on different pictorial planes. As far as the 
devoutly Christian Botticelli was concerned   his religious paintings were “actual reality”, 
history even, and he painted them as such.   Whereas with his mythological works, he is letting 
the viewer know “stylistically” that what they are   looking at is a product of imagination. What 
we are seeing here, is movement and energy   not seen before. Venus, pushed by the wind 
is about to step off her shell onto the   shore. Her hair is blowing in the wind, the 
Hora rushes forward with a billowing cloak,   roses fly through the air, the orange trees 
rustle and drapery flaps around the bodies.   It is a movement and energy found on ancient 
Roman reliefs. Then there is the background.   In contrast with all the flowers that 
surround the four characters, the little   bays we see along the shore are pretty barren. 
The suggestion is that once Venus steps ashore,   the land will blossom. Botticelli is not interested 
in replicating nature, but rather in creating a   dreamscape. The contrast between the green of 
the sea and the paleness of venus is wonderful.  The waves are mere gestures – a flick of the 
wrist. The flowering orange grove references   the sacred garden of Hesperides in Greek myth. 
The detailing is exquisite, every blossom is   tipped with real gold, which is used throughout 
the painting for highlights. Botticelli trained   as a goldsmith before he took up painting and his 
strong outlines and ornamented decorative elements   reflect that. There is a peculiar detail in 
the painting which is these bulrushes. Out   of place as they don’t grow in salt water. It 
is almost certainly a subtle phallic reference   to the discarded member of Uranus that created 
Venus. An in-joke for those clever Florentines.  When botticelli painted The Birth of Venus, 
approximately 10 percent of western paintings   were non-religious, and of that 10 percent 
the vast majority were portraits. Mythological   paintings were a whole new art form, so it makes 
sense that a devout Christian like Botticelli   would incorporate familiar references. Botticelli 
knew the philosopher and priest Marcilio Ficino   whose mission was to combine ancient philosophy 
with Christianity. His idea of a “Celestial Venus” as   opposed to the pagan goddess, had her as a stand-in for 
charity and love. I don’t think it is a disguised   Christian allegory, but in art history terms there 
are familiar references that are worth examining.   If we look at this standard composition of 
the baptism of Christ, you can see what i mean   Ghiberti’s work had a semi-naked figure in the 
middle, two flying angels on the left, and John   the baptist with an outstretched hand. In this 
baptism we see the same almost nude, motionless   figure in the centre, a pair on the left hand side 
and once again John the Baptist echoing the Hora.   Then we can look at this painting of the Virgin 
Mary, Botticelli painted a couple of years later.   It has a comparable composition, the two women are 
strikingly similar, and it would appear that he   used the same model. Mary, like Venus, is dominated 
by the scallop shell. In christian symbolism it   represents “Baptism” and “Resurrection”. In pagan 
symbolism the shell is a representation of   fertility or female sexual organs. It is entirely 
possible that Botticelli was depicting Venus   as an emblem of sacred or divine love. A familiar 
Renaissance trope. Part of Botticelli’s genius   was to take a pagan story, a nude female, and make 
them acceptable to contemporary Christian thinking.   In this period paintings were generally done on 
wooden panels, but this is on canvas. Suggesting the   painting was almost certainly made for a country 
villa, rather than a townhouse. Canvas was cheaper,   easier to transport and was considered less formal. 
It was originally painted on two separate canvases   which were then stitched together. Botticelli used 
the egg tempera technique for The Birth of Venus,   a primary method of painting until after 
1500 when it was superseded by oil painting   First you break an egg yolk into a container, 
then you add some water to make it easier to use,   you dilute your pigment with water, and add it to 
the egg yolk. Different quantities for different   applications. For the body of Venus, Botticelli 
used a very thin layer of tempura, giving more   luminosity and a pronounced radiant appearance. 
Tempura was perfect for Botticelli’s paintings,   which are known for their elegant qualities of 
line and shape. Rather than shading wet-on-wet   which you cannot do with tempura, you can see how 
the golden colour of Venus’s hair is achieved by   light and dark rhythmic lines, to suggest texture. 
He also added pure gold highlights. Here you can   see he used delicate cross hatching rather than 
the blending you would get with oil painting.   Tempura is a difficult technique, but centuries 
later artists still use it. So why? Because it has   a graphic quality and a luminosity you don’t get 
in oil, and unlike oil paint it will not yellow or   fade. The egg dries to form a solid protective coat,
so colour remains clear bright and pure over time.   We don’t know for sure who commissioned the 
birth of venus but it was probably the de-facto    ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici 
and destined for the Medici villa Castello.   Primavera was commissioned by Lorenzo as a 
wedding gift for his cousin, also called Lorenzo,   and in 1550 the art historian Giorgio Vasari 
saw both paintings at the villa, so it’s a strong   possibility, The Birth of Venus was commissioned as 
a companion piece to Primavera – a wedding gift.   The paintings show two very different aspects of Venus 
but both are in line with Renaissance thinking.   The aforementioned philosopher and theologian 
Marcilio Ficino described Venus’s “Dual nature”,   as both the celestial goddess that inspired 
intellectual love, and the earthly goddess   that celebrated the power of procreation. And I
think “procreation” is the key to this painting.   Noble families like the Medici didn’t marry 
for love, they married for power, accelerated   by important arranged marriages. The function of 
women was their ability to procreate, and the new   bride’s arrival into the Medici bed chamber is 
paralleled by the arrival of Venus on Cyprus,   who will bring life to a barren island. So in a 
way the birth of venus is an image celebrating “Sex”,   but not in an erotic or sensual way. I’ve always 
been struck by how venus is strangely “asexual”   and her nudity is clinical. And maybe that’s 
because she represents sex as a necessary function.   Sex for procreation, the ultimate 
goal in a dynastic marriage.   On february the 7th, 1497 a huge bonfire was lit 
in the centre of Florence. Books on poetry and   classical texts were burned ,along with paintings, 
sculptures, mirrors and musical instruments.   Anything considered frivolous was burned. Florence 
had fallen under the spell of the extraordinary   Dominican friar Geronimo Savonarola, whose “fire 
and brimstone” sermons mesmerised thousands in the   city. After a 60-year reign, the powerful Medici 
family had been driven out of Florence by a   mere priest. One who was determined to rid 
the city of the Medici’s “sinful” influence.   One of Savonarola’s most enthusiastic 
followers was Botticelli, who according to some,   willingly threw some of his 
own paintings into the bonfire.   We are fortunate that his greatest mythological 
works survived, only because they were held at   the Villa de Castello – beyond the reach of both 
Savonarola’s followers and Botticelli himself.   After Savonarola’s death, Botticelli was 
increasingly seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant.   Commissions dried up, and it was the beginning 
of a sad decline into obscurity. He was at the   height of his powers when he painted The Birth of 
Venus, but by the time of his death in 1510, he was   all but forgotten. The Medici’s had moved on to a 
new generation of artists. With The Birth of Venus,   Botticelli really did produce a work of art that 
was revolutionary, a work that changed the course   of art history, and one that still looks intensely 
modern to 21st century eyes. In fact The Birth   of vVnus is as influential now as it was five 
centuries ago. It is one of the most recognisable   images in the world. The ancient Gods may have 
given birth to Venus – but Botticelli gave her life.
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