Meaning in "The Birth of Venus"

posted on 13 Jul 2015 22:56 by gapingpenitenti38
In Alessandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" (1485), the goddess Venus [or Aphrodite as she is known in Greek mythology] emerges from the sea upon a shell in accordance with the myth that explains her birth. Her shell is pushed to the shore from the winds produced by the Zephyr wind-gods amid a shower of roses. As the goddess is about to step on the shore, one of the Nymphs reaches out to cover her with a purple cloak. This painting is among the most treasured masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Here Venus is shown as a beautiful and chaste goddess and symbol of the coming spring. At this time in Renaissance history, when almost all art was of Christian theme, nude women are not often depicted and when they are they symbolize sinful lust. Most paintings of women during the Middle Ages symbolize the Virgin Mary, showing her in a demure appearance with an angelic smile and covered head. So why did Botticelli paint the beautiful goddess, not only an obvious symbol of pagan mythology but also as a nude?

Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), a master of Renaissance art, busy doing portraits, mythological themes, and religious works for the Medici family, had varied sources of inspiration for this painting. Perhaps he was inspired to create his Venus by his contemporaries who were rediscovering ancient Greek art and the ancient Greek ideals of beauty. For instance, Leone Battista Alberti, a man often viewed as a model "Renaissance man," writes about his fascination with an ancient Venus statue discovered under the Brunelleschi Villa. He also recommends the mathematical models of human form and the Classical ideals of perfection and motion. To Alberti, motion symbolizes energy. Many aspects of Botticelli's Venus are in motion: the leaves of the orange trees in the background, ringlets of hair being blown about by the Zephyrs, roses sprinkled throughout the atmosphere, the waves tossing gently, and the cloaks and drapery of the figures blown and lifted by the breeze. Further, the pose of Botticelli's Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de Medici, a marble sculpture and gem inscription from Classical antiquity in the Medici collection which Botticelli had opportunity to study.

Another contemporary, Cennino Cennini, writes "The Craftsman's Handbook" in which he explains how to apply gold leaf (like that which can be seen in the trim of Venus' wrap in Botticelli's painting) and how to crush lapis lazuli to produce a beautiful blue pigment (like that used in the blue cornflowers of the Nymph's garment).

But Botticelli was a craftsman in his own right. His "Venus" is the first large-scale canvas created in Renaissance Florence [68x110 in or 173x279 cm]. He prepared his own tempera pigments with very little fat and covered them with a layer of pure egg white in a process unusual for his time. He had fantastic results. His painting resembles a fresco in its freshness and brightness. It is preserved exceptionally well: the painting today remains firm and elastic with very little cracks.

In 1497 monk Savonarola carried out his infamous "bonfire of vanities" to destroy the trappings of luxury and immoral excesses that he preached against, like makeup, jewelry, hairpieces, and "lewd" paintings. Thankfully for admirers of today and most likely because Botticelli was friends with Lorenzo de Medici, the painting was spared the flames of Savonarola's bonfire. It remained safe in a Medici villa outside Florence.

About twenty years ago the painting was restored to its original brilliant colors when a layer of varnish -added in the 19th century - that had yellowed and become infested with worms was removed. Protecting the masterpiece from the hordes of admiring crowds who visit it where it hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is becomingly increasingly difficult. The Uffizi is a must-see for any serious art lover; travelers should plan on setting aside two days to visit the museum.

Hagen, Rose-Marie Rainer. What Great Paintings Say: Old Masters in Detail. Cologne: Benedikt Tasche, 2000.