This painting, probably dating from around 1483, was located in the Medici Villa of Castello during the middle of the sixteenth century. Now it is displayed in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
Description and subject
The painting contains elements of Greek and Roman iconography.
The theme derives from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a very important oeuvre in Latin literature.
Venus is portrayed naked on a shell along the seashore. On her left the winds blow gently caressing her hair with a shower of roses; on her right a handmaid (Ora) waits for the goddess to approach to dress her shy body.
The meadow is sprinkled with violets, a symbol of modesty but often used in love potions.
The winds that push Venus onto the shore are Zephyr and Aura, and the girl who receives her is one of the Three Graces, or the Hours.
Venus is illustrated as a beautiful and chaste goddess, and as symbol of the coming of spring. Her depiction as a nude is significant in itself, given that during this time in Renaissance history almost all artwork represented a Christian theme, and nude women were hardly ever portrayed.
Many aspects of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus are in motion, such as the leaves of the orange trees in the background, ringlets of hair being blown by the Zephyrs, the roses floating behind her, the waves gently breaking, and the cloaks and drapery of the figures blown and lifted by the breeze.
We can find clear references to the Stanzas, a famous poetic work by Agnolo Poliziano, a contemporary of Botticelli and the greatest Neoplatonic poet of the Medici court.
Neoplatonism was a current of thought that tried to connect the Greek and Roman cultural heritage with Christianity. It focused on the perfect fusion of Spirit and Matter, Ideas and Nature.
In this light, the Neoplatonic philosophical meaning is clear: the work would symbolize the birth of love and the spiritual beauty as a driving force of life.
The iconography of Venus is certainly derived from the classic theme of Venus Pudica, who covers her private parts shyly.
The pose of Botticelli’s Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de Medici, a marble sculpture and gem inscription from Classical Antiquity located in the Medici collection that Botticelli had the opportunity to study.
Along with the famous Allegory of Spring, this painting is from the most serene and graceful period for Botticelli, who often suffered from melancholy and perhaps depression.
The Birth of Venus, however, has bright colors that the Allegory of Spring does not have: it is painted with a mixture of egg yolk and light paint that makes it look like a fresco.
Some naturalistic details are decorated with gold.
Other works of Botticelli, such as his famous Map of Hell, are very dark and gloomy and belong to a different phase of his artistic production.
The Map of Hell is one of the parchments that Botticelli designed to illustrate an edition of The Divine Comedy by Dante.
Botticelli’s illustrations for Dante’s work are now preserved in Berlin and in the Vatican Library in Rome.
Technical and style
It is worth mentioning the exceptional technique and the fine materials used to accomplish the work. The Birth of Venus is the first example in Tuscany of a painting on canvas.
During this time, wood panels were popular surfaces for painting, and they would remain popular until the end of the sixteenth century. Canvas, however, was starting to gain acceptance by painters. It worked well in humid regions, such as Venice, because wooden panels tended to warp in such climates. Canvas also cost less than wood, but was considered less formal, which made it more appropriate for paintings that would be shown in non-official locations (e.g. countryside villas, rather than urban palaces).
The painting is on two pieces of canvas, sewn together before starting, with a gesso ground tinted blue.
The special use of expensive alabaster powder, making the colors even brighter and timeless, is another characteristic that makes this work unique.
Botticelli prepared his own tempera pigments with very little fat and covered them with a layer of pure egg white, a process unusual for his time. His painting resembles a fresco in its freshness and brightness. It is preserved exceptionally well, and the painting remains to this day firm and elastic with very little cracks.
Dating and history
It has long been suggested that Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence, perhaps by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a major patron of Botticelli, under the influence of his cousin Lorenzo de’ Medici, “il Magnifico.”
This was first suggested by Herbert Horne in his monograph of 1908, the first major modern work on Botticelli, and for a long time followed by most writers. However, this theory has recently widely come in doubt, although it is still accepted by some.
Horne believed that the painting was commissioned soon after the purchase in 1477 of the Villa di Castello, a country house outside Florence, by Lorenzo and Giovanni, to decorate the new house that they were rebuilding.
This was the year after their father died at the age of 46, leaving the young boys wards of their cousin Lorenzo il Magnifico.
There is no record of the original commission, and the painting is first mentioned by Vasari, who saw it, together with the Primavera, at Castello, some time before the first edition of his Lives was published in 1550, probably between 1530 and 1540.
Horne dated the work to some point after the purchase of the villa in 1477 and before Botticelli’s departure for Rome to take part in the painting of the Sistine Chapel in 1481.
Recent scholars prefer a date of around 1483–86 on grounds of the work’s place in the development of Botticelli’s style.
Behind the interpretation of the painting as a tribute to classic literature, we can certainly read an ode to the wealthy Florentine family who commissioned the work: the beginning of the reign of love finally comes to Florence thanks to the Medici, their diplomatic skills, and their vast culture.
A brief biography of the author
Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence in 1445 and became one of the most important painters of the Renaissance, although he was forgotten for a time—only to be rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century.
His real name was Sandro Filipepi, and perhaps his nickname “Botticelli” comes from his as “Battigello” (one who beats the gold) that he did in the workshops of his teachers (including Filippo Lippi).
The Medici commissioned Botticelli to paint some of his most famous works, which increased his fame, including the Allegory of Spring.
The famous Adoration of the Magi hides a surprise that shocked the audience of the time: many real characters of Florence are depicted, including the same Botticelli!
Botticelli was also famous in Rome, where he worked for the pope.
As an adult, he was very impressed by the sermons of Savonarola in Florence and is said to have even destroyed some of his paintings that had pagan subjects.
His reputation was so significant that in 1504 he became a member of a committee in charge of selecting the location of Michelangelo’s David in Florence. He suggested that it be placed on the front steps of the Duomo.
In Florence, one of Botticelli’s neighbors was the Vespucci family.
Italian explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to the American continent, was five years younger than Sandro Botticelli and commissioned some of his works.
Botticelli died in Florence in 1510.
Even today, some of his works are famous, but many others have an uncertain attribution.
This post was originally published on August 3, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on February 17, 2018.