The Birth of Venus (Botticelli)

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The Birth of Venus is a painting by Sandro Botticelli.

This famous artwork hangs in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. It is tempera on canvas, measuring 172.5 cm tall by 278.5 cm wide.

The painting the depicts the Goddess Venus emerging from the sea as a full grown woman, as described in Greek mythology.

This large picture by Botticelli may have been, like the "Allegory of Spring", painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco's Villa di Castello, around 1483, or even before. Some scholars suggest that the Venus painted for di Pierfrancesco and mentioned by Giorgio Vasari may have been a different, now lost, work than the painting in the Uffizi. Some experts believe it to be a celebration of the love of Giuliano di Piero de' Medici (who died in the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478) for Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who lived in Portovenere, a place by the sea. Whatever inspired the artist, there are clear similarities to Ovid's "Metamorphosis" and "Fasti", as well as to Poliziano's "Verses".

Venus in detail
Venus in detail

The classical Goddess Venus is emerging from the water on a shell, being blown towards shore up the Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passions, and with one of the Ores, goddesses of the seasons, who is handing her a flowered cloak. According to some commentators, the naked goddess isn't then a symbol of earthly but of spiritual love, like an ancient marble statue (which might have inspired the eighteenth century sculptor, Antonio Canova, by its candor), slim and long-limbed, with harmonious features.

The effect, none the less, is distinctly pagan considering it was made at a time and place when most artworks still depicted Roman Catholic themes. It is somewhat surprising that this canvas escaped the flames of Savonarola's bonfires, where a number of Botticelli's other "pagan" influenced works perished.

The anatomy of Venus and various subsidiary details do not display the strict classical realism of Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael. Most obviously, Venus has an improbably long neck, and her left shoulder slopes at an anatomically unlikely angle. Such details, whether artistic errors or artistic licence, do little to diminish the great beauty of the painting, and some have suggested it prefigures mannerism.

Classical Inspiration

The painting was one of a series which Botticelli was inspired to paint after written descriptions by the 2nd century historian Lucian of masterpieces of Ancient Greece which had long since disappeared by Botticelli's time. The ancient painting by Apelles was called Anadyomene Venus, "Anadyome" meaning "rising from the sea"; this title was also used for Botticelli's painting, "The Birth of Venus" only becoming its better known title in the 19th century.

The below mural from Pompeii was never seen by Botticelli, but may have been a Roman copy of the then famous painting by Apelles which Lucian mentioned.

Mural at Pompeii

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.

Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" in Literature

A subplot of Thomas Pynchon's novel V. (1961) centers around an attempt to steal the painting from the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This occurs in chapter seven. Rafael Mantissa, an exile from Venezuela, is more or less in love with Venus. While some correctly argue that this is not your regular motif for stealing a painting, this is all part of one of the important bottomlines of the novel: the paradoxical relation of men to Woman. Men are attracted to Her, but at the same time destroyed. However, all of this is perceived by one of the characters, Herbert Stencil, in his attempt to come to terms with Loss through historical imagination and historiography - the famous 'historical chapters' in V..

Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" in Popular Culture

Reproductions and variations on Botticelli's famous painting have been numerous in popular culture, including in advertising and motion pictures:

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