Detail, The birth of Venus, c 1484, Tempera on wood.  Ufizzi Gallery Florence

Detail, Primavera, c 1482, Grease tempera on wood.  Ufizzi Gallery Florence

The Birth of Venus, 1484, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Birth of Venus is probably the most famous of Botticelli's paintings (not least due to good advertising by Adobe ;)) and for many people it is the symbol of Medici Florentine art. The origin and patron of the painting are unknown, but by the 16th century it could be found together with the Primavera in the Castello villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici.

The title of the painting is an invention of the 19th century when it was believed to be based on work by the ancient painter Apelles who was fond of the subject Venus Anadiomene (arising from the sea). It is now believed that it was inspired by the writing of Virgil and Homer, and like the Primavera, by the verses of Poliziano, a Botticelli contemporary. According to this interpretation, it tells the story of Venus' arrival at the island of Kythera or Cyprus. The shell that she travels upon is pushed by the wind of Zephyrus and Aura and she is welcomed by a girl wearing a gown embroidered with flowers or daisies, possibly one of the Three Graces. Ingres the great French painter claimed that the face of this Grace was the most beautiful ever painted. It is believed that the figures of Zephyrus and Aura were inspired by the famous Tazza Farnese which was at the time in the collection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Venus' pose is reportedly inspired by the archetypal Chaste Venus of antiquity. The painting overall represents the fusion of Spirit and Matter.

There is much evidence to link this painting with the earlier Primavera, in terms of it's composition. The trees, flowers and landscape in each are almost identical, except that one is a seascape and the other is a garden. The same figures appear in each painting, with slight variations, sometimes suggested to symbolise the changing seasons. There is one hitch with this reasoning, and that is that it presumes that this work tells the story of the Venus' birth, a theory which has since been disproved. However its not unreasonable to suggest that Botticelli intended the two paintings as a pair in homage to Venus and all that she stood for in Renaissance humanist philosophies.

However one interprets it, it is now an icon of Renaissance art.