Sunday, 6 January 2019


Sandro Botticelli ‘s The Birth of Venus is one of the most famous painting of the Italian Renaissance for its otherworldliness, the vivid colors, the beauty of the image and the many gorgeous details woven into it. At present, the painting is the centerpiece of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445 – 1510), known as Sandro Botticelli, was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine School, a movement that Giorgio Vasari would characterize less than a hundred years later in his Vita of Botticelli as a "golden age". Botticelli's work has been seen to represent the linear grace of Early Renaissance painting.

The Birth of Venus depicts a moment from the Greek myth in which Kronos severs Uranus’s genitals and throws them into the sea; Venus, or Aphrodite, emerges fully formed from the foam of a cresting wave. Carried by a shell, the goddess drifts to shore in Cyprus. In Botticelli’s work, which pulls its imagery from a 15th-century poem by Agnolo Poliziano, she is propelled by the gentle breeze of Zephyr, the west wind, and balances on a giant scallop shell. A young woman, perhaps Hora of spring or one of the graces, runs to meet her, proffering a robe dotted with flowers.

Botticelli, born around 1445, certainly did earn acclaim during his lifetime. Trained in the workshop of  Fra Filippo Lippi, one of Florence’s leading painters, the young man quickly became a favorite of the Medici family after opening his own workshop in 1470. The Birth of Venus was one such commission, for the home of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Contrary to the popular belief it was not a painting for fame but for fortune only. It wasn’t even meant to be viewed in public. In fact, it was meant to hang over a marital bed. It was not discovered by the public for 50 years.

Its mythological subject matter is significant. Being among the first monumental female nude of a pagan goddess since the ancient world, and for that reason alone it must have raised eyebrows. Christian inspiration was dominant in the art of the Middle Ages, so nudity was rarely portrayed. However, the emergence of humanism led to a renewed interest in the myths of ancient Rome, and with it a resurrection of nudes. The piece's nudity takes on a more sensual tone when you know it was meant to hang over a marital bed. This locale and its daring depiction contributed to The Birth of Venus being hidden from public viewing for roughly 50 years. 

The Birth of Venus has a companion piece too. Though it was completed four years before its sister, La Primavera can be viewed as a sort of sequel to The Birth of Venus. While the latter depicts Venus's arrival in a world on the verge of blooming, the former shows the world in bloom around the now-clothed maternal figure. It's said the pair of paintings were meant to communicate how "love triumphs over brutality." Some people believe that the nudity of Venus represents Eve in the Garden of Eden. This has led to people speculating that Venus is a personification of the Christian Church.

It is on Canvas: During this period of the Early Renaissance, painting on wood panels was all the rage. But canvas' popularity was on the rise, especially in humid regions where wood tended to warp. Since canvas was cheaper than wood, its perceived status was a bit lower, so it was reserved for works that weren't intended for grand public displays. The painting stands out as the first work on canvas in TuscanyThe Birth of Venus measures in at roughly 6 feet by 9 feet. It's been called the "first large-scale canvas created in Renaissance Florence." 

Painted on canvas, it could be shipped internationally without the fear of warping or cracking. The piece was a smash hit in London, Paris, and San Francisco’s 1935 World’s Fair; and, finally, in 1940 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In some 74 days, the museum welcomed 290,000 visitors; newspapers reported that one in every 25 people in the city saw the work.

Venus and the Deities: The Birth of Venus actually includes several Gods in the painting. Venus stands on the seashell while being pushed shore by Zephyr's breath, the God of the west wing. Horae, Goddesses of seasons, are also there ready with a cape to clothe new newborn deity. The fourth figure carried by Zephyr is meant to be either an Aura (nymphs of the wind) or Chloris, a nymph associated with spring and blossoming flowers like those flowing through the picture. 

While painting Venus, Botticelli painted a dark line around the contours of her body. This made it easier to see her bodily forms against the background, and it emphasized the color of her pale skin. It is clear Botticelli really focused on Venus’ hair and hairstyle, a fact which reflected his interest in the way women wore their hair during the late 15th century. He gave Venus an idealized face, free from human imperfections. The shell she stands on may be meant to represent female genitalia, which creates a birthing scene that reflects Venus's oceanic origins while connecting symbolically to human birth.  The goddess’ modest gesture to cover her private parts is one favored in the Capitoline Venus, a category of statue that specifically depicts Venus in just this way. The first of these works is believed to date back to the second or third century BCE.

The inspiration: Some sources believe The Birth of Venus was modelled after the long lost Venus Anadyomene, a painting by ancient Greek artist Apelles that was once described by Roman author Pliny the Elder and known only through his written account. Other theories posit that this particular scene was based on a Homeric hymn published in Florence by Demetrios Chalkokondyles that reads:
"Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful
Aphrodite I shall sing to whose domain
belong the battlements of all sea-loved
Cyprus where, blown by the moist breath
of Zephyros, she was carried over the
waves of the resounding sea on soft foam.
The gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed
her and clothed her with heavenly raiment."

Time has taken its toll: Over the centuries, coats of varnish that were meant to preserve the painting began to turn opaque, which hid some of Botticelli’s details and colors from view. A restoration in 1987 gently stripped the varnish layer away, revealing soft and pearly colors that the artist intended. However, since the painting is so old, the colors have lost their luster.

Fame after four centuries: During Botticelli’s life, his works were often overshadowed by the artists of the High Renaissance. But 4 centuries after completing 'The Birth of Venus’, Botticellis began making their way into the collections of European museums. His pieces finally won esteem in the 19th century, with The Birth of Venus becoming his most revered work

Standard of beauty: The Birth of Venus has since become a standard of beauty. As such, it’s also become something to rebel against, a way to call attention to racist and sexist ideas of attractiveness. The image has been used endlessly as a marketing tool, parodied and leveraged to signify quality and culture. Today The Birth of Venus  is everywhere, used to sell Reebok sneakers, suitcases, and Adobe Illustrator software; inspired photo shoots and music videos featuring the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga; and versions of it graced the cover of The New Yorker twice. The painting has become an indispensable part of the Western art historical canon—so much so that when someone starts an Instagram of Timothée Chalamet photo-shopped into famous artworks, there he is as Zephyr, hovering beside Venus as she drifts to shore.

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