I wrote this paper for the Renaissance course I took while studying abroad in Florence, Italy the summer of 2013. The first time I walked around the corner in the Uffizi and caught Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the corner of my eye, I could have fainted. I would have never expected myself to react so strongly and feel so passionately about the painting.
When I first decided I wanted to study art history, I thought I’d focus on the Renaissance. First and foremost, it is beautiful. Renaissance (quite literally “rebirth” in French) art breathes new life into antique ideas. For me, the scenes were clear and realistic, easily understood visually. While Renaissance art is ascetically pleasing, it can of course be understood on a deeper level, that of symbolism. Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere is a fine example.
((Here is a great online glossary to help with any terms that are not understood.))
Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere
What is Botticelli trying to say to his audience in painting the Nascita di Venere? What is he trying to convey in the presentations of the characters and their environment? The Nascita di Venere was painted in 1484 and most likely commissioned by the Medici family for Lorenzo the Magnificent’s cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. It does not appear in any of the Medici records or inventories in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but in 1550 Giorgio Vasari does mention, with some certainty, that is was hung on a wall in the Medici Villa di Castello, alongside Botticelli’s Primavera.
Sandro Botticelli, the youngest of four sons, was born in the Florentine neighbor hood of Santa Maria Novella in 1445. His father was a tanner and the family lived comfortably. Botticelli was a restless and somewhat rebellious child, so by age thirteen his father made Botticelli an apprentice in a goldsmith’s workshop. By about 1464 he was working under the already well-know painter, Fra Filippo Lippi. Lippi was favored by the Medici family and therefore, Botticelli became familiar with court topics, most importantly, Neoplatonism. By the 1470s, Botticelli “became [the Medici court’s] official painter” (Basta, 36). In 1481 Botticelli travelled to Rome where the pope trusted him to paint part of the walls in the Sistine Chapel. His time in Rome surely influenced the work he created thereafter.
Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus) was painted in 1484, just after his Primavera (Allegory of Spring). Starting from the left of the painting Zephyr, embraced by a nymph, blows a modest Venus on a half shell from the sea to the shoreline, where a maiden awaits to clothe her. Botticelli is most certainly a master of luminosity & smoothness. The figures seem to softly glow from within and the paint seems to blend effortlessly across the canvas. His style is clearly an adaptation of his apprenticeship under Fra Filippo Lippi around 1464. Lippi is known for the “realism of his compositions resulting from both his skill use of perspective and his precision in treating every decorative detail.” In Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere, every little detail is significant. For example, the violets that dot the shoreline symbolize love, the trees to the right are blossoming and will soon produce the Medici oranges, the laurel wreath around the handmaiden references Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the reed fruit (seen at bottom left) allude to Uranus’s genitals which were severed from his body and used to fertilize the sea.
Botticelli has incredible control of his line although, particularly in the body of Venus, his anatomy is not perfect. Botticelli is more concerned with presenting an idea (namely Neoplatonism) in addition to an ideal version of Venus as the “origin of poised universal Beauty.” The composition is horizontally linear and, in typical Botticelli fashion, the figures are pulled forward in the space and appear on the same plane. The dissipation of the waves and the curvy coastline do offer the viewer at least some sort of depth, but the action of the painting is most certainly in the foreground. Botticelli beautifully captures movement in Nascita di Venere. He actually paints the wind coming from Zephyr’s mouth and shows the movement it creates through Venus’s hair, blowing it softly to the right. While the garments of Zephyr and the nymph blow to the left as if they just swooped in, the maiden’s own garments and the cloth she is about to dress Venus with are pushed to the right by Zephyr’s breath. The waves, though painted simply, also create movement and help to pull the scene forward in space. Quite honestly the viewer can almost hear the waves gently lapping on the shore and the winds blowing through the garments and vegetation.
For Nascita di Venere, Botticelli diverged from some of his typical techniques. He did not paint the standard Tuscan green layer called verdaccio which is used to create more convincing skin tones, and yet he still creates incredibly luminous figures. Botticelli also did not use a white primer “so as to allow the translucent alabaster gesso to give the colours an extraordinary effect of clarity and lightness.” Botticelli also used “expensive alabaster powder, making colors even brighter and timeless.” The “diluted pigments with light brushstrokes” of Nascita di Venere make for a tremendously transparent painting. Upon close inspection of the lightest parts of the work, the grain of the canvas can even be seen. In contrast to the “brilliant and solid colours used for the Primavera,” Botticelli creates a masterpiece using a technique that gives “it an apperance similar to that of a fresco.” Interestingly, the Nascita di Venere is not painted on wood like his earlier Primavera, but rather on rare canvas nailed to a wooden frame. In fact, it is the “first example in Tuscany of a painting of canvas.” Scholars explain this suggests a domestic setting for the painting, and most likely somewhere with an “elegant ambiance, and possibly also dark” because of the delicate gilding.
Nascita di Venere was not painted by Botticelli for fun or inspired by his own imagination, but rather commissioned and specifically planned by a patron; in this case it was the Medici family. The mood is definitely awe inspiring which seems to fit in nicely with Neoplatonic philosophy what was most popular among the Medici court. Neoplatonism worked to blend Christianity and ancient philosophy. It was believed that “nature, in all its forms, becomes the reflection of the Superior Idea that governed creation.” And as Chiara Basta says, the “intellectuals at the court of the Medici gave Botticelli the job of interpreting the Neoplatonic culture and bestowing body, faces, and colors upon the ancient fables and myths that nourished the circle.” This is why such a pagan theme is so acceptable and reinterpreted in a Christian context. In other words, it is “possible to push the identification of the goddess toward one of Neoplatonic Humanitas.” In Nascita di Venere, carnal love is transcended into divine love, from physical beauty to spiritual beauty. “The qualities of atmosphere and mass that so interested Renaissance artists are irrelevant in this picture, which is dependent on the delicacy of Botticelli’s line. His proportions show here their greatest exaggeration, yet despite this, the long neck and torrent of hair help to create an entrancing figure.” The pudica, or modest, stance of Venus can be seen anciently in the Medici Venus and the Capitoline Venus, as both could have been sources for Botticelli’s representation. The contrapposto, or balanced body position, also pays homage to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
Botticelli would have been familiar with Neoplatonic ideas from his involvement in the Medici court, so surely he would have been knowledgable of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Poliziano’s Stanze, and the writings of Marsilio Ficino. In the tenth book of Metamorphoses Ovid details the story of Venus’s sea birth and arrival to land by seashell, which Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere follows very closely. It is true too, that Poliziano, tutor to the Medici children, discussed a Vulcan sculpture of the birth of the goddess in his Stanze. A close “study of classical texts was central to this humanist culture. In describing the imagined reliefs cast by Vulcan, Poliziano was employing a literary form that became popular in the Late Antique world known as ekphrasis, where one artistic form emulates another artistic form.” Botticelli would have certainly been familiar with Marsilio Ficino, a leading humanist thinker and the first one to translate Plato into Latin. Therefore, these three men (Ovid, Poliziano, and Ficino) are reasonable, textual sources for the visuals represented in Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere.
Although the painting is labeled as Venus’s “birth,” the scene is better described as Venus’s “arrival.” The title for which it is famous comes from the 1800s. It is “based on a faulty interpretation of the subject as Venus Anadiomene (“arising from the sea”), a subject which the painter Apelles made famous in antiquity.” In myth she is arriving most likely in Crete, but art historians tend to interpret the land she arrives at to stand as Florence. Most scholars also agree Venus is symbolically Humanitas, while others suggest the beauty and values of Venus are arriving in Florence thanks to the powerful Medici. It is not such a far fetched thought, as it was typical to include family symbols in works of art to assert and represent the family’s power. In Nascita di Venere, the Medici orange trees are easily spotted. Whether scholars can agree on the specific people presented or intended interpretation, Botticelli definiately created a masterpiece with his Nascita di Venere. Although often out-shined by its sister, Primavera, the Birth of Venus is still exemplary. While most renaissance artists transcended the flat art of the middle ages, Botticelli focused more on precision of line, appropriate use of color, and the presentation of a singular, yet ambiguous, subject. Commission by the Medici, Nascita di Venere.
Works Cited and Consulted
Basta, Chiara. Botticelli. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2005. Fossi, Gloria. The Uffizi: Official Guide. Florence: Giunti, 2012.
Hartt, Fredrick & Wilkins, David. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Place of publication: publisher, year. “Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus (circa 1478-1485),” Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi, 2007. (Link)
“The Birth of Venus by Botticelli,” Guide to the Uffizi Gallery Museum.
“‘Ut Picture Poesis’: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Poliziano’s la Giostra,” SUNY Oneonta. (Link)