“The Birth of Venus”

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

Image Source: Uffizi.org
Image Source: Uffizi.org

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.

Uffizi.org Artworks, Birth of Venus

“‘Ut Picture Poesis’: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Poliziano’s la Giostra,” SUNY Oneonta. (Link)

Florence, Italy – City Center Eats

For six weeks during the summer of 2013, the city center of Florence was my home. I lived just one block north of the beautiful Duomo. I did my best to avoid the touristy food places. Stepping a block or two off of main street proved worth it – better food and far cheaper. (This goes for every city, I think.) “Grab and go” is a popular lunch option, as is standing at the bar rather than sitting at a table. If sitting in a restaurant, read the menu; if a coperto/pane e coperto (literally bread and tableware) is listed, the tip is included; think of it as a service charge. If there is no coperto, leaving one or two euros per person is customary. Also, you must find an aperitivo… it’s basically the Italian happy hour, except you buy a beverage and have access to a tasty array/buffet of food.

Anyhow, here are my go-to eats in the city’s center…

Trattoria Baldovino (Via San Giuseppe 22r)
Trattoria Baldovino, via San Giuseppe 22r (Image Credit)

Trattoria Baldovino is just down from Santa Croce, but not the least bit touristy. It’s quite small with limited, intimate seating inside, as well as a a few tables set up outside. I never had lunch at Baldovino’s but for dinner I always got their spinach pappardelle yummy! (Click here to view Trattoria Baldovino on TripAdvisor.)

Bruschetta at Osteria del Caffè Italiano, Via Isola delle Stinche, 11R-13R
Bruschetta at Osteria del Caffè Italiano, Via Isola delle Stinche, 11R-13R

Osteria del Caffè Italiano, a small osteria near Santa Croce, had delicious spinach lasagne and the tastiest bruschetta I’ve had to date. Lunch was affordable and the liter of wine my friend and I shared was great as well. (Click here to view the Osteria’s website, translated from Italian into English.)

Vivoli's caffè and
Vivoli, via Dell’Isola delle Stinche 7r

After a meal at Osteria del Caffè Italiano, walk about 100 yards to Vivoli’s. The photo above shows one of my favorite gelato combinations, caffè e cioccolata fondente (coffee and dark chocolate). Caffè is my most favorite flavor of gelato, and Vivoli’s is the best I’ve EVER had. (Click here for Vivoli’s website.)

Chianti gelato!
Chianti gelato! (Piazza del Duomo, 45r)

Edoardo, a biological gelateria, is right next to the Duomo, and somewhat touristy, but… they have Chianti flavored gelato!! (It’s really like a sorbet, but whatever… it’s wine flavored, so who cares!!) After my very last Italian class, a few of my classmates and I said “Salute!” with our professor using this gelato! (Click here to view their website in English.)

falafel kebab
Falafel kebab! (Piazza Gaetano Salvemini, via dell’Oriuolo, 14)

Mesopotamia Kebab is about a block behind the Duomo, literally just down from the apartment I lived in. I probably ate a kebab from here a zillion times on my walks to class. Kebabs are the epitome of cheap street food. They’re like a gyro, but not. Whether it is the bread or the fillings, each kebab shop is unique. Kebabs are traditionally lamb (of which I am not a fan). Luckily, they have fried falafel balls you can substitute. So DELICIOUS (filling and satisfying) and SUPER cheap (just €4)! Perfect for lunch on-the-go, kebabs are a nice change of pace from a slice of pizza. (Click here to view their facebook page.)

Where are your favorite places to eat in the city’s center?

Buon appetito!

Mineral Springs & Monteriggioni, a Tuscan day trip

While I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy (Summer 2013) my roommate and I did a day tour to a hot mineral springs spa just outside of Siena. Because the tour included a dinner in Siena, the starting time was well into the afternoon. By the time we arrived at Terme di San Giovanni it was almost closing time. We practically had the place to ourselves! The sunset on the surrounding Tuscan hills was incredible and even better enjoyed from the relaxing thermal waters.

Incredible views!
Incredible view!

The spa consisted of three, gravity feed pools; the lower in elevation and increasingly farther from the spring’s origin, the cooler the temperature. The hottest and closest pool to the natural spring was indoor. The second one, outside and a level below the first, was a medium temperature. It was a nice break from the steamy, sauna-like first pool. This is where my roommate and I first slathered ourselves with the mineral mud from the bottom of the pool. It was exfoliating, yet gentle. We covered our arms and shoulders, and my roommate even covered her face (at the insistence of our guide). We let the “mud” harden, then rinsed it away. It tingled ever so slightly; I loved the feeling. The third and coolest pool proved to be a little too crisp for us, particularly because the sun was going down and the wind had picked up a little.

Hottest pool to the left, inside the building.
Hottest pool to the left, inside the building.
Medium-temperature pool to the left, and the coolest on the right.
Medium-temperature pool to the left, and the coolest on the right.

After our dip in the pools, the spa provided us with soft robes and little soaps (body wash, shampoo, and conditioner). While the “miracle mud” had made a noticeable difference (warmer, more radiant skin), it really dried my body and hair out, even after washing the thermal waters away. The next time I visit a hot mineral springs, I will definitely bring along a rich moisturizer for my body and some argon oil to spritz in my hair.

Thermal spa robe
I donned a comfy robe and enjoyed the setting sun.

Our day trip included dinner in Siena, but since the tour group ended up just being the two of us, our guide took us to Monteriggioni instead, the so-called “Crown of Tuscany.” The nickname comes from the circular shape of the city’s 13th-century walls and their fourteen towers. Our tour guide said only approximately 400 people actually live within the  walls. The area is basically all pedestrian. Monteriggioni is well-known for its Festa Medievale, one of the most famous annual medieval festivals in all of Italy.

Crown of Tuscany
Monteriggioni, the Crown of Tuscany.

We really lucked out… our guide knew the owner of a little restaurant in Piazza Roma, the main square. (I tried finding the name of the restaurant, but unfortunately I had no luck.) My roommate and I, sitting at an outdoor table, first cooled off with a refreshing glass of local white wine and savored a traditional Tuscan antipasto plate with meats, pecorino cheese, and bruschetta.

monteriggioni antipasti
Typical Tuscan antipasto plate.

The sun was setting as we started our il second piatto (second course). It consisted of two different pastas. One was a penne rigate-type noodle with a simple pomodoro (tomato) sauce. The other pasta was like spaghetti, but thicker/doughier and its meat sauce consisted of local, wild boar. If I could have either dish again, I’d like a combination of the pomodoro sauce with the spaghetti-like noodles. YUM!

Monteriggioni pasta
Delicious housemade noodles.

The owner served us a cannolo(singular of cannoli)-themed dolce piatto (dessert course). It included a mini cannolo, a cannolo-like “pie,” and a custard ice cream. It was SUPER tasty!

Monteriggioni dolce
Connolo-inspired final course.

We had a lovely little view from our patio table. Directly across from the restaurant is the simple Romanesque church, Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit the inside.

Monteriggioni church
Church of the Assumed Saint Mary

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Enjoying the thermal springs of San Giovanni, and particularly enjoying a delicious dinner in Monteriggioni, were a major highlight of my time studying abroad. I highly recommend a trip to a Tuscan hot spring! A stop by Monteriggioni is a must if you’re in the area.

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Helpful links regarding Monteriggioni:
Official Tourism website
General information
An article by Discover Tuscany

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Ciao!

Panzerotti di Luini – Milan, Italy

In November 2014 I spent a three days (out of a six-week backpacking trip) in Milan, Italy. Other than visiting Santa Maria dell Grazie to stand in front of Leonard’s Last Supper and staying in an amazing hostel (Ostello Bello), my favorite part of the trip was eating panzerotti.

Fillings, both savory and sweet, are spread onto puffy sourdough, folded, and then fried. The texture is phenomenal (sorta like a doughnut), and the taste, combined with the fillings, is sensational. Oh, what I would do to have another right now! Sigh.

Panzerotti di Luini is quite popular among locals, as well as well-informed tourists. It is located near the Duomo, just behind the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan’s designer shopping hotspot. Just a counter and a couple chairs, Panzerotti di Luini is a small place. There are almost always long waiting lines, but it is worth your time. I was lucky enough to be traveling out of season, so I did not have to stand around at all really.

There is a McDonald’s right across the small side street and I could not believe how many (obvious) tourists chose american cheeseburgers over a place with a line out the door! I wanted to slap them silly!

I only found Luini’s the second day I was in Milan by wandering around, but it was so tasty, I went back for round two on my third and final day. I prefer savory to sweet, so I ended up having two savory and not a single sweet panzerotti. I am quite disappoint in myself for that. (What the hell was I thinking?!)

For right around five euros a piece, panzerotti are most definitely a MUST-EAT in Milan.

Have you ever eaten a panzerotto?
Savory or sweet?
Which was your favorite?

Photo Diary: Pisa, Italy (Summer 2013)

Unfortunately, I only spent a few hours in Pisa. It was summer aka incredibly hot and crowded. I wasn’t a fan of the city, granted I didn’t see much of it. The “day” trip over from Florence, where I was studying, was rushed….. my roommate was flying out of Pisa headed for Paris, so I tagged along to see the Torre pendente di Pisa (Leaning Tower of Pisa). We took a bus from Florence to the Pisa airport, then a bus from the airport to the tower complex. Sadly, no one really pays any attention to the cathedral or the baptistry. I really wanted to go inside both, but like I said, the trip was rushed – roommate had to catch a flight, and I needed to get back to Florence for something that seemed more important (although I can’t remember what that was anymore). The second time I was in Italy (October/November 2014), I skipped Pisa. Maybe the next time around I’ll spend more time there to get a better sense of the city, away from the ultra touristy locations.

Here’s a small photo diary
of the couple hours I spent in Pisa
(aka just in the Piazza del Duomo)…

(Click photos to view their captions and in full size.)

Have you been to Pisa? Did you have a chance to get away from the touristy locations?