Botticelli, Sandro

The Birth of Venus


c. 1485-86 (220 Kb); painted for the villa of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici at Castello; Tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5 cm (67 7/8 x 109 5/8 in); now in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence

Photographs by Mark Harden.

Among the Florentine artists of the second half of the fifteenth century who strove for a solution to this question was the painter Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510). One of his most famous pictures represents not a Christian legend but a classical myth - the birth of Venus.

The classical poets had been known all through the Middle Ages, but only at the time of the Renaissance, when the Italians tried so passionately to recapture the former glory of Rome, did the classical myths become popular among educated laymen. To these men, the mythology of the admired Greeks and Romans represented something more than gay and pretty fairy-tales. They were so convinced of the superior wisdom of the ancients that they believed these classical legends must contain some profound and mysterious truth. The patron who commissioned the Botticelli painting for his country villa was a member of the rich and powerful family of the Medici. Either he himself, or one of his learned friends, probably explained to the painter what was known of the way the ancients had represented Venus rising from the sea. To these scholars the story of her birth was the symbol of mystery through which the divine message of beauty came into the world. One can imagine that the painter set to work reverently to represent this myth in a worthy manner. The action of the picture is quickly understood. Venus has emerged from the sea on a shell which is driven to the shore by flying wind-gods amidst a shower of roses. As she is about to step on to the land, one of the Hours or Nymphs receives her with a purple cloak. Botticelli has succeeded where Pollaiuolo failed. His picture forms, in fact, a perfectly harmonious pattern. But Pollaiuolo might have said that Botticelli had done so by sacrificing some of the achievements he had tried so hard to preserve. Botticelli's figures look less solid. They are not so correctly drawn as Pollaiuolo or Masaccio's. The graceful movements and melodious lines of his composition recall the Gothic tradition of Ghiberti and Fra Angelico, perhaps even the art of the fourteenth century - works such as Simone Martini's Annunciation.

Botticelli's Venus is so beautiful that we do not notice the unnatural length of her neck, the steep fall of her shoulders and the queer way her left arm is hinged to the body. Or, rather, we should say that these liberties which Botticelli took with nature in order to achieve a graceful outline add to the beauty and harmony of the design because they enhance the impression of an infinitely tender and delicate being, wafted to our shores as a gift from Heaven.


This secular work was painted onto canvas, which was a less expensive painting surface than the wooden panels used in church and court pictures. A wooden surface would certainly be impractical for a work on such a scale. Canvas is known to have been the preferred material for the painting of non-religious and pagan subjects that were sometimes commissioned to decorate country villas in 15th-century Italy.

Upper-Left: The West Wind

Zephyr and Chloris fly with limbs entwined as a twofold entity: the ruddy Zephyr (his name is Greek for ``the west wind'') is puffing vigorously; while the fair Chloris gently sighs the warm breath that wafts Venus ashore. All around them fall roses--each with a golden heart--which, according to legend, came into being at Venus' birth.

Upper-Right: The Wooded Shore

The trees form part of a flowering orange grove--corresponding to the sacred garden of the Hesperides in Greek myth--and each small white blossom is tipped with gold. Gold is used throughout the painting, accentuating its role as a precious object and echoing the divine status of Venus. Each dark green leaf has a gold spine and outline, and the tree trunks are highlighted with short diagonal lines of gold.

Right: Nymph

The nymph may well be one of the three Horae, or ``The Hours'', Greek goddesses of the seasons, who were attendants to Venus. Both her lavishly decorated dress and the gorgeous robe she holds out to Venus are embroidered with red and white daisies, yellow primroses, and blue cornflowers--all spring flowers appropriate to the theme of birth. She wears a garland of myrtle--the tree of Venus--and a sash of pink roses, as worn by the goddess Flora in Botticelli's Primavera.

Center: The Shell

Botticelli portrays Venus in the very first suggestion of action, with a complex and beautiful series of twists and turns, as she is about to step off her giant gilded scallop shell onto the shore. Venus was conceived when the Titan Cronus castrated his father, the god Uranus--the severed genitals falling into the sea and fertilizing it. Here what we see is actually not Venus' birth out of the waves, but the moment when, having been conveyed by the shell, she lands at Paphos in Cyprus.
26 May 1996, Nicolas Pioch - Top - Up - Info

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