The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus by the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1445– 1510) captures the moment when Venus, the goddess of beauty, is being blown to shore after her birth from the sea. The work was painted in tempera on wood around 1485 for a villa in Castello owned by the wealthy Florentine banking family, the Medici.

In the Early Renaissance, many artists were influenced by Neoplatonist thinkers, such as Marsilio Ficino (1433– 1499), who felt that Greek and Roman culture could be reconciled with Christian beliefs. In the 1480s Botticelli was commissioned by the Medici to execute a series of large-scale paintings that combined pagan mythology with Christian concepts. Among these were such masterpieces as his Primavera, Pallas and the Centaur, and The Birth of Venus.

According to Greek legend, Venus was born from the foam that appeared on the sea’s surface when the Titan Chronos castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitals into the ocean. The goddess came ashore on the island of Cyprus, where her cult later flourished. According to Neoplatonic thought, the legend of Venus’s birth was an allegory for the creation of the human soul.

In Botticelli’s painting, two wind gods, one of whom is Zephyrus, blow Venus to land. The goddess, who stands on a large scallop shell, is modeled on the ancient Venus pudica (modest Venus) type, such as the ones carved by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Roses float in the air around her as she is greeted by a woman, possibly the nymph Pomona, who prepares to drape a flower-covered garment over her newly born body. Both the roses and the leaves of the orange trees are painted with accents of gold.

Later in life, Botticelli fell under the influence of a charismatic Dominican monk named Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498). Savonarola organized a “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497 to encourage people to destroy luxury objects. Repenting his interest in pagan culture, Botticelli supposedly burned some of his own works.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. Today The Birth of Venus can be seen in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.
  2. The orange grove on the right, with its dark green leaves accented with gold, may represent the Garden of Hespeides of Greek mythology.
  3. The woman offering Venus a robe is wearing a dress adorned with daisies, primroses, and cornflowers—all spring flowers appropriate for celebrating a birth.
 
 
 

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