Bottecelli The Birth of Venus

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Purpose and Medium

The Birth of Venus was originally created as a decoration for a large room in a villa. It is not listed as part of the collection of works owned by the Medici in 1499, but by 1540 they had acquired it and placed it with the villa at Castello alongside other great works by Sandro. It was likely acquired in this timeframe by either Pierfrancesco or by Lorenzo il Popolano. It was likely that a different patron had commissioned the work, but the Medici family was so impressed by the work that they acquired it. As it was a villa painting, the secular figures were meant to convey a sense of joy and peace that coincided with the attitude of comfort that was inherent in a country villa.

The painting was done in tempera on canvas. The canvas was prepared with a mixture of gesso and blue pigment; Sandro intended for the color blue to predominate the work. It was originally painted on two separate canvases that were then stitched together and then strengthened with cross stitching. The canvas was stretched over a wood board and nailed along the edges and hen painting was placed in a wooden frame. Once the picture was in the frame, some of the more delicate detail work was done. The gold that adorns Venus; hair as well as the leaves of the trees were added just before the varnish in order to maintain the brightness of the color. Once the canvas was in the frame, the painting was varnish with a cool, gray, egg yolk finish. This thin varnish was chosen to maintain the opacity of the lighter colors used by the artist.

Sandro probably began the work by outlining on the canvas with charcoal. He then used a brush and a watercolor brown paint to draw over his charcoal. As opposed to his customary panel painting, Sandro did not need to use an intermediary color, such as green, underneath the other layers of tempera. In painting the lighter, more elegant colors, such as the body of Venus, Sandro used a very thin layer of tempera. The effect is that these figures and details have a much more luminosity and a pronounced radiant appearance. The dark colors were layered on at medium or thick consistencies to create a stark contrast with the radiance of Venus.

Inspirations of the Work

The original birth of Venus myth was painted by Apelles, the Hellenistic painter. He painted a Venus Anadyomene, which means “Venus Rising from the Sea.” No contemporary description of the painting survived, but it was well known in Sandro’s time that it depicted Venus rising from the Aegean Sea and wiping her dipping tresses after her birth from the genitals of the murdered Uranus, who seed was carried on the foam of the sea. Politian in his 1494 Stanze describes a similar scene,

“…blown by the lascivious Zephyrs to the shore, riding on a shell, and the sky seems as if rejoicing at the sight. You would say the foam and the sea were real, and real to the shell, real the blowing of the winds. You could see the goddess with eyes resplendent, and the sky and the elements laughing about her: the Hours treading the sand in white robes: the breeze curling their long and pliant hair: not one, yet not diverse, their countenances, as seems proper for sisters. You would swear the goddess was really issuing from the waves, squeezing her tresses with her right hand and with the other covering the apple of sweetness, and that when her sacred and divine foot was imprinted on it, the sand clothed itself in grasses and flowers. Then might you see how the three nymphs welcomed her with cheerful and lovely semblance into their midst and wrapped her around with a starry dress”

Politian’s work is reminiscent of the Homeric Hymn to Venus. It is important to note, however, that this is not the scene that Sandro chose to portray. He instead chose to depict the second part of the birth of Venus myth, Venus arriving at shore after being created from the sea. The characters, moving from left to right, are Zephyr, a nymph, possibly his wife Chloris, Venus and the Horae of Spring, all of which are characters described in both accounts of the myth listed above. However, Birth of Venus is another example of Sandro’s masterful ability to take poetry, alter it in a way that he saw fit, and turn it into a wonderful painting.

Style and Form

Much of the moral significance attributed to other works of the time is not present in Birth of Venus. This work symbolized, just as Venus symbolized to the neo-platonic thinkers like Ficino and Politian, the embodiment of the pure pursuit of wisdom, and the manifestation of love in the form of beauty. Venus and the work were meant to convey a profound sense of beauty and elegance to the observer. Like much of the poetry of the time of Pierfrancesco, it was a celebration of love and womanly beauty. Painted in the mid 1480’s, this work was done in the height of Sandro’s popularity and success; it is the apex of his success artistically.

The center and most important aspect of the work is the slightly off-center Venus riding to shore on a shell. The shell is turned slightly towards the shore to indicate a movement in that direction. As well, the contrapposto pose of Venus, while being an allusion to classical antiquity, was additionally meant to convey the slightest hint of motion towards the shore. Her hair is blown to the right in two pars by Zephyr to her right, the smaller part lays curled over her right shoulder, and the mass of it falls to her right and lays across her thigh. This, and her hand that slightly covers her breast, are the only expressions of modesty from Venus. It should be noted that Venus is the only fully nude figure in the work. Her face, contrary to the movement of the rest of the painting, looks to the left. The look on her face is not one of expressive emotion, but one of elegance and grace. Her body is pale with the slightest hints of pink at the appendages. The light color contrasts the rest of the painting; the dark wings of Zephyr and the leaves of the trees on the right create a dark arch around the painting that further emphasizes the pale radiance of Venus in the center.

Zephyr, with his cheeks puffed up, is blowing Venus and her shell towards the shore. The cheeks and the breath lines emphasize the effort that he is exerting to move her in that direction. He closely clutches an unidentified nymph in his left arm. It is possible that this is Chloris, who is to become his wife, indicated by the intensity and manner in which he holds her. She also contributes a much fainter breath to the movement of Venus. The right arm of Zephyr is extended in balance. This small detail is characteristic of the unparalleled skill and precise manner in which Sandro crafted figures.

The figure awaiting Venus on the beach is one of the Horae. This character is one and the same as The Three Graces depicted in La Primavera, but instead of all three, only spring is depicted here. It is known that this figure is spring because of the flower garb and spring flowers that surround her. The dress that she wears is one that Ovid describes the Horae wearing in Fasti. The manner in which the cloth elegantly molds about her body is one that Alberti would have lauded as masterful.


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