Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1485 ca, tempera on canvas, Uffizi Galleries, Florence
The Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere) is a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, painted between 1482 and 1485. This period of time marks the highlight of Renaissance as an epoch in European art history, which originated in Italy in the early 15th century. The Renaissance began in the northern city of Florence which was a trading city and a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. The powerful Medici family acted as commissioners for the great artists. The word "Renaissance" means rebirth, and what was to be reborn was the ancient ideals of perfection and symmetry. The period of high Renaissance marks a flourishing of artistic and cultural currents. In this milestone, a kind of transformation of the ideals and fractures of the past took place, at the same time as the period represents the beginning of modern times. The development of the Renaissance is influenced by a humanistic tradition built on cultivating the individual and the Neoplatonism ideal of perfection and deification.
With the Enlightenment and industrialization in hindsight, illusionism and naturalism were introduced into the visual arts with the central perspective. This new way of depicting art should break it free from the past. The new art expression should appear seemingly realistic with the illusion of space and depth to create three-dimensionality. Characteristics of the visual arts of the Renaissance are a kind of idealization, a beautification of reality and the human body. It can be said that the Renaissance produced a kind of Cartesian Enlightenment, in which an attempt was made to tighten or purify society by striving for perfection in the introduction of a linear perspective.
Detail: the westerly wind Zephyros and the nymph Chloris
The motive in the picture depicted by Botticelli, is the Greek mythological goddess Aphrodite, or Venus as the Romans would call her. The female figure in the painting’s centre is a depiction of the goddess of love and beauty, and is based on humanistic values. Venus contains naturalistic features in an idealized body. We sense a more expressive character of style. Venus is positioned in what we call the focal point of the painting and confronts us directly in a classic counterpoint with her naked female body and position in the picture. She expresses sensuality, a calmness and a contemplative state and softness with her smile, she herself represents the ideal of beauty and perfection.
Nudity in Greek mythology has a different designation than the traditional meaning of innocence, rather she depicts virtue and fertility. Her long wavelength red hair which flutters in the wind, and the elongated pale body, express sensuality. This is a symbol of fertility, beauty and purity. The clean lines and the softness of the contour in the lines confirm the ideals that belong to the mythological history. It is said that Venus was born from the foam of the sea, driven up by the sea from the westerly wind Zephyros and the nymph Chloris, who are both depicted in the painting’s left side. She is received by the goddess Flora, to the right, who symbolizes spring. The Birth of Venus arrives as an adult and appears almost perfect in the iconic motif Venus Andadyomene, Venus rising from the sea. The flowers that fall into the picture mark this symbolism.
Although The Birth of Venus is not a typical depiction of Renaissance innovations of perspective, the classical and mythological subject matter depicted attracted the wealthy Florentines, especially with the softness and elegance in character. In the end of 1490, the tension between the religious and the courtly excess reached its climax and marked the beginning of the crusade in Florence. This led artists like Botticelli to destroy some of his earlier pictures. Yet, the humanistic values the picture presented, still remains today as a symbol of the human individual and beginning of modern time.
If you are curious about whose beauty inspired Botticelli’s Venus in real life, have a look at this article.
Kristin Christensen Grøgaard
Kristin Christensen Grøgaard, Oslo. Artist and MA student in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Oslo. Kristin has a love for Italian art and culture and has also completed parts of her studies at the Norwegian Institute in Rome.