Birth of Venus
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Galleria degli Uffizi
During the 1480s in Florence it was not uncommon for artists and intellectuals to gather together, typically around a powerful centre, such as in the courts of Princes or rich families such as the Medici's. This new vanguard of men made it their mission to recreate the past and relive it through translating and comprehending the works of Virgil, Homer and Hesiod.
It is said that every day Lorenzo the Great assembled groups of humanists, philosophers and artists to form a literary society who interpreted works and formed ideas that were then translated by the artists, painters, goldsmiths and musicians.
The Birth of Venus was a theme launched by Lorenzo and it was he who had it set to verse by one of his favorite humanist poets, Angelo Poliziano. This filtered through to Botticelli and he scrupulously followed the text in order to design the artwork.
Angelo Poliziano's stanzas were based on an ode by Hesiod. In the story we see the aftermath of Venus's creation, pushed along by the Gods of the winds, Zephyr and Aura, who, on the first day of Creation, elevated this shell bearing Venus' triumphant nudity from the unknown depths of the sea. Approaching the earth over which she will assume her true role, she becomes suddenly modest, and notice the stance, which Botticelli borrowed directly from the beautiful examples of the antique, Venus Pudicae, that were being discovered at that time.
For this modesty to take on its sacred nature, one of the Graces, in the name of all three, is there to cover her with her cape. The Graces have the privilege of covering Venus' nudity and transforming her into the mother and patron saint of all the forces of creation. Venus is in the process of landing. It should be pointed out that the shore she is landing on is very rugged and already has tall trees, both laurel and myrtle, and that the trees are crowded together, their foliage obscuring one another.
There are several details that illustrate Venus' triumphant magnificence. Art historians know that until recently, this Birth of Venus had been lavishly covered with varnish, which means that the successive coats of varnish had completely opacified. The painting has been superbly cleaned, and today's viewers are able to discover a new Botticelli with pearly flesh, nearly translucent skin and the eerily green blue of the ocean.
Birth of Venus
It is in keeping with Renaissance era inspiration that one of Botticelli's most famous paintings represents not a Christian legend, but a classical myth - the Birth of Venus. Whilst the works of the classical poets had been known through the middle Ages, it was only at the time of the Renaissance, when the Italians tried so passionately to recapture the former glory of Rome that classical myths become popular among educated laymen.
For the men of the Renaissance, the mythology of the Greeks and Romans represented a superior form of truth and wisdom. Whilst Botticelli carried out the artwork, it is highly likely that the commissioner (a member of the powerful Medici) provided the original source of inspiration and that either he, or one of his learned friends, explained to the artist what was the story, as recounted by the ancients regarding Venus rising from the sea. The story would have been seen as a symbol of mystery in which the divine message came into the world, and Botticelli has done his best to depict this myth in a worthy manner.
Botticelli's Venus, the goddess of love, is one of the first non-biblical female nudes in Italian art and is depicted in accordance with the classical Venus pudica. However, she is as far as a precise copy of her prototype as the painting is an exact illustration of Poliziano's poetry. The group comprising Venus and the Hora of spring demonstrates Botticelli's flexible use of Christian means of depiction.
Birth of Venus
Birth of Venus
Botticelli's Birth of Venus is one of the most treasured artworks of the Renaissance. In it the goddess Venus (known as Aphrodite in Greek mythology) emerges from the sea upon a shell aligned with the myth that explains her birth. Her shell is pushed to the shore from winds being produced by the wind-gods in amongst a shower of roses. As Venus is about to step onto the shore, a Nymph reaches out to cover her with a cloak.
Venus is illustrated as a beautiful and chaste goddess and symbol of the coming spring. Her depiction as a nude is significant in itself, given that during this time in Renaissance history almost all artwork was of a Christian theme, and nude women were hardly ever portrayed.
Many aspects of Botticelli's Birth of Venus are in motion. For example, the leaves of the orange trees in the background, ringlets of hair being blown by the Zephyrs, the roses floating behind her, the waves gently breaking, and the cloaks and drapery of the figures blown and lifted by the breeze.
The pose of Botticelli's Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de Medici, a marble sculpture and gem inscription from Classical antiquity in the Medici collection which Botticelli had opportunity to study.
Use of technique:
Botticelli's Venus was the first large-scale canvas created in Renaissance Florence. He prepared his own tempera pigments with very little fat and covered them with a layer of pure egg white in a process unusual for his time. His painting resembles a fresco in its freshness and brightness. It is preserved exceptionally well and the painting today remains firm and elastic with very little cracks.
Venus's long golden hair sweeps gracefully about her. This use of gold may have been inspired by Donatello's Penitent Magdalen.
Mood, tone and emotion:
Birth of Venus is dependent on the delicacy of Botticelli's line. The proportions show their greatest exaggeration, yet the long neck and torrent of hair help to create the mystifying figure.
Most paintings of women during the middle Ages symbolize the Virgin Mary, showing her in a demure appearance with an angelic smile and covered head. So Botticelli's depiction of a beautiful goddess, not only an obvious symbol of pagan mythology but also painted as a nude was groundbreaking.
Having been one of the most esteemed painters in Italy during his lifetime, Botticelli was rapidly overshadowed by the artists of the High Renaissance and long ignored after his death. This included a long-term overlooking of his Magnus Opus, the Birth of Venus.
Botticelli's reputation did not enjoy a notable rise in critical esteem until the end of the 19th century when important paintings by the artist gradually entered the great museums of Europe.
During the 1860s Primavera (see Related Paintings below)and Birth of Venus were given prominent public display for the first time in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. The museum's acquisitions proved slightly in advance of public and critical response, yet paved the way for more in-depth study to be made on the artwork of Botticelli.
What originally sparked this revival of interest in Botticelli was a developing curiosity in the 19th century of the literary and political culture in Florence at the time of Lorenzo the Great, and the resultant rise in appreciation for the arts contemporary with him.
Related works by Botticelli:
Primavera and Birth of Venus show two parts of Venus. Botticelli painted them to be companion paintings and hung in the same space and both bring across the theme that love triumphs over brutality. In the Birth of Venus, Venus has just been born and arriving on earth. The trees have not yet produced fruit. The world is waiting her arrival. In Primavera, however, she is among large fruits and lush flowers and has arrived at a mature state. She is presiding over the same world in each separate work.
Galleria degli Uffizi
It is uncertain who exactly commissioned the Birth of Venus. In the first half of the 16th century, it was kept in the Castello Villa, owned by the descendants of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. However, it was never mentioned in inventories of his property. It is, though, extremely likely that Birth of Venus was commissioned for a country seat.
In contrast to the Primavera, the painting was created using canvas. This was a medium normally chosen for paintings that were destined to decorate country houses, because canvas was less expensive and easier to transport than wooden panels.
Today the painting can be found in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
The Return of Judith to Bethulia
Sandro Botticelli was an Italian painter and draughtsman. During his lifetime he was one of the most acclaimed artists in Italy, and as such was summoned to take part in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and earned the patronage of the leading families of Florence. His works for such esteemed Florentines include Birth of Venus.
However, Botticelli's reputation had already begun to wane during his lifetime. He was overshadowed first by the advent of a new style by Perugino and Francesco Francia and then totally eclipsed with the establishment of High Renaissance style, with the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican. Botticelli's genius was rediscovered some centuries later in the latter part of the 19th century.
Adoration of the Magi
As mythology paintings entered into Renaissance art, Botticelli broke new ground with his works, including the Birth of Venus. He was the first to create large scale mythology scenes, some based on historical accounts. Botticelli chose to center his mythology work on what the Medici family requested, especially the younger generation.
In the era that Birth of Venus was painted, minds were open to new ideas and religion no longer needed to be the main subject of artistic work. If such mythological pieces had been painted 100 years earlier, they would not have been accepted by the church because they were so different to traditional depictions.
To read more about Botticelli and his works please choose from the following recommended sources.
• Zollner, Frank. Botticelli. Prestel, 2009
• Basta, Chiara. Botticelli. Rizzoli International Publications, 2005
• Altcappenberg, Dr. Hein Schultze. Sandro Botticelli: The Drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy. Royal Academy of Arts, 2000
• Lightbrown, R. W. Botticelli: Life and Work. Abbeville Press Inc, 1996
• Proud, Linda. The Rebirth of Venus. The Godstow Press, 2008
• Gebhart, Emilie. Botticelli. Parkstone Inter, 2010