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The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Aside from his painting of the Primavera, Sandro Botticelli’s other greatest work, done for the Medici family, is the Birth of Venus. Unfortunately, we do not know for sure which Medici it was painted for, or which location it was originally hung in.

The Birth of Venus was the first work on canvas in Tuscany.

Before considering the subject matter, it is important to take note of the medium. This is a work of tempera on canvas. During this time, wood panels were popular surfaces for painting, and they would remain popular through the end of the sixteenth century. Canvas, however, was starting to gain acceptance by painters. It worked well in humid regions, such as Venice, because wooden panels tended to warp in such climates. Canvas also cost less than wood, but it was also considered to be less formal, which made it more appropriate for paintings that would be shown in non-official locations (e.g. countryside villas, rather than urban palaces).

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

The theme of the Birth of Venus was taken from the writings of the ancient poet, Homer.  According to the traditional account, after Venus was born, she rode on a seashell and sea foam to the island of Cythera. In the painting we see here, Venus is prominently depicted in the center, born out of the foam as she rides to shore.  On the left, the figure of Zephyrus carries the nymph Chloris (alternatively identified as “Aura”) as he blows the wind to guide Venus.

On shore, a figure who has been identified as Pomona, or as the goddess of Spring, waits for Venus with mantle in hand. The mantle billows in the wind from Zephyrus’ mouth.

Venus’ nudity brought the painting into question.

The depiction of nude women was not something that was normally done in the Middle Ages, with a few exceptions in specific circumstances.

Venus is slightly to the right of center, and she is isolated against the background so no other figures overlap her. She has a slight tilt of the head, and she leans in an awkward contrapposto-like stance. Botticelli paid much attention to her hair and hairstyle, which reflected his interest in the way women wore their long hair in the late fifteenth century.  He gave Venus an idealized face which is remarkably free of blemishes, and beautifully shaded her face to distinguish a lighter side and a more shaded side.

In painting Venus, Botticelli painted a dark line around the contours of her body. This made it easier to see her bodily forms against the background, and it also emphasized the color of her milky skin. The result of all of this is that Venus almost looks like her flesh is made out of marble, underscoring the sculpturesque nature of her body.

Botticelli’s true Venus was not a painting.

Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci, the muse behind The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, and who Botticelli used as basis for his subject matter, was said to be the most beautiful woman in Florence as well as the entire Renaissance. When he died in 1510, Botticelli was buried beside her, a married noblewoman, as per his own request at the Church of Ognissanti in Italy.


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