The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is one of the most famous mythological paintings and is always mentioned in the top 100 paintings of the world. Made by Botticelli using tempera on canvas between 1482 and 1485, it is known as the landmark of XV century Italian painting. It was bought by the Italian government for 500 million dollars and is now placed at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. What makes this painting so significant and why was it so controversial during its time?
The Renaissance period and The Birth of Venus
The 1400s saw a major turning point in cultural and economic changes in Europe. The ending of feudalism impacted the economical landscape of the country. Even the arts and culture landscape was changing during this period. Art styles changed from Byzantine to Romanesque and then Gothic. This change led to the birth of the Renaissance. The early Renaissance period took place in Florence and then Rome. Wealthy families like the Medici family spearheaded this movement and commissioned various artists, including Botticelli, to produce artworks for them and their villas. It is believed that a member of the Medici family, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, hired Botticelli to paint The Birth of Venus.
The painting was not made for public display at all. It was made for home display, possibly for the Villa di Castello, which belonged to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici in 1486. This was not only because of the nude portrayal of Venus, but also because the painting was made on canvas — a medium that was not used for painting before. Most of the paintings were done on wooden panels, but during the renaissance, canvases gained popularity due to them being cheaper. It is said an Italian married noblewoman Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci, who was Botticelli’s unrequited love was the muse for this and several other paintings. If history serves right, one of Botticelli’s dying wishes was to be buried at the feet of his ‘Venus’, Simonetta. At his death in 1510, his wish was granted.
The painting and its significance
To understand the significance of the painting, it is imperative to know who Venus is. According to mythological poems from poets like Hesiod and Poliziano, Venus is the Roman Goddess of love, sex, beauty and prosperity. The word ‘Venus’ in Latin means love. In Greek mythology, she is known as Aphrodite. Venus was born from the foam of the sea after her father Uranus was overthrown by his son Saturn. Saturn threw Uranus’s genitals into the sea, and thus Venus was born full-grown. Botticelli has depicted the full-grown Venus and to signify her birth, her skin is smooth and milky in colour with no blemishes or spots. The hairstyle used in the painting is inspired by the hairstyles of the time Botticelli lived in. The artist used a technique called tempera to paint this masterpiece, which consists of combining colour pigments with a water-soluble medium diluted with a binding medium (usually egg yolk). The significance of the painting not only lies in the story of the birth of Venus but also in the symbolism of Venus. It is a reminder for viewers that divine love does exist. Christian interpretations suggested it alludes to the Garden of Eden and Venus as a symbol of Eve’s nudity. Several sources also describe the Christian interpretation of this painting as it being symbolic of and influenced by the Baptism of Christ.
Despite the painting having several divine and mythological meanings, it was seen as a controversial piece of art for decades. Venus is portrayed nude in the painting and that alone is different from the conservative art of the middle ages and goes against Christian values. Such a painting could not be accepted publicly as it broke all the restraints of religious values. People also believed that the painting aroused the viewers and made them focus on the vanity of human bodies.
During the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ in 1497, all items that were believed to promote sin were tossed into a seven-story furnace by Christians and destroyed. The Birth of Venus somehow escaped from this and survived. It is said that Botticelli himself was a part of the ‘great fire’ and burnt a few of his possessions. However, the painting was kept hidden from public view for around 50 years not only because of nudity, but also because the meadow in the painting showcased violets, which were often used for love potions and other witchcraft practices.
Botticelli did not live long enough to see how famous and well-liked his painting became. When he was alive, it was either mostly hidden away in a villa or disliked due to strict religious values. It gained popularity in the 19th century. It is said The Birth of Venus has a twin painting made by Botticelli called La Primavera. While The Birth of Venus shows Venus arriving on earth, La Primavera shows a world in bloom around a clothed Venus. The Birth of Venus is and will always remain a classic example of Renaissance art.
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