Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus

Botticelli's Birth of Venus
First of all, I would like to thank Stephen, from A World Away, for suggesting that I do a post or two on Botticelli! Sandro Botticelli's paintings are some of the most iconic and evocative works in Western art, and I'm actually quite surprised that this is the first time I've written about them! For the next few days, I will be focusing on the work of Botticelli and its relationship to the Pre-Raphaelite movement. I'll begin today by examining Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. It's one of those images that is so much a part of the Western psyche that it now truly deserves to be considered iconic, although this was not always the case, as we shall see.

There are actually a number of myths that explain Venus' origin, but Botticelli chose one of the earliest (and also the most violent and bloody) as the inspiration for his painting. According to Greek mythology, after Uranus was castrated by his son, Cronus, his severed genitals fell into the water and somehow fertilized it. Venus/Aphrodite later emerges from the water, having been conceived via the ocean's fertile waves. This rather far-flung story inspired Botticelli to create his most famous work, The Birth of Venus.

The painting itself was composed around 1482 for a member of the Medici family--Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici--and was hung at Lorenzo's Villa di Castello. Interestingly, the painting was done in tempera on canvas, rather than wood (at the time Botticelli painted the Venus, it was common for artists to compose important works on wood, as it was considered more durable). Part of the reason that the painting might have been done on canvas was that it featured a decidedly pagan theme.

The work features a stylised, distinctively European Venus emerging from the water on a seashell (shells themselves were an erotic symbol for the Romans, probably because shellfish had long been viewed as aphrodisiacs. Casanova, another famous Italian, reportedly used to eat 50 of them every morning for breakfast). The shell is being blown towards the shore by the Zephyrs (a zephyr is a gentle wind, associated with spring). In the right foreground is the goddess Horae, the goddess of the seasons, who is preparing to cover Venus in a flowered cape. In this painting, Botticelli presents an image of Venus that is at once the embodiment of femininity and sensuality, who affects modesty at the same time. This paradox was what would later fascinate the Pre-Raphaelites, who were interested in creating a synthesis between the pagan and christian traditions.

Thursday I will be looking at the surprising connections between Botticelli and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Image courtesy wikimedia.
Source Consulted: Michael Levey. "Botticelli and Nineteenth-Century England." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 23, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Dec., 1960), pp. 291-306.


Judy said...

Botticelli was one of the PRB's heroes and his reputation was well-established in England through works in the National Gallery,private collections and through reproductions.

Burne-Jones,Spencer Stanhope et.al worshiped him!

willow said...

50 every morning? No wonder! ;)

This painting has always fascinated me. Nice post, Margaret.

Tracy said...

I have always admired this Botticelli painting, but thanks to your excellent article I have more insight into all the symobolism! The side-by-side of paganism and christianity is fascinating. Looking forward to your next installment! Oh, and thank you for your lovely comment at my place. we are all packed and ready to go Stateside! We look forward to relaxing this evening before the long journey. While away we hope to take a trip into Phildelphia, where we hopte to take in some great art works at the museums there! Until soon...Happy Days ((HUGS))

Anonymous said...

Ooo this should be very interesting Margaret. I think Sanderson did a range of fabrics called Botticelli about 10-15 years ago.

Margaret said...

That is really interesting, Melanie! I'll definitely have to look into that!

boba said...

IIRC, this painting is adjacent to Botticelli's Primavera in the Uffizi. Side by side you can see the similarity between the two figures. Although modern art is not my specialty, and I consider anything after 1200 CE as modern, there are some interesting aspects to this that are rarely discussed.
The shell motif is often found in early Christian art, particularly in baptisteries. (I'll post something from the Neonian Baptistery on my blog) If you look at early baptism scenes, a bowl or shell is used to pour the water on the subject. The other symbolism is the value of pearls. Pearls were prized above all jewels because they did not require any other polishing. (Gemstones were not polished until 15th century, faceting was even later.) So in this image Venus describes both the purity of the newly baptized as well as the value of the hidden pearl.
I mentioned Primavera because it has the focus of my work - the orange fruit. The Medici symbol is similar to the pawnbroker symbol, three balls. These are oranges or citrons, and symbolize the worldly reach of the Medici, their tremendous wealth, and their piety. Oranges were at this time rare, expensive, and considered a virtue of Mary. Oranges are evergreen, and can have fruit, flower, and leaves simultaneously. They describe both the mortal and divine status of Mary.
So while this subject is decidedly "pagan," the Christian overtones are unmistakable. I interpret it as an attempt to bring humanism into the Christian sphere. Just as all roads lead to Rome, here we see all subjects lead to Christianity. The Medici were famous patrons of Humanist thinkers and artists. Here they attempt to show that whatever the content or subject, a Christian theme could be extracted.
BTW - The initial source of Medici wealth came in their trade with North Africa. They exported grain to Fatamid dynasty in Tunisia and received gold in payment. They used that gold to procure silks and develop the wool trade that they later dominanated. The Zephyr, the westerly wind, was what brought home those ships laden with gold and silk. How do we know it is the zephyr we see? The legend is that Venus was brought to the southern shores of Italy, and if looking south, the zephyr would go from left to right, as it does in this painting.

Margaret said...

Thank you, boba! That was very informative!

Sarah said...

Just wanted to drop by and say hi. That rhymes!!! Well anyway hello!!!

Margaret said...

Welcome, Sarah!

acornmoon said...

When I first saw this painting in Florence I was struck by its scale, the figures appear almost life size. Maybe this is another reason why he chose canvas? I remember our sons were only little when we visited the Uffizi, this painting and Primavera definitely had the "wow" factor and I feel that the scale had a lot to do with that. I love these paintings, they are so decorative, (dare I say pretty?). I also heard that he featured well known society figures in his work, a sort of "Hello magazine" of his day, but then again, I may be wrong, I often am!

Very interesting comments from boba.

A World Away said...

Thank you for taking up this topic and for the backbround information. It was a truly humbling experience to be able to see this painting close up at the Uffizi. Having seen this image many times previously I was still shell shocked when I first entered the gallery and saw the piece in person. After the inital shock I took time to really take in the painting. Such an experiece is a gutteral experiece. It makes one truly appreciate the 'wealth' that is present in Museums. One hopes that for the myriads of visitors to such museums a greater appreciation for art is engendered and that our cultural heritage worldwide can be preserved for future generations. Boba thank you for your very informative comments.

Margaret said...

How amazing to have a chance to see this beautiful painting up close! And you're right, acornmoon, the size was another major reason for composing the painting on canvas.

Sofia Kemm said...

Botticelli and Klimt are my favorite painters, I had the honour and beautiful experience of seeing The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence last year.... it was breathtaking I always new it was a large painting but it overwhelms you when your standing in front of it!!
Thanks for introducing yourself I will drop by for regular visits!