Behind the art: What makes Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ the most famous mythological painting?

The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is one of the most famous mythological paintings and is always mentioned in the top 100 paintings in the world. Made by Botticelli in tempera on canvas between 1482 and 1485, it is known as the emblem of the 15th century italian painting. It was purchased by the Italian government for $500 million and is now placed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. What makes this painting so important and why was it so controversial in its day?

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The Renaissance period and The birth of Venus

The 1400s saw a major turning point in cultural and economic change in Europe. The end of feudalism had an impact on the economic landscape of the country. Even the artistic and cultural landscape was changing during this period. Artistic styles changed from Byzantine to Romanesque and then to Gothic. This change led to the birth of the Renaissance. The first period of the Renaissance took place in Florence and then in Rome. Wealthy families like the Medici family spearheaded this movement and commissioned various artists, including Botticelli, to produce works of art 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 display at home, possibly for the Villa di Castello, which belonged to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici in 1486. ​​It was not only because of the nude depiction of Venus, but also because the painting was done on canvas – a medium that had not been used for painting before. Most of the paintings were done on wooden panels, but during the renaissance canvases gained popularity because they were cheaper. A noble Italian bride, Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci, who was Botticelli’s unrequited love, is said to have been the muse of this and several other paintings. If history serves, one of Botticelli’s last wishes was to be buried at the feet of his “Venus”, Simonetta. When he died in 1510, his wish was granted.

The painting was not made for public display at all. This was not only because of the nude depiction of Venus, but also because the painting was done on canvas – a medium that had not been used for painting before. (Photo: Pixabay)

Painting and its meaning

To understand the meaning of the painting, it is imperative to know who Venus is. According to mythological poems by 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 her son Saturn. Saturn threw Uranus’s genitals into the sea, and thus Venus was born as an adult. Botticelli depicted the adult Venus and to signify her birth, her skin is smooth and milky in color with no blemishes or spots. The hairstyle used in the painting is inspired by the hairstyles of the time when Botticelli lived. The artist used a technique called tempera to paint this masterpiece, which involves combining color pigments with a water-soluble medium diluted with a binder (usually egg Yolk). The importance of the painting lies not only in the story of the birth of Venus, but also in the symbolism of Venus. It’s a reminder to viewers that divine love exists. Christian interpretations suggested he was referring 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 symbolic and influenced by the Baptism of Christ.

Controversial

Although the painting has several divine and mythological meanings, it was considered a controversial artwork for decades. Venus is depicted nude in the painting and this alone is different from the conservative art of the Middle Ages and goes against Christian values. Such a painting could not be publicly accepted because it broke all the constraints of religious values. People also believed that the painting awakened viewers and made them focus on the vanity of human bodies.

During the “Bucher des vanités” in 1497, all objects believed to promote sin were thrown into a seven-story furnace by Christians and destroyed. The birth of Venus somehow escaped that and survived. It is said that Botticelli himself was part of the “great fire” and burned down some of his possessions. However, the painting was hidden from the public for about 50 years, not only because of the nudity, but also because the meadow in the painting featured violets, which were often used for love potions and other practices of witchcraft.

Botticelli did not live long enough to see how famous and beloved his painting became. During his lifetime, he was either hidden away in a villa or hated due to strict religious values. It gained popularity in the 19th century. It is said The birth of Venus has a twin painting by Botticelli called The Primavera. Whereas The birth of Venus shows Venus arriving on earth, The Primavera shows a flowery world around a clothed Venus. The birth of Venus is and will always remain a classic example of Renaissance art.

Next step in Behind the Art: Why is Picasso The Ladies of Avignon important for the birth of modern art? Did he launch the cubist movement?

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