Born from seafoam in adult form, arriving on the shores of Paphos (or some say Kythera) in Greece on a seashell. You would think this is a story from a fantasy novel, but this is the arrival of the Roman Goddess, Venus, just after she was born. This is also the subject matter of the famous Birth of Venus painting by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, which we will discuss in this article.
Table of Contents
- 1 Artist Abstract: Who Was Alessandro Botticelli?
- 2 The Birth of Venus by Alessandro Botticelli in Context
- 3 Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview
- 4 A Complex Beauty
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Artist Abstract: Who Was Alessandro Botticelli?
Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, or just Sandro, Botticelli was born in Florence in Borgo Ognissanti. He was born between 1444 and 1446 and died in May 1510. He was one of the leading Italian artists that worked during the Early Renaissance period. He worked as a goldsmith in his early life and was an apprentice to Fra Filippo Lippi.
A self-portrait of Sandro Botticelli in his painting Adoration of the Magi (c. 1475); Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
He was commissioned by wealthy families of Florence like the Medici family. Pope Sixtus IV also commissioned him to paint part of the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli painted religious and mythological subject matter. His famous artworks include La Primavera (c. 1482 to 1483), Venus and Mars (c. 1483), and The Birth of Venus (c. 1484 to 1486).
The Birth of Venus by Alessandro Botticelli in Context
The Birth of Venus painting by Alessandro Botticelli is one of the most famous mythological paintings from the Early Renaissance period. Although Sandro Botticelli was not as popular as other artists from the Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, he still contributed one of the most beautiful and sensory-enriching paintings of the goddess Venus.
The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Below, we will look at the Birth of Venus analysis, starting with a contextual overview of the period surrounding the painting, namely the Early Renaissance (also referred to as the Quattrocento period). We will conduct a full exposé of this famous painting and answer various related questions like, who painted The Birth of Venus? When was The Birth of Venus painted? Where was The Birth of Venus painted? Where is The Birth of Venus? Who Venus was as a mythological goddess? We will then discuss the stylistic influences on and approaches taken by Botticelli.
|Date Painted||c. 1484 to 1486|
|Medium||Tempera on canvas|
|Genre||Mythological history painting|
|Dimensions||1.72 x 2. 78 meters|
|Series / Versions||It has been believed that it was part of the other painting, La Primavera (c. 1482 to 1483), but it has been reported that it was not its counterpart.|
|Where Is It housed?||Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy|
|What It Is Worth||Estimated around $500 million|
Contextual Analysis: A Brief Socio-Historical Overview
The Birth of Venus painting was created during the 1400s, which was a period in European history that saw a lot of cultural and economic changes. Notable changes that took place during this time included the ending of feudalism, which changed the European economic and social landscape. This was a transitionary period from the Middle Ages (Medieval period) and art styles progressed from Byzantine to Romanesque and then Gothic.
This progression led to the beginning of the Renaissance, starting with the Proto-Renaissance and then the Early Renaissance. Understandably, a lot of the prior art styles still lingered as the Early Renaissance period became more rooted in newer ways of thinking about life and the individual within the world.
A timeline of the Renaissance period.
There was a marked difference in the way artists started painting too, gradually moving away from the flatter, two-dimensional, idealized, and iconographic Byzantine styles. Artists like Cenna di Peppi (Cimabue) and Giotto di Bondone started portraying more naturalistic subject matter.
These new approaches also made art appear more three-dimensional.
The Renaissance movement took place in Italy and Northern Europe, however, the Early Renaissance predominantly occurred in Florence and then Rome during the later years. It was spearheaded by wealthy families, especially the Medici family. They were also avid patrons of the arts and commissioned various artists, including Botticelli, to produce artworks for them.
It is believed that a member of the Medici family commissioned Botticelli to paint The Birth of Venus. Specifically, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, who was a banker and politician and the cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent, or Lorenzo il Magnifico.
Portrait of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (1463–1503), called Lorenzo il Popolano; Cristofano dell’Altissimo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It is also believed that Lorenzo il Magnifico commissioned Botticelli’s other paintings Pallas and the Centaur (c. 1482) and La Primavera (c. 1482 to 1483) as part of a wedding gift for his cousin. There is debate as to who exactly commissioned these paintings.
The Birth of Venus painting was also painted on canvas, which was one of the first of this type of medium used for painting. Most paintings were done on wooden panels, but canvases became more popular because they were cheaper.
Paintings done on canvases were also mainly displayed in homes or villas compared to public buildings.
Therefore, The Birth of Venus was made for home display, possibly for the Villa di Castello, which belonged to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici in 1486. This is also where La Primavera (c. 1482 to 1483) was housed.
La Primavera (‘Spring’, 1480) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
However, it is important to note that the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari saw the above-mentioned paintings at Castello in 1550. An inventory reportedly discovered in 1975 indicated La Primavera recorded in it, but not The Birth of Venus. Therefore, it is not completely validated who exactly commissioned these paintings or where they were initially housed.
The Birth of Venus was also painted within the context of the popular literature of the time, specifically that of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD), Homer’s writings, and Agnolo (Angelo) Poliziano’s Stanze per la Giostra (1478).
Botticelli was believed to have been influenced by Poliziano because both had some sort of involvement with members of the Medici family at the time.
This also points to a broader characteristic of the period at the time, which is a new way of thinking and perceiving man within the world. With the progression of the Renaissance, the Humanist movement gradually emerged. This was based on philosophical thought rooted in the revival of ancient Classical texts from the Greek and Roman cultures.
The School of Athens (1509–1511) by Raphael, depicting many notable artists, philosophers, and other figures from the Renaissance period; Raphael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Artists, scholars, and many others were more open-minded about different topics other than strict religious tenets that existed during the Middle Ages. Man’s capabilities were being questioned within the larger aspects or macrocosm of that which was considered the universe.
Different spheres of knowledge were explored and studied, including concepts like Neo-Platonism, which were based on the philosophical writings of the Greek philosopher, Plato.
Who Was Venus?
Not only was The Birth of Venus by Botticelli a magnificent canvas showcasing a mythological scene and fit for a country villa, but it also showcased the first figure of a nude female in full size. This has not been done since the times of antiquity. We know by the painting’s title it was Venus, but who exactly was Venus?
From the many mythological poems from poets like Ovid, Homer, Hesiod, and Poliziano, to name a few, Venus was the Roman Goddess of love, beauty, prosperity, sex, and many other attributes related to love. Her name is in Latin, meaning “love”. Aphrodite was her name in Greek mythology and where the Romans derived their goddess of love.
Venus Adorned by the Graces (1590/1595) by Annibale Carracci; National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Venus was born from the foam of the sea after her father, Uranus, was overthrown and castrated by his son Saturn. Uranus was amongst the primal gods in Greco-Roman mythology; he was the god of the sky. Saturn threw Uranus’s genitals into the sea, which mixed with the sea foam, thus giving birth to Venus. Venus’ mother, therefore, was the sea. She was born fully grown.
When she was conceived and born in the sea, she was then blown by the god of the wind, Zephyrus, on a seashell. On the shore is the nymph Chloris, one of the goddesses of the seasons, who are collectively called the Horai.
Below, we discuss these characters further.
Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview
In the below Birth of Venus analysis, we will look at the compositional and stylistic aspects that make the painting. First, we will discuss the subject matter and then look at Botticelli, who is the artist of the Birth of Venus, his technique, as well as some of the influences and symbolic references that inspired him.
Looking at the composition of The Birth of Venus painting, we notice the nude figure of Venus in the central position. She stands on a large scallop shell covering her breasts with her right hand and her left hand and long hair cover her genitals.
Her head is tilted to her right side and her body posture is like that of a contrapposto-styled stance.
Venus is depicted as the embodiment of beauty; her skin is smooth and milky in color without any blemish. Her hair is also golden and hangs almost the full length of her body. This hairstyle is also reported to have been inspired by women’s hairstyles of the time Botticelli lived.
A detail of Venus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, c. 1485; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
To Venus’ right (our left) are two figures in the air, busy blowing towards Venus. They have been identified as the Greek god Zephyr, associated with the west winds. He was one of the gentler winds, associated with the beginnings of Spring.
Holding on to Zephyr, her arms wrapped around his waist is Aura, which means “breeze”. It could also be Zephyr’s wife, Chloris, a nymph of the Spring season and its associated aspects. Both figures appear with beautiful and large wings and billowing drapery covering their bodies.
We know they personify the wind and breeze through their action of blowing and the lightly painted lines symbolizing the wind coming out of their mouths.
A detail of Chloris and Zephyrus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, c. 1485; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
To Venus’ left (our right) there is another female figure on the shore, waiting to meet her. She holds out a florally decorated cloak to cover Venus. This figure is identified as one of the Horae, which are the goddesses of the seasons, specifically the Hora of Spring due to the floral patterns and flowers on her dress.
She also stands very lightly on the grassy shore; some sources also suggest she may be floating.
A detail of the Hora holding out a cloak for Venus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, c. 1485; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The surrounding landscape is split between the light blue of the ocean, making up most of the left of the composition. It meets the grassy shoreline on the right-hand side of the composition, which extends into what appears to be a hilly landscape with various scattered trees in the distance. There is a forest in the right foreground where the Hora of Spring awaits. Orange blossoms decorate the trees. Other blossoms are blown towards Venus as she reaches the shore, these include beautiful pink roses with gilded centers.
We will notice there are various areas of the composition with gilded areas. For example, the shoreline where she will step off to walk, her shell is also rimmed with gold, as well as the trees and their blossoms.
Technique: Color and Light
Botticelli used the tempera painting technique, which consists of combining color pigments with a water-soluble medium diluted with a binding medium, which was usually egg yolk. This was different from fresco paintings; however, many sources indicate that this painting has the “freshness” of a fresco. It has been well-preserved over the centuries.
Botticelli used softer more earthy color tones set complimentary to the other, for example, the red drapery to the right and the green and blue from the drapery of the two figures to the left. Venus herself is portrayed in the lighter skin tones directly linked with her being a symbol of beauty and perfection.
The use of color and light is illustrated in this close-up of Venus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, c. 1485; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The surrounding landscape is also rich in color tones, for example, the cooler colors like the light blue of the ocean and sky meet the warmer and deeper color tones and shades of green and brown from the land. There is also more shading around the right side of the painting as we approach the forested area.
It almost appears as if we move from a lighter side of the composition to a darker side, from sea to land, from birth to life. This adds depth and chromatic balance to the composition.
Perspective and Line
Botticelli is noted for using dark outlines in the Birth of Venus painting, this takes precedence over the colors used. In this painting, line directly influences perspective. We specifically notice the dark outlines around the figures, the two figures to the left and Venus, all standing with a light background behind them, which is what creates a contrast. This also emphasizes Venus’ milky skin tones and beauty – we could almost say that Venus is venerated within Botticelli’s bolder outlines.
The use of darker outlines also creates a lack of depth to the painting, creating more two-dimensionality. We see the darker horizon line in the background and the figures have no shadows, all of which add to a general flatness of the composition.
The Golden Ratio as seen in The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There are a few elements that suggest a sense of depth and movement, such as in the white chevron-like shapes on the ocean. In the background, these appear almost like small dots on the surface of the sea and as we move closer to the shore it increases in shape and size.
These shapes suggest the idea of waves and create more dynamism to the painting, especially near the rim of Venus’ shell by her feet, where the water is painted in curling splashes.
Depth is also evident in the landscape; we see this in the green hills and smaller scattered trees in the far background of the composition. This suggests the idea of distance seen from the foreground shore, where most of our attention is drawn to. If we look closely, the horizon line in the far distance is also a darker outline, and the similar colors of the sky and the sea creates more flatness, similarly, there is also little sense of depth where the water and land join.
Details of The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli; Benjamín Núñez González, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
There are other areas where Botticelli uses line to show three-dimensionality and more dynamism, as in Venus’ clamshell and the drapery of the figure on the right, as well as the cloak she holds up for Venus, which is portrayed in flowing lines suggesting the billowing from the wind to the left. Venus’ hair is another example and one of the primary attractions of this painting, not only depicted in a golden strawberry color but also long and lustrous, billowing in the wind.
The figure of Venus is also portrayed with exaggerated anatomy, overall, her body is quite elongated. We see this elongation emphasized in her neck and in the depiction of her arms, mostly her left (our right) arm covering her genitalia with her hair.
Furthermore, her stance is unrealistic as she leans too far to her left side without anything supporting her. In a more realistic setting, she would fall over. This elongation and inaccurate portrayal of proportion and stance heighten Venus’ beauty and her as almost an otherworldly figure that has just been given life.
It also points to the stylistic influences on Botticelli at the time, which we will discuss further below.
The painting is large in scale, measuring 1.72 x 2.78 meters. It is also slightly smaller than Botticelli’s La Primavera (c. 1482 to 1483). If it was the case where this painting was made for the Medici family, it was made to adorn a wall space perfectly fit for private living space compared to public spaces.
A photograph of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus on a wall in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, illustrating its large size; FrDr, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Botticelli did not depict his paintings with the same level of perspectival acuity we see from other Renaissance artists. He did not prescribe to the heightened sense of naturalism that was so characteristic of the time, his figures appear almost weightless like they are floating.
Some of his stylistic influences that contributed to how he portrayed perspective, space, and figure’s stances in his paintings came from the Byzantine and International Gothic styles.
There is a sense of decorativeness in his style with lighter color schemes and idealized anatomical features, all seeming to focus more on appealing to sensory pleasure and aesthetics rather than the idea of staying true to nature as we see from artists like Leonardo da Vinci, such as in his rendition of biblical figures like Mother Mary, like his Virgin of the Rocks (1484 to 1486). This is also seen with other contemporaries of Botticelli’s like Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Virgin of the Rocks (1484-1486) by Leonardo da Vinci; Leonardo da Vinci and workshop, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The figure of Venus and her gestural style is also believed to have been taken from the sculptural style Venus Pudica. In fact, Botticelli has crafted his feminine figure almost like a marble statue painted on canvas. This is also reminiscent of the Classical era’s Greco-Roman sculptures of female nudes.
“Venus Pudica” is a descriptor term for a Classical female pose where the female covers her genitalia with one hand and stands in an asymmetrical stance, almost unnaturally.
The way she meekly covers herself, ironically, draws attention to the areas she is covering. The word pudica originates from the Latin pudenda, which relates to external genitalia or the concept of shame or feeling shameful, all of which are reflected in the countenance of the bashful Venus depicted above.
Copy of Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles, 4th century; Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We see Botticelli’s Venus emulating the same features as those of the Aphrodite of Knidos (Cnidus) (c. 4th century BC) by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles of Athens. He was one of the first sculptors to portray the female figure in the nude and was lauded as one of the most innovative sculptors of his time due to this. Praxiteles’s sculpture depicts Aphrodite holding a bath towel in her left hand covering her genitalia with her right hand, however, her breasts are still exposed.
This sculpture also juxtaposes the classical male figure in sculpture, which was focused on portraying heroism.
It is worth noting that the Birth of Venus by Botticelli has had numerous different symbolic meanings and interpretations. As mentioned above, some interpretations come from the Neo-Platonic thought of the Humanist movement during the Renaissance. Below we expand on this a bit more.
Venus was also regarded in Neo-Platonic thought as a symbol for physical and spiritual love as described by the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. It is believed that the Birth of Venus painting was meant to elicit a contemplative response in viewers. In other words, when viewing Venus, her physical beauty portrayed would be a reminder of the ideas of divine love.
A diagram illustrating the Neo-Platonic principles of the metaphysical, physical, and technical history of each major and minor cosmos, c. 14/15th century; See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Humanist movement allowed a more open way of perceiving the world and the subject matter was more “pagan” compared to the traditional religious subject matter. This type of secularity was deemed acceptable.
This philosophical thought was also reportedly present and practiced within the Medici court, so it is within reason that these above-mentioned interpretations are interrelated.
It is also important to note the cultural context in which the Birth of Venus painting was created, not only was it nestled within a newly emerging cultural awakening that promoted ideas beyond that of the church and bible, but it was still within a time of strong religious changes and religion would have certainly still played a part.
Some sources also describe the Christian interpretation for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and that it is symbolic of and influenced by the Baptism of Christ. It is compared to two other Renaissance paintings to illustrate this idea, namely, Giotto’s The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305) and Piero Della Francesca’s painting of the same name (1448 to 1450).
The structural composition follows Christ as the central figure, the angels to his right (our left), and John the Baptist to his left (our right).
LEFT: No. 23 of Scenes from the Life of Christ: 7. Baptism of Christ (1304-1306) by Giotto di Bondone; Giotto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons | RIGHT: Baptism of Christ (1448-1450) by Piero della Francesca; Piero della Francesca, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In the Birth of Venus, we see this exact structure, however, Christ is replaced by Venus, the angels are replaced by the wind god Zephyr and his companion Chloris (or Aura), and John the Baptist is replaced by the Hora of Spring holding the cloak to cover Venus.
The gesture of the Hora of Spring and John the Baptist is seemingly similar in nature because both figures (religious and secular) approach the sacred central figure with the intention to adorn or bless them, in this case, a baptism and a protective cloak to cover Venus.
Other Christian interpretations suggest it alludes to the Garden of Eden and Venus as a symbol of Eve’s nudity.
She could also be a symbol of mortality, which is symbolized by the cloak, as soon as she puts it on, she becomes flesh and represents the Church that will be a conduit for salvation. Furthermore, Venus is also believed by some to be a symbol of Mother Mary, who is also known as Stella Maris meaning “Star of the Sea”, which is further alluded to by the emphasis on Venus coming from the sea. In this case, Venus is regarded as the divine aspect of Stella or “star,” and Mary is alluded to by the visual depiction of the sea, or Maris.
Other sources suggest The Birth of Venus painting was made to flatter the head of the Medici family, Lorenzo de Medici. Some believe the figure of Venus was made in the likeness of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who was the wife of the Florentine merchant, Marco Vespucci. She is believed to have been born in the town called Porto Venere, which means “Port of Venus” on the Ligurian coast located in Italy.
She was regarded as one of the most beautiful women with the nickname “La Bella Simonetta”. Lorenzo de Medici and his brother, Giuliano, both held her in high esteem and admiration.
Profile portrait of a young woman (probably Simonetta) (between 1475 and 1480) by Sandro Botticelli, depicting Italian noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci; Workshop of Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There is also speculation that she was the above-mentioned Medicis’ mistress, which also alluded to Alexander the Great’s mistress, Campaspe (or Pancaste) painted by the ancient Greek painter, Apelles of Kos. Botticelli could have been regarded as continuing the work done by Apelles. However, this is only another historical and political reference within The Birth of Venus painting.
A Complex Beauty
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting runs as deep as the ocean’s waters where Venus was born. While it is regarded as visually simple to analyze and interpret, giving us all the facts through the placements of the figures and who they are, there is an undercurrent in this Early Renaissance painting that suggests so much more.
The symbolic meaning of this Venus can be considered a complex one as it holds various interpretations that relate to Greco-Roman mythology, Christian religion, politics, history, philosophy (remember Neo-Platonism and the Humanism movement), and undoubtedly wealth and weddings in prominent Italian families.
“The Birth of Venus” painting is an Early Renaissance masterpiece, holding not only the immaculately defined Venus on her gilded scallop shell, arriving on the shores, but also the immaculate artistry of a painter that was not well-known for his time, but who poured out the depths of his soul onto his canvas, giving us a sensory experience like no other. We are unabashedly faced with Venus and her entourage taking the centerstage of this artwork.
Take a look at our Birth of Venus webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Painted The Birth of Venus?
The Birth of Venus (c. 1484 to 1486) painting was made by Alessandro Botticelli, who was an artist from the Early Renaissance period in Italy. Although Sandro Botticelli was not as popular as other artists from the Renaissance like the High Renaissance painters Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, he contributed one the most sensory enriching paintings of mythological subject matter, specifically of the goddess Venus.
When Was The Birth of Venus Painted?
The Birth of Venus was painted around 1484 to 1486. This was during the Early Renaissance period in Italy, a period that spanned the 1400s. It was also referred to as the Quattrocento period, which was after the Middle Ages and Proto-Renaissance period and preceded the latter part of the Renaissance called the High Renaissance.
Where Is The Birth of Venus?
Presently, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484 to 1486) painting is housed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. It is believed that the painting was requested by the Medici family as a wedding present. They commissioned Alessandro Botticelli, who is the artist of the Birth of Venus. Some sources report it was housed in the Villa Castello until 1815, which belonged to Cosimo I de Medici, this is where La Primavera (c. 1482 to 1483) was also housed.
Where Was The Birth of Venus Painted?
It is believed that after Sandro Botticelli worked on frescoes for the Sistine Chapel in Rome in 1481, he returned to his city of birth, Florence, where he started painting more secular subject matter. This included mythological subject matter from the Greek and Roman era. It was here that Botticelli was commissioned to paint The Birth of Venus, which was from 1484 to 1486.