A-level: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1483-85, tempera on panel, 68 x 109 5/8″ (172.5 x 278.5 cm) (Galeria degli Uffizi, Florence)


[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in probably the most crowded gallery at the Uffizi here in Florence. This is the room that contains Botticelli’s fabulously beautiful “Birth of Venus.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:14] You can hear the hubbub around us, but it’s interesting that the “Birth of Venus” is a painting that we actually know very little about. We don’t know who it was painted for. We don’t know where it was originally intended to be seen. The subject, a full-length nude female, is highly unusual, especially for the 15th century.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] We do see nudes in medieval art and even in Renaissance art before this, but the nudes are usually Adam and Eve.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] Beginning in the 15th century, artists do begin to experiment with introducing heroic male nudity within a biblical context — think, for instance, of Donatello’s “David” — but here we have something exceptional. This is an almost life-size, full-length, female nude that is fully pagan in its subject matter.

Dr. Harris: [0:59] Pagan and, undoubtedly, the goddess of love. Although the artists of the Renaissance are looking back to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, many of which were nudes, they’ve in the past transformed them into a Christian biblical subject. Here, Venus remains Venus.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] In fact, nudity in Christian art was often an expression of something traumatic. We see Christ almost nude on the cross, or we see the sinful being led into hell.

[1:29] What makes this painting so exceptional is that it is perhaps one of the first almost life-size representations of a female nude that is fully mythological in its subject matter.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] She covers her body very much the way Eve covered hers when she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. But here, we have a gesture of modesty, not one of shame.

[1:51] Venus floats on a seashell. She’s born from the sea.

Dr. Zucker: [1:55] And because we’re talking about classical mythology, she can be born fully grown.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] Here she is blown by the west wind, Zephyr. We see his body entwined with the body of Chloris.

Dr. Zucker: [2:07] On the right, we see an attendant who’s ready to wrap the newborn goddess.

[2:11] Although all of these figures clearly represent Botticelli’s incredibly sophisticated understanding of the human body — look at the wonderful sway of Venus, or the complex intertwining of the two figures on the left — and despite the fact that we see a very deep space, the canvas feels flat. This is the result of a number of things.

[2:30] For one thing, the emphasis on pattern. Botticelli has strewn the left side of the canvas with flowers, which are very close to the foreground. The right side, we have flowers again, but now they’re part of the dress worn by the attendant and part of the cloth that she carries.

[2:45] The rhythmic alternation of light and dark in the scallop shell seems to push the back forward. Even the little Vs that refer to the waves of the sea create a sense of two-dimensionality, so that the entire canvas, although depicting a deep space, is also so heavily patterned that it reminds us of its own two-dimensionality.

Dr. Harris: [3:07] And the figures all occupy the same plane. That is, one figure isn’t behind another or deeper into space than another. It does read very flatly.

[3:17] But I would also argue that although Botticelli does have an understanding of human anatomy and we can see that clearly in the body of Venus or in the figure of the west wind, or the way that we see the drapery wrapping around the figure of the nymph on the right, the figures are weightless.

[3:36] They don’t stand firmly on the ground the way that we often expect Renaissance figures to stand, and the figure of Venus forms the serpentine shape that actually I think would be [an] impossible way to stand.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] Certainly when you’re surfing to shore on a seashell. Look, for example, [at] the way that the artist has highlighted her golden hair with actual lines of gold. Gold that also appears in the foliage to the upper right and can be seen in the trunks of the trees that form the grove at the right.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] Venus tilts her head slightly. Her hair blows in the wind and surrounds the curve of her body and is brought down in front of her to cover her modestly.

[4:16] Although there may be meaning behind this painting that connects classical mythology to certain Christian ideas via a philosophy called Neoplatonism, what we’re looking at essentially is still an incredibly beautiful and erotic image. This is a celebration of both beauty and of love. We can think about that in both a secular context and a Christian one.

[4:45] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-level: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus," in Smarthistory, May 22, 2017, accessed July 12, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/sandro-botticelli-the-birth-of-venus-2/.