The Birth of Venus

Posted: March 26, 2012 in art, cinema, movies, painting, photo, photographers, poetry
Tags: , , , , , ,

I dedicate this post to my friend Lima Verde

“The Birth of Venus” (in Italian: Nascita di Venere) is a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli. It depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a fully grown woman, arriving at the sea-shore (which is related to the Venus Anadyomene motif). The painting is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The iconography of “The Birth of Venus” is very similar to a description of the event (or rather, a description of a sculpture of the event) in a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the “Stanze per la giostra”. Written between 1475-8, the poem includes a fictional description of reliefs cast by Vulcan for the doors of the Temple of Venus. It would seem likely that Botticelli would have known this text when he painted his Birth of Venus. In any case, both Poliziano and Botticelli were working in the context of the Medici court in Florence. Cosimo de Medici established a Platonic Academy modelled on the classical example of Plato’s own Akademia. In describing the imagined reliefs cast by Vulcan, Poliziano was employing a literary form that became popular in the Late Antique world known as ekphrasis, where one artistic form emulates another artistic form. The relationships of the arts, most specifically painting and poetry, was related to a famous dictum in Horace’s Ars Poetica, “ut pictura poesis,” or literally “As painting so is poetry.” This comparison and rivalry between painting and poetry was an important way artists tried to elevate their status above the manual arts. The following is an excerpt from Angelo Poliziano’s poem “Stanze per la giostra”:

In the stormy Aegean, the genital member is
 seen to be received in the lap of Tethys, to drift
 across the waves, wrapped in white foam, be-
 neath the various turnings of the planets; and
 within, both with lovely and happy gestures, a
 young woman with nonhuman countenance, is
 carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by
 playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven re-
 joices in her birth.

C 100
You would call the foam real, the sea real, real
 the conch shell and real the blowing wind; you
 would see the lightning in the goddess’s eyes,
 the sky and the elements laughing about her; the
 Hours treading the beach in white garments, the
 breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair;
 their faces not one, not different, as befits sisters.

CI 101
You could swear that the goddess had emerged
 from the waves, pressing her hair with her right
 hand, covering with the other her sweet mound
 of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted by
 her sacred and divine step, it had clothed itself
 in flowers and grass; then with happy, more than
 mortal features, she was received in the bosom
 of the three nymphs and cloaked in a starry gar-

CII 102
With both hands one nymph holds above the
 spray-wet tresses a garland, burning with gold
 and oriental gems, another adjusts pearls in her
 ears; the third, intent upon those beautiful
 breasts and white shoulders, appears to strew
 round them the rich necklaces with which they
 three girded their own necks when they used to
 dance in a ring in heaven.

CIII 103
Thence they seem to be raised toward heav-
 enly spheres, seated upon a silver cloud: in the
 hard stone you would seem to see the air trem-
 bling and all of heaven contented; every god
 takes pleasure in her beauty and desires her hap-
 py bed: each face seems to marvel, with raised
 eyebrows and wrinkled forehead.

CIV 104
Finally the divine artisan formed his self-portrait,
 happy with such a sweet prize, still bristly and
 scabrous from his furnace, as if forgetting every
 labor for her, joining his lips with desire to hers,
 as if his soul burned completely with love: and
 there seems to be a much greater fire kindled
 within him than the one that he had left in

The model for Venus in this painting has traditionally been associated with Simonetta Vespucci – who had been a muse for Botticelli,  and was seen as the model for female beauty throughout Florence – especially for the Medici family for whom this painting had been created. There is added credence to this suggestion from the fact that she was born in the Ligurian fishing village of  PortoVenere – called Port of Venus because there was a little Temple to Venus there from 1st Century BC. The other model for the pose of Venus in the painting was possibly the Medici Venus – a first century BC statue depicting Aphrodite in a Venus pudica pose. It is actually a marble copy  of an original bronze Greek sculpture,  that Botticelli would have has an opportunity to study whilst visiting the sculpture school or the Platonic Academy which flourished at the family home of the Medici in Florence.

The unusual feature of Botticelli’s early paintings is that they are based on mythologies, not religious paintings – which at the time must have itself been something of a shock to people outside the Neoplatonic, Humanist circle of friends of the Medici. Botticelli’s early style was to create visual poetry, unlike Ghirlandaio and even his own teacher Fra Filippo Lippi, he was not trying to construct space within the picture frame and he made no attempt to model solid three dimensional people; instead his figures float flatly on the front of the picture against a decorative landscape backdrop with their form defined by a thin outline. The story of “The Birth of Venus” is well described below by a Homeric hymn but it’s relevance to the painting is disputed as the poem was only published, by the Greek refugee Demetrios Chalcondyles, in Florence in 1488 – five years after the painting was completed as a wedding gift for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in 1483.

Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful
Aphrodite I shall sing to whose domain
belong the battlements of all sea-loved
Cyprus where, blown by the moist breath
of Zephyros, she was carried over the
waves of the resounding sea on soft foam.
The gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed
her and clothed her with heavenly raiment.

In 1989, English director Terry Gilliam, inspired by the Botticelli painting, made a beautiful scene in his movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” where actress Uma Thurman plays Venus and Oliver Reed plays his husband Vulcan.

The professional photographer Alex Vanzetti also inspired by the painting made the amazing photography below:

Who lives in a clamshell above of the sea? From pop artist Elen Ameli Lin: “Botticelli’s little bit changed picture Birth of Venus. Sophie is Venus, SpongeBob is Zephyr, Sandy is his wife, and Patricia – is Horae.”

Read more about The Birth of Venus:
Read the poem “Stanze per la giostra”:

  1. Nice piece from Terry Gilliam.

  2. […] The Birth of Venus ( […]

  3. […] – Marcio Kenobi […]

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