The birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli
The link is to a zoomable version on The Google Art Project; the original is in the Uffizi Gallery; there is a very hi-resolution downloadable file on Wikimedia Commons (Note that the full-resolution file on Wikimedia Commons is one of the largest I’ve seen on the web, over 200MB, and may choke your browser. You may want to download the file from the link rather than viewing it in a browser window.)
When I had the pleasure of visiting the city of Florence on a trip to Italy a few years ago, there were two paintings at the top of my “must see” list. Both were in the Uffiz Gallery — arguably the finest collection of Italian art anywhere — both were in the same room, and both were by the same artist, Renaissance master Sandro Bottecelli.
One was La Primavera, which I have written about previously, the other was The birth of Venus.
Like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, The birth of Venus is such a cultural icon — so famous and familiar and set in our mental map of the world — that it’s difficult to see it as a painting.
The name was assigned after the fact by artist/historian Giorgio Vasari, and the painting might more properly be called “The arrival of Venus”, as it depicts the Roman goddess of love and beauty (and mother to Cupid) arriving at the shore, propelled by the breath of Zephyrus, the West Wind, and his companion Chloris, a nymph (minor deity). Waiting to cloak her in floral raiment is one of the Horae, or goddesses of seasons and nature. This one may be Flora, Goddess of Spring, and the subject of La Primavera, but all interpretation here is speculative.
This painting and La Primavera are often thought of as companion pieces. They have many similarities — both were likely commissioned by the Medici, both are of mythological subjects, laced with symbolism and meaning, and both are strikingly large and totally captivating when you stand in front of them.
The feeling and approach of The birth of Venus is quite different from La Primavera, which predates it by three or four years.
The dark, mysterious woods and more naturalistic figures of the latter are replaced by figures set in a soft, ethereal light, cast across the flat, calligraphically indicated surface of the sea.
The birth of Venus is roughly 6×9 feet (173×279 cm); and as much as I also was impressed with La Primavera (not to mention the other Botticelli works in the gallery, the rest of the museum’s astonishing collection), I found The birth of Venus entrancing as few paintings I’ve ever seen.
To someone familiar with the humanistic naturalism of the later Renaissance and subsequent centuries of painting, the painting is both wrong and completely right. The lovingly rendered figures are so stylized as to be anatomically impossible; allegory and iconography have swept away realism, and we are transported to the realm of the fantastic.
The beauty of Chloris and Venus is idealized, portrayed as otherworldly perfection. The face of the Hora, however — shown in striking profile — is another kind of perfection, having to my eye the hallmarks of a carefully studied portrait of a real individual.
It has been suggested that this figure (or even that of Venus) could be a likeness of Simonetta Vespucci, a Florentine noblewoman renowned for her beauty, and supposedly the subject of unrequited love on the part of Botticelli. There is little to substantiate this, but it makes for interesting speculation.
In the very high resolution images on Wikimedia Commons and the Google Art project, you can see the sensitive drawing-like characteristics of Botticelli’s painstaking application of egg tempera, particularly evident in the hands and the (sometimes oddly shaped) feet. What isn’t discernible in photographs, even those as high in resolution as this, is the captivating translucency and delicate textural qualities of the painted surface.
The birth of Venus was a landmark work, even in its own time. It was one of the first large scale works painted in Florence, and one of the earliest painted on canvas rather than wood panel. The painting deserves its reputation for beauty, and has earned its place in popular culture.