The Birth of Venus is a tempera on linen canvas painting by Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli. Realized in the mid-1480s for the Villa Medici at Castello, the artwork is currently preserved in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. It is one of the most symbolic works of the Italian Renaissance and the culture of Humanism.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Known as the Birth of Venus, the composition more accurately depicts the arrival of the Goddess of love and beauty on the island of Cyprus or Cythara. The episode of the myth is most likely based on a poetic composition from the Stanze by Agnolo Poliziano, a man of letters and humanist close to the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici. It is inspired by the myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
In the painting, Venus, according to myth born from the sea foam, stands on a scallop shell, like a precious pearl. She is pushed towards the island of Cyprus by the wind god Zephyr and a female figure, possibly Aura or the nymph Chloris. A young woman, identified by scholars as one of the Graces or Hora of Spring, welcomes her to the shore, offering her a robe to cover herself. Myrtles, primroses, and roses decorate the mantle.
Sandro Botticelli uses classical models as a reference for the composition. Venus is painted in the style of Hellenistic sculptures. She stands naked on a shell valve, a symbol of fertility, and covers her breast with one hand and her pubis with the other, in the attitude of the ‘pudic Venus’. The pair of Zephirus and companion flying in embrace is also a quote from an ancient work, a Hellenistic-era gem owned by Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Behind Venus, Botticelli outlines a coastal landscape with inlets and a forest of specific fruits called melaranches. The fruit, also known as mala medica for its curative properties is probably a symbolic reference to the Medici lineage of Florence, commissioners of the painting. The painting was probably realized at the same time as the Primavera (Spring), between 1482 and 1485. Both artworks were likely commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici.
The Birth of Venus originated within the neo-Platonic culture, the widespread philosophical culture in Florence at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici. According to the most accredited interpretation, the painting is an allegory of the concept of love as a force that drives nature. The nudity of Venus does not represent the pagan exaltation of sensuality, but on the contrary spiritual beauty, purity, and nobility of soul.
Furthermore, the meanings of classical culture unite with those of the Christian religion, recalling the sacrament of Baptism. The pagan myth of the birth of Venus from the water of the sea is juxtaposed with the rebirth of the soul through the water of Baptism.
The work has been associated by scholars with Sandro Botticelli’s coeval Primavera, also painted in the late 1470s or early 1480s and preserved in the Uffizi Gallery. Since its dimensions are comparable, scholars speculate that it could be a diptych conceived for the same patron. However, the two different techniques – Venus painted on canvas, and Primavera on a wooden panel – do not make the hypothesis entirely convincing.