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The Birth of Venus: A Look at Botticelli’s Symbolist Frame

The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli | Source: Uffizi Galleries

Many people have verbalised; how the Renaissance was a time of discovery and invention. From running through hundreds of pages of Life of Painters, Sculptors and Architects by Vasari to discovering more about the time through Leonardo’s diaries and notebooks, we have just found our way to start our exploration towards one of the prominent times of the history of art, architecture, sculpture, science and literature. It is due to the presence of provincial artists of all time like Cimabue, Botticelli, and Michelangelo and dozens of such intellectual minds that the period of Renaissance is associated with rebirth. We can’t neglect the presence of minded women like Mona Lisa, who was a pride in themselves and gave the artists an opportunity to show their best through observations. The opportunity to learn from and appreciate the ancient period is more than a privilege. So, whenever I analyze a painting, I find myself engrossed and interested in its history and provenance, as well as the stories behind it. Today, we are here to study one of the most extraordinary works by Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus.

General Information About Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

1. Subject Matter.

The composition derives itself from the legendary Poliziano’s poem of Giuliano’s Giostra, which describes the birth of Venus. Now, talking about the subject matter, the centre of the art consists of a naked and innocent lady, Venus, on the ocean shores. With the blend of heaven and earth through colours, the daughter of God, having one hand on her snowy breast and long yellow hair on a coral shell speaks purity with her eyes. In the corner, you see a soft breath of the Zephyr and Austere appearing through the clouds. And just opposite, you witness a woman with a pink patterned cloth towards Venus.

2. Artist.

Alessandro Botticelli, one of the greatest painters known for the symbolism in every inch of his canvas, painted The Birth of Venus. His use of fantastic arabesques, slow and continuous dance rhythms and gracefulness of line creates a perfect momentum in the function of relief and movement. Known for his preference for the line against chiaroscuro, he is a limitless genius.

3. Date.

The Birth of Venus painting does not have any historical or documentary evidence that can guide us in determining the precise date of the mythical masterpiece by Sandro’s hand. Though according to the museum of Uffizi, where it is currently placed, it dates back to 1485.

4. Provenance.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an absence of historical evidence of the composition, so we do not have a proper guiding provenance of it. However, we know that Vasari mentioned this artwork with Primavera; when it was in the Grand Duke Cosimo’s villa of Castello and which came with the Grand Ducal collection into the Uffizi.

La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli | Source: Uffizi Galleries

In addition, you must know that following Alberti’s suggestion, Botticelli introduced the real faces of Zephyr and Auster, appearing out of the clouds with draperies in beautiful folds. Sandro further simplifies the composition by the addition of one fair damsel, the nymph of spring, wearing a white robe who moves towards Venus to offer a pinkish sown with daisies. He changed the piece Three Hours, mentioned in Homer’s hymn and in Poliziano’s “Stanze”, through which he was inspired to draw this artwork.

5. Location.

Currently, the 172.5 x 278.5 cm painting lies in the A12. BOTTICELLI Venus, to be exact in The Uffizi Museum.

6. Technique And Medium.

The Birth of Venus is a tempera on canvas artwork.

ArtistSandro Botticelli
Year Paintedc. 1485
MediumTempera on canvas
GenreHistorical Religious Painting
Dimensions172 x 278.5 cm
WorthNot on sale
Where is it housed?A12, BOTTICELLI Venus, The Uffizi Museum

The Birth of Venus | Fast Knowledge

The Birth of Venus is a Renaissance age (c. 1485) painting by Sandro Botticelli derived from Poliziano’s poem of Giuliano’s Giostra, explaining the Birth of Venus. Enrich with symbolism, the artwork was a commission of the Medici family and has three main subjects- Venus, Zephyrs and Wind, and The Goddess of the Hoyr and Seasons, Hora.

Now, you have general information about the composition, but there is a lot to know about Sandro’s magical canvas, which he painted with his inner consciousness. A great deal of symbolism and theory behind the painting awaits your attention and needed to be explored further. So let us take this journey forward through the next section.

A Detailed Account of the Painting Birth Of Venus.

About the Artist: Who was Sandro Botticelli?

Born in Florence, Italy, in b 1445, his full name was Alessandro di Madriano di Vanni Filipepi. His father, Mariano di Vanni d’ Amadeo Filipepi, was in his 50s with his mother, Smerelda (probably in her 40s) when Botticelli was born. The name; Botticelli comes from his elder brother Giovanni, a pawnbroker, who was called Botticello, meaning The Little Barrel. We know about his life and character from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, and few other documents.

Sandro Botticelli Self Portrait from the Adoration of the Magi | Source: Uffizi Galleries

When Sandro was 17, he was an apprentice under Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the finest painters of his period. When other students and boys started the apprenticeship at just 12, he was receiving an education. Prior to this workshop, his primary influence was artist Masacchio, another fine artist from the Quattrocento (14th century period) of the Renaissance. In his art, Botticelli had a high influence the life-like figures, three-dimensionality and realistic elements through perspective and chiaroscuro Masacchio. With the combination of the techniques of Masacchi with Lippi, he formed his own style of greater detail of realism in figures and the essence of supreme intimacy. Hence, one can conclude that Lippi was fundamental to the artistic formation of Botticelli’s style. He reportedly gave a repertory of types and compositions with a certain graceful and fanciful costuming with a linear sense of form, which Botticelli combined with his resonant-colour schemes.

He also studied the sculptural style of Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea del Verrochio, where Botticelli produced figures of sculptural roundness and strength. After immense and deep learning, in 1470, he became an independent master with his own workshop. Engrossed in his art, he never married and always lived with his family.

He painted numerous altarpieces in frescoes and panels, round paintings referred to as tondi, small panel paintings and small devotional triptychs. Three of his finest religious frescoes, which completed in 1482, were part of the decoration of the Sistine Chapel.

History and Background of the Artwork.

As I mentioned, we do not inherit any historical information about the painting. However, there are a few things you must know. The Primavera, Birth of Venus, Pallas and the Centaur, and Venus and Mars were the four artworks on classical pagan themes, composed between 1477 and 1485. Hence there is a connection between the events of both the artworks, Primavera and Birth of Venus, so we can look back in the timeline through anyone to at least get a rough idea.

La Primavera painting by Sandro Botticelli | Source: Uffizi Galleries
Birth of Venus | Source: Uffizi Galleries
Pallas and the Centaur by Botticelli | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons
Venus and Mars (Botticelli) | Source: National Gallery. London

The origins of Primavera are also questionable, but one theory backs up its origination. It says that it was originally painted for Giuliano de Medici, Lorenzo’s younger brother, at around 1477 (supposed). But soon after his murder, the artworks were dedicated to the younger cousin as a marriage gift, Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, in 1482. Both paintings hung in the Villa di Castello with Pallas and the Centaur, and Madonna and child. So we do know that Primavera was made later after the Birth of Venus, and the Medici family had to do something with it. Now many resources, even though not sure, indicate that the Birth of Venus was a commission of the Medici family, but Vasari never mentioned it in his book. Nor do we have any legal document to cover the fact.

Now that you have a brief understanding of the historical context, let me take you to the meaning of the painting.

Understanding the Meaning of Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

The composition indicates a mythological story where Venus had been born to the sky god Ouranos, who had fathered the Titians after throwing his rebellious children, the Cyclopes, to Tartarus after throwing them into the sky. So in revenge, Gaia persuaded the Titians to attack their father. And so Saturn, who was the youngest of the seven children, castrated Ouranoas with a sickle and threw genitals into a sea. It caused the birth of Venus through the foam. Now, the Poliziano in La Giostra poetically narrated this scene,

“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, beneath the various turnings of the planets, and within both with lovely and happy gestures, a young woman with a nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs, and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth. You would call the foam real, the sea real, real the conch shell and real the blowing wind, you would see the enlightening in the goddess’ 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.”

After understanding what the composition portrays: let’s explore the subject matter and other elements in more detail.

Subject Matter Analysis of the Historical Frame.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is an uncomplicated composition than the Primavera. It consists of three major subjects- Venus, Zephyrs and Wind, and The Goddess of the Hoyr and Seasons, Hora. If you look in proximity, there is a passionate breath of the wind blowing from the Zephyrs, which appears to seem like a cloud on Venus. The centre of the composition consists of Venus standing on a shore where Hora moves forward in her direction to enfold her and bring her into the reality of the generation.

Let me make them clear in the proximity below.

1. Venus.

The Goddess stands naked yet modest with one hand on her snowy breast and the other on her long golden hair. The colour chosen forms an integral part of her innocence and purity. If you look closely, one of the feet lies on the coral shell, whereas the other touches mother earth. It further blends to give a meaning of her birth as a virgin and connection towards mother earth. Her face is snowy white with pink blush towards her cheeks. Moving forward, Sandro was the first artist who showed Venus naked. Before the Birth of Venus painting, he never tried giving such a delicate and fairer form to the Goddess of love. The ivory limbs may have been modelled by taking inspiration from one of the marble statues of the Medici’s garden. Few critics suggest that he may have taken the model of Venus from the little and known statue, Medici Venus.

Detail: Venus | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Coming back to the composition, the face of Venus is wane and pale with wistful eyes, unlike any Roman image of God. One can look into her sorrowful face, which speaks a lot about the modern world. It seems a strange note for unsatisfied yearning, which Botticelli has made in the Laurentian age, connecting with the people of the present day. If you look closely, light is absent on her face. It may be because of the absence of sun, which Botticelli represented through a cold grey morning light stealing over the distant bays and headlands of landscapes and long silent sea. The expression of Venus further expresses a melancholy along with a sacred notion, telling us about the secular works Botticelli made in his career.

2. Zephyrs and Wind.

Zephyrs have an appearance with wings and are clad in garments of pale mauve and green with the wrapping of their bodies as if they hover in the sky. Sandro Botticelli introduced the real faces of Zephyr and Auster, which appears as if they form through clouds and Zephyr blows air towards Venus. Auster holds the body of Zephyr with no strain and stress. Her hands meet at the end of his waist. Similarly, there is a delicate holding of Auster with one arm of Zephyr through her waist. The holding indicates the delicacy which Botticelli showed through his artworks. Now, if you look closely at the Zephyr, you will see that Botticelli painted his cheeks in form of round balloons as if they really have air inside and as he blows it, the facial muscles reflexes. You can see the strain on the forehead and tensing eyebrows, which the painter accentuated as he blew air. Further, the draperies form beautiful folds in the breeze as if the painting really has a mild air through which the Zephyrs flow.

Detail: Zephyrs and the Wind | Source: Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Also, you will see that there is a presence of single pink flowers which are moving towards Venus to celebrate her birth.

3. The Goddess of the Hoyr and Seasons, Hora.

Hora wears a white robe with embroidery of blue cornflowers and girdled with convolvulus and roses. The green leaves adore her neck and waistline with the dress, and her feet rise as if she springs towards the Venus to offer a pink mantle sown with daisies. Having sober and peaceful expressions, she has long braided golden hair, which signals purity. The pink cloth and her hair flow in the mild air, forming an extended beauty to the landscape behind.

Detail: The Goddess of the Hoyr and Seasons, Hora | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Now, as we peered at the key figures and perused them closely, let me take you to the next section, which is the most crucial one.

Symbolism Behind Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Till now, whatever we learned was like the ripples of the lakes. We have yet to explore the depth and see the beauty from the inside. I mentioned at the start of this article that Botticelli was the artist who kept his inner consciousness alive while painting. Each inch of his canvas has a meaning behind it. There is an extended use of symbolism in the birth of Venus painting. So let us learn all about it.

As Sandro captured the moment of the birth of Aphrodite or Venus, he showed her as naked yet modest, which made this picture one of the iconic images of the Renaissance. Now, if we consider its meaning according to the theory of Neoplatonists, Ficino interpreted the myth allegorically as a cosmogenic mystery. According to him, the sea acts as a soul, fertilized by a spirit which gives birth to beauty. Hence, Ouranos sows the seed in the sea, which gave birth to Venus from the coral. Now, try to envisage the sea, parturition and beauty, and you can understand the journey of enlightenment. Ficino says,

“The story told by Hesiod in the theogony of how Saturn castrated Heaven and threw the testicles into the sea, out of the agitated foam of which Venus was born, we should perhaps understand as referring to the potential fecundity of all things which lies latent in the first principle, This the divine spirit drinks and first unfolds within himself; after which he pours it forth into the soul and matter, which is called the sea, because of the motion, time and humour of generation. As soon as the soul is thus fertilised, it creates Beauty within itself by an upward movement of conversion towards supra-intelligible things; and by downward movement, I give birth to the charm of sensible things in the matter. This conversion into beauty and its birth from the soul is called Venus. And as in all aspects and all generation of beauty, there is pleasure, and all generation is from the soul, which is called Venus, many thought that Venus herself was a pleasure.”

There is one more thought here that the throwing of genitals is a kind of rupture which may be violent, but it creates a duality between two worlds. One of them is for the saintly unchanging essence, and the other world helps to infuse this essence into the matter of natural and human realms. In accordance with Plato, these different qualities merge to form the quintessence of the world’s soul. And the Gods and Goddesses are vehicles to lead the earthy souls back to the source through their veneration.

Another meaning behind it is the relevance of cosmic intelligence. Concerning Ficino, the planets are physical symbols of powers and cosmic intelligence. When it comes to cosmic intelligence, it simply represents the visible entities that allow us to read the signs of the divine mind through their eternal cycles. And these cycles are traced in the human soul through an astrological horoscope. Now Ficino described it in a better way. For instance, To obtain the favours of Venus, one will create an image of the goddess when the planet Venus was aspected by Jupiter, Sun and Moon. One would also play music in the mode of Venus and on an astrological day, Friday, at the hour of Venus. Further, it would be crucial to wear the colours of Venus and eat the Venusian food and use flowers or crystals dedicated to her. In this way, there will be an opening of a channel where you can pray and attract her power to draw your soul upwards to receive the benefits. This same process is called enlightenment of the soul. And to work upon it, the painting is an element to create a connection.

I believe you must have understood the depth of the painting. And I hope that you witness the multi-layered symbolic association. Quite intelligibly, Botticelli included the literal, historical, cultural and mythological layers of universal human themes to create inner harmony through this painting. Now, let me take you to the formal analysis of the artwork in the next section.

Learning Birth of Venus Analysis.

1. Line.

As a matter of fact, Botticelli is known for the use of different kinds of lines to add weight to his compositions. Starting with Venus, the rhythmic lines bind her structure of the body. The palms, fingers, and feet of Venus make it possible to observe the lines in proximity. Furthermore, the lustrous layers of her golden hair are also in form of continuous lines. And when seen closer to her face, you will find that her nostrils, eyelids and gap between lips are represented through a darkened line to create depth in the flat figure. There is no presence of contour lines on the figures. Instead, there is the use of vertical lines, which the tree trunks and standing figures represent, suggesting tranquillity or stability in the composition.

Detailed look at the Face of Venus | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons
A close look at Venus’s feet showing the dark continuous boundary | Source: Uffizi Galleries

In the background of the birth of Venus, there is the presence of dark contour lines, which gives the landscape more vitality. The horizon line in the far distance also has a darker outline, and the similar colours of the sky and the sea create an impression of flatness. Also, there is little sense of depth where the water and land join. You can even witness the straight-continuous lines as in the bark of trees. Hence, these lines are studied lines, which Botticelli introduced here.

Dark contour lines where the land meets the sea | Source: Uffizi Galleries

2. Shape.

The composition displays organic or free-form shapes to make human figures, nature and other elements. If you look closely at Birth of Venus painting, there are rarely any shadows behind any bodies, hence it draws a conclusion that these figures are flat figures or 2-dimensional.

3. Light and Value.

Let us see the effect of light in the picture. The overall picture does have a darker theme. For instance, the clouds and greyish-blue sky, the contour on the edges of the land, and tree leaves, all are less in contrast and throw the landscape into darkness. But the presence of snowy white Venus puts a light on the creation.

Representation of Greyish blue sky merging into lighter shade | Source: Uffizi Galleries

Similarly, Zephyr has shadows throughout his face, and a few portions of his body and Auster’s side body connected to Zephyr are also in darkness. However, the portion of the sea with pale water and white dribbles shows the lighter side. All the figures and objects share the space in a continuous way without budging or overpowering each another.

4. Colour.

There is a use of cool colours like blue and green over the landscape with a contrast of yellow colour through the hairs of Auster, Venus and Hora. The leftmost part of the sky looks darker as the greyish blue blends with a lighter shade, making it dark. Further, there are a variety of colours like pink, red and brown to complete the composition.

Opinions and Conclusions.

Botticelli was an artist whose work was able to convey lessons through indirect means. There is so much that we learned from The Birth of Venus, not just from the colours and hues, but even from the lines. The truth is that it portrays more than the objects it represents. From the relevance of cosmic intelligence to the planetary motion and even spiritual beliefs, the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is a masterpiece. There is no skipping back to the thought that why this piece is one of the most considerable and intellectual paintings of the Renaissance. I think somewhere with this article, I was able to put up my thoughts, but there is a lot to learn and understand about the artwork.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted The Birth of Venus?

Alessandro di Madriano di Vanni Filipepi, commonly known as Sandro Botticelli, painted The Birth of Venus before commissioning La Primavera, a supposed commission by the Medici family. The artist’s depiction of the birth of Holy Venus to the Sky God Ouranos became immensely popular for its use of symbolism and lines to depict perspective.

When was The Birth of Venus painted?

Though there are no historical records of when The Birth of Venus was commissioned, it is believed to be made between 1477 to 1485.

Where is The Birth of Venus?

TheBirth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is exhibited at A12. BOTTICELLI Venus, Uffizi Museum, Florence.

What style of art is The Birth of Venus?

Renaissance, Quattrocento period art.

What does The Birth of Venus represent?

The Birth of Venus represents the mythological story of Venus being born to the sky god Ouranos, who had fathered the Titians after throwing his rebellious children, the Cyclopes, to Tartarus after throwing them into the sky.

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