Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Medium: Tempera on canvas
Dimensions: 172 cm x 278 cm
In Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” the ancient goddess of love is depicted as the ideal Renaissance woman, floating to shore on a conch shell. The painting follows along with the myth of her birth, which says that, “when Cronus was castrated by Uranus, his part was thrown into the sea. Aphrodite [also known in Roman mythology as Venus] was thus born and arose on a large shell, which was then carried to land, thus her name being translated ‘foam-risen.’” An attendant (a sea nymph) stands ready to welcome Venus with a cloth to cover her body when she reaches shore.
The linear perspective of the painting draws the viewer’s eyes to the focal point, obviously Venus. In her facial expression, Venus conveys peacefulness and her countenance—unlike most portrayals of her, which are erotic—is meant to be tender and divine. The nudity with which she is displayed is not humiliating or sinful, but more so innocent; she is making a concealing gesture with her long hair. Venus’ body itself is very elongated and disproportional, almost as a precursor to Mannerism which became popular a few decades later. Her stance is not quite contrapposto; it is relaxed and almost half-hearted. The actual physics of her positioning on the edge of the conch shell are unrealistic. Only in the realm of art could Venus’ weight actually be well-supported in such a way. That is the essence of this painting: weight is not an object, it is the fantastical image of Venus; her movement; and the light, airy feel that the viewer perceives which make the painting what it is.
Typical Renaissance paintings have naturalism and physical weight in a realistic space. Botticelli isolates the three groupings (zephyrs, Venus, and nymph) and puts them on a single, linear plane that defies space. It is speculated that this specific Renaissance painting was painted specifically with the Medici villa in mind.
Botticelli’s perspective in this painting is one that focuses on movement. The wind being blown by the zephyrs on the left, personified as Zephyrus and Aura, are blowing Venus ashore. This also gives movement to the flowers being tossed by the wind and creates waves across the water, which Botticelli emulates by pulling downward with his brush. The cloths in the painting—the blue wrapping around the zephyrs and the red that the sea nymph is holding— have folds that are blended in color from dark to light. The wispiness of Venus’ long, golden hair is also an example of Botticelli’s use of movement.
Among art historians, the most common interpretation of this painting is the Neo-Platonist view. The credo of Plato and his followers was the pursuit of higher beauty and truth. Through looking at this portrayal of Venus, her physical beauty should inspire an intellectual or spiritual response of divine beauty that lifts the viewer’s mind upward in the “great chain of being.”