The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is an intriguing piece of work currently displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Little is known about the origins of this painting though it is widely believed to have been commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici, possibly alluded by the laurel leaves in the right.
Titan Cronus severed his father Uranus’s genitals and flung it into the sea. From the foam resulting from blood and semen arose Venus. The scene in the painting, however, depicts a different scene where Venus reaches a shore, thought to be Florence, in her scallop shell. She is blown to the shore by the winds from Zephyr. The woman close to Zephyr is either Aura, the goddess of light breeze or Chloris, who later became the goddess Flora. One of the three Horaes, a goddess of season (probably spring due to the floral work on her clothes and the strewn flowers in the wind) is about to clothe Venus.
The painting is stylistically strange. The figures seem to be floating in the frame. The perfect 3 dimensionality of the Gods is a stark contrast to the 2 dimensional background. The texture of lighting on the figures is more natural, compared to the more obvious strokes seen in the laurel leaves and the water body. The source of light is placed towards the right hand side of the painting, which might indicate that Venus is stepping into a land of light. It might also suggest that the arrival of beauty marks a new dawn.
The painting is a visual seduction, a celebration of sensuality. The passionate embrace of the wind gods, the cool touch of the winds on her body, a pensive looking Venus and her modesty that covers enough to artfully expose sufficiently as well as the contours of the season’s frame revealed by her clinging clothes against the west winds tend to be prurient. The scene captures a fragment of time just before Venus is clothed by the goddess of spring, just before the wind blows the tunic to cover Aura/Chloris’s bosom, just before Spring’s tunic disheveled, hiding her frame under the loose, fluttering vagueness of her tunic. However, this doesn’t make the viewer a voyeur, for the sensuality is obvious and oblivious, founded in innocence. The innocence is amplified by the allusion to baptism evident in the water symbolism.
After it’s renaissance in the 19th century, the painting is often likened to be one of the faces of renaissance art. Until then, nudity in art was largely a depiction of shame. But this painting was a predecessor to the line of artworks that celebrated the aesthetics of nudity. Venus stands stark naked, bravely in the middle of this masterpiece as an honest assertion of beauty. On one side, flowers are showered upon her and on the other, her nudity is covered by the fabric, a nod to censorship in civilizations where “people ruin beautiful things”.
After mid nineteenth century, Birth of Venus was catapulted to a iconic status. Henceforth, it became subject to countless popular reimaginings, a few of which are showcased below.