Plaid Pyjama Life / Art History  / The Birth of Venus by Botticelli
Botticelli's Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

Though not actually depicting the birth of the mythological goddess of love, Sandro Botticelli’s 15th-century masterpiece does envision the arrival of Venus (aka Aphrodite) on the shores of Cyprus. From the left side of the painting we see that Venus is being gracefully blown to shore by the collective breath of Zephyr and Aura. At the center of attention (and the canvas), the goddess stands stoically and elegantly on a giant seashell. She barely moves to cover herself up as a literal whirlwind of activity swirls around her. On the right, Hora the goddess of Spring tries, perhaps unsuccessfully, to adorn Venus with a luxurious red cloak. Her efforts seem to be in vain as the incoming breezes blow the regal garment in the wrong direction.

The painting was commissioned by the Medici family of Florence, and was possibly a tribute to the famously beautiful Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci who had died prematurely at the age of 22. The subject matter seems to be based on the following poem by Homer:

    Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful Aphrodite I shall sing
    to whose domain belong the battlements of all sea-loved Cyprus
    where, blown by the moist breath of Zephyros, she was carried
    over the waves of the resounding sea on soft foam.
    The gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed her and clothed her with heavenly raiment.

The Birth of Venus was incredibly groundbreaking for its time because flattering depictions of nudes had not been common for over a thousand years. The work also depicts what was commonly viewed as “pagan” mythology. In fact, many of Botticelli s most famous works are characterized by ancient Greek and Roman mythology as their subject matter. But this was the Renaissance, a cultural re-birth and a time of renewed self-awareness. Even Botticelli’s contemporaries such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo were putting aside tradition to combine their art with their desire to study and imitate nature.

The true beauty of the Birth of Venus is how tastefully Botticelli approached the subject matter. His rendering of Venus was not meant to incite lust. It was, however, cleverly intended to evoke sexuality, along with modesty and tenderness. The scene is a joyful celebration of a woman’s body, her elegance, and her power.

You might be surprised to learn that most of Botticelli’s paintings were not known or seen by the general public for several centuries. The Birth of Venus likely hung in a Medici palace for some 300 years. In 1815 it was moved to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, but it would spend decades stored in the basement. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the masterpiece would finally be displayed prominently and thereafter gain worldwide adoration. In recent decades, many artists, photographers, moviemakers, and even advertisers have attempted to emulate Botticelli’s iconic Venus in one way or another. Next to the Mona Lisa it is one of the most recognized paintings in the world today.

From left to right, several examples of art imitating art: Beyoncé Knowles Instagram post (2017), detail from The Birth of Venus by Tomoko Nagao (2012), an animated Venus doing a jig in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969), Rebirth of Venus by David LaChappelle (2009), Birth of Venus screen print by Andy Warhol (1984), Ursula Andress emerges on to a beach holding a conch shell in the James Bond film Dr. No (1962), Uma Thurman appears as Venus in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).