Canvassing the Masterpieces: The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

Painted in 1495, this masterpiece revisits a major mythological event: the arrival of the goddess Venus in Cyprus...

By Cécile Martet | 09 Aug 2023

As the hand behind one of the most famous nudes in the history of painting who doesn’t know of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? Painted in 1495, this masterpiece revisits a major mythological event: the arrival of the goddess Venus in Cyprus. Let’s take a closer look at his vision of this miraculous happening that has stayed relevant over the centuries and made its way into contemporary culture.


A few words on Botticelli and his art

Sandro Botticelli (1455-1510) is a native of Florence, Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Apart from this painting, he is also known for his a similar masterpiece entitled Primavera.  What many might now know is that he also contributed to the decoration of the Sistine Chapel.

L'Œuvre à la Loupe : La Naissance de Vénus de Botticelli
La Naissance de Vénus, 1485, par Sandro Botticelli

Made up of two canvasses sewn together, Botticelli used tempera which is a type of paint made from egg or fig milk. Measuring 172.5 centimetres by 278.5 centimetres, this colossal masterpiece is part of the permanant collection at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

In this scene embellished with gold, there is a divine light that is almost blinding. The artist’s equal distribution of figures and colors allows the viewer’s eye to smoothly move from the left to the right side of the painting, in the same motion as the figures’ movement. Here, Botticelli depicts nature’s sacred elements: the force of the ocean, the firmness of land and the lightness of air. Flowers fall from the sky in celebration of the glorious arrival of a goddess.


Four details you don’t want to miss

1. Venus on the shores of Cyprus

Goddess of love, beauty and purity, Venus is elegantly and naturally represented here. Her privacy is barely concealed by her long blond hair which only partially masks her feminine curves. Painted in almost life-size measurements, she stands in front of us as an embodiment of innocence and purity.

Here she is pictured in the classic “contrapposto” which translates literally to “counterpose”. Though an Italian term, this sort of posture was inspired by Greek sculpture. Unlike academic portraits where the feet are fully anchored to the ground and the figure faces out towards the viewer, a contrapposto pose is when almost all of the figure’s weight is on one foot. In Venus’ case, this makes her appear unstable but also reinforces the idea of movement, which was no doubt Botticelli’s goal.

L'Œuvre à la Loupe : La Naissance de Vénus de Botticelli

When studying her expression, we are prompted to ask ourselves, what is she thinking about? Her face makes her look melancholic. Is she happy to be in her present situation or does she even care?

Scholars have often wondered about the type of representation taking place here: is it one of an emancipated woman, acting in autonomy or is she simply the “ideal female” of the era? History points us towards the latter given that the model for this work was Simonetta Vespucci, a young woman considered to be the most beautiful of her time.


2. Portée par le souffle de Zéphyr

As was mentioned above, Botticelli pays tribute to the elements in this work. One way in which he does so is by depicting Zephyr, the god of the West wind, who is with his partner, Aura. She clings to him while he uses his breath to blow Venus ashore where she is much awaited.

L'Œuvre à la Loupe : La Naissance de Vénus de Botticelli

Upon close examination, we can see that there is a small contour around the figures. This faint line makes the bodies stand out a bit. If it weren’t for this, they would look completely flattened to the picture plane.


3. Vive le printemps !

Spring has sprung! To the right of Venus, one of the three Graces is bathed in flowers and readies herself to clothe the goddess in a pink cape dotted with violets. In Botticelli’s day, this heavy floral pattern would have been seen as a sign of fertility, which was very important as Spring time is the season of both conception and birth.

L'Œuvre à la Loupe : La Naissance de Vénus de Botticelli

In Greek mythology, the three Graces (also referred to as the three Charities) are the daughters of Zeus. Each woman is associated with a season. Botticelli chose to represent the daughter of Springtime. Interestingly enough, they did not make the distinction between Autumn and Winter at the time.


4. Coquillages et crustacés…

The sea is an important element in this composition because it was from sea foam that Venus was born. The open shell on which she stands is a symbol of fertility, it serves as a rather suggestive metaphor for her genitalia.

L'Œuvre à la Loupe : La Naissance de Vénus de Botticelli

Botticelli also uses natural elements to suggest fertility. For example, the phallic reeds in the lower left corner of the canvas reach up to her. And as for the painting’s luminosity, there is no sun and yet it’s full of light and colour. The fact that Venus isn’t producing any shadows leads us to believe that she is the source of the light.

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