Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus depicts a truly remarkable event in mythology: the arrival of the goddess Aphrodite, Venus to the Romans, at Cythera (Cyprus), in antiquity and ever afterwards esteemed much the fairest of the goddesses. Her loveliness fit to transfix the soul, the goddess stands demurely on the shell which has born her to shore, naked as the daystar to which her name was lent. Fittingly, this tempera on canvas masterpiece marks also the return to Western art of the female nude—or at least the unashamed female nude—after a thousand years of Christian censure (Hagen and Hagen 93). But in breaking traditional religious conventions with his subject matter, Botticelli still found a way to present his pagan subject matter with a certain amount of compromise: Venus Pudica, the modest Venus, a goddess no less demure and graceful for her lack of shame.
For all that he broke with approximately one thousand years of Christian tradition in art, Sandro Botticelli was himself a devout Christian, one who lived and worked within a cultural matrix that was still deeply Christian in many ways. True, the elite world of Medici-ruled Florence in the late 15th century, the court of Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de Medici, was far and away one of the most libertine and worldly places in Europe (Capretti 54, Kleiner 438). Still, Botticelli’s was an especially bold artistic statement: as Hagen and Hagen explain, in Botticelli’s day the vast majority of commissioned works of art were religious in nature, and naturally Botticelli himself painted many devotional works (93). As these authors explain, “it has been calculated that only 13 percent of art works had secular themes, the majority of them portraits” (93).
And then there was the matter of the goddess’ nudity. The Renaissance had already produced an artist to boldly break the medieval Christian taboo on depicting the male form in the nude: the great sculptor Donatello, with his revolutionary bronze David (Hagen and Hagen 93). By way of context, Donatello’s David was produced in 1430, while Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was not painted until sometime between about 1484-1486—over fifty years later, in other words (93). The reason was simple: the teachings of the Christian church had made the depiction of the female body in the nude a taboo (93). The closest anyone had dared to come to breaking it before Botticelli had been with depictions of Eve being punished for her sins (93). What a far cry indeed from the demure, graceful nudity of the goddess!
Thus, in creating this masterpiece and reintroducing the female nude to Western art, Botticelli was crossing not one, but two rather important lines: he was breaking the ages-old taboo on depicting the female form in the nude, and he was painting a pagan subject (Hagen and Hagen 93). True, the painting was a commission—though it remains unknown which member of the Medici family might have commissioned it—but it was still a very bold statement for an artist to attach his name to (Diemling 52). Venus’ anatomy is very clearly the result of a practiced art, one honed by studies of the subject matter in Classical Greco-Roman sculpture and statuary (Hagen and Hagen 93). As Hagen and Hagen explain, the Classical influence “is visible in the way the weight of the goddess rests on one leg, in the attractive curve of her hip, in her chaste gesture” (93). And, too, there is the fact that Botticelli has plainly painted her in accordance with canonical Classical artistic conventions governing beauty: “the measurement of an equal distance between the breasts, between the navel and the breasts, and between navel and crotch” (93). The recovery of this canon after a thousand years of medieval disuse must count as one of the most signal achievements in Western art, not least because it continues to influence contemporary taste in art (93).
But if Botticelli’s goddess is gloriously unashamed of her nudity, as seen, she is also chaste: she chastely places one hand over her bosom, while the other positions the plume of her luxuriant mane over her sex (Hagen and Hagen 93). She is unashamed, glorious, yet also chaste and demure: she is Venus Pudica, modest Venus (Deimling 52). The wind-god Zephyrus blows her to shore, aided by his love Aura, who also clings to him. The Goddess of the Spring, one of the Horae, glides toward Venus with an outstretched mantle (52).
As such, I find a curious duality about this work: Venus is both glorious Venus, Venus Gloriosa if one will, and Modest Venus, Venus Pudica. Venus does not cover herself out of shame—indeed, her face is tranquil, perhaps a touch demure. Put another way, is she dignified or demure? It will be nearly four centuries until William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s work of the same name, and a Venus Gloriosa who is willing to strike a pose on her shore-side shell with nothing of the demure, and not the slightest hint of chastity or embarrassment. Though it cannot be denied that Botticelli opened the door, one is struck, again, by this central enigma: the duality of the demure and the unabashed in Botticelli’s Venus’ posture and countenance.
Both from the material I have read pertaining to the subject, and from my own appraisal, it would appear that with The Birth of Venus Botticelli has successfully negotiated the tension between the traditional conventions he was flouting, and his pagan and pulchritudinous subject. The seeming duality is, I believe, highly influenced by my own perspective, with my rather more modern sentiments: viewed in context, Botticelli’s Venus can be seen as the result of a successful negotiation between the two aforementioned contrasting poles of convention and innovation. Venus positions her hands as she does as a part of a trade-off: it is the suggestion of the demure needed to justify the portrayal of the goddess in the nude.
As such, it may rather seem as if Venus Pudica offers but a fig-leaf to conventional morality and tradition. The goddess half-covers her bosom, and coyly drapes her hair over her crotch. The Hora reaches out with a robe, an act of devotion that will clothe the goddess; this lends a sense of motion to the painting, and serves to balance the hovering figures of Zephyrus and Aura. Of course, it also emphasizes the centrality of the goddess in her splendid nudity (Deimling 52). Does the painting, then, offer nothing but the barest of fig-leaves to tradition? The reason this question exercises me is that it leaves me wondering how, precisely, the work is to be interpreted.
Another source offers some important insights: as Long explains, and indeed as is generally known to students of the period, Botticelli’s painting is thoroughly in keeping with the character of Renaissance humanism (3). Renaissance humanism, of course, was rather more comfortable with all things pagan. In particular, Renaissance humanists turned to Plato, a ‘pagan’ philosopher, for help with reconciling their appreciation of the pagan Venus with the fact that they remained God-fearing men of some stripe, men who kept the faith in their fashion. The interpretation offered by Plato was that Venus had two aspects: “Aphrodite Urania, or heavenly Venus, who inspired in humans an intellectual love; and Aphrodite Pandemia, or common Venus, who was the source of physical desire” (4). Platonism had already been duly Christianized, of course, so Renaissance humanists were perfectly free to simply interpret the two aspects of Venus as representations of sacred and profane love, with the goddess’ beauty interpreted as “a vehicle for the ascent of the human soul to God” (4).
Still, I cannot help but think that this whole explanation rather smacks of a rationalization: it seems to me that all this talk of sacred and profane love and the goddess’ beauty as a means of lifting the soul toward God is nothing but a transparent rationalization for the fact that the artist and his audience enjoyed the erotic fantasy represented by the goddess’ pulchritudinous form! It is, fundamentally, an indelibly erotic work: the goddess’ exaggerated contrapposto pose accentuates her beauty (Long 10). And of course, there is the fact that the goddess’ gesture in covering half her bosom and her genitalia can be interpreted as attracting the viewer’s attention, rather than diverting it; accentuating her sexuality, rather than covering it up (10). It is, in a word, meant to excite the passions, meant to titillate.
I find this interpretation the more compelling when considering Venus not only in the visual context of the Renaissance, but also the literary context. As Long explains, long before Botticelli touched tempera to canvas and brought the goddess to life, writers were covering that very ground with the written word (10). Even throughout the Middle Ages, Venus was cited in literature as the source of intense passion, and in this vein is cited by Boccaccio in the seventh book of the Decameron (10). As the early Renaissance dawned, the use of Venus to celebrate sexuality in literature blossomed. For example, in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venus stands as the embodiment of the pursuit of passion: “the source of ‘burning and sacred loves, and of the fires of love and of the sweet conjugations’” (10).
And of course, there are the verses that inspired the painting itself. Around 1475, Agnolo Poliziano hymned the praises of Venus as depicted on a relief: “A young woman with a face divine pushed shorewards on a shell by lustful winds; and heaven seemed pleased by her and the foam and sea seem real”, a clear description of the very scene later immortalized by Botticelli (qtd. in Corsini 8). But there was more: “You would swear that the goddess came from the waves holding back her hair with her right hand and covering her breast with the other” (qtd. in Corsini 8). Thus, about a decade before Botticelli, the subject matter and theme of his masterpiece had already been described.
However, there is something further that might cast light on the social justification for the painting. As Long explains, although Venus was long celebrated even in Medieval literature as the goddess of beauty and sexual love, she was also seen as an agent contributing to marriage (12-13). Simply put, she could be associated with marriage ceremonies for the quite simple reason that as the promulgator and instigator of sexual pleasure, she also gave that pleasure direction: marriage, and procreation (13). In this capacity Venus had been recognized since antiquity, and Boccaccio continued that ancient tradition when he wrote: “’This Venus is twofold, since one can be understood as every chaste and licit desire, as is the desire to have a wife in order to have children’” (13).
This, then, might have been one of the most important ways in which the painting could be justified: as a representation, at least on some level, of wedding festivities. The goddess was not only the goddess of pulchritude and erotic love, but also the one who directed it towards nuptials and fecundity (Long 13). Indeed, as Long explains, marriages also provided the main context in which the Italians of Botticelli’s day would be most likely to see artistic depictions of the erotic nude (14). Specifically, betrothals of the day were often marked by the groom giving gifts to the bride, including “decorated coffers, mirrors, and medallions”, and in 1486, perhaps the very year The Birth of Venus was painted, one such medallion was struck depicting the bride in profile on one side, and “the three graces in a naked dance” on the other (14). The Judgment of Paris provided artists with the opportunity to depict three goddesses au naturel, and then of course there was Apollo and Daphne, and yes, Mars and Venus (14).
Botticelli himself contributed to this tradition, with his Venus and Mars (Haughton 230). Here Venus reposes, albeit clothed, with her lover Mars. Venus is awake, but Mars is asleep, apparently sated. The painting was most likely a backboard for a cassone, a large chest often given to women upon the occasion of their weddings (230). Moreover, Venus and Mars was painted not that long before The Birth of Venus. Perhaps Botticelli was especially inspired from the former work, and encouraged to try something considerably more daring.
The duality, then, was there already. As such, it seems to me that the goddess could stand for both eroticism and the more ‘respectable’ desires to get married and beget children. Perhaps the latter was merely the means of legitimizing the painting as a whole, so that the audience could enjoy the work for the former, but inasmuch as the latter context was present and interpretable in the work, it would have also been a part of the real experiential interpretation for the audience. Thus, even if the real justification for the work was that it was pleasant to look at for its erotic character, no one at the time would have missed the other connotations, for Venus Pudica pointed also towards the institution of marriage.
Still, it cannot be denied that Botticelli’s masterpiece broke new ground. As Long explains, although it is possible to contextualize it within the tradition of depictions of nudes on wedding gifts, such as medallions, such a large-scale and public depiction was, so far as is known, completely without precedent in the art of Christendom (14). And to be sure, Botticelli’s subject matter was as pagan as these. However, there is another crucial part of the puzzle, one that further diminishes the explanatory gap, and provides yet more context: the denaturing or dissociation of Venus from the old pagan beliefs and rites, which occurred not in Renaissance Italy, nor even in Medieval Italy, but rather in late Roman times (15).
Yet another of the traditions of antiquity that were revived in Renaissance Italy was that of the epithalamium, the wedding poem (Long 15). This form originated in ancient Greece, and entailed the recitation in public of a poem to the bride and groom. As Long explains, “their form tended to be highly traditional, normally describing the wedding ceremonies as taking place under the oversight of the gods (especially Venus)” (15). And indeed, one of the main reasons that these poems were composed and recited was to encourage bride and groom to consummate the marriage and produce children (15). In late Roman times, epithalamia were written even for Christian couples (15).
These, then, are the main elements needed to contextualize the painting: on the one hand, Botticelli broke new ground, by overriding approximately a millennium of tradition that proscribed the depiction of the erotic female nude. His Venus is glorious, Venus Gloriosa, unashamed of her nudity and unabashedly erotic. And yet, there is a seeming tension, to my mind, with the fact that the goddess covers her sex with her hair and half-covers her bosom. However, this can be resolved quite easily by noting that this somewhat coy gesture really rather enhances the erotic and pulchritudinous aspects of the painting, rather than detracting from them. She is fundamentally Venus Pudica, Modest Venus, and as such is a representation that, while pagan, is nonetheless ‘presentably pagan’. She is undressed, and presentable—and the seeming tension can be further alleviated by contextualizing her with the traditions, whether continuous or revived from antiquity after medieval disuse, of invoking Venus as the representation both of sexual passion and marital love.
The duality, then, is there and it is real, but it would not necessarily have been any problem for Botticelli’s contemporaries, at least those of the humanist persuasion. From doing this exercise, I have come to the realization that as a result of my rather more contemporary and modern perspective, I was—and am—both drawn to The Birth of Venus by its beauty and grace, and somewhat perplexed by it. There is something in it that has required some effort on my part to parse, to truly understand at a more fundamental level. Contextualizing it with the literary background is quite helpful.
Ultimately, perhaps the best explanation of this work is that it represents a very beautiful example of the human capacity for innovation. Some of the elements, at least, were already there: a Venus long made accessible to Christendom, since late Roman times, as a representation of passion and seduction who could be appreciated free of any consideration of her pagan origins; the literary tradition that depicted her in this capacity; the further association of Venus with marriage rites, and the depictions of erotic female nudes, many from mythological themes, in marriage gifts. Botticelli’s genius was the ability to draw upon or reflect all of these elements in some way, all in order to create a masterwork.
Perhaps the truly interesting thing, then, is not simply the question of why Botticelli and other Renaissance humanists were able to disregard the taboo on depictions of the nude female form, but why this had not been done before. What seems clear to me is that it took a great deal of time for the long-standing taboo to be overcome, probably in no small part because it was self-reinforcing, as taboos tend to be. The key difference would appear to be the Renaissance philosophy of humanism, which emerged to some degree during, as well as in the wake of, the great social and political upheavals that marked the downfall of the Medieval order (Haughton 229-230). With Renaissance humanism, of course, came the renewed interest in the Greco-Roman past that made Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, not to mention so many other marvelous Renaissance works, possible (229-230).
The duality of Venus Pudica, then, speaks to the core character of Renaissance humanism: a creative ferment, a heady brew of artistic endeavors to revive the pagan past. Though bold and path-breaking in many ways, Renaissance artists like Botticelli nonetheless still drew upon features of their cultural milieu to contextualize their experimentation and make it more acceptable to contemporary sensibilities. If I am right, The Birth of Venus presents a kind of ‘domesticated paganism’: it is pagan, yet not unduly so; it is erotic, and yet it can be made to serve as a representation that speaks to respectable wedding rites as well.
This, it seems to me, is Botticelli’s great achievement: making a work of such incredible beauty, duality, and complexity. It is not simply a lovely depiction of an erotic female nude, it is also a work of tremendous artistic vision, skill, and depth. Venus is hauntingly beautiful, and her place at the center of the painting is readily enhanced by the composition: Zephyrus and Aura blow her to shore, whilst the Hora rushes to offer her a robe. And yet, Botticelli’s erotically-themed fantasy was also rooted in respectable traditions of marriage. That is no small irony to my mind, but again, when I take a moment to think about it further, it comes into perfect view and clarity: what this painting represents is the liberation of the all-too-human appreciation for beauty and sexuality from the also all-too-human tendency to look askance at anything that seems too freely sexual.
Perhaps my only trouble in interpreting this work has been an overestimation about the degree to which the traditional strictures of art in a deeply Christian society still held sway. True, the Florence of Botticelli’s day, like all the rest of Christendom, had a hearty artistic appetite for portrayals of the Virgin, of Christ, and of the saints. True, Botticelli himself would later fall under the spell of the puritanical firebrand Girolamo Savonarola, a religious fanatic whose ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ must rank as one of the more iconic acts of mass communal flagellation and chastisement in history (Stokstad 678). But with The Birth of Venus, Botticelli created something truly priceless: a painting with a truly transcendent, soul-stirring beauty. Though I have found some particulars of the cultural and historical context in which it was created somewhat difficult in the apprehending, what I find in this painting is something timeless and immortal: the triumph of beauty and of the human spirit. In this masterwork, Botticelli depicted both the arrival of the goddess at Cythera, and the return of the erotic female nude to Western art. To be sure, it is a legacy truly worthy of the goddess herself.
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