The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
Episode #1 of the course “Most famous paintings of all time”
Year: c. 1486
Type: tempera on canvas
Dimensions: 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in)
Location: Uffizi, Florence
One of the first paintings on canvas is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, estimated to have been painted in the 1480s. Scholars must guess at its exact date, but it is thought that Botticelli was inspired by the poet Agnolo Poliziano. Like many Renaissance paintings, The Birth of Venus does not deal with a Christian theme but instead depicts a scene from classic literature. As the goddess of love, Venus is depicted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses rising as an adult from the sea to inspire love, and Botticelli captures that moment.
In the center of the massive canvas, the goddess Venus stands naked on an open seashell, which is transporting her to shore. A symbol of chastity and spring, she shyly covers herself, and a female attendant waits on shore with a cloth to cover the goddess modestly. On her right side, the winds blow her toward the beach, making her golden locks flow via Botticelli’s graceful technique rich with details. In the meadow that awaits Venus’ arrival, the flowers of love, violets, bloom in splendor to welcome the goddess.
The Birth of Venus is thought to be based on the Neoplatonic interpretations of Platonic ideas about earthly love and divine love. The original audience would have looked at the painting and been inspired by the goddess’ earthly beauty to seek a deeper and more spiritually-meaningful divine love. In this way, Neoplatonic interpretations connect Christian ideology with a secular goddess’ birth myth. The painting was most likely commissioned by the famous ruling Medici family of Florence and has traditionally been interpreted to show some gratitude toward their patronage. Some see that Botticelli may have been thanking them, calling the Medici the inspiration for divine love throughout the city of Florence by increasing its beauty with artwork.
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