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Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

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Sandro Botticelli | The Birth of Venus


The Birth of Venus or Nascita di Venere is a painting by Sandro Botticelli. It depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a full grown woman, arriving at the sea-shore (which is related to the Venus Anadyomene motif). The painting is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.


In the past many scholars thought that this large picture may have been, like the Primavera, painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici's Villa di Castello, around 1482, or even before. This was because Vasari, in his 1550 edition of the Lives of the Artists wrote: "... today, still at Castello, in the villa of the Duke Cosimo, there are two paintings, one the birth of Venus and those breezes and winds that bring her to land with the loves, and likewise another Venus, whom the Graces adorn with flowers, denoting the Springtime."[1] But the Birth of Venus, unlike the Primavera, is not found in Medici inventories of the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries,[2] which has led some recent scholars to rethink the patronage, and hence the meaning, of the painting. In the last 30 years most art historians have dated the painting, based on its stylistic qualities, to c. 1485–87.


The iconography of Birth of Venus is very similar to a description of the event (or rather, a description of a sculpture of the event) in a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the Stanze per la giostra.[3] No single text provides the precise content of the painting, however, which has led scholars to propose many sources and interpretations.[4] Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting.

For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator.[5] A Neoplatonic reading of Botticelli's Birth of Venus suggests that 15th-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.

More recently, questions have arisen about Neoplatonism as the dominant intellectual system of late 15th-century Florence,[6] and scholars have indicated that there might be other ways to interpret Botticelli's mythological paintings. In particular, both Primavera and Birth of Venus have been seen as wedding paintings that suggest appropriate behaviors for brides and grooms.[7]

Yet another interpretation of the Birth of Venus (whose title derives from Vasari but whose action perhaps better represents the Arrival of Venus) is provided here by its author, Charles R. Mack. This interpretation has not been adopted by Renaissance art historians in general,[8] and it remains problematic, since it depends on the painting being commissioned by the Medici, yet the work is not documented in Medici hands before 1550. Mack sees the painting as an allegory extolling the virtues of Lorenzo de' Medici.[9] According to this reading of the painting, the scene was inspired by the text in an Homeric hymn published in Florence in 1488 by the Greek refugee Demetrios Chalcondyles:

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. [10]

But more than a rediscovered Homeric hymn was likely in the mind of the Medici family member who commissioned this painting from Botticelli. The painter and the humanist scholars who probably advised him would have recalled that Pliny the Elder had mentioned a lost masterpiece of the celebrated artist, Apelles, representing Venus Anadyomene (Venus Rising from the Sea). According to Pliny, Alexander the Great offered his mistress, Pankaspe, as the model for the nude Venus and later, realizing that Apelles had fallen in love with the girl, gave her to the artist in a gesture of extreme magnanimity. Pliny went on to note that Apelles' painting of Pankaspe as Venus was later "dedicated by Augustus in the shrine of his father Caesar." Pliny also stated that "the lower part of the painting was damaged, and it was impossible to find anyone who could restore it. . . . This picture decayed from age and rottenness, and Nero. . .substituted for it another painting by the hand of Dorotheus".

Thus, in a sense, what the mighty Romans could not restore, their worthy successors, the Florentines, through the hand of Botticelli, could recreate. Pliny also noted a second painting by Apelles of Venus "superior even to his earlier one," that had been begun by artist but left unfinished. Once again, Botticelli, in his version of the Birth of Venus, might be seen as completing the task begun by his ancient predecessor, even surpassing him. Giving added support to this interpretation of Botticelli as a born-again Apelles is the fact that that very claim was voiced in 1488 by Ugolino Verino in a poem entitled "On Giving Praise to the History of Florence."[11]

Such a deliberately re-creative act as Botticelli may have performed with his Birth of Venus would go a long way towards explaining the curious flatness and linearity of the painting, which seem so very out of keeping with the direction of Renaissance art and with Botticelli's own approach to painting. Was the two-dimensionality of this painting a deliberate attempt to replicate the style of ancient painting as found on Greek vases or on the walls of Etruscan tombs?[12].

While Botticelli might well have been celebrated as a revivified Apelles, his Birth of Venus also testified to the special nature of Florence's chief citizen, Lorenzo de'Medici. Although it now seems that the painting was executed for another member of the Medici family, it likely was intended to celebrate and flatter its head, Lorenzo de' Medici. Tradition associates the image of Venus in Botticelli's painting with the lovely Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, with whom it is suspected both Lorenzo and his younger brother, Giuliano, were much enamored. Simonetta was, not coincidentally, born in the Tuscan seaside town of Portovenere (the port of Venus). Thus, in Botticelli's interpretation, Pankaspe (the ancient living prototype of Simonetta), the mistress of Alexander the Great (the Laurentian predecessor), becomes the lovely model for the lost Venus executed by the legendary Apelles (reborn through the recreative talents of Botticelli), which ended up in Rome, installed by Emperor Augustus in the temple dedicated to Florence's supposed founder Julius Caesar. In the case of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, the suggested references to Lorenzo, supported by other internal indicators such as the stand of laurel bushes at the right, would have been just the sort of thing erudite Florentine humanists would have appreciated. Accordingly, by overt implication, Lorenzo becomes the new Alexander the Great with an implied link to both Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and even to Florence's legendary founder, Caesar himself. Lorenzo, furthermore, is not only magnificent but, as was Alexander in Pliny's story, also magnanimous, as well. Ultimately, these readings of the Birth of Venus flatter not only the Medici and Botticelli but all of Florence, home to the worthy successors to some of the greatest figures of antiquity, both in governance and in the arts.[13]

These essentially pagan readings of Botticelli's Birth of Venus should not exclude a more purely Christian one, which may be derived from the Neoplatonic reading of the painting indicated above. Viewed from a religious standpoint, the nudity of Venus suggests that of Eve before the Fall as well as the pure love of Paradise. Once landed, the goddess of love will don the earthly garb of mortal sin, an act that will lead to the New Eve - the Madonna whose purity is represented by the nude Venus. Once draped in earthly garments she becomes a personification of the Christian Church which offers a spiritual transport back to the pure love of eternal salvation. In this case the scallop shell upon which this image of Venus/Eve/Madonna/Church stands may be seen in its traditionally symbolic pilgrimage context. Furthermore, the broad expanse of sea serves as a reminder of the Virgin Marys' title stella maris, allluding both to the Madonna's name (Maria/maris) and to the heavenly body (Venus/stella). The sea brings forth Venus just as the Virgin gives birth to the ultimate symbol of love, Christ[14].

Rather than choosing one of the many interpretations offered for Botticelli's depiction of the Birth (Arrival?) of Venus it might be better to view it from a variety of perspectives. This layered approach -- mythological, political, religious--was intended.[15].


Botticelli's art was never fully committed to naturalism; in comparison to his contemporary Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli seldom gave weight and volume to his figures and rarely used a deep perspectival space. In the Birth of Venus, Venus' body is anatomically improbable, with elongated neck and torso. Her pose is impossible: although she stands in a classical contrapposto stance, her weight is shifted too far over the left leg for the pose to be held. Moreover, were she actually to stand on the edge of the shell (which cannot be identified as real), it would certainly tip over. The bodies and poses of the winds to the left are even harder to figure out. The background is summary, and the figures cast no shadows. It is clear that this is a fantasy image.

Venus is an Italian Renaissance ideal: blonde, pale-skinned, voluptuous. Botticelli has picked out highlights in her hair with gold leaf and has emphasized the femininity of her body (long neck, curviness). The brilliant light and soothing colors, the luxurious garden, the gorgeous draperies of the nymph, and the roses floating around the beautiful nude all suggest that the painting is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, (detail), c. 1486, Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Classical inspiration

The central figure of Venus in the painting is very similar to Praxiteles' sculpture of Aphrodite. The version of her birth, is where she arises from the sea foam, already a full woman.

In classical antiquity, the sea shell was a metaphor for a woman's vulva.[16]

The pose of Botticelli's Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de' Medici, a marble sculpture from classical antiquity in the Medici collection which Botticelli had opportunity to study.

The Birth of Venus demonstrates the fascination of Renaissance artists with Greek mythological subjects. Not only is the central figure of the scene Venus, but she is shown in the "Venus pudica" pose of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

The Aphrodite of Cnidus (Knidos) by Praxiteles (c.350 BC) is the first monumental female nude in classical sculpture.
It is the Capitoline Venus, however, where both the breasts and pubis are self-consciously covered, that is the archetype of so many representations of the female nude that follow, including Masaccio's The Expulsion and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. This is the pose of the Venus Pudica or modest Venus, in which the arms envelope a body that is both sensuous and distant.

Capitoline Venus

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, (detail), c. 1486, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

[1] At the height of his fame, the Florentine painter and draughtsman Sandro Botticelli was one of the most esteemed artists in Italy. His graceful pictures of the Madonna and Child, his altarpieces and his life-size mythological paintings, such as 'Venus and Mars', were immensely popular in his lifetime.

The son of a tanner, he was born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, but he was given the nickname 'Botticelli' (derived from the word 'botticello' meaning 'small wine cask'). Smart beyond his years, the young Botticelli became easily bored at school. He was known for his sharp wit and his love of practical jokes, and he quickly earned a reputation as a restless, hyperactive and impatient child. Fortunately, his precocious talent was recognised and he was withdrawn from school and sent to work as an apprentice.

It is thought that Botticelli first trained with Maso Finiguerra, a goldsmith, before entering the studio of the artist Fra Filippo Lippi. He began his career painting frescoes for Florentine churches and cathedrals, and worked with the painter and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo. By 1470, he had his own workshop.

To Rome and Back

In 1472, Botticelli joined the Compagnia di San Luca, the confraternity of Florentine painters. He also employed Filippino Lippi, his late teacher's son, as his apprentice, and broke convention by completing Filippino's version of 'The Adoration of the Kings' - it was far more usual for an apprentice to finish a painting by his master rather than the other way round.

Botticelli's apprenticeship with Fra Filippo gave him excellent contacts. His master had enjoyed the patronage of some of the leading families in Florence, such as the Medici. Botticelli in turn spent almost all his life working for the Medici family and their circle of friends, for whom he painted some of his most ambitious secular paintings such as 'Primavera' (in the Uffizi, Florence).

Botticelli's star was in the ascendant. Such was his reputation that, in 1481, he was summoned by the Pope to Rome to help decorate the walls of the recently completed Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He painted frescoes depicting scenes from the Life of Moses and the Temptations of Christ and was also responsible for a number of papal portraits. The nature of this task demonstrates how highly regarded he was around this time, and it was the only occasion he is known to have worked outside Florence.


A year later, Botticelli returned to Florence, to continue with the most prolific stage of his career.

The period from 1478-90 saw Botticelli at his most creative. This was the period during which he produced his famous mythological works, such as 'The Birth of Venus' (in the Uffizi, Florence) and 'Venus and Mars'. In these he successfully combined a decorative use of line (possibly owing much to his early training as a goldsmith) with elements of the classical tradition, seen in the harmony of his composition and the supple contours of his figures.
Religion and Politics

During the last 15 years of his life, Botticelli's work appeared to undergo a crisis of style and expression.

The 1490s was a turbulent decade - the Medici had been expelled from Florence and Italy's peace disrupted by invasion and plagues. Botticelli rejected the ornamental charm of his earlier works in favour of a more simplistic approach that seemed crude and heavy-handed by contrast. These later paintings, with their deep moral and religious overtones, also suffered a comparison with the sophisticated aesthetic of artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.

According to Vasari in his book 'The Lives of the Artists', in his latter years Botticelli became a follower of the fanatical Dominican friar Savonarola, and the pious sentiment of his later works would seem to suggest some involvement in the religious and political upheavals in Florence at the time. 'Mystic Nativity' is Botticelli's most ambitious painting from this period and reflects this sense of apocalyptic foreboding.
Final Years
Vasari also suggests that, as his work fell out of favour, Botticelli became melancholic and depressed. He had never married, preferring the company of family and friends. Having always been known for his high spirits and quick wit, the image of Botticelli's final years as a rapid decline into poverty, isolation and mental anguish is a poignant one.

After his death, his name all but disappeared until the late 19th century, when a developing appreciation for Florentine arts and culture brought about a renewed interest in his work.

High Definition Photo of the painting |

This page uses material from the Wikipedia articles Sandro Botticelli and The Birth of Venus, published under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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Galleria degli Uffizi

Postal & visiting address: Piazzale degli Uffizi, I-50122 Florence (Firenze)


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Floor Plan of the Galleria Degli Uffizi, second floor | Room 10/14 - Botticelli


S E C O N D    F L O O R

Room 1 - Archaeological room
Room 2 - Giotto and 13th Century
Room 3 - Senese Painting 14th Century
Room 4 - Florentine Painting 14th Century
Room 5/6 - International Gothic
Room 7 - Early Renaissance
Room 8 - Filippo Lippi
Room 9 - Antonio del Pollaiolo
Room 10/14 - Botticelli
Room 15 - Leonardo
Room 16 - Geographic Maps room
Room 17 - Ermafrodito
Room 18 - The Tribune
Room 19 - Perugino and Signorelli
Room 20 - Dürer and German Artists
Room 21 - Giambellino and Giorgione
Room 22 - Flemish and German Painting
Room 23 - CorreggioRoom 24 - Miniatures room
Room 25 - Michelangelo and Florentine Artists
Room 26 - Raffaello and Andrea del Sarto
Room 27 - Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino
Room 28 - Tiziano and Sebastiano del Piombo
Room 29 - Parmigianino and Dosso Dossi
Room 30 - Emilian Painting
Room 31 - Veronese
Room 32 - Tintoretto
Room 33 - Room 33 - 16th Century Painting
Room 34 - Lombard School
Room 35 - Barocci
Room 41 - Rubens
Room 42 - Niobe
Room 43 - Caravaggio
Room 44 - Rembrandt
Room 45 - XVIII Century


Podere Santa Pia, evening view on the Maremma from the northern terrace