BOTTICELLI, Sandro
(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

The Birth of Venus

c. 1485
Tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.5 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The title of the Birth of Venus can be traced back to the 16th century. What is depicted is not, however, the moment of the goddess' birth - the classical poet Hesiod describes her as rising from the foaming sea after Chronos cut off his father Uranus' penis and threw it into the ocean. Instead, we see the moment when she comes ashore. Inspired by classical tradition, Botticelli's contemporary Angelo Poliziano described this scene in his epic poem "Stanze per la Giostra", thereby providing what was probably the most important source of inspiration for the painting. He described Venus as being driven towards the shore on a shell by Zephyr; and how an onlooker would have seen the flash in the goddess' eye and the Horae of the seasons standing on the shore in white garments, their flowing hair caressed by the wind.

The god of the winds, Zephyr, and the breeze Aura are in a tight embrace, and are gently driving Venus towards the shore with their breath. She is standing naked on a golden shining shell, which reaches the shore floating on rippling waves. There, a Hora of Spring is approaching on the tips of her toes, in a graceful dancing motion, spreading out a magnificent cloak for her. Venus rises with her marble-coloured carnations above the ocean next to her, like a statue. Her hair, which is playfully fluttering around her face in the wind, is given a particularly fine sheen by the use of fine golden strokes. The unapproachable gaze under the heavy lids gives the goddess an air of cool distance. The rose is supposed to have flowered for the first time when Venus was born. For that reason, gentle rose-coloured flowers are blowing around Zephyr and Aura in the wind.

The goddess of love, one of the first non-biblical female nudes in Italian art, is depicted in accordance with the classical Venus pudica. She is, however, as little a precise copy of her prototype as the painting is an exact illustration of Poliziano's poetry. The group comprising Venus and the Hora of spring demonstrates Botticelli's flexible use of Christian means of depiction.

It is uncertain who commissioned the painting. In the first half of the 16th century, it was kept in the Castello villa, owned by the descendants of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. However, it was never mentioned in inventories of his property. It is, though, extremely likely that the Birth of Venus was commissioned for a country seat. In contrast to the Primavera, the painting is painted on canvas. This was a medium normally chosen for paintings that were destined to decorate country houses, for canvas was less expensive and easier to transport than wooden panels.