The Birth of Venus (c. 1485), a painting by Sandro Botticelli, is thought to be a commission by a member of the Medici family, specifically Lorenzo de’ Medici by referral of a cousin. Documentation of this commission is not present, and it would be three-quarters of a century before any connection to the Medici family would be made.
In the painting, Venus, the goddess of Love, is seen emerging from a giant sea shell, blown to shore by Zephyros, god of the west wind, with the aid of the wind nymph Aura. She is welcomed by Pomona, goddess of Spring, who holds out a cloak to drape the nude Venus in as she stands in an awkward pose, her hands covering parts of her nude body as a gesture of modesty. In Angelo Poliziano’s poem, Stanze per la giostra, Venus was born from foam of the sea. The sea shell from which she appears is commonly interpreted as a vulva, as if to be born and brought into the mortal world, her nudity proving innocence and divinity.
According to many scholars, the scene in the painting is an interpretation of many previous works, including a Homeric hymn by Demetrios Chalkokondyles. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher, has made mention in his book, Natural History, of a lost masterpiece by renowned Greek artist Apelles that strongly resembled Venus Anadyomene, or Venus Rising From the Sea. According to Pliny, Apelles was commissioned by Alexander the Great to paint Campaspe, one of Alexander’s mistresses; during the process, Alexander realized that Apelles had fallen in love with the muse, and in exchange for the finished product gave Campaspe to Apelles in appreciation. Speculation indicates that The Birth of Venus is a reproduction of Apelles’ lost work.
Life seems to have imitated art: Botticelli discovered and fell in unrequited love with Simonetta Vespucci, a married noblewoman considered one of the most beautiful women of Florence, Italy, and of the Renaissance. Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother, Giuliano, along with much of Italian society, were besotted with her. Simonetta served as a model for Botticelli, possibly portrayed as the subject in The Birth of Venus as well as the companion painting La Primavera even after her sudden death in 1476. It is said that Botticelli asked to be buried at Simonetta’s feet upon his death, and his wish was granted when he died in 1510.
Of the many interpretations offered for Botticelli’s depiction of the Birth Of Venus, it might be better to view the work from a variety of perspectives. One could assume Venus represented Eve before her fall from the Garden of Eden, or, once clothed by Pomona, the Virgin Mary. This layered approach — mythological, political, religious — was intended. In classical interpretation, Botticelli’s Venus is similar to that of Venus de’ Medici, a marble sculpture in the Medici collection, and to a sculpture of Aphrodite by Praxiteles, both of which Botticelli had the opportunity to study. However, due to the political and religious climate of Florence and a religious awakening, Botticelli was driven to destroy many of his works by fire, not including the Birth of Venus, which allegedly resided in the home of a member of the Medici clan.
For those interested in seeing the painting in person, The Birth of Venus resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. There’s no doubt that this painting, a fantasy in the artist’s mind, is a wonder in the art world, and should be appreciated as such.