‘…transformed into yon new star’: Venus as painted by Botticelli [Amrita Chakraborti Roll no: 001300401042 UG-III]

Botticelli’s three most famous depictions of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love are certainly the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, and the Venus and Mars. Critics have for generations been intrigued by the various levels of meaning that the Venus figures in these three paintings seem to suggest. I submit that in order to understand the nuances of Botticelli’s Venuses, one needs to keep in mind various discourses upon the figure of the Goddess of Love- from medieval astrological interpretations of Venus as the harbinger of spring to Lorenzo di Medici’s (1449-1492) comparison of the beautiful Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci’s soul to the brilliantly shining Evening Star.

 

Although Botticelli was held in great esteem in the Italy of his time, his reputation greatly declined after his death, and it was only in the Late Nineteenth Century that a revival of interest took place. In 1883 John Ruskin was able to boast: ‘It was left to me and me alone, first to discern, then to teach… the excellency and supremacy of five great painters, despised until I spoke of them,- Turner, Tintoret, Luini, Botticelli, and Carpacchio.’1 Ruskin’s boast is probably justified. It is only after Ruskin that writers no less than Walter Pater himself, began writing enthusiastic, imaginative appreciations of Botticelli’s Venus figures, a trend that continued well into the 20th century.2

However, Botticelli’s paintings of Venus are often seen as anachronistic. They do not quite follow the distinctive features of contemporary Italian painting nor are they imitations of ancient art. In the Primavera for instance, Venus is shown fully clothed as she used to be depicted in the Middle Ages. In the Birth of Venus, Venus’ steeply sloping shoulders, the elongated body, the circular breasts all bespeak a preference for International Gothic rather than classical proportion. The human figures too, are too large to be proportionate to the landscape. There also seems to be a deliberate eschewing of perspective in this picture in the depiction of sky behind Venus.3That realism is abandoned is clearly shown  by the fact that the waves on the sea are drawn in decorative patterns and the shading on the trees is done with gold lines as if to suggest the presence of Venus aurea.4

Ever since Aby Warburg’s work on the literary sources of the Primavera, however, scholars have increasingly seen Botticelli’s depictions of Venus as rooted in discourses about the Goddess that were current in the intellectual circle that flourished around the Medici family at the time when Botticelli would have been painting these pictures – in the late 1470s and the 1480s. Botticelli’s painting of both the Birth of Venus and the Primavera is now seen as greatly influenced by the contemporary poet Poliziano’s poetry especially the Stanze di messer Angelo Politiano cominciate per la giostra del magnifico Giuliano di Pietro de’ Medici (which describes a joust held in Forence where the gallant Guiliano di Medici had jousted in honour of Simonetta Vespucci, who is said to be one of the influences behind Botticelli’s women) and the Rusticus and by Neo-Platonic ideas expounded by Marsilio Ficino.

These lines from Poliziano’s Stanze describing the decorations of a temple of Venus (verses 99 to 106) were certainly an influence upon Botticelli:

In the stormy Aegean, the genital member is
seen to be received in the lap of Tethys, to drift
across the waves, wrapped in white foam, be-
neath the various turnings of the planets; and
within, both with lovely and happy gestures, a
young woman with nonhuman countenance, is
carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by
playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven re-
joices in her birth…

You would call the foam real, the sea real, real
the conch shell and real the blowing wind; you
would see the lightning in the goddess’s eyes,
the sky and the elements laughing about her; the
Hours treading the beach in white garments, the
breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair;
their faces not one, not different, as befits sisters.

You could swear that the goddess had emerged
from the waves, pressing her hair with her right
hand, covering with the other her sweet mound
of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted by
her sacred and divine step, it had clothed itself
in flowers and grass; then with happy, more than
mortal features, she was received in the bosom
of the three nymphs and cloaked in a starry garment.

With both hands one nymph holds above the
spray-wet tresses a garland, burning with gold
and oriental gems, another adjusts pearls in her
ears; the third, intent upon those beautiful
breasts and white shoulders, appears to strew
round them the rich necklaces with which they
three girded their own necks when they used to
dance in a ring in heaven.

Thence they seem to be raised toward heav-
enly spheres, seated upon a silver cloud: in the
hard stone you would seem to see the air trem-
bling and all of heaven contented; every god
takes pleasure in her beauty and desires her hap-
py bed: each face seems to marvel, with raised
eyebrows and wrinkled forehead.5

The Stanze also have these lines:

‘Love went in haste to the realm of his mother, the home of his thronging little brothers: to the realm where every grace delights, where beauty weaves a garland of flowers about her hair, where lascivious Zephyr flies behind Flora and decks the green grass with flowers… ‘ (Stanze, i.68)

There exists a great deal of controversy about how Botticelli himself would have been able to refer to the Latin sources of Poliziano’s poetry, whether he read any of these poems for himself or whether Poliziano or some other learned person acted as his advisor for these paintings.

Although we usually associate the Renaissance with a breaking away from Medieval interpretations of Ancient Greek and Roman history it can be seen that a lot of the Medieval discourses about Venus were retained in the poetry of Poliziano and these are perhaps deliberately accentuated by Botticelli in his paintings.

To begin with, perhaps Botticelli’s stance of echoing Late Medieval styles was deliberately adopted as a harking back to Late Medieval ideas about Venus. In the humanism that developed late in the Middle Ages, Venus was seen as an assistant to Nature, as Nature constantly waged a war against Death, who strove to obliterate God’s chain of being.6

Astrologically, the planet Venus presided over Spring and was she was thus a celestial body associated with fertility and procreation. She was exalted as the Goddess of Love and the mother of Cupid or Amor whose presence gave rise to cupiditas which caused all living things to multiply themselves.

It is this association with fertility that probably made the depiction of Venus a fit subject for paintings meant to be displayed at the Villa Castello, the country home of Lorenzo di Pier Francesco Medici. At least the Primavera, if not the other paintings, was definitely commissioned for the occasion of Lorenzo di Pier Francesco’s wedding. The Primavera was probably meant to be hung over a couch in an antechamber to the bedroom of Lorenzo di Pier Francesco and his bride, Semiramide Appiani.

 

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera. Florence, Uffizi.7

Venus was an apt topic to paint as a wedding gift to a bride. Botticelli himself painted a fresco of Giovanna degli Albizzi, a daughter-in-law of the elite Tornabuoni family of Florence, on the occasion of her marriage at the Tornabuoni Villa. Here Giovanna is seen reverently accepting a gift of flowers from Venus who as in the Primavera, is accompanied by the Graces. Like the Primavera this fresco too is set in a garden-like setting.

Sandro Botticelli, A Young Woman Recieving Gifts from Venus and the Three Graces,  Paris, The Louvre8

Venus and the Graces were associated in contemporary Florentine exegetic tradition with eternal beauty- according to Pico Della Mirandola the three Graces all stood for aspects of the beauty of Venus, for Verdure, or imperishable freshness, Splendour, and Abundant Gladness.9 Such a gift would thus easily be seen as a compliment to the beauty of the bride.

More importantly however, such a painting would allude to the duties of procreation that the newly-wed couple would be expected to fulfil. The couch over which the Primavera would hang would be a place for one to sleep and dream watched over by the Medieval Goddess of Fertility.

Venus’ role as a maternal figure is probably emphasized by the fact that she stands almost in the centre of the painting, slightly higher than the others as if she were a Madonna-figure in a sacra conversazione. Panofsky noted how Venus looked as if she was pregnant. In this context he referred  to the idea of a “Venus Humanitas” as described by Marsilio Ficino in his 1478 letter Prospera in fato fortuna, a letter addressed to nobody other than Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Ficino’s letter concludes with the hope that one day such a Venus-Humanitas might become the bride of the young Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. Although the flared out hips and belly of Venus have now been attributed to the influence of Flemish art, then fashionable in Florence, Sergiuz Michalski points out that the painting may have been finished as  late as 1484, which was the time of Semiramide’s pregnancy.10

 

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera. Florence, Uffizi.7

Also, the Villa Castello was a functioning farm at the time when the painting was made. A slightly dated school of criticism is said to have interpreted the Primavera as an allegory of the virtues of agriculture as extolled by Ficino. According to Charles Dempsey the Venus of the Primavera is described in a specifically rustic character, as the patron Goddess of Spring and Gardens as she would have been in Late Medieval rustic calendars. Dempsey10 points out how Poliziano’s Rusticus, a widely acknowledged source text for the Primavera draws from a number of texts where Venus is invoked as a fertility Goddess.

Poliziano’s Rusticus contains these lines:

Now rejoice, the golden-haired Hours have come down from the clouds, they who guard the gates and the halls of heaven, to whom lovely Themis filled with radiant Jupiter gave birth; Irene, Dice, and Eunomia (daughter of Pollux) now pluck the newly budded shoots. Proserpine is with them, made more lovely by their company as she retraces her steps from the Stygian kingdom and hastens to her mother. Nourishing Venus comes, companion to her sister, and is followed by the little loves; Flora offers welcome kisses to her eager husband [Zephyr]; and in their midst with hair unbound and bared breasts dances Grace, tapping the ground with rhythmic step.

The Rusticus in turn echoes a number of other sources such as these two of Horace’s Odes:

Keen winter is breaking up at the welcome change to spring and Zephyr…. Already Cytherean Venus leads her dancing bands beneath the o’er- hanging moon, and the comely Graces linked with Nymphs tread the earth with tripping feet. (Odes: i.4)

And:

O Venus, queen of Cnidos and of Paphos, forsake thy beloved Cyprus and betake thyself to the fair shrine of Glycera, who summons thee with bounteous incense! And with thee let hasten thy ardent child; the Graces too, with girdles all unloosed, the Nymphs, and Youth, unlovely without thee, and Mercury! (Odes, i, 30)

The Primavera is certainly associated with stories of the fertility of Spring such as May 2 of Book 5 of Ovid’s Fasti  as well as Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae which opens with these lines of invocation to Venus Genetrix, the mother of all Romans:

‘Venus Genetrix, mother of Aeneas and his race, delight of men and gods, nurturing Venus, who beneath the smooth-moving heavenly signs fillest with thyself the sea full- laden with ships, the earth with her kindly fruits, since through thee every generation of living things is conceived and rising looks up on the light of the sun…’

This passage too is certainly alluded to:

‘On come Spring and Venus, and Venus’s winged harbinger [Cupid] marching before, with Zephyr and mother Flora a pace behind him strewing the whole path in front with brilliant colours and filling it with scents.’ (De Rerum Natura, V, 737-740.)

Critics generally cite Flora’s narration of her transformation as one of the major source-texts for the painting. Although Venus is mentioned only fleetingly in the Book on May, which describes the Floralia, the festival of Flora, she is not altogether absent from Ovid’s description of the spring season: she figures prominently in the discussion of the previous month, April, which is dedicated to her. At the beginning of Book IV, Ovid addresses the goddess directly; he explains his purpose and then says: ‘We have come to the fourth month in which thou art honoured above all others, and thou knowest, Venus, that both the poet and the month are thine.’

Charles Dempsey analyzes Venus in the Primavera, as Venus Hortorum, the Goddess of Gardens set in a carefully patterned, almost Medieval garden. . Venus as the goddess of gardens, like Mercury in the form of the god of May, is specifically a rustic deity. Venus stands in the centre of the Primavera, attended by Cupid, the personification of the passionate force (cupiditas) which goads living things to follow her.  The figures of Venus and Flora are associated with each other with regard to the fact that they are both goddesses associated with gardens. April the month when spring begins is the month of both Flora and Venus. In Catullus’ Elegy on the Lock of Berenice Venus is identified with Chloris. Thus the presence of both in the Primavera supports this reading.

Charles Dempsey cites a number of sources which address Venus as Venus hortorum: ‘Thus Varro invokes Venus’ assistance at the beginning of the De re rustica, recalling that it was in her honour that the rustic Vinalia were established. Pliny and Festus also allude to her thus. But the fullest indication of her nature, is found in the tenth book of Columella’s De re rustica.’ Poliziano, if not Botticelli himself, would have known these works and perhaps they count as indirect influences.

Dempsey also points out how the Goddess seems to have stepped back a little as if to give her retinue the chance to overtake her. She is central to the image and holds sway over the season, but also seems to draw back . While Flora seems to come forward, matching the Graces, Venus seems almost to retire into the background. Indeed she is at or near the centre, and is framed by an archway – like a Madonna in a sacra conversazione – and it seems to many to preside over the scene, but she is also oddly recessive. She looks out toward the viewer, but with a sidelong glance, less directly than Flora, and if her gesture is one of welcome, it seems directed more to the side than to the front, as we might expect. Although she could be drawing us in, one can (as in Ovid’s Fasti) also see her as turning away, fading into the background, as the season advances. In other words, the relative positions and attitudes of Venus and Flora in Botticelli’s painting reflect the order in which Ovid presents them in his account of the season.  And the contrast between Flora and Venus can be explained in terms of the progression embedded in the painting, which leads from April to May. Venus, as the representative of April, stays behind or departs, while Flora, associated with the Floralia, which begins at the end of April and continues into May (associated with Mercury), comes forward. Normally, of course, it is Flora who is the patroness of gardens, as she is also a goddess of the spring. Thus, Venus is shown with something of the character of Flora, with whom she is often confused. In the same way that Chloris, nymph of the bare earth, is transformed into Flora by Zephyr’s blowing, so Flora, who scatters the ground with the first flowers of spring, grows into Venus, the goddess of April.

Perhaps this is also a reflection of the Primavera’s motif of incorporating a love for what is beyond the scope of worldly, carnal joys  – just as one of the graces has turned her head away from the rest of the scene towards the direction in which Mercury is pointing towards the higher realms- Venus too, is presiding over the season of earthly fertility  from a certain distance. Some critics suggest that this is because Botticelli was influenced by Renaissance Neo-Platonism which likened Venus to Virgin Mary and he therefore incorporated a certain degree of chaste aloofness in his depiction of Venus.

But this might also reflect the secular aspects of Neo-Platonism, as expounded upon by Marsilio Ficino and others in contemporary Florence. Neo-Platonism sees the realms of the universe as arranged in terms of higher and lower, with levels of perfection gradually decreasing with descent. The realm of Nature, the setting for the painting ,  comes below the realms of the ‘Cosmic Mind’  and the ‘Cosmic Soul’ but above the realm of ‘Matter’. It is a realm of beauty and vigour which is a manifestation of ‘the divine influence’ , but it is also corruptible because it is a compound of form and matter which can easily disintegrate. A movement from high to low can be seen in this painting corresponding to this idea. All the figures in the Primavera except Venus are arranged so that they form a semi-circle, which, starting from the right, first moves downwards, through the gestures of Zephyrus and Chloris, and slightly further downwards in the figure of Flora. Then the Graces have had their feet placed so that they seem to be moving upwards, and Mercury guides the viewer’s eyes right up into the translunary world with his cane which seems to be stirring clouds.

In the words of Pico Della Mirandola, ’Man ascends to the higher realms without discarding the lower realms and can descend to the lower realm without forsaking the higher.’ Venus, whose hand seems to be lifted in a gesture of greeting to the viewer, seems to be an embodiment of this position, as she presides over this scene. In a letter to Lorezo di Pier Francesco, Ficino is said to have likened the seven liberal arts to seven parts of the body of Venus. Set in Lorenzo di Pier Franceso’s home, the painting would, in Botticelli’s time, be mostly viewed by a select circle which would be able to make these associations with the figure of Venus.

This audience would also have been able to spot a number of topical allusions in the figure of Venus in the Primavera. For instance the very depiction of Venus in a garden may have been Botticelli’s compliment to his new patroness, Semiramide Appiani. Semiramis was hailed as the Babylonian queen for whom the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built. In mythology Semiramis was said to be the daughter of an Assyrian Aphrodite figure. . As evidenced by a letter written by Ficino in 1478 the Medici circle would have been aware of the fact that the dove was a fertility symbol of Venus and Semiramide means ‘dove’. Further, the motif of golden flames would remind the viewer of semi-heraldic devices used during the wedding in 1482. In Ficino’s circle the particular figure of Venus-Humanitas was sometimes compared with the Virgin Mary but Queen Semiramis was also considered in the Late Middle Ages as one of the prefigurations of the Virgin Mary. She was shown either standing in the hanging gardens amid trees or as being enclosed in a tower (often both motifs were combined). Michalski comments that the half-moon pendant Venus wears in the Primavera is a symbol of Semiramis, the Queen of the Orient. According to Michalski:

‘In the guise of Venus, Semiramis unites the different parts of the painting, the left side with Mercury and the Three Graces, and the side on the right characterized by carnal love. Standing in the centre of the painting in a room devoted to marital love Venus/Semiramis functions as the Goddess of concord and harmony but also marital chastity embodying in the words of Edgar Wind ‘the Discordia concors between Castitas and Amor.’’10

Master of La Manta, ‘Semiramis’, in the Neuf Preuses Cycle in the Sala Baronale of the La Manta Castle, c. 1420. Photo: Lorenz Enderlein

‘Semiramis in the Hanging Garden’,from: Speculum Humanae Salvationis  (c. 1360), Hessische Landes- und Hochschulbibliothek, Darmstadt, MS. 2505, fol. 12. Photo: Bibliothek.

Perhaps Venus’ costume is also inspired by contemporary masques. Venus is dressed in contemporary costume made from a camicia di giorno painted with golden rays at the breast and with pearls suspended from the hem of her robe similar to the pearls described by chroniclers of Medici jousts and feasts. The costume of Venus and the other characters according to Dempsey, is not everyday costume but ephemeral, quasi-theatrical dress meant for a mascherata or masque.12

This reference to merry making under the aegis of the Medicis may be significant since in Poliziano’s poetry, especially the Stanze, it is the Medici court that is depicted as the place of eternal spring and peace. By taking so much from Poliziano’s descriptions Botticelli perhaps means to pay a compliment to his patron. Paul Barolsky writes, ‘As queen of a courtly realm, Venus presides over this classical revival, the beautiful idealization of Medicaen hegemony whose royalty also has associations with that of the queen of heaven, who similarly presides over the garden of Paradise.’13

Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s farming villa at Castello also housed Botticelli’s Birth of Venus . Because of this, and because of the closeness of its subject matter to that of the Primavera, the two paintings have been associated from the time of Vasari. But it does not follow from this that the two pictures were necessarily pendants. In fact the evidence argues that they were not. They are not the same size. The Primavera is painted on wood; the Birth of Venus is painted on linen. The scale of figures in relation to the painted surface is different. They cannot have been painted at the same time. The Birth of Venus is later stylistically, and is normally dated to 1485-6, while the Primavera dates to about 1478.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, Florence, Uffizi.14

 

Dempsey describes it thus:

The Birth of Venus was not intended as a pendant to the Primavera; it is rather an independent expression, a refinement, of the same idea. In this painting Venus again appears as a goddess of the spring, but conceived in more general terms. She is not linked with the rustic calendar, but is instead represented as the controlling principle of the rebirth of life. To phrase it another way, Columella’s Venus hortorum has put aside her rustic weeds to emerge in her pure form as the Venus Genetrix of Lucretius. The subject of the Birth of Venus is made up of the same trinity, Chloris- Flora-Venus, which appears in the right half of the Primavera. Zephyr rushes in at the left, his cheeks distended with effort as he blows a warming gust of air onto Venus. No more graphic illustration of the essential relationship of Chloris and Venus could be desired, for here it is Zephyr’s fertilizing breath directed toward Venus which produces the roses which, from the point of view of mythological exactitude, in fact emanated from Chloris. The rudely dressed female figure in Zephyr’s arms must be identified as Chloris. She has usually been considered to be a second wind-god accompanying Zephyr, but neither her sex, nor her attributes, nor her actions support this identification. She is not blowing, nor does she have wings. The wings which can be seen behind her back cannot possibly be attached to her shoulders; in order to maintain her grasp on Zephyr (for she is not flying, but being carried by him) she has turned her shoulder down and well forward of the wing behind. Moreover, the rough green tunic thrown over her shoulder, appropriate garb for Chloris, a plain nymph of the earth made newly green at the advent of the west wind, is fastened in such a way as to leave no place for a wing to attach. Zephyr is in fact the possessor of a mighty pair of double wings, which propel him toward Venus. It is his newly captured bride, Chloris, whom he holds in his arms.The figure who stands on the shore at the right has usually been identified as one of the Hours, on the basis of Warburg’s association of the theme of the painting with the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Yet the flowered pattern of her dress, although slightly less elaborate, reminds us at once of Flora’s dress in the Primavera. Her belt, a twining briar of roses, is identical, and around her neck she wears a wreath of myrtle, Venus’s plant, which corresponds to the similar wreath worn by Flora in the earlier painting. Thus,there can be no substantial objection to her identification with Flora, second member of the vernal triad which is fulfilled in Venus. She stands on the shore of Cyprus, Venus’s island, and prepares to place a cloak richly patterned with flowers over the nude goddess.

According to Aby Warburg , the title Birth of Venus is not really an accurate description of the content of Botticelli’s painting. To call it the Advent of Venus would be more precise, since this title does not tempt us to associate the picture with a specific event in mythological narrative. Moreover, implicit in this title is the monthly and planetary nature of Venus, whose representation in this painting must be considered a purely Lucretian refinement of the Columellan Venus of the Primavera. And in one respect, that she is shown as Venus Anadyomene,[Venus rising from the Sea] she is really a more orthodox representation of Venus Genetrix than was Botticelli’s earlier Venus.’11

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, Florence, Uffizi.14

 

The modest posture of Venus has been noted as reflecting Platonic ideas about Venus, who does not merely bring about earthly unions but also presides over higher Platonic marriages of intellect free from carnal love. However this does not quite explain the expression on Venus’ face which has been memorably described by Walter Pater as: ‘Men go forth to their labours until the evening; but she is awake before them, and you might think that the sorrow in her face was at the thought of the whole long day of love yet to come.’

This subdued watchfulness is perhaps the most distinguishing feature Botticelli’s Venuses. This distant watchfulness found is both Primavera and Birth of Venus is intensified in Mars and Venus, a painting thought to be executed in the latter half of the 1480s, after Botticelli’s two other great paintings of Venus.

 

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, London, National Gallery.15

This painting is so unlike any other contemporary painting of Mars and Venus that it has been suggested by the critic Rubin that this is not a painting of Mars and Venus at all, but is a painting of merely ‘a Nymph and a Sleeping knight’.16 However, the myrtle trees at the background demarcate the setting as the territory of Venus. In addition, this Venus, like the Venus in the Birth of Venus and Flora in the Primavera, is said to resemble Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci. Simonetta died at the age of 23 in 1476. At her death, Lorenzo di Medici wrote a sonnet comparing her to the evening star. This is his commentary upon his own poem:

‘Night came and I, with a friend most dear to me, went communing about the loss we had all suffered. While we spoke, the air being exceedingly serene, we turned our eyes to a star of surpassing brightness, which, towards the west, shone forth with such a lustre as not only to conquer all the other stars, but even to cast a shadow from the objects that intercepted its light. We marvelled at it for a while; and then turning to my friend, I said:” There is no need to wonder, since the soul of that most gentle lady has either been transformed into yon new star or has joined herself to it. And if this be so, that splendour of the star is no wise to be wondered at ; and even as her beauty in life was of great solace to our eyes, so now let us com fort ourselves at the present moment with the sight of so much brilliance. And if our eyes be ‘weak and frail to bear such brightness, pray we to the God, that is her deity, to give them virtue in order that, without injury to our sight, we may awhile contemplate it.”’12

If Venus resembles Simonetta, then perhaps it is significant that the lines of Mars’ face are considered by many critics, to resemble the face of Guiliano Medici in the Botticelli’s  1477 portrait of him.12 The word ‘Vespucci’ means wasp and little wasps can be seen hovering about the head of Mars at a place where the patron’s court of arms would usually be found.

The picture is thus, usually interpreted as the triumph of Love over War, as the triumph of the lovely Simonetta over her chivalric knight Guiliano. The painting has been seen as referring to the Proem to De Rerum Natura by Lucretius which contains the passage:

Lull to a timely rest
O’er sea and land the savage works of war,
For thou alone hast power with public peace
To aid mortality; since he who rules
The savage works of battle, puissant Mars,
How often to thy bosom flings his strength
O’ermastered by the eternal wound of love-
And there, with eyes and full throat backward thrown,
Gazing, my Goddess, open-mouthed at thee,
Pastures on love his greedy sight, his breath
Hanging upon thy lips. Him thus reclined
Fill with thy holy body, round, above!
Pour from those lips soft syllables to win
Peace for the Romans, glorious Lady, peace!
But surely for Botticelli, painting Mars and Venus long after both Simonetta and Guiliano di Medici were dead, such a scene where the man is sunken in torpor while the woman is wakeful and attentive but distant would have meant more than a celebration of a Classical Myth or a contemporary romance.

In Poliziano’s Stanze Simonetta appears only once in a meadow, where she is accosted by a love crazed character called Julio. Simonetta answers his questions about who she is collectedly and in prosaic terms. She lives in Florence but comes from Liguria; she is married and lives nearby; she likes to walk in the meadow and enjoy the fresh air and flowers; sometimes sitting in the shade with one of her female friends; she goes to church with the other women to hear Mass on holidays; her beauty is nothing marvellous; and since it is late she had better go home.12 Later in the Stanze, Venus sends Julio a dream that maddens him further.

That this may have been the contemporary interpretation of the painting is borne out by the fact that the picture may not have gone down well with Botticelli’s Medici patrons. It was put away and left out of inventories for many years.

Perhaps in creating such Venuses Botticelli was trying to incorporate another ideology that flourished at the end of the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the Renaissance-that of Tuscan love poetry. Paul Barolsky writes:

It has been observed by many that the beautiful women in Botticelli’s bower evoke the donne angelicate, the angelic women of Tuscan poetry, their gentility, sweet grace and spiritual aura. Botticelli’s Venus it has been justly said has the aura of the Virgin to whom Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura are similarly linked. By transposing the spiritual beauty of the beautiful women of Tuscan poetry into visive terms, their flashing eyes, radiance and grace, Botticelli encourages the viewer to contemplate the theme of spiritual recreation and its inspiration of poetry.13

Venus herself appears in Dante’s Purgatorio in these lines which are related to the poet’s finding an ‘Earthly Paradise’:

In the hour, I think, when [Venus] Cytherea, who seems always burning with the fire of love, first shone on the mountain from the east, I seemed to see in a dream a lady young and beautiful going through a meadow, gathering flowers, and singing…) (Purg. xxvii, 94-99).17

Barolsky has also analyzed a number of similarities between the Venus-figure in the Primavera and the figure of Matilda, in the Earthly Paradise in Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s Purgatorio.13

Sandro Botticelli, Matilda in Purgatorio 28, Berlin, Staachliche Museum.

With these references in mind it is possible to conjecture that the modesty, attentiveness and distant sadness that characterizes Botticelli’s Venus figures is a reflection of the motif of celebrating the chaste and distant beloved while mourning the fact that she is dead (like Simonetta Vespucci herself) in Tuscan love poetry.

Venus, the Goddess of Fertility, Birth and Procreation is therefore in Botticelli a deity who like the Beloved in the Dante and Petrarch symbolizes a spiritual rebirth distant from the realm of earthly happiness.

 

 

 

Endnotes:

  1. Weinberg, Gail S. and John Ruskin. Ruskin, Pater and the Rediscovery of Botticelli. The Burlington Magazine. 129. Jan. 1987. p.25-26. Jstor. Web. 29.10.2015
  2. Edith Harwood, for instance wrote in 1901:

In her face we have an expression rather of an unawakened soul than of sadness, there is a touch of reluctance, but the effect is of a fair being awaiting the full arousing which is to bring it into a complete personality… Venus, Mars and Venus and Spring, irresistibly suggests a continuity of narrative. Simonetta, taken as a type of womanhood, is alone in all three, more alone with the sleeping Mars as a companion than when she stood in her floating more sad. There is more restfulness in the expression of the Venus in Spring, but the shadow of Death is over them all. Rarely can the wonder and power of womanhood have been expressed as in these three pictures. In Venus Rising from the Sea we have the personification of youth; there is no know ledge yet of evil, although the consciousness of the inevitableness of an awakening to that knowledge is beginning to dawn in the wistful eyes. In the second picture of the series, The Mars and Venus, the awakening has come, and what does it mean? The solitude of the sea is exchanged for the companionship of the sleeping Mars; the irresponsible, youthful goddess has now become the watchful guardian of a sleeping warrior. It may be that the fauns are obeying her commands in trying to arouse the sleeper. So compelling is the feeling of spirituality in Venus that one is inclined to believe that it was painted from memory after the death of Simonetta as a rebuke to Giuliano for his intrigues…

In 1926, Royall Snow wrote of the Birth of Venus:

That the luminously gentle sky should sprinkle flowers at the rising of Venus from the waves was but right and natural, and that the sea should be stilled to a graciousness of sunshot water. And it was right that Flora should be swiftly at hand to sheathe the scimitar body in the softest of old rose velvets. But that Venus, born into the warm radiance of the spring sunshine to a downfall of flowers, should come with sadness in her eyes and a bowed head, was also right and natural?  Right to the inscrutable laws of art and truth, at least, which have little commerce with the preconceptions of this world.

For her head is bowed, and she stands drooping as if already physically weary from the honey-like weight of hair which hangs so heavily golden. But the weariness upon her face is more than physical. The eyes that look so straight and frankly are full of question, and deep with the fear of answer, and there is the hint of voiceless grief about the mouth, for these lips are lips not quite at rest. They are lips upon which a smile is dying? The last fading glamour of a ghostly graciousness is there, but it is only the delicate shadow upon the flesh of a smile whose spirit is already dead. Yet, though the spirit of laughter is but a faded rose upon those gentle lips, the rose is not yet a crushed rose, heeled into the dust. In every lineament of the proud features, in the carriage of the firm white throat, there is luminous another quality than grief? A courage, clear and striking. This Venus, whom Botticelli was the first to know and no man since has ever been able to forget, with all her evident and pathetic helplessness, is no frail flower for the jests of men. The face with its high character is decisive as a banner? Clean-cut of line and noble of feature, with sensitive lips and eyes whose clean frankness cannot be over-praised. There will be no flinchings, no feminine trickeries prettily insincere from that face, no evasions of the responsibilities of the flesh she has put on, nor of the debt due to the courage she has brought with her. Drooping as she is; born with all the long disillusion of the whole long world of love clear before her; she has yet the flexible sword of her own spirit bright and shining in her eyes.

  1. Ettlinger, Leopold and Helen S. Ettlinger. London. Thames and Hudson. 1976. Print.
  2. Barolsky, Paul. ‘Botticelli’s Golden Goddess.’ Source: Notes in the History of Art. 32. 2 (Winter 2013). p. 4-5. Web. 29.10.2015.
  3. https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth213/botticelli_poliziano_birth_venus.htm. Web. 20.10.15.
  4. Cantelupe Eugene B. ‘The Anonymous Triumph of Venus in the Louvre: An Early Italian Renaissance Eample of Mythological Disguise.’The Art Bulletin. 3. (Sep. 1962) p.238-242. Jstor. Web. 29.10.2015.
  5. http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/3/19/1332170648035/Botticelli-Primavera-001.jpg 20.11.2015
  6. http://www.louvre.fr/sites/default/files/imagecache/940×768/medias/medias_images/images/louvre-venus-les-trois-graces.jpg. Web.20.11.15
  7. Van der Sman, Gert Jan. ‘Sandro Botticelli at Villa Tornabuoni and a Nuptial Poem by Naldo Naldi.’ Mitteilungen  des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz. Bd., H. 1/2 (2007), pp. 159-186. Jstor. Web. 29.10.2015.
  8. Michalski, Sergius . ‘Venus as Semiramis: A New Interpretation of the Central Figure of Botticelli’s Primavera.’ Artibus et Historiae. 48 (2003). p. 213-222. Jstor. Web. 29.10.2015.
  9. Dempsey, Charles. ‘Mercurius Ver: The Sources of Botticelli’s Primavera.’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 31. p.251-273. Jstor. Web. 29.10.2015.
  10. Dempsey, Charles. ‘Portraits and Masks in the Art of Lorenzo de Medici, Botticelli, and Politians Stanze per la Giostra.’ Renaissance Quarterly. 52. 1 (Spring, 1999). p. 1-42. Web. 29.10.2015.
  11. Barolsky, Paul. Botticelli’s “Primavera” and the Poetic Imagination of Italian Renaissance Art. Arion: A Journal of the Humanities and Classics. Third Series. 2 (Fall, 2000). p. 5-35. Web. 29.10.2015.
  12. http://www.italianrenaissance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Botticelli-Birth-of-Venus.jpg. Web. 20.11.2015.
  13. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/upload/img/botticelli-venus-mars-NG915-fm.jpg. Web. 20.11.15.
  14. https://sites.google.com/site/venusiconography/home/connectivity-maps/botticelli-s-three-venuses. Web. 20.10.15.
  15. Maror, Max C. ‘From Purgatory to the ‘Primavera’: Some observations on Botticelli and Dante.’ Artibus et Historiae. 48 (2003). p. 199-212. Jstor. Web. 29.10.2015.
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