Botticelli – The Birth of Venus

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art with Alessandro.

Today my job is difficult because I am going to talk about one of the most famous paintings in the world. But if you know me, and you watched the other videos, you are probably aware that I like to show you art from different perspectives.

And that’s why today I am in trouble. The birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is for sure a masterpiece and Venus and the whole large painting are insanely beautiful. However, I am going to show you how many surprises we can find if we focus more on the details.

Before starting, I want to thank all of you for your support both here and on Youtube. For you I prepared a gift that you can download clicking here and, if you can donate something it would mean a lot. Thank you, Alessandro.

The Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli
ARTIST: Sandro Botticelli
NAME The Birth of Venus
LOCATION Uffizi Gallery, Florence
YEAR mid-1480s (?)
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 172.5 × 278.9 cm (67.9 × 109.6 in)
MATERIAL Tempera on canvas

Misterious origins

The first surprises are that we know very little about this painting. It was probably made in the mid-1480s, but we are not sure about it, we don’t know who was painted for or where it was originally intended to be seen.

Strange is also the subject: a complete nude goddess. In both Medieval and Renaissance art it happened to see some nudes. However, usually they were Adam and Eve, so religious figures or male heroes like the Donatello’s David.

David by Donatello

The painting

Here instead we have a pagan goddess: Venus. Who was actually the goddess of love, so something really unusual for that time. Naked female statues were more common back to Greek and Roman art, but Christian religion broke this tradition making of the nudity something to be ashamed of and sinful. Renaissance was looking back at the classical tradition and mythology. However, Botticelli depicted something really unexpected.

The almost full size naked Venus is covering herself for modesty, not because she is ashamed like Eve. She is just born and stands in a giant scallop shell in the middle of the painting.
Of course, she can be born fully grown because she is a goddess.

On the left side the wind god Zephyr blows at her, with the wind shown by lines radiating from his mouth. He carries a young female, probably Aura, personification of a lighter breeze. She is in fact blowing as well, but with less energy.

The Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus - Botticelli

They are pushing Venus to the shore where a female figure is about to cover her with a richly decorated cloak.

The interpretations about who is that figure and on which shore Venus is arriving are many, so I rather focus the attention on some visible weird elements.

The scene

First of all: if we cut in a half the painting, we can notice that Venus is not exactly in the middle. She is mostly on the right side while the shell is more on the left. That makes her pose 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.

The Birth of Venus - painting structure
The Birth of Venus - Sandro Botticelli

Moreover, if we look carefully: she is standing at the end of the shell and not inside it, making the posture even more statically impossible. That has even another consequence that we’ll see soon.

For the moment, I want that we focus on her feet. Probably you have already noticed that, but they are not really feminine nor elegant or proportioned. I think they are kind of ugly actually and also her left hand doesn’t look great.

The hair is pushed by the wind made by Zephyr and Aura and it suggests the idea of movement and sinuosity. Sinuosity that we can see on Venus’ body since head to toe any part of her is tilted.

Now that we are looking more in detail at her, do you notice anything weird?

To amplify the sinuosity, Botticelli painted the torso, and neck in particular, too long and the shoulders unnaturally low.

Even the eyes are not perfectly aligned. So she is a mess. However, what we perceive looking at her totally is still elegance and beauty.

The Birth of Venus - Zephyr detail
The Birth of Venus - Zephyr and Aura

The other characters

Even on the two figures on the left there is something weird: they are hugging each other, but without a real volume. They look really flat like the flowers that are around them.

And we can see flowers also on the right side, just this time they are part of the dress worn by the lady and on the cloth. However, even if Botticelli painted shades on the fabric, we don’t perceive real volume.


Can you guess why? (the answer in the interactive image at the end of the post)

The Birth of Venus - right side

The right side

This right side is really filled by nature, in contrast with the left. However, even here we have some elements that make the scene unreal: starting with the tall trunks of the trees where Botticelli added gold lines, real gold. Material present also on the leaves, on Venus’ hair (reason why they look so bright and shiny) and on the god’s wings. Plus, the coast doesn’t have a real perspective and that doesn’t help either to give volume.

As a consequence, everything in the scene seems flat. Even the waves made with little V’s create a sense of two dimensionality. The figures seem floating and all of them are painted without shadows and barely volumes.

Why Botticelli did that? It’s hard to say. For sure he was a great painter even if with an unusual style. A guess is that he wanted to focus the attention more on the meaning and the total view rather than the technical elements, painting something new for that time.

What we can tell is that the result is actually really elegant and pleasant and it seems hard to believe after looking at the painting in detail. I hope you enjoyed this different point of view I gave you and to see you in the next episodes with other surprises. Ciao!

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