Reveling in Early Renaissance

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The Renaissance was a time where great artists surfaced throughout the creative world—Sandro Botticelli, born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445 – May 17, 1510), was one of these great artists during the Early Renaissance; throughout his lifespan, he created numerous wonders. While his posthumous reputation suffered until the late 1800s, he was rediscovered by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English painters, poets, and art critics founded in 1848. The Pre-Raphaelites stimulated a reappraisal of Botticelli’s works and as a result, his paintings have been held to represent graceful linework in the Early Renaissance painting movement.

This week, I will be focusing on one of his masterpieces, The Birth of Venus which Botticelli painted in Uffizi, Florence, Italy between 1482 and 1485. Upon completion in 1486 for the Medici family, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus was eventually hung in the Uffizi Gallery where it still resides today. This masterpiece is still considered a high point of a visit to the Uffizi Gallery, despite the numerous masterpieces on display there, and it sits in one of the largest rooms of the gallery with one of the largest crowds

The Birth of Venus (1486)

Sandro Botticelli
Birth of Venus, ca. 1486 by Sandro Botticelli

The Birth of Venus is notably different from the other paintings that were derived from Early Renaissance work, it was created in Tempera on Canvas, which with most of the work of the time having been done on wood paneling—a painting surface which would remain popular until the late sixteenth century. This meant that Botticelli was one of the few pioneers to use canvas in his work as it gradually became an accepted surface for other painters as well. The transition to canvas proved to be essential in humid climates since wood panels were subject to warping when their moisture content was compromised. Canvas was also a much cheaper material than wood which made paintings more readily available to those of lower means to be able to own and appreciate artwork in their homes.

Botticelli’s painting of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, is seen within this glorious work of art, standing in the middle of the painting atop a shell after being blown to shore by the winds (the god Zephyr and his companion Aura on the left) which gently flutters her hair and showers her with roses. On the right, Venus is welcomed by her handmaiden, a goddess of spring, with a robe to clothe her nude and shy figure. The theme of this painting comes from an important oeuvre of Latin literature, Metamorphoses by Ovid. It is said that this painting isn’t as glorious as it once would have been, the saturation and brightness of the greens and blues would have once been a “feast of color” for the eyes and have dulled in the years since its initial creation.

One thing that can be pointed out, is the perceived flaws of such a painting—in consideration to it being hailed as a masterpiece product of the Renaissance movement, the anatomy could have been more accurate, the landscape and the trees could have been painted more authentically, but as David Hemsoll (in the video below) points out that those weren’t concerns of Renaissance work. What was important was the symbolism with which the details were included, the violets on the mantle are a symbol of modesty, but were also used in antiquity in dedication to St. Valentine to represent fidelity and as an ingredient in love charms.

Something that was quite rare in regards to this particular piece of art was the fact that Venus was presented as a nude woman, which being from the Early Renaissance movement had only occurred very rarely before this painting’s creation and only in representing Biblical characters such as Adam and Eve. This Roman goddess, a pagan deity, was therefore fairly controversial to be displayed in the nude. Mythological paintings were also very new in terms of representation in artwork at that point in history.

The work had the intention of creating meaning, that of the birth of love and spiritual beauty as a driving force of life.

Unlike much of the work of the era, there is direct engagement of the subject of the painting with the audience, as if she is directly regarding us. Another interesting thing that should be mentioned is that Botticelli paid remarkable attention to both the unblemished, fair face of Venus, as well as her long flowing hair—which is said to reflect his admiration of women who wore their hair long in the late fifteenth century. Botticelli’s model for this painting was actually the Aphrodite of Cnidos, which is a sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite who attempts to cover her nude form in the interest of modesty.

There is such a delicate and calm nature to this painting, one that settles the soul and asserts the innocent nature of the female form while also announcing the shameless beauty it possesses. The pagan subject matter of this painting was welcomed in the court of Lorenzo de Medici (who is responsible for the commission of this work) in the 1480s and is considered part of the movement of humanism within the Renaissance movement. Looking closely upon the details of the face of Venus and her lovingly-painted flowing hair I myself feel somehow safe and loved as if this goddess of love is encouraging me to care for myself and embody love as she would.

The Visual Element of the Line

The details of this piece are what are truly special—the linework is delicate and only serves to provide details, but they enrich this painting in a way that defies articulation. What I find intriguing in the use of the line in this particular piece is that it is not noticeable from afar, but it aids in the separation of the subject from the background; the dark outline of the goddess serves to separate her milky complexion from the light blues of the water and sky.

The Visual Element of Color as Form

Venus and the other subjects in this painting are the only elements of this painting that truly have perspective because unlike other Renaissance artists of the time, Botticelli was not versed in perspectives or landscapes. His painting lacks the depth of the Renaissance painters that followed after and the landscape fails to diminish into the background in contrast to the foreground. As such, the forms of Venus and the other deities shown here, it feels as if they, in their full-dimensional forms have in effect been laid atop a flat surface.

The Visual Element of Contrast as Form

We see the contrast here in several places, as an example, under the shell that Venus is standing upon, to show the shadow of the shell upon the water. The subjects themselves have nicely executed shading upon their bodies, to show the form and shape of their bodies—this is especially important for Venus, as she is the central figure who can be described by her aesthetic and soft figure. The shadows of Venus and the other subjects of this painting upon the shell, water, and ground are quite noticeably absent, however, which further increases the feeling that they somehow do not belong on the flat surface of Botticelli’s landscape.

A Mini-Lecture on The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus — Lecture by David Hemsoll

After taking the time to regard this painting in all of its aspects, I have a deeper appreciation for it; the gentleness of her presentation brings to mind how a woman might want to feel about herself, despite any modesty, in her most vulnerable state. Lovingly painted, Botticelli gives us this presentation of Venus who in no uncertain terms, is one of the first representations of a woman in her most powerful form. While I do admire this painting, it is not a style of artwork that resonates with me in a way that I would want to own a copy of it—I am quite selective in artwork that I display in my home—but that in no way diminishes my regard of it.

In addition to the video above, I also present to you, this wonderful presentation of The Birth of Venus, by Art Sleuths—while it’s not necessarily a cited resource for this particular article, I believe it is both educational and entertaining.

Work Cited

“Botticelli – The Birth of Venus.” Performance by David Hemsoll, Youtube “Botticelli – The Birth of Venus“, 10 Mar. 2017, youtu.be/-pzFEZwmDBc.

“Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.” ItalianRenaissance.org, www.italianrenaissance.org/botticelli-birth-of-venus/.

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