Spotlight: The Birth of Venus (1486 AD) – Painting by Botticelli

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The Birth of Venus  is a 1486 masterpiece painting by Sandro Botticelli.  Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence.  It depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as a fully grown woman, arriving at the sea-shore.  The painting is on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting. Botticelli represented the Neoplatonic idea of divine love in the form of a nude Venus.

For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator. A Neoplatonic reading of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus suggests that 15th-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.

Botticelli’s art was never fully committed to naturalism; in comparison to his contemporary Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli seldom gave weight and volume to his figures and rarely used a deep perspective space. In the Birth of Venus, Venus’ body is anatomically improbable, with elongated neck and torso. Her pose is 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. Moreover, her positioning on the edge of the shell (which cannot be identified as real), would certainly cause it to tip over. The bodies and poses of the winds to the left are even harder to figure out. The background is summary, and the figures cast no shadows. It is clear that this is a fantasy image.

Venus is an Italian Renaissance ideal: red-haired, pale-skinned, voluptuous. Botticelli has picked out highlights in her hair with gold leaf and has emphasized the femininity of her body (long neck, curviness). The brilliant light and soothing colors, the luxurious garden, the gorgeous draperies of the nymph, and the roses floating around the beautiful nude all suggest that the painting is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer.

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*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_Venus_(Botticelli)

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