Boticelli’s Venus is perhaps one of the most famous works to come out of the Italian Renaissance. “Renaissance” is a term coined to mean “rebirth. ” At this era in Western Civilization, the Medieval era had come to a close. The Middle Ages had been marked by strict social stratification – one was either a noble, a peasant, or a member of the clergy. There had been little movement between classes, and the view of the world was that there was a predetermined hierarchy: One took one’s place in the chain of being, and whether one was a prince or a pauper, one was expected to acquit one’s self with honor to be assured of a place in Heaven.
Having come after the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was also a period where government consisted of numerous feudal holdings vying for eminence, rather than a single strong central government. In a world where there was so much instability, the life to come was looked upon as preferable to the one on Earth, so that the Church grew to stand as mankind’s great hope and strength. Art and Culture in the Middle Ages revolved around the Church, and this institution would continue to play an important role in the period to come.
The Renaissance would be succeeded by the years leading up to the Enlightenment, when important discoveries in the fields of science and technology, coupled with corresponding evolutions in philosophy, medicine, psychology, economics and social theory would result in revolutions that would topple monarchies and similar institutions that had stood for hundreds and years. The Renaissance era, then, bridged the Age of the Church and the Age of Reason. A remarkably productive period, it was marked by the faith of one and the learning of the other. Both elements are revealed in Boticelli’s painting of Venus emerging from the sea.
The “rebirth” that occurred in the Renaissance actually referred to that of classical Greek and Roman aesthetics and ideas. This combined with a system of patronage from the Church and European princes, the first providing subject and inspiration, and the second providing the means by which artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and the like could bring forth their masterpieces. Boticelli’s Birth of Venus depicts the moment in pagan mythology where the goddess of love and beauty emerges from the sea. She is supposed to have been born of sea-foam, evoking what is ephemeral but also eternally new.
The zephyrs, gentle winds, waft her to shore while Spring waits with a garment ready to cover her nakedness. The painting may be divided vertically into thirds, with the first section containing the Winds, the third the goddess Aurora, and the central section containing Venus herself. The composition is triangular, the Winds forming the left-hand side of the triangle and the ready robe forming the one on the right. Venus’s delicate head makes up the apex. On the left, the zephyrs’ wings balance the dark-leaved crown of a group of trees behind Spring.
At first glance, the composition already reveals that the painter has learned from the generations that have come before him. While the figures appear in landscape orientation and are shown from top to toe as they are in medieval paintings where “completeness” of the figures take precedence over the aesthetic advantages of contrasts between foreground and background for instance, there is much movement and life in the diagonals lines of wings and robe and Venus’s flowing hair that has left the stasis and rigidity of medieval painting behind.
A stickler for realism might say that the painting lacks a true middle ground or that Venus is perched at the edge of her shell rather than standing securely in the middle of her “raft. ” Venus’s neck is also too long, and her head is perched at an unrealistic angle. But these things are beside the point. Boticelli’s objective seemed to be to paint the ideal of female beauty.
His figures are natural enough to show that he has benefited from the study of the human body that painters of his era conducted, when great masters actually dissected corpses so that they could see networks of veins and layers of muscle and scaffoldings of bone beneath the skin. This painstaking attention paid to the human body draws from the Greek tradition of celebrating the human body. The Greeks, who had their athletes compete in the nude as part of the aesthetic experience of sport, also created sculptures where the goal was to depict fleshly perfection.
They created their kouros for this purpose – ideal figures that showed the state of male youth. Boticelli’s Venus does the same for Woman. Venus is a pagan goddess, and it is this aspect of the painting that derives from the classical revival that intellectually informed the Renaissance. However, she is a pagan goddess with Christian sensibilities. Boticelli’s goddess of love and beauty is a modest one, modeled after other “modest” Venuses in the classical tradition. One hand discreetly covers her bosom, while the other holds a length of hair to veil the pubis.
Her entire attitude conveys virtuous Christian beauty rather than the overt celebration of sexuality and gorgeousness of paganism. In fact, Venus in this picture resembles the Madonnas painted during this period as well. There is sweetness in her expression, a tendency to avert her gaze. She does not look directly at the viewer or even at the shore where she is headed. Instead she looks downward and to the side, from the direction where she has been blown and to the sea from which she has risen.
Her golden hair is as much touched by the light of Heaven – it is the gold of divine crowns. Her thighs and knees are pressed together in careful control that is assimilated into the graceful elongated S that forms her figure. This, then, is the ideal woman of the era. An examination of portraits of what were considered the beauties of the period, like Da Vinci’s Girl With a Ferret, would reveal that the Renaissance woman was expected to be, to some extent, idealized in a Madonna-like way. Brides of the era were very young; they were fifteen or sixteen years old.
Their breasts are small, eyebrows lightly marked, and their foreheads are high and bare. Their mouths are also small, or at the very least, their lips are thin rather than full and lush. These seem to be saints or water-nymphs rather than women of flesh and blood. In Boticelli’s Venus, we see the openness to fresh aesthetics, the willingness to learn new things and perhaps even the Humanist emphasis on the value of the person and the individual. The figures in this painting have their own unique faces.
Each has an expression appropriate to the time, to their role in this moment as it has been captured on the canvass. Yet there is also a little prudishness in the urgency with which a sister-goddess waits on the shore with a robe to cover the splendor of her body. This illustrates the tension that characterized the point to which Western civilization had evolved at this time. The rebirth that occurred during the Renaissance was not a simple reconstruction of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, as far as culture was concerned.
It was actually a movement unique in the manner in which the medieval stronghold of the Church and feudal powers like kings and nobles managed to provide the avenue for artisans and artists to bring to light a re-vision or a re-imagining of the best ideas to have come out of the pagan world, ideas that had been buried in the confusion of the Dark Ages. Under the necessity of producing decorations for churches and palaces, artists created paintings and sculptures that expressed the ideals and the concerns of the age.
The devotion to the old faith was still intact, only changed somewhat in its image. The most essential change brought about by the expansion of the frontiers of the mind – which would soon also result in pushing back geographical frontiers when, later in the era, explorers would reach the New World – was bringing “distant” figures like gods and goddesses or saints “close” to the people by depicting them in a style closer to what was real in the human sense. Thus, the beautiful figures lost the stiff robes they wore throughout the Middle Ages and acquired soft skin and flowing hair.
The humanity was traceable to some extent to the classical era, when the pagans paid equal attention to life on earth as to life after death – when they believed in it at all. Thus, the Biblical David still slays Goliath and Good triumphs over Evil, but it does so for Michelangelo in the form of a sculpted youth that rivals the Greek kouros in beauty. Inversely, a goddess rises from the sea-foam, but instead of a diety infused with all the powers of seduction, she appears to us fragile, sweet-tempered and pure-faced, as much Virgin as she is Venus.
References: Cole, B. (1989) Art of the Western World From Ancient Greece to Postmodernism. New York : Simon and Schuster. Cunningham, L. (2009) Culture and Values, Volume II: A Survey of the Humanities. USA: Wadworth Publishing, Inc. Strickland, C. (1992) The Annotated Mona Lisa. USA: John Boswell Management, Inc. The Birth of Venus by Boticellli. Retrieved from http://www. bergerfoundation. ch/Home/Ahigh_botticelli. html