How to Read Paintings: The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
When Alessandro Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus around 1485, it was part of the ongoing rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture that celebrated the nude figure.
The spread of Humanism in Italy — the belief in the capacity of the individual and the human intellect — brought with it a renewed interest in the human form. From the 1460s, Italian artists began to be trained in drawing from live models; some, like Antonio Pollaiuolo, are thought to have carried out dissections on corpses to discover more about the intricacies of the body.
When nude figures based on antique models first began to appear in Italian art, it was the male nude that was pre-eminent. And it would be paintings like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus that helped to bring the female nude into popularity.
No figure from ancient art and literature held more appeal for Renaissance artists than Venus, the Roman goddess of Love.
Reading The Birth of Venus
Botticelli’s painting is not only an intricately composed image but at nearly three metres wide, it achieves a level of spatial grandeur that elevates it to a type of painted theatre.
The scene that unfolds before us is simple to grasp: Venus floats towards the shore on a large scallop shell, blown in from the sea by the breath of two entwined wind-gods. Meanwhile, a nymph waits on dry land to cover Venus in a pink cloak.
According to Hesiod, one of the earliest Greek poets, Venus’ birth was a result of the castrated genitals of Uranus being cast out into the sea. The newly born Venus floated ashore on the shell and finally landed on a beach in Cyprus (other traditions say she landed on the island of Kythira). Her Greek name, Aphrodite, is probably derived from the Greek word for foam, aphros.
Venus was one of the twelve Olympian deities and presided over love and fertility. Depictions of her were especially popular in antiquity.