Review of Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus
By: Michael A. Arnold

Sometime in the 15th century, a hooded figure rode through the forests of southern Germany toward an ancient monastery. Getting there he was taken the monastery's library, being told he might find what he had spent years looking for – ancient texts, relics of the mostly lost world of Ancient Greece and Rome. It must have been so atmospheric: a lone figure walking around in a dark room by candle light, looking through huge, dusty codices that had been meticulously copied by the in–residence monks over, how long? Decades? Centuries? Wondering among those volumes, he was probably expecting to find more texts by Caesar or Cicero or Livy, but instead he found something else. Something better. In a forgotten and dusty corner of the library he found the only existent copy of an ancient poem called De Rerum Natura, 'On the Nature of Things' by the Roman poet Lucretius, otherwise lost and unknown for more than a thousand years. What this rider, a Vatican–employed book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, found was remarkable. To this day it is the oldest surviving manuscript of Lucretius' poem known to exist – and it is this poem, and this discovery, that Steven Greenblatt in his book The Swarve suggests was the final spark that lit the fire of the Renaissance.

Among the Renaissance artistic masterworks there are perhaps few so well known or well liked as Sandro Botticelli's painting The Birth of Venus, painted sometime between 1485 and 1486. The painting is beautiful, there can be no argument about that, but there is more than just its beauty to justify it as a symbol of that whole era, which it seems to be for us.

It is worth establishing certain facts about it before going on: if the painting was not commissioned by the Medici, it was almost certainly painted with that famous Florentine family in mind. Certain minor details in the painting seem to indicate this, there are laurel trees in the background of right hand side the painting, which is now understood as a reference to Lorenzo il Magnifico ('the Magnificent') and it is first recorded as being in the Villa de Castello, a lavish villa owned by the Medici family. Botticelli was certainly close to the Medici family, especially Lorenzo the Magnificant. This is important because the Medici family were almost single–handedly responsible for what we think of as the Renaissance, funding essentially every major artist of the period, as well as funding places of higher education to make the ideas and texts of ancient writers more widely available. If the Renaissance could be summed up in a sentence, it might be summed up as 'the total reinterpretation of Classical thinking and the re–discovery of classical beauty'. This interest in supreme beauty can hardly be missed in the new art of the period, especially in The Birth of Venus.

The painting depicts Venus as a nude, beautiful young woman having risen from the sea in a seashell. She stands, looking to the viewer while being blown by the winds on the left, and about to be dressed into her first clothes by a similarly young and beautiful woman, symbolizing the hours of Spring, who is going to dress her in a cloth covered in new flowers on the right.

Two things about this painting would have struck Botticelli's contemporaries as highly unusual, and which might seem surprising to us today. Firstly Venus is presented nude, following the Classical era there simply were not many depictions of nude subjects in art before this painting – and when a character was nude, it was in representations of Adam and Eve following their fall from grace. Nakedness in art, between the Classical era and the Renaissance, was almost always considered somewhat shameful – but, here, the nakedness of Venus, the ancient Roman goddess of love, is not just expressly drawn, she is looking directly at the viewer, playfully smiling while her long red hair is flowing down to her waist – it is drawn to be erotic. Secondly, it would have been striking that this is a depiction of a pagan god. It should not be forgotten that Europe in this period was, and Italy still is, a very Christian society, and there was nothing of the religious and expressive freedoms we enjoy today.

It should also not be assumed that artists and writers of the period, who were involved in the rediscovery of classical beauty, were covertly anti–Christian or skeptics in any way. Many of them were profoundly religious, and used their art in Christian ways or draw inspiration from their faith. The renaissance even had a religious foundation, because people were (thanks to the philosopher Thomas Aquinas) beginning to think that intelligence was universal, and that all people, from all ages, had useful things to say. It is also wrong, and this is key, to assume that artists of the Renaissance had an 'art for art's sake' mentality and painted purely for the love of beauty. Every choice in a painting like The Birth of Venus has a very deliberate purpose. The painting invites us to ask why Botticelli chose Venus' birth as his subject.

There are striking similarities between Botticelli's painting and a depiction of the birth of Venus in the second Homeric hymn to Aphrodite (the Greek name for Venus), but this is perhaps beside the point. This might have been a sauce for the subject of the painting, there is no evidence Botticelli knew the Homeric hymns, although they were translated by another patron of the Medici in the same decade The Birth of Venus was painted, but this does not tell us about a purpose for the painting. We can however be basically certain that Botticelli knew Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, which was a didactic poem written to explain the philosophy of Epicurianism, and in the beginning of that poem there is a hymn to Venus:

_________Oh mother of the Roman race, delight
_________Of men and gods
, Venus most bountiful
_________You who beneath the gliding signs of heaven
_________Fill with yourself the sea bedecked with ships
_________And earth great crop–bearer, since by your power
_________Creatures of every kind are brought to birth
_________And rising up behold the light of sun
_________From you, sweet goddess, you, and at your coming
_________The winds and clouds of heaven all flee away
_________For you the earth well skilled puts forth sweet flowers
_________For you the seas' horizons smile, and sky,
_________All peaceful now, shines clear with light outpoured
_________For soon as the spring days show their lovely face
_________And west wind blows creative fresh and free

_________ (translated by Ronald Melville – emphasis is mine)

Here Venus is being referred to as 'mother of the Roman race,' because she was the biological mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas who fled burning Troy and sailed to Italy, and from whom Romulus and Remus are said to have descended.

There is a tension here, because Epicurean philosophy actually had no need of a god. To sum up Epicurean philosophy extremely briefly, it is based around the idea of the indivisible atom being the building blocks of literally all things in existence, and which cannot be destroyed or created, but simply are. Because everything can be explained by atoms (or by extension, nature) simply existing, there is no reason to suggest the gods or the supernatural are needed for life to function on at least a basic level. In this philosophy, responsibility as consciously living things is to the sustaining of our own pleasure, since there is nothing after death, and to the discovery of truth through reason and rationality. Venus in Lucretius' poem is a metaphor, as line 20 indicates. Ronald MeVille translates it:

Since you and only you are nature's guide

In Epicureanism the gods do not, and cannot, actively guide nature. Instead Venus, the goddess of love, is being used as a metaphor for the force of love, not being literally herself like you would find in the writings of another Roman epic poet like Virgil or Ovid. It is perhaps worth stressing here: it would be wrong to call Epicurianism an atheistic philosophy. There was actually room for gods in this world view, it is just that they had no direct and personal influence on our daily lives. This was obviously something that would in Christian Europe be vehemently rejected, and throughout the history of the critical receptions of Lucretius' poem until, basically, the modern day we almost unanimously find comments like 'well the language is sublime, but the ideas are horrendous'. But the important point to be made here is that people, or rather the elite (because they could read Latin) were reading Lucretius.

We might ask why people of the time were so interested in a book that they found so objectionable on such a fundamental level, but in asking this we fundamentally misunderstand the reason why the elite of the Renaissance took so much care to reinterpret, recreate, re–copy, and rediscover the legacies of the ancient pagan world. It was, again, not simply for its own sake, but it was to serve a function – both political and aesthetic, but primarily political. The aim was to find the best ideas from the past to help improve the present. Beauty was no small part of this, and if the powerful could take Roman and Greek ideas of city planning, to make their own cities more beautiful, it was thought that the people living within those cities would behave better. While Aristotle or Livy might have been pagans, they still had valuable things to say about living a good life, something inspired by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. This is basically the idea behind what we now call Renaissance Humanism, or simply Humanism (not the modern, emphatically secular philosophy of the same name). This is also why many buildings of the Renaissance seek to emulate the grandeur of the classical world with things like Greek columns. The defining philosophy of the era was on promoting and unlocking the potential of humanity. Wile here is no point in suggesting that Lucretius is the only inspiration behind Renaissance Humanism, that simply is not true, the emphasis on rationality and reason found in classical philosophies like Epicurianism no doubt had an impact on the increasing technological and scientific breakthroughs happening around Botticelli's time. Also, Epicurianism emphasized the joys of the mind and the appreciation of beauty, something any artist and Humanist, and Humanist artist, would have sympathized with. So like Lucretius representing Epicurean philosophy in beautiful verse, Botticelli was representing Humanist philosophy in beautiful art.

Venus is more than a symbol of love, or lust, in both Lucretius and in The Birth of Venus. She is also a symbol for the Roman people, and so by extension the world of Ancient Rome, as the hymn in Lucretius suggests. This is important to someone like Lorenzo the Magnificent, because they literally saw their home city of Florence as being a new Rome. Their interest in and supporting of the Renaissance ideas was an attempt to rebirth the spirit of Ancient Rome in the 'New Rome' of Florence. Notice, for example, that Venus is going to be dressed by the Hours with what if obviously very fine cloth, because Florence first made its name and wealth in the cloth and textile trade. Also the fact that the cloth in the painting is covered in flowers is important, because Firenze (the Italian name for Florence), and the name Florence itself, are etymologically linked to the Latin word 'Florentius' meaning blooming or blossoming. Florence is in this sense a city of flowers that made money primarily through cloth and textiles, and so in the painting a metaphor for Florence is being put around the mother of Rome, Venus. The political implications of this could not be clearer.

The whole image of The Birth of Venus is also strikingly like the engraving of the baptism of Christ on the doors of the baptistery just outside of Florence's iconic 'il Duomo' cathedral, carved by the notable artist–architect (the two things were seemingly indistinguishable at the time) Lorenzo Ghiberti:

A baptism is for Christians a kind of rebirth, or a second birth, into a new Christian life. Thus, in a sense, the Birth of Venus can be thought of as a rebirth of Venus. If Venus, and so Rome, is being reborn in Florence then so are the Classical ideals of beauty and truth that the Humanists admired so much.

The painting is thus a symbolic representation of the entire era that produced it. It is, ultimately, both a visual encapsulation of the spirit of Renaissance, and a nod to its great patron – Lorenzo Medici. But was is not painted purely to be enjoyed solely by Lorenzo il Magifico himself, instead because it serves as an encapsulation of the entire Renaissance zeitgeist, as it is a symbol of the colour and beauty of classical learning, and so promoting the birth, or more accurately rebirth of them, it is something to help inspire us to realize our more noble aspirations, toward truth and beauty, not just as individuals (although, that is important) but as a species. This is why it continues to be one of the most popular paintings in history.

Today the painting is placed in the largest room in the Uffizi gallery, and always attracts a large crowd every year – numbering somewhere in the millions. Although its colours are not as vibrant today as they no doubt would have once been, and up close you can see the tiny cracks of age in the paint, it is a work that can still inspire us to be better people – no doubt its intention all along.