It’s one of the most famous paintings in the world, deservedly so. A learned pagan erotic fantasy commissioned for his private enjoyment by a member of the tiny cultured ruling class of Quattrocento Florence has been reproduced in thousands of books, websites, coasters, and coffee mugs. I was doing a jigsaw puzzle of it on the iPad when I asked myself the dumb question : what is the subject of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? What is it about?
Obvious, you say : it’s clearly eros, sexual love, desire and fulfilment. Sure. But that covers a lot of ground, and the difficulties start when you try to pin it down a little more. What sort of eros?
One theory popular with art historians is that the painting is a Neoplatonic allegory of divine love. Up to a point, Lord Copper. SFIK there are zero references to Christian themes, no fish, lambs, bread, thorns, pelicans or blue gowns with stars. That made good pragmatic sense, as mixing pagan and Christian themes could easily have led to clerical charges of blasphemy as well as artistic charges of incoherence. How about a non-Christian, generic First Mover? The trouble with that hypothesis is that it applies to anything. A picture of a cow is not really a portrait of Bessie but an attempt to capture the Idea of Cow in the mind of the Creator. Indeed, the four individuals in Botticelli’s painting are not portraits but idealized samples of human beauty. That’s common to most paintings with human subjects, and strikes me as the starting-point of an investigation of the meaning of this one in particular, rather than a conclusion.
The four personages are also gods, supernatural beings who are not only perfect but cast no shadows. But being Greek, they are incarnate, like the Christian God. Aphrodite and Zeus both reputedly had sex with numerous human lovers. Greek gods are anchored in two worlds. All an artist can represent is their bodies and actions in this one, which have to make sense in our context. So even if there is a neoplatonic, allegorical meaning, we can also expect an earthly one too.
At the other end of the high-mindedness scale is the soft porn theory. Men like looking at naked young women, so they like looking at representations of naked young women that can’t run away, complain or demand payment. The Birth of Venus is just a very posh pinup. This has some merit, but again explains too much. Even if vicarious autoerotic sex were the only motive of the patrons who commission or buy nudes, artists in practice meet the alleged expectation to very different degrees.
Botticelli’s work here is very chaste and discreet compared to many others. Goya’s Naked Maja looks at the viewer with a smile of sexual welcome. Cranach’s many Eves look seductively at Adam. The gaze of Botticelli’s Venus is turned away in inward reverie both from the viewer and the other three personages.
Venus covers her pudenda and one breast in the classic gesture of modesty. There’s nothing in her stance that suggests availability. Contrast the Naked Maja again, and – an extreme example – Courbet’s Origine du Monde, painted for an unequivocally pornographic commission that it shockingly transcends.
Florentine Renaissance painters knew perfectly well how to make clearly erotic pictures. See this topless portrait of the famous beauty Simonetta Vespucci by Piero de Cosimo. Botticelli’s Venus is supposed to have been loosely based on Simonetta, who had died ten years before at the age of 23. Her remembered beauty was as much in the public domain as that of Marilyn Monroe today. Botticelli could have turned her into a sex goddess rather than the Goddess of Sex, but did not.
Venus’ attention is inward. She invites us not to desire her but to follow her into the memory and anticipation of our own needs and loves. I suggest that this vagueness is quite deliberate : the love being celebrated here is not exclusively heterosexual.
Sandro Botticelli never married, scorned the marriage state, and did not have a known mistress. He was rumoured to have an unrequited passion for the conveniently dead Simonetta Vespucci and arranged to be buried near her. He was accused of “keeping a boy” but the charge was dropped. I infer that he was probably gay, like Michelangelo.
Botticelli’s sexual orientation does not prove anything about his painting but encourages us to look in it for clues. There is one: Aura, the goddess of breezes, who flies behind Zephyros and helps him to blow Venus’ unlikely surfboard ashore.
Aura is the only figure in the composition in a clearly sexual pose. Her arms and legs are wrapped tenderly around an unresponsive Zephyros. The little puff of air that escapes her lips is the intimate breath of a lover. She is identifiable as female by her visible but not emphasised breast. Her face however is androgynous. It’s very close to that of Venus (that is, Simonetta), but to my eye subtly masculinised. Botticelli was one of the finest draftsmen who ever put charcoal to canvas, so don’t tell me this effect is accidental.
My speculation is that Aura stands proximately for a real love of Botticelli’s, hidden behind the image of Aura/Venus as he was concealed in real life by the façade of the artist’s pretended passion for Simonetta. This real passion could easily have been unrequited also; since homosexuals are a small minority, it must be the fate of many gay men to fall in love with those who cannot return it, a tragedy which persecution and denial only multiply.
My answer to my own question is that the Birth of Venus is a celebration of erotic love of every kind. It does not limit itself to love between men and women, as the Christian churches have delimited; or to the love of men for men, as the classical Greeks recommended, less culpably as they merely considered heterosexuality inferior rather than wicked. The religious meaning, though pagan in form, is not anti-Christian: sexual love is an imitation and expression of the divine love from which all else springs.
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
(Schiller, Ode to Joy)
A happy Easter to you and those you love, whoever they may be.
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PS 1 : An additional piece of evidence is Pliny’s story of Apelles, well known to Florentine humanists and artists. The leading painter in Greece was commissioned by Alexander the Great to portray the king’s mistress Campaspe as Aphrodite. Apelles fell in love with his model. The bisexual Alexander, instead of punishing Apelles, gave him the girl. A modern feminist might see the story as an instance of callous patriarchy, but that thought would have occurred neither to ancient Greeks and Romans nor to Renaissance Italians. The usual moral of the story to them was the example of magnanimity, specifically of patrons. It can also be read as a story about the challenges of desire in a world of sexual ambiguity.
PS 2 : To the Greeks, Aphrodite rose from the sea at Paphos on the south coast of Cyprus. Her temple there, an offshoot of the Phoenician cult of Astarte, went back to the Bronze Age. The cliffs are chalky, and the blue sea from which the goddess (perhaps incarnated in a shipwrecked Tyrian priestess) is no foamier than elsewhere but pale as if from milk. Bronze Age mythmakers were a lot earthier than Botticelli.