Day 8 – Alessandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485, The Uffizi, Florence.
Originally posted on 26 March 2020
The request I’m following up today is ‘wonky people in early paintings’, and although 1485 is not terribly early from my point of view, a discussion ensued about Botticelli – and as I mentioned Venus yesterday, and talked about the idea of ‘tradition’, this seemed the perfect choice, because there simply was no precedent. When asked to paint ‘The Birth of Venus’ Botticelli had absolutely nothing to go on, as no one had painted it before. In the terms of yesterday’s #POTD, no words, no melody, and especially, no ‘backing track’. How did he decide what to do?
The first choice, I suppose, would be to read the original sources, although all artists, in a situation like this, would also have received a huge amount of advice. Whoever commissioned the painting would know what they wanted, in the same way that, if you commissioned an architect to design you a house, you would tell them how many bedrooms and bathrooms there should be, and possibly even how you would like them to be arranged. Very often, the patron would also be getting advice. In this case, the patron was a member of the Medici family: the painting is first mentioned in the middle of the 16th Century, when it was in one of the Medici villas just outside Florence. This leads to the assumption that the idea for the subject matter was suggested by Agnolo Poliziano, a leading thinker of the day, and the man appointed by Lorenzo de’ Medici to be tutor to his children. Poliziano certainly wrote poetry that includes a description of the birth of Venus, including how she was ‘wafted to shore by playful zephyrs’, her hand ‘covering… her sweet mound of flesh’ while ‘the Hours’ are ‘treading the beach in white garments, the breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair.’ You can read more about that connection here:
Botticelli’s painting is not an illustration of Poliziano’s description though – there are too many differences. Even from the extracts above you will realise that there is only one of the ‘Hours’ present (the Hours, or Horae, were goddesses of the seasons, and so of periods of time). Poliziano also mentions Venus ‘pressing her hair with her right hand’ which Botticelli doesn’t show. Titian does, as it happens, although his Venus isn’t worried about ‘covering… her sweet mound’. What this suggests is that Poliziano, who may well have advised the Medici on what paintings they should have to decorate their villa, and may well have gone on to advise Botticelli how to paint it, provided only one of the sources for this particular image.
Another source – for both Poliziano and Botticelli as it happens – was almost certainly a classical sculpture known as the ‘Venus Pudica’ – the bashful, or modest, Venus. The one I’m showing you is called the ‘Medici Venus’, because it was in their collection, although it is not know when it was discovered. Either this, or an equivalent sculpture, must have been around quite early, because Giovanni Pisano used it back in 1302 for his figure of ‘Prudence’ on the pulpit he carved in Siena cathedral. You can see her in the photograph here alongside ‘Fortitude’, who is shown in full ‘trophy hunter’ mode.
In neither the classical original nor Botticelli’s painting is Venus either bashful or modest. She may be pretending to cover herself up, but fails completely. What she is actually doing is pointing and saying ‘Look at this, boys!’ Or girls, for that matter. Let’s not be too heteronormative about it. Whatever she is doing, though, the ‘Venus Pudica’ was undoubtedly another one of Botticelli’s sources, even if the sculpture doesn’t have the strands of hair blowing in the breeze that we can see in the painting.
For these, we must turn to one of the most important renaissance texts on painting, called, conveniently, ‘On Painting’. It was written in Latin in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti for Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Alberti describes not only how to go about being a painter (although he doesn’t discuss practical technique), but also why you should be a painter, and how you can make yourself look better. It must have occurred almost immediately that artists themselves would appreciate this advice, and the following year (1436) Alberti translated the book into Italian as ‘Della Pittura.’ Many artists read it, and in some cases they transcribed what they had read in the book – often Alberti’s observations on what he had seen and liked – directly onto their paintings.
Take, for example, his thoughts on movement: “I am delighted to see some movement in hair… where part of it turns in spirals as if wishing to knot itself, waves in the air like flames, twines around itself like a serpent’. Surely that is exactly what Venus’s hair is doing in Botticelli’s painting? Fortunately, one of the few books I have brought with me in my Social Distancing is ‘On Painting’ – the translation by John R. Spencer published by Yale, which it seems I bought in January 1985. Always have a copy with you.
Alberti does find a problem in showing this movement, though, which he explains while talking about fabrics: ‘However, where we should wish to find movement in the draperies, cloth is by nature heavy and falls to the earth’. The solution? It is one of his most bizarre ideas, and goes against the logic, the rationality and the clarity of the rest of the book. No artist in their right mind would dream of doing it: ‘For this reason it would be well to place in the picture the face of the wind Zephyrus or Austrus who blows from the clouds making the draperies flow in the wind’. And again, that is exactly what Botticelli does. Here it is not madness, but an essential part of the original story, although at least one other artist, Paolo Uccello, included both Zephyrus and Austrus in one of his paintings. Admittedly, Vasari did think he was a bit bonkers.
So, there we have it – at least four sources: the original myth, Poliziano’s interpretation of it, the ‘Venus pudica’ and Alberti’s ‘On Painting’. But although that might explain what he’s painted, it does not explain how it’s arranged. There was no precedent. What model could he possibly use? Someone naked in the water, someone on shore leaning over, a couple of people flying around? Surely no one had ever painted anything like this before? Again (see #POTD 4) the credit goes to Ernst Gombrich, who pointed out that the model was actually the ‘Baptism of Christ’, with Jesus wearing nothing but a loin cloth in the river Jordan, John the Baptist on the shore leaning over to baptise him, and two angels, with wings, who attend on the other side. I’ve chosen the one illustrated here because is in a room in the Uffizi not so very far from the Botticelli, even if the angels don’t have wings. It was painted by Verrocchio and Leonardo, among others.
At this point the Renaissance has truly arrived: no longer is Christian art and architecture drawing on the classical past for inspiration, but a classical subject is drawing on Christian influence. In other words, a Christian subject is wearing classical clothes, rather than the other way around.
The more astute among you will have noticed that I’ve got this far without even mentioning ‘wonky people’, but we’ve been looking at them all the time. Botticelli is a wonderful artist, his figures are elegant, his paintings inspired. But he was rubbish at anatomy. If he was trying to paint an anatomically correct painting, then he ‘got it wrong’. At this point I would like it to be known in no uncertain terms that that is my least favourite phrase spoken about art: ‘He got that wrong’. What does it mean? In order to know if someone ‘got that wrong’ you have to know what they were trying to achieve. In this instance, anatomical accuracy would have been inimical to Botticelli’s purpose. But, you say, look at Venus’s right ankle – she has dislocated her foot! However, it does create a wonderful, extended, elegant, line, continuing the almost balletic pose of the right leg. Feet and ankles are rarely elegant (although, as so often, I do have a nomination for ‘Best Foot’), and were her foot at the usual angle to the shin, it would jut out abruptly, poking towards us and disrupting the stylised distancing of this deity which Botticelli creates to keep us slightly in awe of her. We don’t need to stop at her ankle. She has no shoulders, and, like almost every figure by Botticelli, one eye is higher than the other. Picasso could do it, so why shouldn’t Botticelli? It is these peculiarities, these awkwardnesses, these quirks, which make the painting so strange and elegiac – it is poetry, not prose, and like poetry the syntax is stretched, the meaning is moved. It is more beautiful than true, perhaps. Or, to put it another way, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, in the words of the poet. That’s all you need to know.