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BOTTICELLI's Three Venuses

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, called Sandro BOTTICELLI (1445-1510), shares with TIZIANO Vecellio a universal popularity of prominent Renaissance painters who depicted Venus. The latter was more prolific in his representations of the Goddess, but BOTTICELLI was the first to paint her near life-sized and naked, a generation earlier than GIORGIONE-TIZIANO's 'Sleeping Venus' and 50 years before TIZIANO's 'Venus of Urbino'. See Topical Catalogue 'The Italian Venus'

Assumed self-portrait of BOTTICELLI, who did not write about his ideas on art nor about the meaning of his paintings.

The five hundred years anniversary of his death was the occasion for scholars to reinterpret BOTTICELLI's superb paintings, many of them enigmatic, atypical and controversial. An earlier excellent synthesis of the many, sometimes conflicting, interpretations was published by Liana De Girolami Cheney (1). See below: Additional Information and References.

Botticelli with  Vivaldi's concerto  'L'Amoroso'

YouTube Video

La Primavera

BOTTICELLI's extant oldest representation of Venus, draped in a Florentine dress of the period, is the central figure in the 'Allegory of Spring', known as 'Primavera', but many other titles  (e.g. 'Court of Venus') and interpretations have been given. Venus is accompanied to her left by Flora and Chloris, seduced by Zephyrus; to her right are dancing the Three Graces while Mercury is standing further to the left; above Venus is flying Cupid.
The large painting (tempera on panel, 203x312 cm), since 1815 in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Firenze, hometown of BOTTICELLI, has been seen as an allegory of life, beauty, and knowledge united by love, or of Firenze itself.

The famous art historian Aby Warburg wrote his doctoral thesis in 1893 with the title "Sandro Botticellis “Geburt der Venus” und “Frühling”. Eine Untersuchung über die Vorstellungen von der Antike in der italienischen Frührenaissance", translated in 1999 into English as 'Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Spring (1893). The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity' (free download here). Warburg argues on p.130 "If the title of the work known as 'Spring' is to be taken from the repertoire of ideas current in the artist's own time, then it ought to be called 'Il regno di Venere' (The realm of Venus)".
But the work’s precise meaning continues to be debated: according to a nicely illustrated article 'Spring mysteries: Botticelli’s Primavera' of March 20, 2013 by Artstor,  more than 700 differing opinions can be found in literature.
Timeline of BOTTICELLI's imitations with myHistro

About the many imitations by later artists, see 'Déjà-vu (1): repetitions of BOTTICELLI's 'Primavera''

Birth of Venus

Most popular is 'Birth of Venus' or 'Nascita di Venere', also entitled 'The arrival of Venus' or 'The rebirth of Venus': a large painting (tempera on canvas, 172x278 cm) in the Galleria degli Uffizi. There is no doubt that the central figure is Venus, standing in a scallop shell and blown ashore by Zephyrus and Aura; to the left an attendant (a Hora) is holding up a mantle to cover Venus.
The scene follows the Homeric Hymn 6 'To Aphrodite' but also the narrative of Hesiod about Venus' origin: she was foam-born from the sea, following the castration of Ouranos by his son Kronos who had thrown the testicles in the sea. According to Levi d'Ancona (2) Ouranos' genital was painted in the left bottom corner, hidden under the sea and foam, but disappeared after restoration of the painting.

Two replicas of the figure of Venus by BOTTICELLI's workshop are extant and known as the Berlin and Turin Venuses (see the Connectivity Map below). There has been much curious debate whether the Venus figure in BOTTICELLI's paintings represents Simonetta Cattaneo, married to Marco Vespucci, or Fioretta, both loved by Giuliano dei Medici, the former his 'courtly' love (see below), the latter his wife Oretta di Piero d'Andrea dei Pazzi. Giuliano was murdered in the Pazzi conspiracy of 1477 against Lorenzo dei Medici, il Magnifico, his older brother, and la Bella Simonetta died 23 years old in 1476 (see below Additional Information).
Assumed portrait of Simonetta Vespucci:
painting by the workshop of BOTTICELLI
 (tempera on panel, 82x54 cm
 in Städel Museum, Frankfurt a/Main).

The provenance of both paintings is known: they were commissioned by members of the Medici family, and according to Levi d'Ancona (2), the first one for the birth of Giulio dei Medici in 1478 and the second one for the birth of Maria Margherita dei Medici in 1484; they were documented as early as 1498 and 1550, respectively, and were ultimately together in Villa di Castello, near Firenze, until they were transferred to the Galleria in early 19th century.

Venus and Mars

It has been argued that the above paintings form a sequence of 1° beauty (Birth of Venus), 2° humanitas (Primavera) and 3° enlightened love: the third BOTTICELLI Venus, draped in white, in his so-called 'Venus and Mars'. This painting (tempera and oil on panel) has the typical size (69,2x173,4 cm) of a spalliera - a wall-panel placed at shoulder height in a marriage chamber, maybe as the headboard of the bed -  now hanging in The National Gallery in London. However, this painting was not known before it was bought in Firenze by the English collector Alexander Barker ca 1868 - from whom is not recorded (see below 'Additional Information'). It is also not signed, but scholars never questioned the authorship of BOTTICELLI, or at least of his workshop. There have been numerous theories, hypotheses and studies about the meaning of this painting, its title, its date of production (scholarly dates vary between 1475 and 1486, but ca 1483 is generally accepted) and, related of course to these questions, who was the commissioner or patron for this enigmatic painting? The latest, most interesting, study was published in 2010 by Bellingham (3) who stresses the gender-related multiple meanings of this artwork.

Venus and Mars Music: "Havanavalse" by Jazabana

Many art historians think this painting was commissioned by a member of the Vespucci family, because of the wasps, a heraldic symbol of this family, prominently depicted in the painting. Hence, once more the debate if the Venus figure represents Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci and if Giuliano dei Medici is depicted as Mars. This hypothesis is based on the documented fact that Giuliano participated in a famous Florentine joust or tournament  of 29 January 1475 and had chosen la Bella Simonetta as his Queen of Beauty. The armour of Mars in the picture is indeed typically the one used in such chivalry game-fight, but the whole composition with a naked, exhausted and sleeping figure of Mars, several little satyrs - not cupids - playing with his armour and teasing him, and above all, a superior gazing Venus is quite surprising for celebrating such a fight or commemorating the 'Platonic' lovers. The highly respected art historian Gombrich (4, p.50) writes: <That Giuliano de’ Medici...should have been portrayed in such a shape, and that Poliziano’s poem (La Giostra) should have been illustrated on this type of panel, would be without any documented parallel in the Quattrocento>.

One could better think of a satirical joke as did Count Plunkett in 1900  <...who suggested...seriously that the picture's intention was satirical>, quoted by Gombrich (4, p.47, note 1). But in the same note Gombrich dismisses the remarkable comments by J A Symonds in 1901: <The face and attitude of that unseductive Venus, wide awake and melancholy, opposite her snoring lover, seems to symbolise the indignities which women may have to endure from insolent and sottish boys with only youth to recommend them> and does not comment any further on the suggestion of Count Plunkett.

Among several possible readings of the picture, Bellingham (3) proposes another surprising one: Venus becomes Eve with her gaze of knowledge, Mars becomes Adam who has fallen asleep after eating the fruit offered by Eve and the assault of the satyrs signify the presence of Satan. Bellingham has identified beneath the left hand of the satyr, hiding inside Mars' cuirass, a fruit known as 'thorn apple' or 'devil's-apple' which causes intoxication comparable to opium. This interpretation could endorse the suggestion of a satirical joke, taking into account the presence of the armour, which cannot be associated to Adam.
Read further Misrepresenting Botticelli for the modern era  and An update on Botticelli's Venus and Mars

Rubin (5, p.35) states: <Botticelli's painting does not illustrate a given story> and refers to another proposed  title 'Nymph and sleeping Knight'.

Schumacher (6, p.34, fig.21) provides an additional argument for this title: a drawing of a reclining 'Nymph'  by  Andrea del VERROCCHIO is a study for a tournament banner (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi).

However, the female figure in the painting looks hardly as a nymph and a more appropriate title would be 'The Lady and the naked Knight' : this
would emphasize the satirical or playful joke of the painting when compared, for instance, to a conventional  engraving of Meister E. S. entitled 'The Knight and the Lady ' in The National Gallery of Art, Washington.

There is another major problem with Venus in the title: there are no usual attributes of Venus at all in the painting.
Remarkably, these attributes of Venus are present in a painting by BOTTICELLI's competitor Piero di COSIMO (1462-1521), active in the same period in Firenze, and entitled 'Venus, Cupid and sleeping Mars' (oil on panel, 72x182 cm), dated 1490-1505, and now in the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin.
The composition of this painting, almost of the same size, is like a replica of BOTTICELLI's painting, with reclining figures in a landscape. However, here Venus is naked with Cupid nestling in her arm, a rabbit at her hip, several more cupids playing in the background and two doves at her feet, and her attitude is totally different.

This painting corresponds better than BOTTICELLI's one to an earlier (1460-65) similar presentation of  'Venus and Mars - lovers at rest -  and putti' in a stucco mirror frame, attributed to their compatriot Antonio POLLAIOLO (ca 1431-1498), now in Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Also of the Florentine School and attributed to Baccio BALDINI (1436-87) is a circular engraving, dated 1465-80, entitled 'Coppia di danzatori' (A pair of dancers,  with music-making cupids and a pair of lovers reclining below), in the British Museum number 1852,0301.1. The reclining lovers are comparable to POLLAIOLO's 'Venus and Mars'.  Both POLLAIOLO and BOTTICELLI are quoted to have been designers for the very popular prints of BALDINI.

Another comparable work, the inside lid of a marriage chest or cassone (tempera on panel), is a reclining nude of the Florentine School (ca 1465-70) quoted by Rubin (5, p.33, fig.16).

Yet another hypothesis

Starting from the plausible assumption that BOTTICELLI got the commission to paint a spalliera for decoration of a marriage or bridal chamber, one may guess that he was also asked to illustrate in this painting the famous chivalric love between Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci and Giuliano dei Medici. He  was certainly aware about the Neo-Platonic ideals in the circle of his patron and maybe he got a 'programme' for this painting, drawn up by a humanist (4, p.7). His creation, however, was his own: atypical and controversial.

HYPOTHESIS: the commissioner was not pleased with the satirical or comic joke and decided to hide the painting. Hence, it was not recorded in notary or death inventories and it disappeared for almost 400 years. The same patron  gave  a new commission to Piero di COSIMO, who painted a comparable allegoric picture, more suitable for a bridal room.
Gombrich (4, p.49-50, note 2) writes: <As both masters worked for the Vespuccis it is hardly surprising that Piero di COSIMO knew and adapted BOTTICELLI's composition>, but does not comment on the  intrinsic differences between both works. It is significant that COSIMO's painting was already recorded in the 16th century, in contrast to BOTTICELLI's painting. Geronimus (7, p.92), in his outstanding monograph 'Piero di COSIMO: visions beautiful and strange' quotes the well-known artist and art-historian Giorgio Vasari, who described the painting of COSIMO in 1568. Geronimus argues  <Piero's slightly later version may best be understood as a form of competitive imitatio...>.  It is also revealing that two replicas with the figure of Venus and cupids, without Mars, exist (see Connectivity Map below).

Of course, we do not know if this hypothesis is near the truth and there are many other historical elements we miss.

The notorious Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Firenze objected vehemently to the wedding chests (cassone) adorned with tales of pagan mythology : < ...And so the newly-wed Christian woman is more informed about the infidelities of Mars...than about the famous lives of saintly women in the Bible.>, quotation by Zöllner (8, p.132). Patrick NICOLLE (1907-1995), English illustrator of children's books, entitled one of his images: 'Savonarola berating Botticelli for painting the Birth of Venus'
<...a great many ... depictions of nudes were produced in Botticelli's workshop...and these evidently enjoyed great success in Florence.>
(6, p.236). Paintings with nude figures were certainly among those destroyed in the bonfires of Savonarola and his followers in 1495. BOTTICELLI's brother was a follower, but how was BOTTICELLI's own attitude ?  We know that he painted only religious subjects afterwards and ended in poverty. He was buried at the feet of  Simonetta Vespucci, following his wish...is said.
The  blog-post 'Botticelli and the dark psychology of the Mystic Nativity' with a remarkable BBC Two video is serious background to learn more.

By way of conclusion:
the painter stepped beside the poet and the humanist and said
(4, p.60):

< I express my own self > 

Equally important are:
* Seznec's comment (9, p.96):
<...the Renaissance... is thought to have looked on classical literature as a source of pleasure, aesthetic as well as sensuous.
As a logical consequence, it must have wished to banish allegory,
which hid or disguised the real figures of the Gods.>

* the wise words of Panofsky to avoid over-interpretation (11, p.46):
<...the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense' .>

Some Repetitions of  'Venus with Mars asleep'
Since BOTTICELLI's painting was not known till the 19th century, except to Piero di COSIMO for the reason explained above, there are no imitations of BOTTICELLI 's composition known in former centuries.

There are several artworks where Mars is depicted asleep, but
none are comparable with the appeal of BOTTICELLI's masterwork. A few works are shown below.

Mars on the lap of Venus

In Lucretius' invocation to Venus: 'Give, Venus, peace to our times...' 
Mars rests on the lap of Venus
hunc tu, diva, tuo recubantem corpore sancto
there as he reclines, goddess, upon your sacred body,
circumfusa super, suavis ex ore loquellas...
do you, bending around him from above, pour from your lips sweet coaxings...
From Lucretius, De Rerum Natura. Loeb, 1975 [1924]. Book I, ll. 29-40.
See also

'Of the Nature of Things' illustrated

'Venus looking at sleeping Mars'  is a print, after PRIMATICCIO or Luca PENNI, by Leon THIRY (also called Davent, c1500 Deventer-c.1550 Antwerpen), in the British Museum.

Another early print, a copper-engraving, is by Johannes  COLLAERT (II) (c1561 Antwerpen -c1620), entitled 'Mars on the lap of Venus' after a drawing (?) by Joannes STRADANUS (Jan Van der Straet, 1523 Brugge-1605 Firenze), in the collection of Coburg Veste.

'Venus crowning a sleeping Mars with a wreath'
  is a painting by the circle of Mario BALASSI, 1604-1667, at auction on 16 May 2006 with Bonhams, San Francisco. 

(authorization requested)

Ferdinand BOL (1616
- 1680 Amsterdam) painted ca 1660 also a 'Venus and Mars asleep'  (painting in Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum).

A similar painting 'Venus discovering Mars asleep'  by Charles de LA FOSSE (1636 Paris-1716) is in Basildon Park, Berkshire, UK.

        Gerard DE LAIRESSE (1641 Liège-1711 Amsterdam) made a drawing 
'Vénus désarmant Mars endormi', owned by the Université Liège.

Also interesting is the painting 'Mars snoozing in the arms of Venus' by Antonio VERRIO (1636 Lecca-1707 Molesey) in the King's Dressing Room, Hampton Court Palace, London.

A bold watercolour of ca 1805-15 by Richard COSWAY (1742-1821) depicts 'Mars reposing in the lap of Venus'  (in Sir John Soane's Museum, London).

A rather unusual composition with Mars and Venus accompanied by the Three Graces was painted by Jacques-Louis DAVID (1748-1825). It was his last painting. See my blog
"Mars disarmed by Venus and the Graces" , including Comments where DAVID's contemporary William ETTY (1747-1849) and his three replicas entitled 'Venus attired by the Graces' or 'Venus and her Satellites' or 'Venus at her toilet' are discussed: they all feature Mars asleep in the left corner.

ETTY also has a similar smaller painting entitled 'Venus and Mars' with only one attendant.

A similar composition of mid-19th century is by Frederick Richard PICKERSGILL (1820-1900): 'Mars and Venus, crowned by Cupid'  (owner unknown).


Sir Lawrence ALMA TADEMA (1836-1912) depicted in 1888 'Venus (as a child) and Mars (as a pupet)'  (by courtesy of Sotheby’s Picture Library): maybe a parody of the recently exhibited BOTTICELLI painting in the National Gallery in London ?

Interesting are the modern imitations by the British-born American feminist painter  Sylvia SLEIGH (born Llandudno, Gwynedd, Wales,  1916), by the Austrian feminist artist Valie EXPORT (born Linz, 1940), by the Italian painter Antonella CAPPUCCIO (born Ischia, 1944), by the American provocative commercial photographer David LACHAPELLE (born Connecticut, 1968) and by the Belgian tattoo artist Jean-Luc MOERMAN (born 1961). A special imitation is by the Austrian artist Hubert WAEHNER (born 1961).

SLEIGH, from feminist principles,  painted
around 1970 a series of works reversing stereotypical artistic themes, some directly alluded to existing works. Here:  Maureen Conner and Paul Rosano  as  Venus and Mars.
EXPORT entitled her collage of 1976 'Venus Humanitas'  and compares the present day representation of femininity with the idealized female figure in the mythological interpretation of BOTTICELLI. The work was shown in the exhibition 'True Romance', Kunsthalle Wien, 2007-08.
CAPPUCCIO's painting of 1998 is entitled 'Prince'  and shows Prince Charles of England, with a small book in his hands, next to Venus.

LACHAPELLE's work depicts the destruction of a continent, Africa and is therefore entitled 'The Rape of Africa' : in the background a crane, symbolising gold mining in Africa, which is devastating the land and the people. The obvious “benefactor” of this ravaging is the white man, resting with piles of gold at his side, while the  little black boys continue to see out his bidding. The Queen of Beauty, la bella Simonetta, is replaced by top-model Naomi Campbell, representing Africa, as an added contrast between black and white. The work was exhibited in the David DeSanctis Gallery in Los Angeles, 2009.

Even more iconoclast is Belgian artist Jean-Luc MOERMAN ( born 1967), famous for his tattoo drawings incorporating modern and classical art icons. In his ink on photography picture (71 x 178 cm) of 2008,  Mars, Venus and the satyrs bear a set of tattoos (Hampel Fine Art Auctions, Munich, December 10, 2015, lot 681)

Yet another modern imitation by the artist Hubert WAEHNER
 - Venus alone as the astrological symbol,
without Mars - is found on the 2004 Austrian Calendar Medal, an edition of the Austrian Mint  in Vienna. See the full collection of these 'Kalendermedaillen'.

The links among the three MASTERWORKS of BOTTICELLI, discussed above, and some PREDECESSORS and SUCCESSORS are visualized with VUE in a Connectivity Map, here given as a small jpeg figure. A larger figure can be viewed in attachment which can also be downloaded under the Creative Commons License.
Please read the general introduction about the VUE presentation in 'Connectivity Maps'. These Maps are tentative and may be adjusted or expanded whenever more information is available.

Viewers are kindly invited to send their comments mailto:bender@telenet.be

Additional Information

A commemorating exhibition was organized in Städel Museum, Frankfurt a/Main, 13 November 2009 - 28 February 2010: watch its YouTube videos here

High-resolution pictures of both Primavera and Birth of Venus can be seen here: http://www.haltadefinizione.com/magnifier.jsp?idopera=10&lingua=en

Watch Part 1 of 6 YouTube movies about Primavera with talks of Ernst Gombrich and other prominent art historians:


BBC Two transmitted 16th Feb 2004 a movie about Primavera in its series 'Private Life of a Masterpiece'. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Private_Life_of_a_Masterpiece

Watch a YouTube movie with scholar discussion of 'Birth of Venus'

About 'la bella Simonetta', see Giovanna Lazzi / Paola Ventrone: Simonetta Vespucci -La nascita della Venere fiorentina 

Firenze, Polistampa 2007,  pp. 192 with an interesting DVD

 'La Ninfa e la Duchessa. Moda a Firenze nel Rinascimento: Simonetta Vespucci ed Eleonora di Toledo'

See also the post  'Simonetta Vespucci: era davvero musa e amante di Sandro Botticelli?' of the Blog
Finestre sull'Arte
of  March 1, 2017

About Alexander Barker (c1797–1873) the English collector who brought BOTTICELLI's 'Venus and Mars' and ‘Venus with Amorini in landscape’ to England (both acquired by the National Gallery at the auction sale of Barker’s collections after his death at Christie’s in 1874 in London): 'A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers' by MW Westgarth (2009) White Rose Research Online

See the page Aphrodite / Venus Art Exhibitions and other Events about two exhibitions in 2015-2016:

* The Botticelli Renaissance Gemäldegalerie, Kulturforum Berlin, 24. Sep 2015 – 24. Jan 2016

Botticelli Reimagined Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 5 March 2016 - 3 July 2016.
The latter exhibition is commented in three articles of The Guardian:

Beauty reimagined: 500 years of Botticelli
Botticelli’s Birth of Venus has captivated us for centuries. On the eve of a stunning V&A exhibition, we ask four experts what beauty means personally to them
Destination Venus: how Botticelli became a brand
From saucer-eyed Manga cartoons to a bullet-breasted pin up, from the pre-Raphaelites to Lady Gaga’s D&G dress, a new V&A exhibition reveals how generations of artists have repurposed Botticelli’s ideal of female beauty
Why Botticelli's Venus is still fashion's favourite muse
Erotic, youthful, ethereal: the Botticelli beauty who, 500 years on, continues to inspires Lady Gaga, Andy Warhol and Dolce & Gabbana

(1) Cheney L De Girolami (1993) 'Botticelli's Neoplatonic Images' Scripta Humanistica 108, Potomac, Maryland.

(2) Levi d'Ancona M (1992) 'Due quadri del Botticelli eseguiti per nascite in Casa Medici - Nuova interpretazione della Primavera e della Nascita di Venere'. Leo S Olschki Editore, Firenze.

(3) Bellingham D (2010) 'Aphrodite deconstructed: Botticelli's Venus and Mars in the National Gallery in London' Chapter 19 pp. 347-374 in 'Brill's Companion to Aphrodite', edited by Amy C Smith & Sadie Pickup. Brill, Leiden. http://www.brill.nl/default.aspx?partid=210&pid=34767
An article 'High Art: Were Botticelli's Venus And Mars Stoned?' can be read at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127752216  and where one can listen to a talk with David Bellingham and also download his full paper.

(4) Gombrich E H (1945) 'Botticelli's mythologies - A study in the Neoplatonic symbolism of his circle' in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 8: 7-60.

(5) Rubin P (2000) 'The seductions of antiquity', Chapter 2 in 'Manifestations of Venus - Art and sexuality', edited by C Arscott & K Scott. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

(6) Schumacher A (Editor) (2009) 'Botticelli - Likeness-Myth-Devotion'. Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

(7) Geronimus D (2006) 'Piero di Cosimo: visions beautiful and strange'. Yale University Press, New Haven.

(8) Zöllner F (2009) 'Sandro Botticelli'. Prestel, München.

(9) Seznec J (1961) 'The survival of the pagan Gods - The mythological tradition and its place in Renaissance humanism and art'. Harper Torchbooks, New York.

(10) Tyler C W (2002) 'Masolino da Panicale - A neglected genius of Renaissance perspective'. Smith-Kettlewell Institute, San Francisco. PPT presentation 'Masolino Captioned'
See also Tyler's highly interesting website 'Art and Optics'

(11) Schmidt, P (1989) 'Aby M. Warburg und die Ikonologie, mit einem Anhang unbekannter Quellen zur Geschichte der Internationalen Gesellschaft für Ikonographische Studien von Dieter Wuttke'  Gratia : Bamberger Schriften zur Renaissanceforschung. Heft 20, Bamberg.

Latest update of this page: 05/03/2017

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