We're looking at The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. This is, of course, one of the most iconic images in the history of western art.
Venus is fabulously beautiful. How could it be otherwise?
So she stands radically naked in a Renaissance painting not in a Christian context here.
Until, really, this point in the Renaissance, the only time you would see nude was Eve, but here...
This is not Eve.
No, Botticelli's portrayed the ancient goddess of love, Venus. And he has portrayed her, actually, based her on an ancient Roman sculpture of Venus.
...which was actually a copy of an even earlier ancient Greek sculpture, which was known sometimes as the Modest Venus, and which was actually in the collection of the Medici. We think that this painting might have actually been for one of the Medici court, perhaps even for a cousin of Lorenzo de' Medici.
So Venus stands in the middle. She's born of the sea and seems to be being pushed in by the winds, the Zephyrs that are personified on the left. She stands on a seashell, or almost stands on a seashell. There's so much impossibility in this painting. And when she gets to the shore, she'll be received by an attendant that's ready to wrap her nude body.
But we're, I think, delighted that she hasn't gotten there yet because the body is just so beautiful. It's so sensuous, and it's an impossible kind of pose. It's not really contrapposto. You know, there's this extraordinary curve to the body that I think...I suggest that she's got a very flexible kind of skeletal structure.
And even the Zephyrs who are those winds that blow her to shore are intertwined in impossible ways. And every figure here floats.
When we look at Renaissance paintings, we generally expect to see real naturalism. We expect to see figures that have weight, with bodies that make sense, existing in a realistic space. That's what we think of when we think about the Renaissance, but that's not what Botticelli gives us.
Well, some art historians suggested that Botticelli is looking back to ancient Greek painting. And the only painting, really, that Botticelli would have available to him from the classical Greek tradition would have been vase painting, where figures are often isolated against the ground.
This is really a freeze. All the figures, and this is very much a Botticelli characteristic, are pushed forward, and...
Kind of occupying a single plane.
That's right! And they are sort of isolated, these three groupings. And you can always imagine them as line painting on a vase. In fact, this painting is really linear. And because of the patterning, because of the quality of the linear, it sort of defies space.
I mean, yes, we can look into the deep space, but this is not a Masaccio. The attempt here is to really de-emphasize deep space and to, instead, create a sense of pattern, create a sense of beauty. This is a painting, presumably, and we're just guessing. We don't know.
It is really about beauty. Perhaps in the neo-Platonic sense, both beauty is physical and sensual as erotic, but that leads one to his notion of divine beauty.
Right, there are two kinds of beauty, and that through a contemplation of physical beauty we can arrive at divine beauty.
Botticelli is creating a kind of beauty that is a result of, of course, the narrative; it's a result of the elegance of the figure herself, but also through the use of pattern, through a kind of purely decorative quality. We can see that especially in the traces of gold that he's placed in her hair, in the trees to the right.
There's a kind of sensuality here that's irresistible, right? The pink flowers, fluttering between Venus and the Zephyr; the beautiful lines that create the waves; the lines from her hair; that fluttering drapery. It's a beautiful world that we want to enter.