The origin story of Venus, the mythological goddess of beauty and sex, begins dramatically—with a castration of godly proportions.
During an epic battle between two gods, Saturn severs Uranus’s phallus and jettisons it into the sea. From these restless, briny waters, where Uranus’s semen becomes the seafoam, an impossibly lovely goddess emerges. Fully formed and in the buff, Venus floats to the shore of Cyprus on a shell, ferried by a soft breeze blown by Zephyr, god of wind, and attended by ethereal nymphs.
Even if the juicy details aren’t familiar, the famous image of Venus’s creation probably comes to mind. Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (ca. 1484) has become one of the world’s most recognizable, celebrated, and parodied paintings—a touchstone of rowdy art-historical debate and pop culture alike. In Botticelli’s vision, an alabaster-skinned, elongated Venus stands casually on an open shell, her strawberry-blonde hair cascading down the side of her bare, serpentine body. On her left, a winged Zephyr intertwines with a figure who is perhaps Aura, goddess of spring winds; together, their almighty breath pushes Venus to land. To Venus’s right, a nymph, usually characterized as the Hora of spring, is poised to wrap the budding goddess in a gown studded with blooming violets.
With this canvas, Botticelli launched a momentous shift in Western art. While his Gothic and Early Renaissance forebears had used nudity to symbolize vice, sin, and shame, Botticelli flipped the script, celebrating—and even sexualizing, as some scholars argue—the naked human form through Venus’s lithe body and blissful, yet confident gaze. Adding to this innovation, the painter mingled diverse styles and employed spellbinding, sometimes inscrutable symbolism, forging a composition that has kept scholars guessing about its intentions and inspirations for centuries.
Botticelli created Birth of Venus in about 1484 in Florence, Italy, the lustrous cradle of Renaissance art. By that time, at around 40 years old, Botticelli was a favored artist of the city’s ruling family, the Medicis, and regularly churned out portraits, religious scenes, and secular-mythological pictures for their villas and chapels.
Classical mythology was en vogue in mid-15th-century Florence, especially among the Medicis and other moneyed elites who sought to reclaim the glory and power of ancient Rome and Greece for themselves. They expressed their admiration by resuscitating the earlier era’s legends, literature, and art. The trend was spurred in large part by Humanism, a philosophical movement driven by the concept of humanitas developed in ancient Greece, which called for the betterment of society through widespread engagement with the arts. Florentines “were so convinced of the superior wisdom of the ancients,” wrote scholar E.H. Gombrich in The Story of Art (1950), “that they believed these classical legends must contain some profound and mysterious truth.”
Allying themselves with this philosophy, Florentine ruler Cosimo de’ Medici and his grandson Lorenzo, who was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, filled their palaces with classical sculptures representing pagan figures. Botticelli probably gleaned some inspiration for the stance of his iconic nude Venus from an ancient marble figure in the Medici’s collection: a Roman copy of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles’s Venus, also known as Aphrodite of Knidos (4th century B.C.E.). The Medicis also commissioned contemporary artists to employ Renaissance artistic innovations, such as perspective and realistic figure modeling, to whimsical mythological scenes. Botticelli’s patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici (a less powerful cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent) likely commissioned Birth of Venus.
It was the Humanist thinker Angolo Poliziano who penned the Latin poem “La Giostra,” which is widely regarded as Botticelli’s principal inspiration for the composition. “La Giostra” was based on a description by Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder of an ancient Greek Venus fresco. While there’s no evidence that Botticelli read Latin, his patron likely conveyed to him its sensuous message. “You could swear that the goddess had emerged from the waves, pressing her hair with her right hand, covering with the other her sweet mound of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted by her sacred and divine step it had clothed itself in flowers and grass,” wrote Poliziano, “then with happy, more than mortal features, she was received in the bosom of three nymphs and cloaked in a starry garment.”
In particular, Renaissance humanists latched onto a central theme of ancient texts, like those of Pliny the Elder: that earthly beauty, especially as conveyed through art, offered a direct channel to the divine. With this knowledge, it’s no surprise that Renaissance artists employed images of Venus—the goddess of beauty herself—to impart this powerful message.
Unlike Botticelli’s other large-scale painting of the goddess, Primavera (ca. 1480), in Birth of Venus, the artist dispenses with both Venus’s clothing and a more traditional altarpiece-inspired composition. He emphasizes the goddess’s nudity, and its connection to sensuality, by imbuing the painting with buoyancy and movement—motifs increasingly employed by Renaissance artists to express rapture and ecstasy. A breeze, emanating from the puffed mouths of Aura and Zephyr, causes the waves to roil gently while tendrils of hair ripple, and the nymph’s gauzy dress is blown back to reveal her curves. Zephyr’s light-blue cloak, which threatens to slip off his genitals, is held suggestively in place by Aura’s bare leg. In a clear break from classical tenets of proportion and compositional stability, the painting’s figures are elongated to emphasize their divine beauty, and none of them are firmly rooted on the ground; rather, they hover in the air or totter on tip-toes.
Botticelli scholar Julia Mary Cartwright Ady highlighted the painter’s innovative synthesis of various styles in her watershed 1904 biography The Life and Art of Sandro Botticelli. “In this picture, the painter has taken a new step, and having freed himself from the influence of other masters, henceforth relies entirely upon his own resources,” she wrote. “The stiffness and rigidity of his early works have given way to perfect ease and grace.”
But for all of the erotic overtones in Birth of Venus, Botticelli’s goddess is also modest, especially in comparison to later depictions of secular nudes, such as Titian’s more overtly sexualized Venus of Urbino (1538). In this way, Botticelli geniously melded innovation, sensuality, and acceptability—a combination that bolstered the painting’s popularity. While Botticelli’s style fell out of favor in the late 1500s, overshadowed by High Renaissance masters Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, his renown—and that of Birth of Venus—was revived and aggrandized during the propitious Victorian era. “Victorian society probably felt attracted to the beauty of the female form,” explained John Nici in Famous Works of Art—And How They Got That Way (2015), “but was happy that the form was idealized without resorting to promiscuity.” It was Botticelli’s Victorian acolytes, in the 1800s, who rediscovered Birth of Venus and reproduced it with abandon.
Today, Birth of Venus is so ubiquitous that it can be difficult to remember how innovative—and daring—the picture was in its time. But even so, the painting’s central message still bursts forth. At its core, Botticelli created a paean to beauty and art, by transforming the nude body from a symbol of shame to one of grace, sensuality, and power.