Have you ever been hopelessly and desperately in love with someone who doesn’t know you exist? Botticelli may have experienced unrequited love with Simonetta, a married noblewoman he viewed as a living nymph. Was she Venus in his painting, The Birth of Venus? Historians have debated this question, with good reason. Simonetta was renowned as the greatest beauty of the Renaissance. Thirty-four years after her death, Botticelli was buried at her feet. Was this a final surrender to his intoxicating painting inspiration? No one will even know.
Alessandro Di Mariano Filipepi was born in Florence, Italy, on 1445 and died in 1510. His brother gave him the nickname Il Botticelli, meaning “little barrel,” and from then on he was known as Sandro Botticelli. Under the apprenticeship of painter Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli learned expressive precision linear drawing, how to mix colors and prepare walls (fresco) for painting. At some point he gained knowledge of bodily structure and movement and his style of painting expressed what he imagined ideal.
In the 1460’s, Botticelli made a name for himself and caught the attention of Piero di Cosimo de’Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence and the father of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Midici. Botticelli accepted an offer of studio space inside the Medici palace, where he befriended Lorenzo and Giuliani. Botticelli’s intimate relationship with the Medici family was critical to his career, “The repeated contacts with the Medici family were undoubtedly useful for granting him political protection and creating conditions ideal for his production of several masterpieces” (1). Under this protection, Botticelli was blessed with the freedom to create a new genre of art that was pure fantasy and inspired by his vivid imagination, symbolism and private inside jokes. At some point, Botticelli was introduced to Simonetta Cattaneo de Vespucci by her husband Marco Vespucci, whose family was well connected in Florence, especially to the Medici family. She modeled for several of Botticelli’s painting and soon her likeness was featured all over Florence. Every man in the city was infatuated with her, including Botticelli and, “He celebrated that love by painting her. And painting her, and painting her” (7).
Commissioned by the Medici family is one of Botticelli’s famous paintings, The Birth of Venus, which was painted in Florence in 1486. Virtually life size, this painting shows mythological figure Venus, the goddess of love, arriving on the island of Cyprus. Venus is balanced on the tip of a sea shell and the other characters in the painting seem to be floating and helping along her path. Venus looks tranquil as roses are seen blowing in the wind. The left side shows wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris, known as Flora, the goddess of flowers and blooms. They are blowing to help Venus reach the shore. The right side shows Hora, the goddess of summer, welcoming Venus. The side coastline shows non-budding orange groves, suggesting the land may bloom upon Venus’ arrival. It has been suggested that Botticelli friendship with the powerful Medici family is the only reason this controversial painting escaped the ire of the Catholic Church and Savonarola’s bonfires.
The liberties that Botticelli took in, The Birth of Venus do not distract from this harmonious masterpiece and every detail possesses a meaning. The elongated neck and torso of Venus may be anatomically improbable, but this leisure visually enhances a feeling of fantasy. The two-dimensionality creates simple effective lines that are easy to following and pleasing to view. The lighter colors appear to emerge from darker areas, creating the illusion of rounded and sculptured detail on flat surfaces. I like the fact that Botticelli painted this piece during a time when most women were portrayed as the Virgin Mary, with no sexual nature. Botticelli painted with an individual style that was unconventional, for the time, and simply breathtaking. Even today, the complex meaning behind this painting continues to receive scholarly attention. Today, The Birth of Venus can be found hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
(7) Love legends – The Legend of Boticelli’s Venus, By Ben Atlas
(8) Renaissance Portraits at the Met, By Laura Itzkowitz