Art
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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

There’s a copy of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging in my grandmother’s pink carpeted 1970s bathroom. It does an excellent job of distracting from period wall paper, which is also pink.


I’ve always thought the painting was rather appropriate decor for a washroom. The sea foam, the giant sea shell, the women rushing towards Venus with towels, and Venus’s full frontal nakedness — it all screams bath time to me. Apparently though, art historians have a varying views of the intent and goals of The Birth of Venus. None of said theories have anything to do with loofas or rubber duckies.

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In 1480  Florence, when Botticelli painted the piece, Italy was in full Renaissance fever. Monks around Europe were dusting off forgotten volumes of Greek and Roman philosophy and the literate of the continent were gobbling them up like the twilight series. In particular, there was this one family in Florence. The Medici. They loved the classical stuff. When not busy overthrowing the democratic system of government in their city, the Medici enjoyed reading Plato and commissioning art. Whether or not Botticelli’s Venus was originally commissioned for the Medici is a fairly nitpicky subject of debate. But, the painting was definitely in Medici hands by the 1550s.

So the picture can be read in 3 ways. Some people consider it a visual interpretation of poem by florentine poet Angelo Poliziano. Others believe it’s a recreation of the lost painting of Venus by the ancient painter Apelles. Allegedly, Alexander the Great had his mistress sit as the model of Venus for Apelles’ painting. Well, Apelles apparently fell for the mistress. In an unusual move, instead of executing the man in some horrific manner, Alexander magnanimously gave his mistress to Apelles. Unclear what the mistress thought of all this. Regardless, Botticelli’s recreation of the painting, potentially based on historical accounts, enhanced the stature of the city of Flornce. A way of saying to all the other Italian city states, that Florence was the true inheritor of the empire of Alexander the Great. Pissing contest via painting.

The most popular interpretation is a Neoplatonic reading. It’s also the most pretentious sounding. Plato, whose’s freshly translated works were the rave of European rulers like the Medici, has this theory about art. Basically he theorized that by looking at beautiful things man could become closer in knowledge to God or the world of perfect forms. He also wanted to kick the poet out of the city. There’s a lot to platonic theory about art. But suffice to say that Botticelli may have intended the The Birth of Venus to help people get closer to godliness by appreciating the beautiful.

But the fun of interpretation is that it’s always up to the viewer. So it might be the poem, it might be Appelle’s Venus, it might be platonic artistic theory, or it might be a riff on Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos.

Personally, I like to contemplate the possibilities from the pink porcelain throne of my grandmother’s bathroom.

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