The Birth of Venus is a complex structure realized by deciphering meanings in multiple elements of the painting.
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In the most general sense, the primary objective of the art as such is perception and reflection of existing and subconscious reality. In practice, various genres and trends of art often intermingle on the grounds of common object of portrayal, as there exist universal themes thriving through times and inspiring generations of creators to produce masterpieces. Similarly to the way nature inspires art, so do various arts provide an inexhaustible source of inspiration for each other. Dance, music, literature, sculpture, painting — all of them are linked to each other by immeasurable semantic bonds, and among the vivid examples of such unity of arts is the famous painting The Birth of Venus by one of the leading representatives of the Florentine Renaissance, Sandro Botticelli.
In the mainstream with the leading trends of the Renaissance period, Botticelli turns to mythological subjects and draws inspiration from an ancient Greek legend about the goddess of love and beauty. Venus (or Aphrodite, in Greek variant) was said to be born after Uranus was castrated by his son, the titan Chronos (the time), and his cut off genitals were thrown into the sea and fertilized it. Aphrodite was born from foam and taken ashore at Paphos on Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean by a giant cockle driven with the help of two winds, Zephyr and Aura. Upon arrival, Venus was met by one of the three Graces, who took care of the goddess’ triumphant nudity throwing a cape upon her body.
Such was the legend, and Botticelli took care to depict every detail of it. The composition of the painting comprises four main figures on the foreground: Zephyr and Aura on the left, Venus in the middle, and Grace on the right, — and complies with the accepted standards of the time. This symmetrical arrangement builds to a climax at the center where the focal point is the main figure, Venus’ splendid body making a motion to cover not only her groin area, but also her breasts. The modest movement symbolizes Venus’ purity, as according to the legend she was born already completely mature from the depths of the sea. Placed in the middle of a shell, the goddess appears as a pearl, and so is her skin, fine and nearly translucent.
Venus’ companions on her way to the land, Zephyr and Aura constitute a group worth of separate observation. Representing the original chaos, of which the goddess was born, the two winds were thus summoned to join her on her triumphant way to take over the world and introduce an order of her own there. The winds, intertwining in their flight, are still contrasted: Zephyr, on the left, represents a rougher and darker aspect; he blows harder and apparently represents the male essence; Aura, on the right, is delicate and fair, and her blow is softer, thus suggesting her female essence. Opposed by their characters, breaths and the hue of their clothing, the winds are nevertheless united by a common action, a determination to bring Venus to the destination.
One of the key roles in The Birth of Venus is played yet by another character, the Grace. Authorized to cover Venus’ nudity and thus allot a sacred nature to the goddess’ modesty and transform her into the mother and patron saint of all the forces of creation, the Grace has prepared a cape representing all the flowers and fruits of the earth. Barefooted, girdled with flowering branches of roses, in a tunic of flower design, with partly loose hair, the Grace embodies the freshness and vitality of the world and passes those qualities on to Venus.
The painting is marked by an astonishing sense of movement, achieved by contrasting the steady dark land and the vivid action in the other elements. Everyone and everything is moving: the sea is covered with ripple; Venus is on the point of disembarking from the shell to the land, her foot is raised to make the final step in the voyage, and the shell tilts in response to the goddess’ weight; the Grace is hurrying to meet and greet the newcomer, her hair and tunic fluttering to her tread; the two winds are flurrying around, their breath entangling in the cape prepared for Venus by the Grace and making it undulate; as a response to the breeze, the roses from the Grace’s belt tear loose and shower over the goddess and the winds; the laurel and myrtle trees crowd on the shore and sway in their greeting of Venus.
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Inspired by a mythological subject, Sandro Boticelli in The Birth of Venus presents a complex and polysemantic structure, with its multiple senses deciphered in the symbolism of composition, color, light, movement and interaction between the various elements of the painting.
Botticelli, Sandro. The Birth of Venus. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.