WATER AND HIGHER LOVE
Botticelli’s Venus is inspired by the early classical depictions of the goddess, particularly the Capitoline Venus, which had established an artistic canon for the female nude. Here the nudity of the goddess emphasizes her divine birth from the sea which her shell rests upon in the painting.
Newly birthed, the beautiful goddess is poised in a graceful contrapposto on a shell resting on the sea between the intertwined figures of Zephyr and Chloris on the left and one of the Graces on the right. The two sides struck me as a contrast of the two extremes of love, and Venus seems poised between the two as if choosing which she will embody as ideal. Zephyr and Chloris, a passionately clinging, twofold entity is a swirl of movement—wings, bare limbs, fabric, and wind all combine as they hover above the sea. The entire composition of the two figures is torrid in its physicality and sweeping movement. Nothing about the two is stable or stationary, implying that they symbolize vigor, passion, and sensuality. In contrast, the implied movement of the single Grace is much more willowy and rational. Her attire is flowing, feminine, and alluring, yet she is still covered modestly. The disparity between her and the figures of Zephyr and Chloris is further accentuated by the Grace’s feet, which are grounded lightly on the natural landscape to the right of the sea. This emphasizes her distinction from the passionate figures blowing Venus towards shore, as the Grace clearly belongs in the stability afforded by the landscape.
Between the two opposing sides rests Venus, poised lightly atop a shell near the shore. Although clearly divine, the goddess also seems girlish and wistful, innocent and enthralling. Emerging from the sea, she is blown by Zephyr and Chloris towards the Grace waiting for her on the grassy beach. The shell links Venus with the sea that birthed her while also providing mysterious associations with both Zephyr and Chloris—who hover above the most torrid part of the ocean—and the Grace who rests lightly on the opposing shoreline.
Here the water indicates the mysterious origins of Venus as well as the question of her allegiance in the future. Will she sway with the torrid, vigorous, carnal love of Zephyr and Chloris? Or will the newly-birthed goddess instead embody the lofty ideals conceived by Platonic philosophy, aligning herself with grace, restraint, and pursuit of higher virtues? The answer is subtle, but implied in the painting nonetheless. Because key elements in the painting propel the motion towards the shoreline where the Grace stands ready to cover Venus with a robe, it would appear that we are observing Venus immediately before the act of stepping off the shell on to the shore. This symbolizes her embodiment of the Neoplatonic ideal of love and beauty as opposed to their carnal associations. According to Neoplatonism, beauty equaled truth. Because Venus was the embodiment of beauty and love, she is here representative of the Neoplatonic ideal.
“Aphrodite of Cnidus.” University of Chicago. Web. 3 Apr 2012.
“La nascita di Venere (Botticelli).” Photograph. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Web. 3 Apr 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:La_nascita_di_Venere_(Botticelli).jpg>
Pioch, Nicholas. “The Birth of Venus.” Webmuseum, Paris. 26 May 1996. Web. 3 Apr 2012. <http://mexplaza.com.mx/wm/paint/auth/botticelli/venus/>.
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