The subject is the arrival of a beautiful naked woman by shell onto a shore. Botticelli makes all the figures in the painting appealing in their graceful stances and gentle curves. The central figure stands with her weight on the left leg with her right knee bent. Her head is set at a slight angle to her torso while she looks straight out at the viewer, almost beyond the viewer. Her arms, hands, and legs have soft skin. In a modest gesture, she covers one of her breasts with her right hand and her genital area with her left hand and hair. The woman on the shell is the goddess of love and beauty and this painting represents her birth. The Greek name for this goddess was "Aphrodite", which means "born of foam." She was said, in pagan myths, to have been born of the seed of Uranus spread over the ocean. After being born, she was carried on that foam to the island of Cyprus.
Four things to know about this painting:
1) It is the first life-size painting of any pagan mythological subject in Western art since ancient times. Since much of ancient painting is lost, we often only have written descriptions (Pliny, for example) of famous ancient paintings of mythological subjects, many of which were large. In medieval manuscript illuminations, mythological subjects can sometimes be found, but they are small. In the fifteenth century in Italy, around 1460, examples of small-scale paintings of Hercules were made by the Pollaiuolo brothers in Florence. But before Botticelli's Venus no large-scale paintings of pagan subjects had been painted since ancient times. Given the religious conservatism of 15th-century Florence, the subject is radical and new.
2) The Medici Venus is the ancient model for the figure of the goddess. Since Botticelli had no painted examples to rely on for his Venus, he went back to ancient sculpture for his model of Venus.
Any visitor to the Uffizi Gallery can compare the painting with the ancient statue because the statue is right down the hall in the center of the Tribuna. This sculpted "Medici Venus" in the Uffizi is a Roman first-century A.D. marble copy of an ancient Greek Hellenistic work. It was owned by the Medici family and it could be the actual statue that Botticelli looked at for inspiration. Botticelli takes the stance of the feet for his Venus, weight on left foot and bent knee on lifted right foot. He also almost copies the position of the arms and hands, right arm bent with hand over one breast, left arm extended to hide the genital area.
The head of the ancient statue is turned to the left, as if the goddess were disturbed by an intruder as she is about to bathe. Botticelli's painted goddess is aware that she is on display and wishes to cover herself, but the intruder for her is the viewer of the painting. Her head faces forward as she looks beyond the viewer with a wistful expression, as if she is resigned to being looked at.
The sculpted goddess is accompanied by a dolphin and Cupid to suggest her birth in the sea and her area of expertise, baby-making, while the painted goddess appears on a giant scallop shell that serves as a boat on the foam.
But the biggest difference between ancient and Renaissance images is their hair. The ancient woman has her hair tied up and back. Botticelli's Venus has hair that is let down loose, hair that flows in waves, winding around her neck and covering up her private areas.
The ancient sculpture creates movement with the turn of the head and the space between hands and
The lifted right foot of the marble Venus also contributes to the viewer's sense that she is turning in space.
3) The movement in Botticelli's painting is like Disney animation. He wishes to create motion in his figures so that the viewer will imagine the continuation and completion of the motion. In that way he is like one of the first animators in film. He wanted to paint the wind wafting the figure of beauty to the shore of Cyprus. In an era before film, how does the artist convey movement in this still image?
A) The movement of wind is conveyed by the two winged figures on the left: their wings are up as if responding to their movement through air, their drapery is shown flowing to the left, as if they are moving left to right through the painted space, and the pink roses around them are gently falling through air, as if responding to wind. The zephyr on the left has puffy cheeks as he blows white air out. The wind on the right opens her mouth and blows white air towards the central figure, too. They look toward Venus as they fly towards her, blowing. The grey drapery flowing behind them and lifted up gives the viewer the impression that these wind figures are moving through the sky as they create air that affects the other figures in the painting. The male figure is Zephyr, god of the west wind. The female figure is Chloris, a field nymph he unites with to create flowers in the spring. He wears a blue cape for the air, she a green one for the ground, and their bodies are intertwined.
C) The zephyrs' wind also catches the red-print cloak held by the girl on the shore. The cloak billows up and its folds fill with air that comes from the left, from the winds.
The imaginary wind also blows across the body of Venus' female attendant, revealing her body underneath the drapery as the curves of her dress unleash beyond her to the right. The girl attendant's hair is also painted as if in motion to the right from the force of the wind, mirroring Venus' hair.
This attendant is probably Flora, goddess of Flowers. Her print dress is covered with flowers and the cloak she holds out is embroidered with flowers. Flora, in Ovid's Fasti, is the result of the union of Zephyr and Chloris, in Ovid's explanation of why flowers appear in the spring. The Western wind unites with the field nymph and flowers come forth. In this case Flora welcomes the goddess of love and beauty as she is blown to shore. Flora's parents are coupling on the left as she awaits Venus on the right. The shoreline has been thought by some scholars to resemble the Western shoreline of Italy. Is Venus, then, being welcomed to the Italian shore here in the spring?
Back to MOTION. The Flora figure steps forward onto her right foot and lifts her left foot up. She moves right to left, in the opposite direction of and towards the winds, her parents, and towards Venus. The next step Flora will make will be onto her left foot. In the next point of time she will be nearer the shell and the goddess she attends. The viewer is asked to imagine the next step in order to complete the movement. We are also asked to imagine the next moment of the cloak. The red-pink neckline will encircle Venus' neck. The cloak will cover her naked body and Venus will be clothed. The space shaped by the wind in the neckline of the cloak is one of the most beautiful passages of the painting. The silken cloth reveals within its curve a distant landscape shoreline beyond the figures in the foreground, a curved frame of air, light, and land.
D) Because Venus' right foot is lifted up, she also seems about to step, onto the land. The next frame of her movement, much like that of a Disney cel, will see her right foot onshore, with the goddess clothed, and gathered into the cloak by Flora; she will be on Cyprus (Italia) and covered in cloth flowers and real ones (the pink roses sacred to Venus.) If we follow the steps of Venus and Flora, they will come together just as surely as the red-pink neckline will surround the goddess' hair and neck.
But the movement is only suggested by the artist in steps and drapery, and is captured at its apex. As a consequence, Venus will forever be naked, the winds will forever be blowing her, the figure of Flora will forever be about to cloak her. As viewers we are allowed to see her naked beauty and imagine her covered discreetly. We see her natural body and our anxiety about that is relieved by the imminent cloaking and protection offered.
4) Beauty is nourishment. (my phrase in case you wish to quote) That is why people come to see her so often. She feeds viewers' desires and satisfies a longing. Botticelli's confident lines have such grace and serenity that we are in awe of the creation of such beauty in a painting that holds within it the story of beauty's creation.
Her birth is a lovely mingling of realistic flowers and magical shell and flying winds. We are transported, along with her, back into a realm where the origins of love and beauty are mysterious and pleasure-filled. The mythology is given human form with steps every viewer aspires to or remembers in experience. Love and beauty make the human trip worth making.