Venus and Mars by Botticelli

How can we discuss Italy without a little artwork in the mix? 

The photo above is Venus and Mars by (Sandro) Botticelli. Botticelli grew up watching his father diligently work to improve their fortunes, and was successful by switching from tanning to gold beating. A profession that brought Botticelli in contact with many artists. Then in 1464, his father bought a home he would move into next to the Vespucci family. The Vespucci were allies of the Medici’s, and both families are presumed to be involved in drama surrounding the painting. The Medici’s ended up his patrons for years before he could stand on his own two feet. This painting well could have been for either family, or an unrelated one. There are no records of it being commissioned, but the style and size draws people to the conclusion that the painting was decoration for a newly-wed’s greeting chambers, otherwise known as a spalliere. 

Unlike paintings from the previous century, we are starting to recognize more influence from Greek and Roman cultures. This one in particular is Roman with the portrayal of the Godess of Love (Venus), and her lover, the God of War (Mars). Mars is asleep in what seems a peaceful scene post-coitus. Satyrs try to wake him with a conch while stealing his weapons, and Venus studies the sleeping man. 

There are many ways to interpret the paintings, and it uses a mix of symbolism to get the message across. Myrtle trees, love’s dart, Mars disarmament, the plant datura stramonium, etc. 

All the symbolism ties into one theme: love conquers war.  

Other symbolism gives clues to who is suspected to have modeled for Botticelli in this painting. The wasps above Mars’ head could have many explanations, but many theorized they are there in place of a noble families’ emblem: Vespucci. Many say the model for Venus was Simonetta Vespucci, and that they might have commissioned it for this reason. There were rumors that the male model was Giulano d’Medici, brother of Lorenzo the Magnificant, and that the two were having a love affair. They were considered the most attractive people in Florence at the time, and the Roman story of Venus and Mars being discovered by her husband was famous. Giuliano was known to take mistresses and had a son who Lorenzo raised after Giuliano’s murder. Florence was known to adore the myth of Venus and Mars being caught in their affair by Venus’ husband, and it is believed the painting relates to Simmonetta and Giuliano’s affair. 

Simonetta would not be a terrible guess, as she modeled for two of his other paintings (Primevera and Birth of Venus). Giuliano was the golden boy of Florence, so also not a terrible guess. The difficult part is determining when exactly Botticelli painted this. It was revealed in 1483, and both these models were deceased at that time. While Botticelli would become more and more devout, and his paintings would reflect that, it is his paintings like this that give us no doubt that the Renaissance had arrived in Europe.

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