Known as the “Birth of Venus”, the composition actually shows the goddess of love and beauty arriving on land, on the island of Cyprus, born of the sea spray and blown there by the winds, Zephyr and, perhaps, Aura. The goddess is standing on a giant scallop shell, as pure and as perfect as a pearl. She is met by a young woman, who is sometimes identified as one of the Graces or as the Hora of spring, and who holds out a cloak covered in flowers. Even the roses, blown in by the wind are a reminder of spring. The subject of the painting, which celebrates Venus as symbol of love and beauty, was perhaps suggested by the poet Agnolo Poliziano.
The painting was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, a cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The theme was probably suggested by the humanist Poliziano. It depicts Venus born from the sea foam, blown by the west wind, Zephyr, and the nymph, Chloris, towards one of the Horai, who prepares to dress her with a flowered mantle.
This universal icon of Western painting was probably painted around 1484 for the villa of Castello owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de ‘Medici. Giorgio Vasari saw the work there in the mid-sixteenth century – along with Botticelli’s other well-known Primavera – and described it precisely as “showing the Birth of Venus.” The old idea that the two Botticelli masterpieces were created for the same occasion, in spite of their substantial technical and stylistic diversity, is no longer accepted. However, rather than a birth, what we see is the goddess landing on the shore of her homeland, the island of Cyprus, or on Kithera. The theme, which can be traced back to Homer and to Ovid’s Metamophoses, was also celebrated by the great humanist Agnolo Poliziano in the poetic verses of his Stanze. The Venus of the Uffizi is of the “Venus pudica” type, whose right breast is covered by her right hand and billowing long blond hair partially shrouds her body. The goddess stands upright on a shell as she is driven towards the shore by the breeze of Zephyrus, a wind god, who is holding the nymph, Chloris. On the right is the Hora of springtime, who waits to greet Venus ashore with a cloak covered in pink flowers.
It is highly probable that the work was commissioned by a member of the Medici family, although there is nothing written about the painting before 1550, when Giorgio Vasari describes it in the Medici’s Villa of Castello, owned by the cadet branch of the Medici family since the mid-15th century. This hypothesis would seem to be born out by the orange trees in the painting, which are considered an emblem of the Medici dynasty, on account of the assonance between the family name and the name of the orange tree, which at the time was ‘mala medica’.
Unlike the “Allegory of Spring”, which is painted on wood, the “Birth of Venus” was painted on canvas, a support that was widely used throughout the 15th century for decorative works destined to noble houses.
Botticelli takes his inspiration from classical statues for Venus’ modest pose, as she covers her nakedness with long, blond hair, which has reflections of light from the fact that it has been gilded; even the Winds, the pair flying in one another’s embrace, is based on an ancient work, a gem from the Hellenistic period, owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.