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Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1483-85, tempera on panel, 68 x 109 5/8" (172.5 x 278.5 cm), Galeria degli Uffizi, Florence Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: We're in the Uffizi, and we're looking at the Birth of Venus, by Botticelli. This is, of course, one of the most iconic images in the history of Western Art. DR. BETH HARRIS: Venus is fabulously beautiful. How could it be otherwise? DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: So she stands, radically naked, in a Renaissance painting, not in a Christian context here. DR. BETH HARRIS: Until, really, this point in the Renaissance, the only time you would see a nude was Eve. But here-- DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: This is not Eve. DR. BETH HARRIS: No. Botticelli's portrayed the ancient goddess of love, Venus. And he's portrayed her-- actually, based her-- on an ancient Roman sculpture of Venus. DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: Which was, actually, a copy of an even earlier ancient Greek sculpture, which is known, sometimes, as the modest Venus. And which was, actually, in the collection of the Medici. We think that this painting might have actually been for one of the Medici court, perhaps even for a cousin of Lorenzo de Medici. So Venus stands in the middle. She's born of the sea and seems to be being pushed in by the winds, the zephyrs that are personified on the left. She stands on a seashell, or almost stands on a seashell. There's so much impossibility in this painting. And when she gets to the shore, she'll be received by an attendant that's ready to wrap her nude body. But we're, I think, delighted that she hasn't gotten there yet. Because the body is just so beautiful. It's so sensuous. And it's an impossible kind of pose. It's not really contrapposto. You know, there's this extraordinary curve to the body that, I think, suggests that she's got a very flexible, kind of, skeletal structure. DR. BETH HARRIS: And even the zephyrs, who are those winds that blow her to shore, are intertwined in impossible ways. And every figure here floats. When we look at Renaissance paintings, we generally expect to see real naturalism. You know, we expect to see features that have weight, with bodies that make sense, existing in a realistic space. That's what we think of, when we think about the Renaissance. But that's not what Botticelli gives us. DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: Some art historians have suggested that Botticelli is looking back to ancient Greek painting. And the only painting, really, that Botticelli would have had available to him, from the classical Greek tradition, would have been vase painting, where figures are often isolated against a ground. This is really a frieze. All the figures-- and this is very much a Botticelli characteristic-- are pushed forward and-- DR. BETH HARRIS: Kind of occupying a single plane. DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: That's right. And they're sort of isolated, these three groupings. And you can almost imagine them as line painting on a vase. In fact, this painting is really linear. And because of the patterning, because of the quality of the linear, it sort of defies space. I mean, yes, we can look into the deep space. But this is not a Masaccio. The attempt, here, is to really de-emphasize deep space. And to, instead, create a sense of pattern, create a sense of beauty. This is a painting, presumably-- and we're just guessing, we don't know-- that is really about beauty, perhaps in a Neo-platonic sense, both beauty as physical, as sensual, as erotic, that leads one to its notion of divine beauty. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. There are two kinds of beauty. And that, through a contemplation of physical beauty, we can arrive at divine beauty. DR. STEPHEN ZUCKER: Botticelli is creating a kind of beauty that is a result of, of course, the narrative. It's a result of the elegance of the figure, herself. But also, through the use of pattern, through a kind of purely decorative quality. We can see that, especially, in the traces of gold that he's placed in her hair, in the trees to the right. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's a kind of sensuality here that's irresistible. Right? The pink flowers fluttering between Venus and the zephyr. The beautiful lines that create the waves, the lines from her hair, the fluttering drapery. It's a beautiful world that we want to enter. [MUSIC PLAYING]