Venus and Mars (Botticelli)

Venus and Mars (Botticelli)

Infobox Painting|



title=Venus and Mars
artist=Sandro Botticelli
year=c. 1483
type=Tempera on panel
height=69
width=173
museum=National Gallery, London

"Venus and Mars" is a painting by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, dating from c. 1483.

The painting deals with an amorous victory. A grove of myrtle trees, the tree of Venus, forms the backdrop to the two gods who are lying opposite each other on a meadow. Venus is clothed and is attentively keeping watch over Mars as he sleeps. The god of war has taken off his armor and is lying naked on his red cloak; all he is wearing is a white loin cloth.

The goddess of love, who is clothed in a costly white and gold gown, is watching over the sleeping naked Mars, while little satyrs are playing mischievously with the weapons and armor of the god of war. Botticelli's theme is that the power of love can defeat the warrior's strength. The boisterous little fauns that form part of the retinue of Bacchus, the god of wine, are depicted by Botticelli, in accordance with ancient tradition, with little goats' legs, horns and tails. The Triton's shell with which one of the fauns is blowing into Mars' ear was used in classical times as a hunting horn.

The overall layout of the composition is probably inspired by an ancient sarcophagus now in the Vatican Museum. [citation|last=Gombrich|first=Ernst|title=Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle|journal=Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 8 Plate 13b|year=1945] Art from classical antiquity was a major source of inspiration for Renaissance painters. As paintings did not survive, they used relief sculptures and Ecphrasis, detailed textual descriptions of lost paintings made by classical authors. Relief sculptures tended towards dense figurative compositions in which the characters were all placed in the foreground picture plane, as with the composition of Venus and Mars.

The mischievous little satyrs playing practical jokes nearby were probably suggested by an ecphrasis written by the Greek poet Lucian describing the famous classical painting "Wedding of Alexander the Great to the Persian princess Roxane". In the passage, Lucian describes how "two are carrying his spear, as porters do a heavy beam ... another has got into the breast plate, which lies hollow part upwards; he is in ambush". Botticelli replaced the amoretti which Lucian describes playing with Alexander's weapons with little satyrs. His painting is one of the earliest examples in Renaissance painting to depict these boisterous and lusty hybrids in this form. They are playing with the war god's helmet, lance and cuirass. One of them is cheekily blowing into his ear through a sea shell. But he has as little chance of disturbing the sleeping god as the wasps nest to the right of his head. The wasps may be a reference to the clients who commissioned the painting. They are part of the coat of arms of the Vespucci family, whose name derives from "vespa", Italian for wasp. The dimensions of the painting suggest that it formed part of a cassone, a chest with a painted panel at the back, found in the main bedroom of married couples.

Given that its theme is love, this painting was possibly also commissioned on the occasion of a wedding. In this way it should exemplify the theories of the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, according to whom the exhortations to virtues are more welcomed if expressed through pleasant images. Ficino was the tutor of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de'Medici, cousin of the more famous Lorenzo de' Medici: a major patron of Botticelli, and part of a humanist circle including the Vespucci family. As such, he may well have contributed to the composition and the choice of source material in Botticelli's mythological paintings, including this one. In particular, Ficino had an astrological perspective, within which the goddess Venus was associated with the influence of the planet Venus on an individual's character, standing for the qualities of love and "humanitas" in Renaissance humanism. In his "Commentary on the Symposium: De Amore" of Plato, Ficino describes how "Mars stands foremost in strength for he makes men stronger. Yet Venus masters him ... in conjunction with him, in opposition to him ... often restrains his malignance ... Wherefore she seems to tame and placate Mars. "But Mars never masters Venus"." If this passage echoes views of Ficino's that influenced the composition of Botticelli's Venus and Mars, it would explain why the character of Venus is depicted as alert and watchfull, whilst that of Mars is in deep slumber, a feature not found in the sarcophagus relief sculpture that may have served as a model for the composition.

An alternative source for the image is the "Stanze" of Poliziano. "Stanze" 122 describes how the hero found Venus "seated on the edge of her couch, just then released from the embrace of Mars, who lay on his back in her lap, still feeding his eyes on her face". Poliziano was in one of the humanist scholars in the court of Lorenzo de' Medici, and his "stanze" are a famous poem alluding to the prowess of Lorenzo's younger brother Giuliano di Piero de' Medici in the jousting tournament Lorenzo had organized to celebrate a treatise with Venice. However, the description, with Mars in Venus' lap, gazing up at her, is a poor fit to the painting.

Notes

References

H.W. and F.G. Fowler "The Works of Lucian of Samosata", Oxford, 1905.
Marsilio Ficino, "Commentary on the Symposium: De Amore", from Oration V, chapter 8
Quint, David. (tr). (1993) "The Stanze of Angelo Poliziano" Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Statue University Press.


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