David Bellingham on Sandro Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars”

OMNP contributor David Bellingham presents an abridged version of his essay:

“Deconstructing Aphrodite: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars in the National Gallery, London’  in Amy C. Smith and Sadie Pickup (eds)  Brill’s Companion to Aphrodite” (Leiden: Brill), Ch. 18, pp. 347-374.

The goddess Venus- the Roman adaptation of the Greek Aphrodite, appears regularly in the literature and visual arts of the Italian Renaissance.  As the goddess of female beauty, fertility and sexuality, patrons and artists found her image invaluable- not only as a fashionable mythological referent indicating their humanist interests in classical antiquity, but also as an excuse to introduce tabooed female nudity into their highly Christianised culture.

Her sexually charged appearance, however, is somewhat paradoxical.  On the one hand, she is represented as the marginalized object of the male gaze in a culture which privileges the male as both producer and consumer of art. On the other, she is a goddess, deeply rooted in western civilization, who empowers the female.

This ambiguous identity is what has made Venus so alluring over the years, and a subject particularly suited to the Neoplatonist agenda followed by the Medici dynasty in Renaissance Florence.  Neoplatonism revived the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), arguing that there were divine  forms and concepts lying beneath what we are able to perceive with our senses.  The Renaissance adapted Platonic ideas to their own Christian theology.

An essential feature of Neoplatonist teaching was its reading of texts on a number of different levels, an eclectic compilation of spirituality that embraced both the pagan and Christian belief systems.  As the famed art historian, Ernst Gombrich, once proclaimed:

“To them [the Florentine Neoplatonists] the myths were not only a mine of edifying metaphors. They were in fact yet another form of revelation. . . . The pagan lore properly understood could only point towards the same truth which God had made manifest through the Scriptures.”

Sandro Botticelli (c.1445-1510), as a Medici artist, was most likely aware of Venus’ potential for channelling such ideas, as he incorporated the goddess into three of his most famous masterpieces, beginning with the “Primavera” (c. 1482; see image #9) and “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1484-6; see image #10), and culminating in “Venus and Mars,” part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery, London (see image #1).  

In this picture, Botticelli’s Neoplatonist agenda is conducted through a set of contradictory qualities. It is a work both classical and contemporary, and its subjects can be interpreted any number of ways.  The lack of information surrounding its origins has made it all the more intriguing.

For example, the exact subject of the painting has always been uncertain. There are no contemporary accounts of the painting, nor have modern scholars ever been able to entirely agree on who or what is represented.

The date of the “Venus and Mars” is unrecorded.  Scholarly dates, all based on iconographic arguments and/or stylistic proximity to dated works, vary between 1475 and 1486.

The modern title, a Nineteenth-century fabrication, does not accurately reflect how Botticelli and his patrons intended the image to be read.  It would have been essential to Botticelli and his Neoplatonist patrons to avoid an over-centralized iconic image that might encourage a two-dimensional reading. The very act of making it difficult to identify individual characters produced the elusiveness that they so loved, a ground by which any number of biblical, mythological and contemporary meanings could be placed.

Likewise, because provenance is unknown, there are problems involved in rediscovering the original decorative function of “Venus and Mars”, which has a huge influence on interpreting its overall meaning. The internal physical properties of the painting, however, offer valuable clues. It is painted in egg tempera and oil on poplar, measuring 69.2 x 173.4 cm.  The highly unusual format, scale and media of the painting suggests two possible functions: it was either the front panel of a “cassone”-a Renaissance term for a wedding?chest; or, as most scholarship agrees, a “spalliera,” or a wall-panel placed at shoulder height.

Whatever its function, it is reasonable to accept the marriage chamber as a likely context, and this is broadly accepted by scholarship.  However, the composition and syntax suggest that the painting would have been particularly effective as the headboard of a bed.  The figures are close to the picture plane and would therefore have appeared to be lying on the actual bed, there being no foreground, and a backdrop of dark laurels.  Nothing comes between the viewer’s gaze and the image, a device used for similarly erotic purposes by later Rococo painters. In this respect Botticelli could be said to have been using progressive formal ideas.

On the other hand, Botticelli employs more traditional aesthetic decisions. “Venus and Mars” exhibits a classical tripartite composition, which relates to  Greek aesthetics of proportion.  It is divided into three sections both horizontally and vertically.  The horizontal sections are divided by the jousting lance and the left leg and taut military cloak of Mars.  The vertical sections are formed by the backdrop of foliage and its central aperture. The symmetrical balance of the two reclining figures is also a signifier of classicism.  Everything about the composition and its syntactical arrangement is fashionably all’antica.

While classical in composition, the setting of the work would have been recognisable to Botticelli’s contemporaries.  Viewed across the flat fields of the valley of the River Arno, is the city of Florence.  Though deliberately indistinct because of the artist’s employment of aerial perspective, behind the medieval towers and Brunelleschi’s recently completed dome can be seen the foothills of the mountains on the northern side of the river.

The setting would therefore appear to be several miles to the south of Florence.  The total lack of flowers in the painting might indicate the seasons of Autumn or Winter.  This would appear to be meaningful because Botticelli included flowers and coloured fruit in both the “Primavera” and the “Birth of Venus” as signifiers of both Spring and the fecundity of Venus.  Therefore, their absence might imply that Venus’ mundane sexual power is not the most important signifier in this scene.

The sleeping figure of `Mars’ is more of a return to tradition, depicted as an idealized classical statue (see image #3).  The beardless youth is remarkably similar to Botticelli’s images of the adult Christ:  the dead Christ in “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (c.1490-92; see image #8) now in Munich could be from the same model.

Both Mars and Christ exhibit the toned gymnastic physique of idealised ancient statues of youthful gods and victorious athletes; indeed their pale flesh suggests the white marble of antique statues rediscovered in the Renaissance – a visual parallel of the humanist theological tendency to link the pagan and Christian worlds. The physiognomy of his head is less idealised than the body- he has a frown line on his forehead; and his high forehead, long nose and round deep-set eyes are close to the features of Botticelli’s portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici  (c. 1476-77; see image #4), now at the National Gallery  in Washington, D.C.

Conversely, the figure of Venus is less `classical’ in terms of her body, dress and hairstyle (see image #2).  She has none of the usual attributes of the goddess: there are pans/satyrs but no “erotes-”an ancient Greek term for cupids who were the winged offspring of Venus. [1] She sports an expensive contemporary nightgown with gilded borders.

The cloth’s whiteness is significant because it could very well be a reference to a much more contemporary figure-  Simonetta Vespucci,  the reputed mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. This could be likened to a description of Simonetta  by the Florentine poet Poliziano, (1454-1494) who envisioned her as a nymph:

“She is fair-skinned, unblemished white, and white is her garment, though ornamented with roses, flowers, and grass; the ringlets of her golden hair descend on a forehead humbly proud”.[2]

Her elaborate coiffure is in a style fashionable amongst wealthy Quattrocento Florentine women, and this, together with her physiognomy, bears a close resemblance to Botticelli’s own portraits of Simonetta, the Vespucci family being patrons of the artist.

The fact that Simonetta has famous emotional ties to Giuliano de’ Medici (1453-1478), whose aforementioned portrait by Botticelli bears a striking resemblance to Mars, only strengthens the argument that “Venus and Mars” may be a portrait of this heralded, yet unfulfilled romance. Although Simonetta was married, Giuliano had become her chivalric (or Platonic!) lover, and it was Simonetta whom he fought for in the Florentine joust of 1475.

In more recent years, scholarship has tended to reject this interpretation in favour of more allegorical Neoplatonic figures, or alternative, but married, couples.  However, the similarity of the figures to Giuliano and Simonetta must have remained striking to Botticelli’s contemporaries, and it seems obtuse to avoid reading the picture as being intended, at least in some degree, as a representation of the famous lovers.

Notwithstanding, Botticelli also reaches for many other possibilities. The painting has also been considered as a recreation of a renowned wedding portrait of Alexander the Great, by the Greek artist, Aëtion. While Botticelli never saw the painting directly, he knew of it through a heralded description by the ancient writer Lucian,  who mentioned a scene in which erotes played with the great general’s armor, a parody of Greco?Roman paintings of Mars and Venus.

The visual metaphor here implied the quasi?divinity of the Hellenistic Royal couple, which Alexander continued to propagate by assuming himself to be the son of Zeus.  In turn, by replacing Alexander and Roxana with members of the contemporary Florentine elite, Botticelli could also have been creating a multi-layered image which references both classical mythology, Hellenistic history and his own world.

The leonine hair of Mars and his youthful, gymnastically-toned body bring to mind Alexander the Great, the young Giuliano de’ Medici, and even Christ himself.  Thus the underlying message here elevates Simonetta Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici to a pantheon, reserved for such legendary figures.

The picture can also been deconstructed a Christian text, with Venus assuming the role of a Mary Magdelen type, contemplating Mars as Christ deposed from the cross. Such a reading would relate to the pagan significance of the adulterous, lustful relationship between Venus and Mars. Venus was married to Vulcan, as Simonetta was married to another man, with the potential for an explosive relationship between the prostitute and the Christ.

Botticelli delivers another moral play through the substitution of erotes with wingless, but equally childlike classical satyrs.  Once again, the exact identification of these mythological figures was deliberately ambiguous.  Botticelli has adopted Ficino’s ideas in “Venus and Mars” by means of the replacement of the erotes, which signify the divine aspects of love, with bestial satyrs, which represent lust.  Thus one of the painting’s moral purposes is to demonstrate the spiritually damaging effects of such philandering.[3]

Sexual innuendos however, are not always derided, and in other cases increase Venus’ mystique. The conch shell for example, is a furtive suggestion of sexual role reversal. Blown by one of the satyrs, attempting to awaken Mars with its blast, it has been associated with Venus, as well as with female genitalia.

In the “Birth of Venus”, Venus is depicted standing on a scallop shell: the Greek word “kteis” can be translated as both scallop shell and female genitalia.  The combination of the phallic lance and shell is a blatant metaphor of the sexual aspects inherent in the painting, and both objects are significantly turned against Mars to enhance Venus’ dominance.

This gender role reversal also conforms with the writings of Botticelli’s Neoplatonic colleagues.  As the Medici family tutor Marcilio Ficino (1433-1499) once remarked upon the myth, “Venus dominates him [Mars]…But Mars never dominates Venus”.

There is at least one more possible famous pair of lovers to be discovered beneath the surface image, which can be found through a further look at the satyrs and the fruit that is being held in held in the left hand of the satyr hiding in the cuirass of Mars.

Unlike erotes, satyrs were not associated with Venus, and instead suggested biblical devils within the Christian context of Botticelli’s time. This can be seen in the artist’s own illustrations for Dante’s Inferno (see image #11) Their apparently playful assault on Mars is actually sinister,  and their strong satanic ties lend to a complete rereading of the painting as an allusion to the Fall of Man.  Here, Venus becomes Eve and Mars becomes Adam.

Eve’s gaze becomes seductive: having eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, she has offered it to Adam who has thereupon fallen into sinful dreaming.  The clothing of both figures now becomes a sign of their Fall and Guilt.  Eve’s drapery, on other levels a sign of modesty, now comes to signify her own recently discovered sexuality. The fingers of her left hand are stroking drapery folds arranged in the form of a vulva.
The placement of Adam’s drapery signifies his newly discovered modesty, in more orthodox paintings represented by a fig leaf.  The fig leaf is not employed here because that would nail the image too firmly into a one-dimensional Biblical context, and would thus negate Botticelli’s multidimensional reading.

For the same reason, he resists the inclusion of the apple which was an essential attribute of Adam and Eve in late Medieval and early Renaissance iconography.  Instead he places a curious fruit beneath the left hand of the satyr hiding inside Mars’ cuirass (see image #6).

The correct identification of this fruit has eluded scholars. Consensus has it as a thorn apple, which when ingested is known to induce intoxication, hallucination, drowsiness (and fitful sleep) and a recumbent posture, bringing the swooning pose of Mars to mind.

One of the fruit’s other common names is “devil’s-apple”, and it is also known as “angel’s-trumpet”, “devil’s-trumpet”, “devil’s-weed” and “herbe-du-diable”.[4] This nomenclature becomes highly significant in the context of Botticelli’s image because the fruit is being held by one of the satyrs/devils.  By placing it close to the picture plane, Botticelli emphasizes its significance within the visual narrative.  It is no less than the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

The mischievous smile of the satyr makes it clear that Mars/Adam has been drugged with this highly narcotic fruit.  It is also telling that this satyr is on his belly, projecting his tongue like a serpent. This obviously brings to mind other characters from Paradise, reminding the viewer of God’s punishment of Satan for tempting Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. As it says in Genesis 3: 14, he proclaimed “..upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life…’[5]

In his multi-semantic presentation of Venus and Mars, Botticelli involves the spectator in the contemplation of a constantly changing interplay of meanings on the themes of earthly lust and spiritual love. We are taken on a journey that spans across Western history, myth and religion- from the adulterous love affair of Venus and Mars, to the dynastic marriage of Roxana and Alexander,  the contemporary tragedy of Simonetta Vespucci and Guiliano de’ Medici, and finally the Christian redemption of Mary Magdelene by the sacrifice of her beloved Jesus.   Botticelli’s final layer of meaning-the biblical Temptation of Adam and Eve, is perhaps the greatest tragic love story of them all.


[1] A generation later (c.1505) Piero di Cosimo painted the far less ambiguous `Venus, Mars (and Cupid)’ (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) in which the `Venus’ is furnished with her associated attributes of Cupids, doves and rabbits.

[2] Poliziano, Stanze, p. 23.

[3] Cantelupe, Eugene B., “The Anonymous Triumph of Venus in the Louvre: An Early Italian Renaissance Example of Mythological Disguise,” The Art Bulletin 44, 3 (1962), p. 242, states: “Often the legends of Venus…helped Renaissance man dignify passions that were once considered shameful, even depraved.”

[4] Jesse D. Wagstaff,  International Poisonous Plants Checklist: An Evidence-Based Reference (Boca Raton, FL, 2008), p.121.

[5] The Bible, Genesis, Ch. 3, v. 14.

8 Thoughts

  1. What a scholarly romp!

    Boticelli is one of my most admired artists – looking at your reproduction of the original I studied in London I wonder how faithful the colors are?

    The figures look deadened by the overly faint coloring?

    is that just me?

    has a whole bunch of Turners from a “Bellingham collection”.
    Any relation to our scholar?

  3. H Niyazi says:

    It is shame Mr Bellingham could not correct the error in the identification of the Stramonium plant in time for publication. There is definitely no consensus on the image in the painting!

    The Thorn apple, Datura Stramonium did not exist in Italy in Botticelli’s Time. Symon and Haegi performed the definitive research on this.

    Symon, D. E. & L. Haegi (1991): Datura (Solanaceae) is a New World genus. Pp 197-210 in: J. G. Hawkes, R. N. Lester, M. Nee & N. Estrada-R. (eds.) – Solanaceae III: Taxonomy, chemistry, evolution. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

    More on this here:

    H Niyazi

  4. I think that the drug induced sleep is a correct analysis of the pose in question. I believe that thy satyres are there in reference to the playings of the mind, a nod to devilish care free experimentation of mind altering substances available at the time. While the plant pictured may not be a direct resemblence of any known drug, it perhaps implies rather that plants generally available were experimented with.

  5. This may also suggest that this is a very personal piece to Sandro Botticelli, perhaps this is a dream sequence self portrait. Botticelli uses Simonetta Vespucci in Venus and Mars, The Birth of Venus and La Primavera. Perhaps he had an odd obsession with her – he is buried near her at his request. Perhaps this is the artist portraying his deepest fantasy.

  6. [...] Botticelli muss gewusst haben, was er damit ausdrücken wollte, als er die Farben so kalt und blass gewählt hat. Vielleicht ist der Mann, der seine Rüstung und Lanze in die Hände der Teufelchen gibt, aber auch nur ein männliches Angst-Thema; eine Entsprechung, „Achill unter Jungfrauen“, hab’ ich in dem für die Männer „reservierten“ Teil der ARS gefunden. OVID bürstet dort die üblichen Rollenklischees ganz ordentlich gegen den Strich und betont, wie die Konventionen unser Denken, unser Vorstellungsvermögen bestimmen. Mars und Venus hat OVID gleich doppelt „besungen“, in den Metamorphosen und in der „Liebeskunst“ beschreibt er, wie die Beiden, gefangen unter Volkanos Netz, den Blicken und dem Gespött der übrigen Götter ausgesetzt sind. Botticelli setzt sie unseren Blicken und den Neckereien der Satyrn, die er dem Zeitgeist folgend hinzugefügt hat, aus. „The combination of the phallic lance and shell is a blatant metaphor of the sexual aspects inherent in the painting, and both objects are significantly turned against Mars to enhance Venus’ dominance.“  (Bellingham, David o.J.) [...]

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