"Art..." "ArtSleuth" A shower of roses A modestly concealing gesture A pensive face A picture by Sandro Botticelli. One of those mythical nudes which recur throughout the history of painting? Not just that: a nude of a kind not seen for a millennium: life-size, graceful, full-frontal and totally present. For centuries, nudity has spelt humiliation, … or vice and beauty has been suspect, and now both are revealed and idolised in this picture of Venus, Godess of Love… With this celebration of woman’s body and grace, humanist man of the Renaissance enters the modern age. Icon? … or cliché? Countless reproductions have made this scene so sickeningly familiar, that we almost hope to see it take a Monty Python turn, and forget to look at it properly! If we did, and looked beyond its apparent serenity and gentleness, this uneasy balancing act, this frenetic movement, this firm, unwavering line… … we would see that this slender, elongated figure, with its abundant hair is light years away from the massive solidity of classical statuary… and that this abstracted, melancholy face, is closer to today’s deadpan super-models than the frankly carnal images of Venus which followed it. So: Renaissance goddess or medieval madonna? Symbol of emancipation or stock masculine ideal? Who exactly is this woman? BOTTICELLI - "The Birth of Venus" "That Obscure Object of Desire" Part 1 : Weight of the word, shock of the image The answer seems obvious: she is Venus, at the very moment of her birth! beautiful … … awkwardly shielding her nakedness … surrounded by her attributes: the conch-shell, on which she was born amid the waves, and the roses. On her left, Zephyr, god of the west wind, cheeks swelling as he blows, and his companion, Aura, the spring wind. They are wafting the shell towards the shore … … where a woman is waiting to fold Venus in a scarlet cloak, patterned with violets. She is one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons - presumably Spring. But Botticelli’s Venus comes straight from classical antiquity: True, he has faithfully followed the description of her birth given by Politian, his contemporary. But that text is itself based on Pliny the Elder’s account of a legendary fresco of Venus, painted by Apelles, ancient Greece’s most celebrated painter, for Alexander the Great! Impossible to find a more illustrious forebear for the artist, or his patrons, the Medici. And the Medici themselves provide his second great source of classical inspiration - their Roman copy of the Venus of Praxiteles, a nude statue whose fabled beauty so fired one young man with passion that he attempted to make love to it! The Birth of Venus thus seems to embody the true Renaissance spirit: rejection of medieval obscurantism thanks to rediscovery of the Greek and Roman legacy. And yet, comparison of Botticelli’s picture with other contemporary masterworks reveals some striking differences: His fellow painters are enthralled by perspective, but his use of it here is perfunctory: no progressive fading-out of contrasts to convey increasing distance and his figures look like cut-outs pasted on a background. Again, while his contemporaries seek to make figures life-like by softening their contours, Botticelli gives those contours a chiselled clarity. Finally, Venus differs from her model: her neck and face are longer her shoulders less broad her stomach rounder… and she violates the sacrosanct principles of classical proportion… In theory, the proportions of the whole are determined by the distance between the breasts, but here the rule is loosely applied and the proportional distances are variable. Classical stability has gone too: instead, we get an improbable disequilibrium. Is Venus concealing her real origins? Part 2. "The art of living in the present" With the scanty classical material at his disposal, Botticelli cannot hope to convey the goddess’s full beauty to his contemporaries. So he falls back on earlier styles still popular in late fifteenth-century Florence. He turns, for example, to the medieval tapestries of northern Europe, which are highly prized by the Medici. Typically, their figures stand out like arabesques, and his flattened perspective in The Birth of Venus echoes this medium, whose physical nature makes it hard to render depth. He also turns to goldsmithing, a typically medieval art, now on the way out. Botticelli himself trained first as a goldsmith, which explains the crystalline precision of his draughtsmanship and why “virile” is the epithet commonly applied to him. In fifteenth-century usage, “virility” denoted absolute mastery of an art or skill - what we now call virtuosity which, for a Florentine painter in 1485, meant flawless draughtsmanship, a field in which Botticelli reigned supreme! Ultimately, his naked goddess is not classical, but gothic - the hair is long the body is longer the muscles have gone and the hips are broader the breasts are smaller So, is Venus a neo-medieval nude? In form yes, but by no means in subject: medieval artists used the nude in two contexts only, both of them biblical: sometimes, to symbolise innocence, but usually, to symbolise sin. This Venus might be an up-dated version of the nude who stands for innocence and purity, with gestures expressive of modesty. her absorbed and pensive face - the face indeed of the Virgin Mary, goddess of the Christians! And the greatest philosophers of the age endow her with virtues: Temperance and decorum ... charm and splendour! This is all part of a strange attempt to reconcile the Catholic religion with the pagan gods of antiquity earnest treatises are devoted to astrology, and a full-scale cult of Venus develops. Mothers who have just given birth are presented with decorated trays, on which the sovereign goddess is shown holding men in thrall, as if hypnotised. Supposedly a wedding present, "The Birth of Venus " might thus be an open and superlative version of the nudes traditionally painted inside marriage chests. which were thought to bring good fortune to newlyweds, excite their desire and even help to make their future children beautiful! The picture itself packs a powerfully sensual punch: The improbably entwined legs of the “lascivious zephyrs” The long and wildly tossing hair The wind-blown dress which clings suggestively to the Hora’s body Indeed, agitation and movement dominate the picture! And movement is becoming one of the Renaissance artists’ favourite ways of expressing rapture, Ecstasy- and sensuality. Botticelli, after all, could desexualise nudes - when he chose to: Take the figure of "Truth - sallow, stiff and flat-chested" - who appears in his "Calumny of Apelles " • Or this hunch-backed "St. Zenobia, with her near-male torso." Neither classical nor medieval, this scene is typical of the Florentine renaissance, always prompt to sing the pleasures of life and the senses -even when this involves cheerfully combining… Christian religion and pagan superstition, idealisation and carnal sensuality. And yet, a bare ten years later, the picture had already been forgotten - and it stayed forgotten for over three centuries! Part 3 : The double life of Venus In 1494, ... Florence abruptly becomes a “theocratic dictatorship”, led by the Dominican preacher, "Savonarola," who reviles pagan nudity. Botticelli does formal "penance, " and goes back to painting biblical scenes. Venus escapes destruction… but not Botticelli’s fading popularity in his own lifetime, the last ten years of which pass without a single commission. The painters who count now are the ones who break completely with the medieval style… and give the human body volume and ultra-realistic, continuous contours. The daring features of "The Birth of Venus are soon dismissed as old-fashioned :" and flesh tones are rendered with incredible realism. The goddess can now go on open display in noblemen’s houses, and even look back boldly at viewers! As time goes on, she becomes steadily heavier, posing suggestively, laden with jewels... - and sometimes more courtesan than goddess. Botticelli’s vision is a thing of the past, and only makes a comeback in the nineteenth century, which, as we know, is schizophrenic: Never have so many female nudes been painted… ... while people insistently proclaim that this is art, and must be viewed dispassionately “"with the purity of little children, who play naked together with no sense of shame”" The female body must remain chaste, without sexual connotations … while desire is transferred to the other figures in the picture. The effects of all this are disastrous: the resulting scenes become farcical, while rolling eyes, and swivelling hips constantly remind us that these “sexless” nudes are seething cauldrons of repressed sensuality, likely to boil over from one moment to the next! Enough is enough! A group of English artists and intellectuals attempt to find out where the trouble really started - and trace the problem back to Raphael, whose contempt for simplicity and truth, and taste for pompous, artificial poses they roundly denounce. Having settled scores with Raphael, they enthusiastically rediscover the "quattrocento - particularly Botticelli! -" and the sweet simplicity of his scenes bodies restrained gestures and melancholy, introspective faces. For them, this hesitant, shy Venus is beautiful because she inspires, not desire, but tenderness. By the end of the century, the matter is settled: reproductions of The Birth of Venus take British homes by storm, and Victorian England welcomes her as the acceptable face of sex: a woman who combines surpassing grace with the restraint on which decency depends. This is where the goddess’s last transformation starts: a woman with a figure men might dream of, who also seems blissfully unthinking. If Venus again excites desire, she now does so as a sex object, whose only function is to feed male fantasies. Alain Jacquet is not simply basing a visual pun on cockle shell and oil company, when he turns her into a petrol pump. He is also implying that she is now a utilitarian object, and that satisfying male desire is her purpose. And so, to understand who she really is, we need to look beyond cliché and context, and follow her back to her origins. If we do that, we may at last understand and feel the full seductive power of a picture which gives us a universal vision of perfect beauty - and which celebrates birth and life itself as well. Next episode: Marie-Antoinette and her children by Vigée-Lebrun A PR exercise? Find more informations on: www.canal-educatif.fr Written & directed by Produced by: Scientific advisor: This film was made possible thanks to the support of sponsors (including you?) and of the French Ministry of Culture Voiceover Editing and motion effects: Postproduction and sound recording: Musical selection: Music Special thanks English subtitles: Vincent Nash Photographic credits A CED production
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