Museums

Botticelli’s Venuses and Our Enduring Need for Beauty

The Botticelli exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, so filled with the hopes and ambitions of the Renaissance, seems especially timely in our deplorable political moment.

Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1444 or 1445–1510)

In the 1960s, my childhood bedroom was covered with images of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” torn from an art book in my parents’ library. About 20 years later, I encountered the painting itself at the Uffizi in Florence. I was not as preoccupied with the image then, standing in front of it in the museum, as I had been as a young girl, though I still loved it; nor was I as preoccupied with it then as I am now, as I contemplate aging in representation and wonder what a goddess of love, passion, and sex would look like without the bloom of youth.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has brought one version of Botticelli’s Venus to the United States. The exhibition, Botticelli and the Search for the Divine, presents the largest number of the artist’s paintings shown together in America to date — 15 by Botticelli — along with several by Fra Fillipo Lippi, with whom he studied.

My interest in Botticelli began in the 1960s. Interestingly, the images of Venus that I had plastered all over my bedroom bore a resemblance to some of the poster art and album covers I already knew. Botticelli embraced perspective, but his figures remained less volumetric than those of his cohorts. These slightly flattened figures were outlined and painted in pastel colors, which were at home with images of Twiggy and rock and roll posters of Bob Dylan. And of course, the one thing I didn’t know in the ’60s based on those reproductions is that Botticelli’s Venus is nearly life-sized. Confronted with her at the MFA, she looks utterly contemporary. “The Birth of Venus” (which is not in the MFA exhibition), according to the AMA, was the first life-size nude painted in 400 years.

Sandro Botticelli, “Venus” (c. 1484–90), tempera on wood panel  (all images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, unless otherwise noted)

Looking back, one might say that, despite the utopian impulses of the baby boom generation and the strength of the counterculture — which turned out to be an anomaly rather than a generational phenomenon — the Enlightenment was coming to an end. The ’60s were a period of serious social and political upheaval that included the United States government sending 18-year-olds to a small country in Asia to be shot, the civil rights movement gaining momentum, the feminist movement gaining momentum, Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida meeting one another at Johns Hopkins University for the first time and preparing to unleash deconstruction on academia in America, not to mention multiple high-profile assassinations, including that of the president of the United States. If anyone believed there was a linear progression to history, one through which humanity slowly but surely improved, the Holocaust in Europe suggested that this might be wishful thinking. Yet, contrary to what one might have expected, the children of that generation were to become the rebellious and idealistic counterculture: the rock-and-rollers, the hippie commune dwellers, the antiwar protesters. Retrospectively, this looks like the last gasp of belief in incremental but progressive change toward a better future through the attainment of ever greater knowledge, although, ironically, we could argue that the death of Modernism brought with it an opening for the voices that were previously marginalized or silenced and was in fact further progress and an expansion of Enlightenment humanism.

By the time I arrived at graduate school in the early ’80s, beauty was dead and postmodernism had supplanted the idea that a grand narrative with overarching explanatory power was possible or even reasonable. Relativism helped displace the notion that the white European male represented a universal experience. In the arts, deskilling was becoming more prevalent. Conceptual art was often without an object and had an afterlife in offhand black-and-white photographic documentation. It makes sense that the abandonment of beauty would accompany deskilling. Beauty generally, though not exclusively, relied on skill for its creation.

During the Renaissance, painters like Botticelli were influenced by the belief that earthly beauty was connected with the divine. Obviously, the more skilled the artist, the more precisely he or she could imbue an image with a beauty that brought it ever closer to divinity by virtue of beauty alone. Botticelli’s early works were of mythological figures. Yet even with mythology as subject matter, before he came under the influence of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola and turned to more overtly religious content, the drive to represent Venus or Minerva as beautiful was not only about the viewer’s pleasure but about creating a connection to something mystical, something beyond an actual representation on the panel or canvas.

Sandro Botticelli, “Pallas and the Centaur (1444 or 1445–1510), tempera on canvas

In the post-studio program at Cal-Arts, beauty had become a dirty word. Yet it seems to me that our attraction, as a species, to beauty is somehow hardwired. One suggestive and seductive theory, articulated by philosopher Piero Ferrucci in Beauty and the Soul, is that the actual standards of beauty evolved to help us distinguish ourselves as a species from other species close to us. We now know that homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, so the choice of a high forehead or widely set eyes would encourage us to mate solely with other homo sapiens. Similarly, there are theories that certain types of landscapes became aesthetically pleasing largely because, throughout our evolution, they were key to our survival as a species and therefore came to represent safety as well as comfort. Whatever we choose to believe about this, we should be suspicious that there is something about beauty that is not just pleasurable but immanent in us. It’s hardly an accident that during the Renaissance the idea of beauty was connected to the divine.

There appear to be two extant versions of the Botticelli’s Venus isolated against a black background, in addition to “The Birth of Venus.” I have two photographic reproductions of her painted in this manner. In one, her arms are naked, and in the other, she is wearing a completely diaphanous shirt that is barely noticeable on casual observation. It is this latter version that is on exhibit at the MFA. The wall text reads:

On a narrow parapet, Venus — Roman goddess of love — stands silhouetted against a black background, strongly lit, as if to evoke sculpture. She is nude except for a transparent sleeved garment with a square neckline, parting just below her bust. Her pose comes directly from ancient sculpture and links the work to its immediate source, Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus, painted around 1484. Together her beauty and her modest pose express the dual nature of love, as believed at the time: both profane and sacred, sensual love and love for God. Attempting to cover herself, she seems to offer a subliminal warning of the mortal dangers of excessive sensuality. While this particular Venus (and another, now in Berlin) have been attributed directly to Botticelli in the past, some experts today regard then as painted under the master’s supervision by assistants.

While I accept that she is modest, covering her pudenda with a swirl of her head hair, she doesn’t strike me as ashamed of her nakedness. Whether she was painted by Botticelli or under his supervision, this ideal of beauty appears to be the same woman we see in the “The Birth of Venus” and “Minerva and the Centaur” and quite possibly later as Mary with the infant Jesus. It is thought that the inspiration for his Venus was Simonetta Cattaneo. She was the wife of Mario Vespucci and the lover of Julein de Médicis. She died at the age of 27. She was reputedly thought to be the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s interesting to trace Botticelli’s use of this muse through the mythological paintings in which she represents the goddess of love as Venus, wisdom as Minerva, and maternal goodness as Mary. In each case, she represents these ideals through her physical beauty and Botticelli’s ability to render it. In Stephen Greenblatt’s extraordinary book on the Renaissance, The Swerve, he describes the painting of “The Birth of Venus” as one of “hallucinatory vividness” and his Venus as “ravishingly beautiful, emerging from the restless matter of the sea.”

Sandro Botticelli, “Madonna and Child with young Saint John” (1444 or 1445–1510), oil on canvas

If being drawn to beauty inheres in our DNA and helped define us over the course of centuries by keeping interbreeding to a minimum, and if our vision of the beauty of a landscape is tied to our sense of safety, and if we are in fact biologically adapted to that landscape and evolved to be compatible with it, what can we make of the current ugliness not only in politics but in the endless scarring and polluting of that landscape? Have we evolved in its image only to destroy what we have spent centuries evolving to adapt to?

This exhibition of Botticelli’s paintings, so filled with the hopes and ambitions of the Renaissance, seems especially timely in our current deplorable political moment. It serves as a reminder that we need beauty, that we rely on it and that it is a part of us, even if right now that is particularly difficult to see.

Botticelli and the Search for the Divine continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (465 Huntington Avenue, Boston) through July 9.

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