Sandro Botticelli’s Venus featured as a modern-day influencer in an Italian tourism campaign (courtesy Italy’s Ministry of Tourism)

The government of Italy has launched a new €9 million (nearly $10 million) campaign featuring the protagonist of Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1485) as the new AI-generated face of Italian tourism. The campaign, which reinvents Venus as a “virtual influencer,” has drawn criticism on social media for what some see as a trivializing of Italy and its cultural heritage in an attempt to appeal to a contemporary audience. 

In an Instagram account describing her as a “Worldwide Renaissance icon and Italy lover,” the new “Barbie Venus” is depicted in multiple videos flaunting a digital facelift and Frankensteined over the slender body of a designer-wearing, selfie-taking modern woman. Instagram users took to the comment section of multiple posts to call the campaign “offensive and cringe-worthy,” with one user (@thatvulcanlady) mincing no words in their observation that “the centrifugal force with which Botticelli is turning in his grave would be enough to produce the energy to illuminate the entire country for years to come.” 

Critics lament that the painting’s likeness, which once represented beauty, love, and hope, is now a grotesque caricature used to exploit Italian culture at the cost of its dignity — or in the words of Livia Garomersini, art historian and activist of Mi Riconosci, “a narration that trivializes our heritage in the most vulgar way, transforming Botticelli’s Venus in yet another stereotyped female beauty.”

“Given the issue of the improper use of works of art and copyright is raging these days, one wonders about the position of the Uffizi Galleries on the matter,” Garomersini continued. It is unclear whether the Uffizi Gallery in Florence consented to the painting’s appropriation by the Italian Tourism Ministry. (The Uffizi Galleries declined to comment.)

Still from a promotional video featuring stock footage from a Slovenian wine cellar (image via Italian Ministry of Tourism)

In perhaps the most controversial development, the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reported that one video on Venus the Influencer’s Instagram features stock footage of people drinking Slovenian wine in a Slovenian wine cellar. In light of this context, the hefty €9 million (~$9,907,740) budget seems like it could have been put to better use. 

The campaign is not faring any better with official audiences. “We’re fighting against commercial exploitation that ridicules our artistic jewels, like the aprons showing the statue of David’s private parts or grotesque reproductions of works of art in stupid poses,” said Dario Nardella, mayor of Florence.

Sigourney Schultz is an Assistant Editor at Hyperallergic. She holds an MA in Art History from Hunter College in New York City.