With this canvas, Botticelli launched a momentous shift in Western art. While his
forebears had used nudity to symbolize vice, sin, and shame, Botticelli flipped the script, celebrating—and even sexualizing, as some scholars argue—the naked human form through Venus’s lithe body and blissful, yet confident gaze. Adding to this innovation, the painter mingled diverse styles and employed spellbinding, sometimes inscrutable symbolism, forging a composition that has kept scholars guessing about its intentions and inspirations for centuries.
Botticelli created Birth of Venus in about 1484 in Florence, Italy, the lustrous cradle of Renaissance art. By that time, at around 40 years old, Botticelli was a favored artist of the city’s ruling family, the Medicis, and regularly churned out portraits, religious scenes, and secular-mythological pictures for their villas and chapels.
Classical mythology was en vogue in mid-15th-century Florence, especially among the Medicis and other moneyed elites who sought to reclaim the glory and power of ancient Rome and Greece for themselves. They expressed their admiration by resuscitating the earlier era’s legends, literature, and art. The trend was spurred in large part by Humanism, a philosophical movement driven by the concept of humanitas developed in ancient Greece, which called for the betterment of society through widespread engagement with the arts. Florentines “were so convinced of the superior wisdom of the ancients,” wrote scholar E.H. Gombrich in The Story of Art (1950), “that they believed these classical legends must contain some profound and mysterious truth.”