Today, ’s The Birth of Venus
(ca. 1486) is everywhere. The early
painter’s rendition of the goddess of love has been used to sell Reebok sneakers, suitcases, and Adobe Illustrator software; inspired photoshoots and music videos featuring the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga; and versions of it graced the cover of The New Yorker
twice. The painting has become an indispensable part of the Western art historical canon—so much so that when someone starts an Instagram of Timothée Chalamet photoshopped into famous artworks
, there he is as Zephyr, hovering beside Venus as she drifts to shore.
But the ubiquity of The Birth of Venus was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, for several centuries, it was more or less unimaginable.
Botticelli, born around 1445, certainly did earn acclaim during his lifetime. Trained in the workshop of
, one of Florence’s leading painters, the young man quickly became a favorite of the Medici family after opening his own workshop in 1470. (The Birth of Venus
was one such commission, for the home of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.) By 1481, Pope Sixtus IV was commissioning Botticelli to decorate Rome’s recently completed Sistine Chapel.
But in the final years of his life, Botticelli’s work became overtly religious and heavily stylized, losing its earlier idealized naturalism. It was around this time that the artist became a devout follower of a fanatical reformist preacher; he may even have renounced his earlier, non-religious paintings. After his death in 1510, Botticelli’s work quickly faded from view.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that a subtle reassessment of the artist began to take root. Even Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who originally derided a Botticelli painting of the
as “so ugly that I’ve dared not show it to a human soul,” eventually came around. “As an artist he is incomparable,” he noted, decades later.
Yet even then, it was Botticelli’s related work, Primavera
(ca. 1477–82), that was his best known. It wasn’t until Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini organized a series of traveling exhibitions of the Italian
as a political move that The Birth of Venus
developed its primacy among Botticelli’s oeuvre. Painted on canvas (rather than wood, like Primavera
), it could be shipped internationally without the fear of warping or cracking. The piece was a smash hit in London, Paris, and San Francisco’s 1935 World’s Fair; and, finally, in 1940 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art
. In some 74 days, the museum welcomed 290,000 visitors; newspapers reported that one in every 25 people in the city saw the work.
At present, the painting is the centerpiece of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The Birth of Venus depicts a moment from the Greek myth in which Kronos severs Uranus’s genitals and throws them into the sea; Venus, or Aphrodite, emerges fully formed from the foam of a cresting wave. Carried by a shell, the goddess drifts to shore in Cyprus. In Botticelli’s work, which pulls its imagery from a 15th-century poem by Agnolo Poliziano, she is propelled by the gentle breeze of Zephyr, the west wind, and balances on a giant scallop shell. A young woman, perhaps Hora of spring or one of the graces, runs to meet her, proffering a robe dotted with flowers.
Its mythological subject matter is significant. As John B. Nici notes in his book Famous Works of Art—and How They Got That Way, it is the “first monumental female nude of a pagan goddess since the ancient world, and for that reason alone it must have raised eyebrows.”
The Birth of Venus
has since become a standard of beauty. As such, it’s also become something to rebel against, a way to call attention to racist and sexist ideas of attractiveness. The image has been used endlessly as a marketing tool, parodied and leveraged to signify quality and culture. In fact, writes Stefan Weppelmann in the catalogue for the Victoria and Albert Museum
’s 2016 exhibition “Botticelli Reimagined,” the painting’s “perpetual international reiterations have ultimately led to its becoming a general shorthand for Western high art per se.”
Below, we trace the endless ways Botticelli’s Venus has been remixed and reborn in fine art and in pop culture—from
to Monty Python