On my next trip to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, I can’t wait to lay my eyes on that famous “Venus on the Half-Shell” painting…one of the masterpieces of the Renaissance.
The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.
This work was revolutionary: the first large-scale painting of a naked woman in a thousand years. It summed up the growing secular culture of Renaissance Florence.
Venus — the goddess of love and beauty — was born from the foam of a wave. Still only half awake, this fragile newborn, blown by the god of wind, floats ashore on a scallop shell, where her maid waits to dress her in a rich robe fit for a goddess.
Botticelli, painting innocent beauty, did everything possible to please the eye. His pastel colors make the world itself seem fresh and newly born. Botticelli (who was trained as a goldsmith) mixed real gold into the paints to highlight Venus’ radiant hair, the scallop shell, the Wind’s wings, and even the sun-sparkled grass.
The god of wind sets the scene in motion. Everything — Venus’ flowing hair, the waves on the
water, the swirling robes, even the jagged shoreline — ripples like the wind. Venus’ wavy hair mirrors the undulating line of her body. Mrs. Wind holds on tight, as their bodies, wings, and clothes intertwine. In the center of all that wavy motion stands the still, translucent form of Venus, looking like she’s etched in glass.
In good Renaissance style, Botticelli poses Venus with the same S-curve body and modestly placed hands as a classical statue. But whereas Botticelli’s Renaissance contemporaries insisted on ultra-realism, Botticelli’s anatomy is impossible. Venus’ neck is too long and she stands off-kilter. Venus’ maid seems to float above the ground. And how exactly does Mrs. Wind wrap that leg around her man?
With The Birth of Venus (a.k.a. Venus on the Half-Shell), Botticelli was creating a more ideal world, with a more ethereal beauty. It’s a perfectly lit world, where no one casts a shadow. The bodies curve, the faces are idealized, and their gestures exude grace.
Venus’ nakedness is not so much erotic as innocent. Botticelli thought that physical beauty was a way of appreciating God. Venus’ beauty could arouse and uplift the soul of the viewer, giving him a spiritual longing for heavenly things.
Gaze into the eyes of Venus. She’s deep in thought…but about what? Around her, flowers tumble in the slowest of slow motions, suspended like musical notes, caught at the peak of their brief life. Venus’ expression has a tinge of melancholy, as if knowing how quickly beauty fades and that innocence will not last forever.
This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Uffizi.