Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1484-6): Part Two

The main entry on Botticelli's Birth of Venus explains how the goddess does not represent a real figure but a "work of art" emerging from the artist's "paint-pot", the shell.1 Venus is being conceived in Botticelli's mind.2 That's not all though.

The woman on the right extends her arm like a painter in front of an easel. Venus' long hair, however, flies out to touch the same point, an embroidered flower within the bunch of cloth the other holds. Thus, with Venus' hair suggesting the hairs of a "paintbrush", both figures turn the fresh flowers on the left of the composition into "painted" ones on the right. What is more the curious shape in the contour of the cloak was probably intended as a "B" for Botticelli, the name he was known by (see green in diagram).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1484-6) Oil on panel. Uffizi, Florence.
Bottom: Detail of above with diagram.

Click image to enlarge.

A key unseen feature is the blue fabric (top L) shaped into the general form of the artist's own face (top R) penetrated by Mercury's figure.3 You can see via the diagram below how the fabric forms his large chin, wavy lips and sweeping eyebrows. One eye is hollow, the other closed or blocked by fabric to signify his dual perception.4 Intended as a mental image Botticelli's "self-portrait" is distorted and fragmented like a Cubist picture. Picasso, as explained before, did not invent Cubism from nothing nor, as he insisted, from African art; it came from his own tradition, the twisted and metamorphic "fabric portraits" in medieval and Renaissance painting.5 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1484-6)
Top R: Self-portrait from Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi (1475) Uffizi, Florence.
Bottom: Diagram of detail above.

Click image to enlarge.

Mercury, meanwhile, is threaded "inside the artist's head" because, as messenger between our world and the divine, he passes through it. And he too has the artist's features. Now that the twisting fabric is recognizable as Botticelli, the scene itself changes. The sky-blue "head" conceives the goddess-sculpture who is herself the artist's own alter ego.6 Barolsky's comment about Primavera, Botticelli's similar masterpiece, helps support this. The figure of Primavera, he wrote, is ‘the figura of the poet’s own fertility.’7 Art is far more consistent than most realize.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1484-6) 

Click image to enlarge.

For instance, even Venus' face is a feminized version of Botticelli's with similar features softened. Note the parted and curling hair, the elongated eye-openings, flared nostril, the odd distortion in the left half of her lip-line and, of course, his iconic chin. The latter appears again and again in his portraits of other people. A contemporary wrote that Botticelli just could not help painting his own features.8 Experts, though, often prefer to assume that Venus was  modeled by a real person, just as they fail to see the artist's features in the Mona Lisa and other celebrated female portraits. Yet when these two heads are compared eyes level (below), the slope of Botticelli's lazy eyelid on the right is more easily seen in the slant of her matching eye.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Venus from Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1484-6)
Top R: Self-portrait detail from Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi (1475)
Lower L & R: Details of above images rotated to allow for easier comparison

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This discovery led to the realization that Michelangelo probably knew this when he composed The Creation of Adam.9 A neurologist revealed in 1990 that the red cloak behind God is the shape of the human brain (center).10 I then showed how God's robe inside the brain contains, like Botticelli's blue fabric, distorted fragments of Michelangelo's face, clearly a mental image.11 If you click to enlarge the picture you will see Michelangelo's mouth and nose wrenched out of shape and possibly the location of his eyes. Both "heads" are separated from their creation, Venus or Adam, while extended arms "touch" their "art". And both "creative minds" made of fabric are supported by flying figures with stretched legs and wind-blown cloth behind (top and center). 

All this results from a simple change in perspective. Art does not depict the exterior world. Nor tell stories. It is self-reflective.
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1484-6)
Center: Detail and diagram of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam
Bottom: Detail of Daniele da Volterra's Portrait of Michelangelo, rotated to match the direction of the "self-portrait" in the image above.

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. See Abrahams, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1484-6).

2. See the theme, Conception (Sexual and Mental).

3. Mercury's arm extends from the shoulder in Botticelli's fabric "eye-socket" to unite vision (eye) and craft (arm). See the theme Hand and Eye.

4. See the theme, Insight-Outsight.

5. This partly explains the vast number of drapery studies in Renaissance and medieval art and artists' seemingly excessive interest in the material of clothing. It now appears, though, that they were not only practising how to draw texture and reflected light, as long claimed, but were in some cases experimenting with how to convey two forms at once. Dürer is known to have done this in his drawing of Six Pillows (1493). In cases where we know what the artist looked like, the fabric "faces" I have discovered are not always self-portraits but often are. This finding also suggests that medieval artists who did not sign their works and are often anonymous may instead have included their self-portraits in a fragmented and hidden form. See Abrahams, Cubism Explained (2011).

6. See Abrahams, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1484-6).

7. Paul Barolsky, The Faun in the Garden: Michelangelo and the Poetic Origins of Italian Renaissance Art (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994, p. 27

8. Frank Zöllner, “Ogni Pittore Dipinge Sé: Léonardo da Vinci and ‘Automimesis’ ”, Künstler über sich in seinem Werk, ed. M. Winner (Weinheim: VCT Acta humanoria) 1992, pp. 137-60

9. Botticelli's The Birth of Venus was painted in Florence 30 years before Michelangelo's Creation of Adam and has remained there ever since.

10. Frank Lynn Meshberger, “An interpretation of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy”, Journal of the American Medical Association 264, 1990, pp.1837-1841

11. See Cubism Explained for a description of how objects in mental images are most likely to be distorted and fragmented and seen from multiple viewpoints.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 15 Aug 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.