You’ve probably heard the saying Love conquers all. This timeless saying goes all the way back to the Roman poet Virgil in his “Eclogues”. In Latin, he writes,
Not even War can beat Love! Sandro Botticelli celebrates Love’s triumph through depictions of Venus, the goddess of love! There’s his famous work The Birth of Venus (which you can see at the Uffizi). But, today, we’ll take about his painting, Venus and Mars.
This spectacular piece contains some humor, cool myths, classical references, and marriage themes! What’s not to love!?
The Myth: Venus’ Love Affair
Everyone loves a good story especially ones with cool creatures, gods, goddesses, and drama! Botticelli’s Venus and Mars is based on Venus’ love affair with Mars, the god of war. According to myth, Venus is married to Vulcan, the god of the forge and fire. Unfortunately, Vulcan is considered the ugliest god! So, despite their marriage, Venus took the ever-passionate Mars as a lover.
Venus and Mars’ many trysts eventually caught up with them for Vulcan found out! To catch her in the act, Vulcan he used his forging skills to create a net of chains. This net was so delicately crafted that the lovers didn’t know they had been caught until it was way too late! In punishment, Vulcan invited all his godly friends to gaze and laugh at the trapped couple! Yikes!
Knowing about this famous tale and wanting to appeal to his clients, Botticelli put his own spin on Venus and Mars’ affair.
This painting shows Venus and Mars lounging following one of their secret trysts. Venus appears awake, alert, and fully clothed. You could say she is regal as she perches on nice cushions in a beautiful glade. Mars, on the other hand, is a hot mess. Semi-nude and completely out-for-the count, Mars is snoring the day away (not even the noisy, mischievous satyrs wake him!). Though blessed with a well-defined body and probably terrifying on a battlefield, Mars is reduced to a sleeping limp noodle following his encounter with Venus. Love, we see, has conquered war.
To appeal to his Florentine audience, Botticelli incorporated contemporary themes in Venus and Mars like current fashion styles, marriage views, and some fun humor.
Venus’ pale skin, red lips, and golden hair reflect contemporary Florentine beauty. Perhaps she even mimics an image of the Virgin Mary. The jewels, hairstyle, and gown also align with the fashion styles of the time. Mars’ armor belongs to the time period as well. All in all, these elements would appeal to Florentine viewers!
The size and shape of Venus and Mars fits that of a spalliere which were commissioned for newlyweds and placed in the bedchamber (or camera). Then, the bedchamber acted as a semi-public space where new couples saw to visitors! Therefore, spalliere were usually impressive or entertaining works (you wouldn’t want to bore the guests!). Also, they had to be appropriate so no completely nude characters!
In fact, Venus may represent the new bride. Since chastity was an important virtue for women, Venus’ covered body would emphasize such values! The braids of Venus’ hair are even attached to her dress and secured with a big jewel. This would make the dress difficult to remove. With this, Botticelli may be reinforcing the importance of chastity even in light of her infidelity.
Mars’ presence has a weirder connection with marriage. It is believed that by looking at a well-defined, desirable male figure, women would be more likely to give birth to a healthy son. During the time, boys were the more desired gender since they could carry on the family name.
Continuing this marriage theme, behind Venus sits the myrtle bush, a known marriage symbol! But, in terms of whose marriage this references, there is a possible Vespucci connection. A noble Florentine family and patrons of Botticelli, the Vespucci could’ve commissioned this work. Interestingly, the wasps flying around Mars’ head mean vespe in Latin and could be a fun name pun.
Any troublemakers out there!? Botticelli was one especially during his youth. You’d find him in the middle of a practical joke or using his sharp wit. It’s no wonder that his humor appears in his painting! See the four mischievous little satyrs? They’re playing with Mars’ armor. One’s wearing his helmet and holding a lance while another wiggles inside body armor under Mars’ elbow. A third is blasting a conch shell near Mars’ ear (ow!). Still, Mars remains completely asleep! He must be a very deep sleeper or super worn out. At this rate, the satyrs will get away with messing with the god of war!
Considering Mars’ exhaustion and Venus’ awareness, Botticelli plays off marriage humor as well: the act of making love works only to exhaust the male while invigorating the female.
Looking to Classical Culture
Living during the Renaissance and working with patrons like the Medici’s meant that Botticelli was well-versed in classical works.
Botticelli’s playful satyr’s mimic Roman writer Lucian’s description of Alexander the Great and Roxana’s marriage painting. In this painting, there are cupids playing with Alexander’s armor (much like Botticelli’s satyrs!).
The muscular figure of Mars resembles classical nude sculptures. You’ll also find that Mars’ foot is caught in a pink cloth referencing the Sleeping Hermaphroditus.
Rich with so many references, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars is worth examining at the National Gallery! Read up on more artists through our blog while you’re at it! You can also take part in our Love Hunt and Ladies at the Louvre Hunt to explore more female icons and romantic themes.
Questions? Thoughts on the blog? Let us know in the comments!