Manipulation of the Venus: Portraying different meanings for different patrons
by Christina Benner
This article looks at the ever changing representation of the Venus in renaissance art. Focusing on four different paintings, the article looks at how each central Venus figure was manipulated to convey either positive or negative connotations. While considering location and patronage, we see that both of these roles impact the artist to communicate specific messages to their audience.
Italian Renaissance
15th Century
European Art
Sandro Botticelli
Andrea Mantegna
Pietro Perugino
Isabella d'Este
The image of Venus, the goddess of love, can be seen frequently throughout visual culture. Depicted by artists in many different forms, her representation in Renaissance art ranges in its meaning and presentation. In this paper I will look at the manipulation of the Venus iconography to portray different values for different patrons. By examining Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) and Birth of Venus (1486), we will see the Venus take on a didactic and enlightening role. However, in paintings meant for the studiolo of Isabella d’Este, Mantegna’s Parnassus: Mars and Venus (1497) and Perugino’s Battle of Love and Chastity (1503) which take on the role of identifiers and symbols for their patron’s morals, Venus is cast in a more negative light. This negative connotation ultimately plays into the gender constructs of the Renaissance period and how they dictated a woman’s role and function in society. Although these four images may share the same central figure, their differences in context provide us with a complex understanding of artist and patron working together to convey specific meanings for their audience.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a Florentine based painter who, although working for various houses, found himself painting for the Medici family.1 The Villa Castello, acquired in 1478 by Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco, grandsons of Cosimo il Vecchio’s brother Lorenzo, housed Botticelli’s paintings The Birth of Venus and Primavera.2 Although specific patronage for these paintings is vague, scholars have constantly assigned the two paintings to Medici patronage between 1477 and 1488.3 Beginning with the Primavera (fig. 1)
Sandro Botticelli, Primavera (1482), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, tempera on panel, 202 × 314cm. Photo: Public Domain.
and accounting for its location, we will see how Botticelli used the Venus as a representation of Spring, fertility of the land, and abundance.
Contemporary scholar Giorgio Vasari notes that the Primavera appears earliest in the inventory of the Casa Vecchia on the Via Larga, next door to the Palazzo Medici.4 The Casa Vecchia was a private home and a rural retreat in the countryside.5  Botticelli's Primavera is dated around 1482, the year Lorenzo married Semiramide d’Appiano, daughter of Jacopo III, Lord of Piombino.6 The painting was affixed to a wall in a ground-floor chamber next to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s bedroom, set about eye level over a wooden settle. The rural setting acts as the backdrop for the theme of Primavera and the Venus’ role as spring, emphasizing the rustic farmer’s calendar, as opposed to a sexualized goddess of love.7 However, the spring time subject is also based on the literary framework of poets Lucretius and Ovid.8 The Primavera visually addresses the leading ideas of its time, such as central issues including the formation of Florentine cultural identity, the understanding and translation of the pagan past, and the realization of interdependent terms of expression for both painting and poetry.9
Focusing on the figure of Venus, we see that Botticelli presents her as the focal point of the composition. Being in the central location and at a higher level than surrounding figures, the visual language marks her as the prominent figure. Venus is shown in symbolic representation of Florence with her patterned dress, and Florentine native trees engulfing the landscape. The association of Venus with Florence is used to elevate not only her status, but the status of Florence and its patrons. We see the manipulation of the Venus’ form from the goddess of love, to an allegorical symbol of her patron’s city.
The Primavera Venus is shown in two phases in relation to the surrounding figures. Meant to be read from right to left, we see the beginning of Spring with the blowing of the west wind (Zephyr), transitioned to its fullness in the month of April, represented by Venus, and from April to its end in May, presided over by Mercury.10 The metamorphosis of Chloris transitioning into Flora shown on Venus’ right through transparent hands and intertwining vines, becomes a representation of the growing process of spring, converging Chloris and Flora into one and ultimately resulting in Venus; a three figure transition to signify one.11 We as viewers are meant to read the painting as a whole, with Venus acting in a motherly role to each figure as she looks on over her season. This motherly role is reinforced by her fully clothed presentation and her apparent pregnant condition, associating her with the Madonna.12The Venus in this painting identifies with the moving spirit of the fertile spring, as opposed to the sensual and typically erotic Venus image.13 As a goddess of the garden, Venus is shown in a positive and effective light, echoing the theme of rebirth, fertile land, and an abundant spring season.14
As the Primavera Venus is a bit obscure in its representation of a “classical” Venus, it emphasizes the disconnect from Botticelli’s definitive standard for Renaissance representations.15 Slightly smaller and painted on canvas as opposed to wood, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is dated around 1484-86.16 According to Vasari, it was displayed at Villa Castello in the same room as the Primavera as early as 1530, but its earlier provenance is a mystery.17 Although painted by Botticelli and assumed to have Medici patronage, the Medici and Florentine symbolism is lacking in comparison to the Primavera.18 Besides the shared Venus central figure, it is unlikely that they are linked directly in patronage and production.19
Linked strongly to literature and Poetry, much like the Primavera, the Birth of Venus originates from poetry itself to create a visual representation. In Stanze per la Giostra, Renaissance poet Angelo Poliziano writes of the Venus:
A young woman with nonhuman countenance /
Is carried on a conch shell, wafted to
Shore by playful Zephyrs; and it seems that /
Heaven rejoices her birth. 20
This poem has clearly influenced Botticelli and his painting of The Birth of Venus as the same iconography is used in its depiction. This imaginative version of the ancient story suggests that the image was made for a humanist patron21 and the pagan imagery of the large scale nude Venus, emphasizes fantasy through a lack of naturalism and erotic overtones.22
Botticelli continued to focus on the representation of Venus but took a different approach to the iconography. Showcased fully nude, this depiction of the Venus is what we most likely associate her with. Scholar Jane Long describes the body language of the Venus in a constructive way, praising her nudity:
Venus poses in a way that accentuates her curves; the exaggerated contrapposto and elongated body clearly celebrate her femininity. She gestures almost delicately, laying her hands above her breast and across her genitals in a way that attracts the viewer’s attention, rather than hides.23
While nudity can be associated with negative terms, relating to erotic sin and seen as the locus of lustful desires that lead humans from salvation, its meaning can also be ambiguous as nudity can be linked to purity and divinity, even echoing Christ.24 In the case of the Birth of Venus, the nudity is more closely linked to the revival of interest in antiquity, shown through the “modest Venus” pose, idealizing beauty, as well as the fantasy-like elements of the presentation.25 However, although fully nude, any erotic connotations are used as didactic tools for supporting marriage and evoking consummation.
Being the first monumental, erotic, nude female of the Renaissance, the representation of Venus makes considerable sense, for not only does her classical basis justify her nudity, but her nuptial associations give legitimacy to the sensory pleasure that nudity elicits.26 Her dual nature of nudity and beauty stood for a notion of sacred and profane love, mean to lift the viewers of the 15th century to the realm of divine love.27 Botticelli took the erotic undertones of the goddess of love and presented them in a way that would be used to evoke love and passion in the context of a marriage and possible wedding gift.28
Painted on canvas as opposed to wood, this easily transferable material could have implied the Birth of Venus’ (fig. 2)
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1486), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, tempera on canvas, 172.5 x 278.9cm. Photo: Public Domain.
journey of relocation.29 With a lack of quattrocento documentation, the painting's original purpose and location are unknown. It is argued that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, well known for using gifts of images to cement relationships with allies, may have commissioned the Birth of Venus as a wedding gift, possibly for the nuptials of Giovanni Bentivoglio, who was a close ally and has appropriated aspects of the cultural traditions of Florence to his own court.30 With the context of marriage at hand, it can be argued that the nudity of the Venus promoted sexual pleasure that would be directed towards procreation.31 In Renaissance culture, a marriage is not legitimized until it is consummated, therefore the Birth of Venus could have been used to arouse a bride and groom, ultimately leading to the bearing of children.32
This manipulation of the Venus form in the Birth of Venus used to convey arousal and motivation is presented in a constructive manner. The same connotations apply in the Primavera, showcasing progressive themes and allowing the vessel of the female Venus to be put on a pedestal, using her beauty and sensuality as an enlightening implement. While these positive images have been commissioned by males, they are in contrast to negative representations of the Venus that were commissioned by a female patron, Isabella d’Este. This comparison alludes to the differences in gender roles and how d’Este manipulated the Venus in a negative way to convey her own virtuous morals, as opposed to male patrons who praised the Venus and her form.
Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) married into the Gonzanga court to the Marquis of Mantua, Francesco II Gonzanga (1466-1519).33 Acquiring the title Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella spent over fifteen years (1491-1508) appointing her Camerini, the studiolo and grotto, with mythological paintings and sculptures.34 Acting as a space to house works of art as well as a space devoted to writing and reading, Isabella’s studiolo was a declaration of status; a luxurious prerogative of a rulers wife.35 The overall scheme of the studiolo were notions of wisdom, celestial love, chastity, and the conquest of vice.36 As it was less likely for a woman to be a patron of art, let alone have a studiolo, Isabella pushed the boundaries of gender norms during the Renaissance and used her studiolo as a way to showcase her values and status. However, the performative nature of a studiolo threatened Isabella’s womanhood, which was inextricably linked to her reputation for chastity.37
The rules of virtuous behavior and devotion to a chaste lifestyle were set forth by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528). Printed multiple times and vastly distributed among courts all over Europe, this book showcased expected and ideal behavior that a woman should encompass in an elite court. As Isabella strived for an ideal role within her court, these courtly expectations resonated in her mind and ultimately presented themselves in every aspect of commissioned art to reverberate her role as a lady of the court in Renaissance Italy.
Acquiring the services of court painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), Isabella commissioned mythological scenes to be displayed on the walls of her studiolo. In Andrea Mantegna's Mars and Venus, also known as Parnassus (fig. 3),
Andrea Mantegna, Mars and Venus (Parnassus) (1497), Louvre, Paris, tempera and gold on canvas, 54.6 x 70.7cm. Photo: Public Domain.
we see the tensions associated with Isabella’s possession of a studiolo and how she manipulates the Venus iconography as a negative aspect of lust and infidelity that she ultimately overcomes. Painted accordingly to showcase aspiring virtues, this image relates to the overall theme of mythology as well as the literature provided in the studiolo itself.38 Mars and Venus takes place on Mount Parnassus, and Mantegna was able to include gods who symbolized Isabella’s philosophical ideals.39 Apollo, the God of artistic inspiration, and the Muses dwell nearby, while he plays the lute as they dance. Mercury resides on the far right, alongside Pegasus, the allegory for fame and moral achievement.40 The main protagonists Mars and Venus are joined atop the mountain, guiding your eye to the contrasted fully clothed Mars alongside the nude Venus, who is assumed to represent Isabella herself in beauty and love. Although the Venus is nude and that normally implies eroticism in a Renaissance context, the nudity of Mantegna’s Venus is not intended to be sexual and erotic, but that of heavenly celestial love.41 Echoing the purity of Eve before original sin, the act of refusing to cover up signifies her innocence and divine perfection.42 Although it seems Mantegna represents the Venus in a positive and celestial light, her image becomes ambiguous with the presence of Vulcan.43 Vulcan, Venus’ rightful husband who rages in the left background, causes a dilemma and a bemused reading of the Venus’ iconography. His mere presence implicates that the union of Mars and Venus is an illicit affair, providing a negative connotation on her behalf.44
In 1498/99, Battista Fiera, a part of the Gonzanga court and well versed in aristocratic etiquette, wrote the earliest surviving commentary on Mantegna’s painting.45 As a close friend of Mantegna, he would have had an intimate understanding of, and access to, the painting. Published twice, first in Mantua and later in Venice, Fiera makes an open apology to Isabella referencing her to the ambiguously unfaithful Venus in a previous commentary.46 In his apology, Fiera argues that the Venus was portrayed in Isabella’s beauty and nothing else, separating her from the treasonable behavior presented in Mantegna’s interpretation.47 On Mantegna’s behalf, Fiera states:
Fair Isabella, he is sorry to have called you Venus, /But an image of you had been the source of the poets fancy. /You are not really Venus, are you, if you are untied in a chaste bed / With a Mars? You are not really Venus, are you, if Apelles makes aVenus out of you? 48
The controversy is that Fiera had not seen the “vengeful hands against Mars” and the presence of Vulcan. By associating Venus with Isabella, he accidentally calls the Marchesa’s virtue into question, which she highly strives for.49 However, according to Stephen Campbell, this poem is a part of “studiolo culture,” a type of clever, cultivated, and politically charged exchange in which paintings, such as Mars and Venus, served to stimulate interpretive games among the courtiers present in Isabella’s studiolo.50 With Isabella’s virtue at stake and being associated with an unchaste Venus, her courtiers were defending her virtue by reconciling the iconographic challenge of Mantegna’s Mars and Venus, publicly diffusing the social tensions surrounding her possession of a studiolo. However, Fiera’s poem could be making an audacious gesture to draw attention to this controversy, which would demonstrate his knowledge of Isabella’s collection.
As a Renaissance woman’s virtue and chastity were decrees set forth for court ladies like Isabella, Pietro Perugino’s Battle of Love and Chastity (fig. 4)
Pietro Perugino, Battle of Love and Chastity (1503), Louvre, Paris, tempera on canvas, 160 x 191cm. Photo: Public Domain.
was commissioned under strict rules set forth by Isabella herself and her advisor Paride da Ceresara.51 To avoid any confusion about Isabella's ambition of being a virtuous and clever courtier, such as the regulations proposed by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528), there was an exchange of at least seventy letters between Perugino and Isabella regarding the production of his painting.52 In these letters, Isabella expressed in great detail the iconography she wanted this painting to portray:
My poetic invention, which I wish to see you paint, is the Battle of Love and Chastity – this so say, Pallas (Minerva) and Diana fighting Venus and Love. Pallas must appear to have almost vanquished cupid…..The issue of the conflict between Diana and Venus must appear more doubtful….Behind these four divinities the chaste nymphs in the train of Pallas and Diana will be soon engaged in fierce conflict, in such ways as you can best imagine, with the lascivious troop of fauns, satyrs, and thousands of little loves.53
With strict guidelines in place, we see Isabella’s letter to Perugino come to life in the Battle of Love and Chastity, as he seemed to have followed her rules quite accurately and gracefully. Diana and Venus, the most prominent figures in the foreground, create a psychomania, or soul struggle, defining a state of strife between dispositions.54 Chastity, personified by the virgin goddesses Pallas, Diana, and Diana’s nymphs, are pitted against their antagonists, Venus, Cupid, Satyrs, and a host of predatory male gods.55
The negative significance of the figure of Venus plays into the gender constructs of the Renaissance and how they dictated a woman’s role and function in society. It has been taken self-evident that Isabella is to be identified with the figures of Diana and Pallas, and that that the purpose of the work is to proclaim her virtuous opposition to the vicious sensuality and levity associated with Venus and Cupid.56 The flowing blue cloth covering Venus is supposed to designate venery in a carnal and worldly sense, even more appropriate for her onslaught on the virtuous Pallas and Diana.57 That the virtues are actively battling, rather than acting as mere symbols, now makes a woman virile.58
The positive, enlightening image of the Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus act in a didactic role in providing specific positions. While Primavera conveys rebirth and prosperity in rural settings, the Birth of Venus conveys inspiration to procreate and bring prosperity in family settings. In comparison, Mantegna's Mars and Venus and Perugino's Battle of Love and Chastity, both commissioned by Isabella d'Este, also serve didactic roles in that they represent the Venus in a negative light and show her overcoming it in order to express Isabella's values and morals. Whether positive or negative, we see that through the complex relationship between patron and artist, alongside gender constructs, the process of manipulation can help convey any specific message that the patron wants to implement.
Endnotes
1 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, ed. Phillip Jacks. (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 187.
2 Ibid. , 522.
3 Jane C. Long, “Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as a Wedding Painting,” Aurora: the Journal of the History of Art (November 2008): 1-2.
4 Vasari, Lives, 522.
5 Charles Dempsey, “Mercurius Ver: The Sources of Botticelli’s Primavera,”Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,Vol. 31 (1968): 254.
6 Vasari, Lives, 522.
7 Dempsey,“Mercurius Ver," 56.
8 Ibid., 269.
9 Stephen J. Campbell, Cabinet of Eros; Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 3.
10 Dempsey,“Mercurius Ver," 254, 256.
11 Ibid., 260.
12 Jean Gilles, “The Central Figure in Botticelli’s Primavera,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring –Summer 1981): 12. The apparent Madonna association refers to the pregnant condition of the Virgin with child, and her commonly presented attire that conveys modesty and subtlety, as Venus is shown echoing this visual presentation.
13 Dempsey,“Mercurius Ver," 252.
14 Ibid., 257.
15 Ibid., 268.
16 Vasari, Lives, 522.
17 Ibid.
18 Long, 2.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid., 21.
23 Ibid., 10.
24 Ibid., 7. Nudity can be linked to Christ as he is frequently presented nude or scarcely clothed in paintings representing his crucifixion and selfless sacrifice. His nudity is never shown erotic and sexualized, always upholding his divinity.
25 Ibid., 8.
26 Ibid., 26.
27 Ibid., 4.
28 Ibid., 12.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., 22-24.
31 Ibid., 13.
32 Ibid., 15.
33 Molly Bourne, “Renaissance Husbands and Wives as Patrons of Art: The Camerini of Isabella d’Este and Francesco II Gonzanga," in Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy eds. Sheryl E. Reiss and David G. Wilkins (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001), 93.
34 Ibid., 95.
35 Campbell,Cabinet of Eros, 62-63.
36 Joseph Manca, Andrea Mantegna and the Italian Renaissance (New York: Parkstone International, 2012), 173
37 Steven J. Cody, "'The Rest He Left Unsaid:' Battista Fiera’s Poetic Commentary On Mantegna’s Mars and Venus.” Source Notes in the History of Art, Vol 30. No. 4 (Summer 2011): 15 Accessed November 12, 2013.
38 Campbell, Cabinet of Eros, 120.
39 Manca, Andrea Mantegna, 185.
40 Ibid., 180-185.
41 Ibid., 181.
42 Ibid.
43 Cody,"'The Rest He Left Unsaid,'" 14.
44 Ibid.
45 Ibid., 12.
46 Ibid., 14.
47 Ibid., 15.
48 Ibid., 14.
49 Ibid.
50 Ibid.
51 Manca, Andrea Mantegna, 173.
52 Campbell, Cabinet of Eros, 172.
53 Manca, Andrea Mantegna, 186.
54 Campbell, Cabinet of Eros, 169.
55 Ibid.
56 Ibid., 171.
57 Ibid., 174.
58 Ibid., 183.
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