I moved to Italy in 2008 prepared to live there for about a year. I visited Florence in May of 2009 as a “tourist” and went to the Uffizi Gallery.
I stood in front of Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venice, knowing very little about the painting, and I understood then and there that I would spend more than a year in Italy.
Eleven years later I own a tour company that has offices in Rome, Florence, Paris, and Philadelphia. At the time, the ticket cost me 8€. I say it was worth the price.
I don’t believe that everyone that looks at the Birth of Venice will open a tour company. If that were the case, I would probably be out of business quickly.
That said, learning the depth of great renaissance artwork can inspire you to add more depth and significance to your own work.
When working with my content team, I use the vault of the Sistine Chapel as an example of how artwork is far more complex than what you see on the surface.
The Birth of Venus was created by Sandro Botticelli. He was a Florentine artist born at exactly the right moment.
He was in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s “Florentine School”. Had he been born 50 years earlier, he’d probably spend most of his time worrying about his next meal rather than enjoying warm and dry conditions in the Medici household.
Instead, he was born during what Vasari referred to as,
the Golden Age of the renaissance.
This is when Europe went from darkness to light.
Lorenzo de’ Medici told gifted young dreamers that they no longer have to think about food, water, or finding a roof to keep them dry. They no longer had to worry about survival.
What they did would change the west forever.
Art today has taken all new meaning. People weld metals, make sophisticated sculptures, or even blow glass. It has evolved beyond paint on canvas because it has had to. Why?
You can buy paint at any big box store you go to today. You have to imagine that the first thing that made a painter qualified was their ability to physically produce brilliant colors.
Giotto, the painter of the Scrovegni Chapel, was renowned for his ability to produce a bright blue color. Everyone loved it and he didn’t give away the recipe.
Ever wonder why purple is the royal color? To produce purple dye prior to industrialization you had to collect thousands of marine snails and boil them for days in a vat to produce the dye for one garment.
Producing the correct materials is only the first step. From there, you have to materialize figures with that paint.
This is the most difficult part. Notice that Bob Ross never painted a human being on his show. I am not saying he was not skilled but it would take a lot longer than a happy tree.
The Naked Pagans
When I first looked at the Birth of Venus on that May day in 2009, I didn’t know much about it. I just thought, “wow, this is beautiful.”
There is far more to a great work of art than beauty.
To be easily recognized and identified by the vast majority of educated people the work must have great significance to world culture.
What made the Birth of Venus so famous?
In short, Venus posed nude. Nudity has brought fame to many throughout history, but Venus was amongst the first of her era.
Prior to the Boticelli, Adam & Eve were one of the only figures painted nude on canvas in Europe. It is an essential part of their story and can not be excluded.
Fifteen hundred years prior to Botticelli, the Greeks and Romans portrayed nearly all their gods and persons of interest nude. Pagan’s loved nudity and who can blame them?
In the 15th century, the Vatican reigned supreme and Christian values were enforced by law.
That said, you could still get away with a little bit of nudity in biblical artwork, but the Birth of Venus was not biblical. It was purely Pagan.
Paintings of the time were strictly biblical. It wasn’t illegal to portray pagan figures in artwork, but practicing paganism was. Why would you want pagan art if you aren’t pagan?
Many artists used Pagan figures as models for Christian counterparts. Zeus for God, Apollo for Jesus, etc.
Sandro Botticelli’s painting(s) were fully Pagan and accelerated the cultural Renaissance. It inspired people to think freely.
The period of the Renaissance stretched over 300 years. That said, when you speak of the Renaissance amongst the tour guides of Italy, you are largely referring to the mid to late 15th and early 16th century.
Doing research for this article I did a Google search, “ most important Renaissance art.”
Many results populated. Both of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Works by Da Vinci. Then, of course Sandro Boticelli.
In an expanded list, Botticelli’s feature paintings were la Primavera and the Birth of Venus. On all the articles I read, neither were number one but always top ten.
The reason I think that the Birth of Venus is the most important is that Boticelli did things that others wouldn’t dare do during the time or for some time after.
Boticelli was also included in a generation of artists prior to Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Boticelli was the trendsetter.
I won’t argue he was greater than Michelangelo, Da Vinci, or Raphael. I argue that the Birth of Venus was the match that lit the fire – which makes him more significant in his contribution in my eyes.
You have to imagine how Botticelli’s fellow artists must have reacted at the unveiling of the Birth of Venus or La Primavera.
They must have admired it in great appreciation, looked at each other, and said, “this guy is a goner.”
Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake 75 years later for suggesting that stars in the sky are distant suns and the Earth revolves around the sun which contradicts the bible.
These were trying times for revolutionary ideas.
The Birth of Venus
That said, Boticelli did it. He painted a completely pagan scene with a nude centerpiece and she is beautiful.
Stunning long locks draped over her pale skin as she rides in on a seashell. A very fitting first day for the goddess of beauty and fertility.
Her nudity is not just an act of defiance against the controlling papal power, but a display of skill. It is very difficult to paint the human figure nude.
We’ve all seen ourselves nude many times. We know what the nude figure looks like. The contours, curves and… you get it.
Unlike a painting of a tree, a slight change in the human figure and our eye spots it immediately. Adding clothes makes it easier. You don’t have to detail the abdomen, rib cage or back muscles which are particularly difficult.
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Boticelli encapsulates his unbelievable skills.
He most likely created his own paint, brought form to canvas, rebelled against oppression, and in doing so gave others permission to do the same.
The Uffizi Gallery
The Uffizi Gallery is an enormous and incredible collection of artwork. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, and many others. Two million people visit it each year.
Visiting the museum should not even be a question. The artwork inside plays a pivotal part in the evolution of western culture.
This article will hopefully serve as an example of how important guided tours are on your personal journey to understand our history and how we have progressed as a species.
The Birth of Venus was the single defining moment that drove me to remain in Italy and start my company. I am hopeful that you will find inspiration as well!