Venus and Mars, Sandro Botticelli. National Gallery, London.

In this painting, Sandro Botticelli* explores the myth of Mars and Venus. His style recalls in its precision the outlines of Gothic art, but the subject matter in his most famous paintings reflects a renewed interest in classical mythology--a mythology that became both sensual and Christian. (This interest was shared by many others in the period; click for more.)

Much admired in the late nineteenth century for his purity of outline and sensuousness, Botticelli (c.1445-1510) was deliberately archaic in his style, with the result that in his time he lost popularity as the techniques of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo took over.

Close

Click here to look at a close-up* of the painting.

[Image available on CD ROM only.]

The detail reveals both the fine line Botticelli is famous for, and the delicate texture of the shading. This Venus is contemplative and intelligent, a far different person (or allegorized ideal) from the voluptuous Venus of Titian. Interestingly, in this picture Venus is clothed while Mars is not--again a contrast to Titian's Venus and Adonis.

Close

Venus and friend. . .

The legend is that Venus and Mars had an affair in which they had three children; Venus' husband, Vulcan, caught them together in a metal net, to the derision of the gods. Botticelli's Venus, placidly contemplating her exhausted conquest as impish satyrs play with his lance and helmet, allegorically suggests that love and beauty are stronger than war and strife. The erotic overtones of the work, and the swarm of wasps around Mars' head (not visible on this scale) are reminders that the victory is always temporary.

Click for Venus' attempted affair with Adonis, or click here to read about Shakespeare's* Venus.

Shakespeare compares the passionate, mature, and flawed love of Antony and Cleopatra to the myth of Mars and Venus. In the very first speech of the play, a Roman soldier deplores the way that Antony's eyes, that used to "gaze like plated Mars" on his army, now "turn the devotion of their view" on Cleopatra instead.

Later, the earthy soldier Enobarbus speaks in glowing terms about the beauty of Cleopatra when Antony first met her. He describes her as she floated in a boat along the river Cydnus:

For her own person,
It beggared all description; she did lie
In her pavillion, cloth of gold of tissue,
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.

[pavillion: canvas tent covering her; tissue: very fine material]

Enobarbus suggests paradoxically that Cleopatra is more beautiful than art which is designed to be more beautiful than nature.

Close

Footnotes

  1. Sandro Botticelli

    Much admired in the late nineteenth century for his purity of outline and sensuousness, Botticelli (c.1445-1510) was deliberately archaic in his style, with the result that in his time he lost popularity as the techniques of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo took over.

  2. A different view of Venus

    [Image available on CD ROM only.]

    The detail reveals both the fine line Botticelli is famous for, and the delicate texture of the shading. This Venus is contemplative and intelligent, a far different person (or allegorized ideal) from the voluptuous Venus of Titian. Interestingly, in this picture Venus is clothed while Mars is not--again a contrast to Titian's Venus and Adonis.

  3. Conquering Mars

    Shakespeare compares the passionate, mature, and flawed love of Antony and Cleopatra to the myth of Mars and Venus. In the very first speech of the play, a Roman soldier deplores the way that Antony's eyes, that used to "gaze like plated Mars" on his army, now "turn the devotion of their view" on Cleopatra instead.

    Later, the earthy soldier Enobarbus speaks in glowing terms about the beauty of Cleopatra when Antony first met her. He describes her as she floated in a boat along the river Cydnus:

    For her own person,
    It beggared all description; she did lie
    In her pavillion, cloth of gold of tissue,
    O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
    The fancy outwork nature.

    [pavillion: canvas tent covering her; tissue: very fine material]

    Enobarbus suggests paradoxically that Cleopatra is more beautiful than art which is designed to be more beautiful than nature.