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Venus and Mars

Sandro Botticelli

Venus and Mars

Sandro Botticelli
  • Date: 1483
  • Style: Early Renaissance
  • Genre: mythological painting
  • Media: panel, tempera
  • Tag: Greek-and-Roman-Mythology, gods-and-goddesses, Mars, Aphrodite/Venus
  • Dimensions: 173.4 x 69.2 cm
  • Order Oil Painting

In Venus and Mars, Botticelli portrays the Roman goddess Venus and the god Mars in a relaxed sensuality. Venus lies, watching Mars sleep, while four young satyrs play around, trying to wake him. In the background is the sea in which Venus was born. There is no exact literary reference for the painting, but the closest legend was in a poem by Poliziano, who in one stanza describes Venus laying down, watching Mars sleep. The Medici family, who commissioned many of Botticelli’s most famous works, were used as models in this painting, the youngest Giuliano di Piero de Medici modeling for the sleeping Mars.

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Venus and Mars (or Mars and Venus) is a panel painting of about 1485 by the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. It shows the Roman gods Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war, in an allegory of beauty and valour. The youthful and voluptuous couple recline in a forest setting, surrounded by playful baby satyrs.

The painting was probably intended to commemorate a wedding, set into panelling or a piece of furniture to adorn the bedroom of the bride and groom, possibly as part of a set of works. This is suggested by the wide format and the close view of the figures. It is widely seen as representation of an ideal view of sensuous love. It seems likely that Botticelli worked out the concept for the painting, with its learned allusions, with an advisor such as Poliziano, the Medici house poet and Renaissance Humanist scholar.

The National Gallery's dating in 2017 of "c. 1485" has been followed here. Lightbown dates it to "probably around 1483", but the Ettlingers to "the latter half of the 1480s". All dates depend on analysis of the style, as the painting has not been convincingly tied to a specific date, such as a wedding. It therefore comes a few years after the Primavera and Pallas and the Centaur (both about 1482) and around the time of The Birth of Venus (c. 1486). It is the only one of these paintings not in the Uffizi in Florence, and has been in the National Gallery in London since 1874.

Venus watches Mars sleep while two infant satyrs play, carrying his helmet (a sallet) and lance as another rests inside his breastplate under his arm. A fourth blows a small conch shell in his ear in an effort, so far unsuccessful, to wake him. The clear implication is that the couple have been making love, and the male habit of falling asleep after sex was a regular subject for ribald jokes in the context of weddings in Renaissance Italy. The lance and conch can be read as sexual symbols.

The scene is set in a grove of myrtle, traditionally associated with Venus and marriage, or possibly laurel, associated with Lorenzo de' Medici (il Magnifico), or perhaps both plants. There is a limited view of the meadow beyond, leading to a distant walled city.

In the foreground, a swarm of wasps hovers around Mars' head, possibly as a symbol that love is often accompanied by pain. Another explanation, first suggested by Ernst Gombrich, is that the wasps represent the Vespucci family that may have commissioned the painting. They had been neighbours of Botticelli since his childhood, and had commissioned his Saint Augustine in His Study for the Ognissanti church in 1480, probably in addition to other commissions. Their coat of arms included wasps, as their name means "little wasps" in Italian, and the wasps' nest, in a hollow in the tree in the top left corner, is exactly in the place in the panel where the coat of arms of a patron was often painted.

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