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Chapter 1 analyzes epiphanic paintings of Venus on several early fifteenth-century objects presented to couples on the occasion of a betrothal, wedding, or birth. By appropriating the colors, compositions, and geometries traditionally reserved for sacred epiphanies, fifteenth-century artists characterized Venus as a potent, liminal force capable of penetrating the Earth’s sphere and charming individuals in transitional moments of the life cycle. The women and men under her power reveal both the attraction and danger of love, while simultaneously paying honor to the social structure of the family.
Venus and the Arts of Love has examined Venus in Renaissance Florence, focusing on the goddess’s portrayal in paintings, sculptures, and the decorative arts between 1300 and 1600. Venus first entered Tuscan literature and art as an astrological deity, attracting lovers and patrons alike with her scintillating splendor. From the heavens, she descended to earth. Au naturel or fashionably dressed, she entered the spaces where men and women dressed, undressed, bathed, and engaged in procreative intercourse. Her clear complexion, rosy cheeks, and pink lips encouraged women to cultivate and care for their skin, while simultaneously reinforcing their duty to join their flesh with that of another to produce new flesh. Draped in white and red silks and girded with her magical cestus, the goddess also modeled Florence’s fashionable silks, reminding her devotees of the enchanting power of clothing and adornment and challenging artists to render them in vibrant colors. Indeed, the correspondences between Venus’ celestial likeness and her earthly materials stimulated painterly innovations in media and technique. Her be-flowered and fruitful gardens, which reveal developments in naturalism, introduced verdancy into the domestic interior. Green places were not only amorous but also therapeutic, since the color could soothe the eyes and transfer a salubrious spirit, via the sense of sight, to the body, mind, and spirit.
Chapter 5 analyzes erotic representations of Venus by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Jacopo Pontormo, Agnolo Bronzino, Giorgio Vasari, and Michele Tosini. In ways heretofore not seen in representations of the goddess, these artists appropriated, manipulated, and referenced anatomical material, including the breasts, the mons pubis, the vulva, the phallus, and the buttocks. Privileging variety, novelty, and design, they separated anatomical parts from their original sources (ancient sculptures, studio models, or anatomical treatises) and from their original materials (marble, flesh, ink-and-paper) to fashion flirtatious figures of the goddess, her son, and the lusty satyr.
Venus’ lush green gardens, shady evergreen groves, and fragrant floral bowers in Sandro Botticelli’s paintings of Venus are the subject of Chapter 4. These verdant landscapes provided a place for romance, as celebrated in poetic descriptions of the locus amoenus and the goddess’s Cyprian gardens; however, they also offered curative properties to nourish and heal the mind, body, and spirit. This chapter explores these concepts in relation to the mediums and materials used by artists to create green places within the domestic interior, paying particular attention to the artistic and economic value of the green pigments derived from copper – a metal infused with Venus’ celestial virtues.
Chapter 3 examines the magical virtues of Venus’ clothing in Sandro Botticelli’s paintings of the Primavera, Venus and Mars, and Venus and the Three Graces. The goddess’s raiment correlates with descriptions of her celestial likeness, a figuration employed in image-based magic and discussed in the Picatrix and Marsilio Ficino’s Three Books on Life. Her white silk dress, gold-bejeweled embroidery, and rose-colored mantle also suggest secret virtues that could be channeled by contemporary viewers privy to this ancient wisdom tradition. The chapter explores Botticelli’s personal ties to the silk industry and investigates his techniques for rendering the material and spiritual power of Venus’ enchanting fashions.
Chapter 2 examines early Florentine portrayals of the nude female in relation to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century discourses concerned with skin, fertility, and the feminine toilette. It argues that these paintings (1) offered instruction to women in the arts of beauty and (2) provided a physical image that could aid in the generation of healthy children. Placed in bedroom suites, these works of art were viewed not only by upper-class women but also by handmaidens and servants who purchased, collected, and prepared the materials needed for the care and cultivation of the female body, whose flesh – after being approved by a family – joined with the flesh of another in order to produce more flesh.
Between 1300 and 1600, Venus and her arts of love charmed the citizens of Florence. Among the soft violets, pinks, and blues of dusk and dawn, her bright star twinkled above the city. Her presence graced festive celebrations, when silk dresses hand-stitched with gold and pearls rustled in corridors and fragrant perfumes infused with citrus, jasmine, and sea-spun ambergris delighted the sense of smell. At such events, Venus attended to laughter, dancing, and sweet songs; she inspired paintings and sculptures, garlands and wreaths. She also frequented the bedchamber, where bodies clung together on feather-stuffed mattresses, when the sight of incandescent skin, dainty fingers, curving hips, and yielding chests ignited desire. In the dark of night, her passions also broke hearts, enraged minds, and diseased bodies. For, the goddess of love also lingered in the cloying scent of betrayal and the violent penetration of rape.
Chapter 6 investigates Venus’ aquatic origins and her opulent gifts from the sea. As Duke of Florence from 1537 to 1574, Cosimo I de’ Medici ambitiously pursued maritime projects that expanded the reach of Florence beyond the Arno valley. Allusions to his new domain appear at the Villa Castello and Palazzo Vecchio in the figure of Venus Anadyomene, who rises nude from the salty womb of the sea as nereids and tritons present her with aquatic treasures desired by the ducal court, including ambergris, coral, and pearls.
In this volume, Rebekah Compton offers the first survey of Venus in the art, culture, and governance of Florence from 1300 to 1600. Organized chronologically, each of the six chapters investigates one of the goddess's alluring attributes – her golden splendor, rosy-hued complexion, enchanting fashions, green gardens, erotic anatomy, and gifts from the sea. By examining these attributes in the context of the visual arts, Compton uncovers an array of materials and techniques employed by artists, patrons, rulers, and lovers to manifest Venusian virtues. Her book explores technical art history in the context of love's protean iconography, showing how different discourses and disciplines can interact in the creation and reception of art. Venus and the Arts of Love in Renaissance Florence offers new insights on sight, seduction, and desire, as well as concepts of gender, sexuality, and viewership from both male and female perspectives in the early modern era.
In the later fifteenth century, the backgrounds of Florentine altarpieces and devotional paintings changed from glittering gold to vivid green. In numerous paintings by Fra Filippo Lippi and his students, including Sandro Botticelli, the Virgin adores the Christ Child in mystical evergreen forests and lush meadows hedged by rose bushes. This gold-to-green trend reflects developments in naturalism and growing appreciation for artistic skill; however, this essay argues that it was also contingent on the pharmacological, sensorial, and material merits of the color green. Green ‘things’ could restore and stimulate vision, and promote fertility and successful childbirth. This essay explores the artistic and economic value of pigments like green earth, verdigris, and malachite and the new techniques that Florentine artists developed for painting paradise on earth.
In the 1450s Florentine artists changed the backgrounds of their altarpieces and devotional paintings from glittering gold leaf (Fig. 1.1) to vivid green pigments (Plate 1). An early example is Fra Filippo Lippi (1406–69) who depicted mystical green forests in several of his Adoration of the Child paintings (Plate 1 & Fig. 1.2), which he completed for the Medici family between the late 1450s and mid-1460s. This same gold-to-green trend can be observed in the art of Lippi's student, Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), who in his Piacenza Tondo (Plate 2) situated a Madonna Adoring the Child with St. John the Baptist in a verdant meadow partially enclosed by a hedge of roses. This artistic shift from heaven's abstract flatness to a tangible green world signals the beginning of naturalism in fifteenth-century Florentine painting. It also marks a shift in the taste of patrons, for whom the artist's skill outweighed the material value of his gold pigment, a point famously argued by Michael Baxandall in his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy.