Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli

Venus and Mars by Botticelli by Sandro Botticelli (c.1485)

Many have written about today’s painting and the symbolism of what is depicted and the interpretations of the work abound.  In my blog today I have tried to steer a middle course between completely ignoring the interpretation of the work and delving too deeply into the scholarly minutiae of what we see before us.  Today I simply want to look at the characters behind the title of the painting and the actual people who we see before us.

The painting entitled Venus and Marswas completed by the Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli around 1485 and the nineteenth-century title of the painting alludes to two mythological people who had an adulterous affair.  They are Venus, the Goddess of Love, who had an illicit liaison with Mars, the God of War, whilst she was still married to the lame blacksmith Vulcan, who forged Cupid’s arrows and the intricate armour of the Gods and heroes.   The tempera and oil on poplar work, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, measures 69cms tall and 174cms in width.  Little is known as to who commissioned the painting or for where it was intended.

A cassone

However the dimensions of it would probably mean that it was made for either a cassone or a spalliera.   A cassone is the Italian word for chest or box. They were used for storage and often associated with the giving of a dowry.  A spalliera is the Italian word for the back of a bench or settle, or the headboard or footboard of a bed, or any similar vertical attachment of a piece of furniture.  They were commonly painted in Italy, especially in Tuscany.  Often these items of furniture were richly decorated with carving, gilding and painted panels illustrating acts of heroism or as is the case with this work, acts of love.  The fact that it is an act of love we are looking at probably means that this was meant for a bridal chamber and maybe it was to be incorporated into the headboard of a bed (spalliera di letto).  If we look at the painting we can see that the two figures almost rest on the base of the painting and so if it was meant to be part of the headboard of a bed, the lovers would almost be seen as lying on the bed itself.

Before I look at the two main characters in this painting by Botticelli, let us look at some of the other details we see before us.  The setting for the painting is contemporary.  It is a forest and yet strangely the artist has not incorporated any flowers into the scene which may be simply an indication of the time of the year. However the couple is framed by two evergreen plants, the laurel and the myrtle.  The former was associated with the family of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the myrtle was associated with Venus.   In the distance, on the other side of the fields we can just make out the city of Florence, behind which rise the mountains which lie to the north of the River Arno.

If you look closely at the top right corner of the painting, just above the head of Mars you will see a swarm of hovering wasps.  So why include them?  One thought is that as the Italian word for wasps is vespe and they form part of the Vespucci’s coat of arms.  We will see later that the model used for Venus was Simonetta Cattaneo, whose husband Marco was a member of the Vespucci family.  Others interpret the presence of wasps as being the symbolic of the painful stings of illicit love.

In the painting we also have four small satyrs.  Normally in paintings featuring Venus one would have expected to see erotes, which were the tiny group of gods and demi-gods associated with love and sex and part of Venus’ retinue.  The satyrs were more like little devils and maybe their inclusion once again to the fact that we are observing an act of forbidden love.  Two of the satyrs can be seen wielding a lance which no doubt has a phallic connotation.

The narcotic fruit ?

Another satyr can be seen blowing a conch shell in an attempt to wake the sleeping figure of Mars and one, with a lascivious expression on its face, lies beneath the arm of the exhausted Mars, clutching a green fruit.  This fruit has brought about much discussion as to what it is and why it is incorporated in the painting.   Some would have us believe it is the fruit of one of the highly narcotic datura genus of plants, datura stramonium and that Mars is in a drug-induced sleep.  Other art historians disagree with this assertion pointing out that the plant was not found in Italy at the time Botticelli painted his masterpiece.  Others have suggested the fruit depicted was ecballium elaterium which is also known as the ‘exploding cucumber’ or ‘squirting cucumber.’  This too is a poisonous plant.

Simonetta Vespucci née Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia

In today’s painting in My Daily Art Display the woman who was believed to have been used as a model for Venus was looked upon as the most beautiful woman of her time.  Botticelli had incorporated this woman in to two of his other masterpieces, namely, Primavera which he completed in 1482 and the Birth of Venus which he completed around 1485.  The interesting thing is that she had died some nine years before Botticelli painted the last of these works.   Some historians would have us believe that Botticelli had, like so many, fallen in love with her beauty.  How true that is we will probably never know but we do know that Botticelli asked to be buried at her feet in the Franciscan Church of Ognissanti, which was the parish church of the Vespucci family in Florence. His wish was in fact carried out when he died some 34 years later, in 1510 and a small round stone in a chapel of the right transept marks his resting-place.

The woman in question is Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia.  She was thought to have been born in either Genoa or Portovenere around 1453.  She was part of a very wealthy and influential family.  Her father, Gaspare Cattaneo della Volta, was a Genoese nobleman from the House of Volta and her mother, Cattocchia Spinola de Candia came from an equally wealthy background, the European dynastic House of Candia.  Simonetta was married at the age of sixteen to the son of a wealthy Florentine banker, Marco Vespucci, who was a distant cousin of the famous Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.  Although this was not an arranged marriage, Simonetta’s parents were pleased with the arrangement as the groom’s family were well connected with the powerful Medici family.

Simonetta moved to Florence and after the marriage in 1469 she and her husband became regulars at the Medici court in Florence and she struck up a close friendship with the co-rulers of Florence, the two de’ Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It was whilst attending court functions that Simonetta first met a number of court painters including the young Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli.  Men were astounded by her natural beauty and she soon became a court favourite.  One of the most prominent men to fall under her spell was none other than Giuliano de’ Medici himself.  In 1475, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s elder brother, organised a jousting tournament to celebrate a treaty with Venice. It was reported that at this tournament Giuliano had entered it carrying a banner, which had been painted by Botticelli, and on which was a picture of Simonetta depicted as wearing the helmet of the Greek goddess of war,  Pallas Athene and beneath the portrait were the French words La Sans Pareille (The unparalleled one).  Giuliano won the tournament and at the same time, Simonetta was nominated the “The Queen of Beauty”.  It was following this that she was looked upon as the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.

So what was Giuliano’s relationship with the married Simonetta?  Were they lovers or was it a platonic relationship?  The question has divided historians over the years and probably we will never know the truth.  Whatever the answer is the relationship was short lived as Simonetta died of tuberculosis on April 26th 1476, a year after the jousting tournament.  She was only twenty-two years of age.  On the day of her funeral, the city of Florence came to a stand-still as thousands of mourners attended the funeral.  Ironically, Giuliano de Medici was assassinated exactly two years to the day on 26 April 1478 in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, by Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini. He was killed by a sword wound to the head and was stabbed 19 times.

The figure of Mars in the painting is depicted in a traditional classical God-like way, unlike the way in which Botticelli has portrayed Venus as a contemporary woman with a contemporary hair-style dressed in her contemporary clothes.  His body is one of a well-toned athlete and was similar to those classical paintings and sculptures of the young Gods.  The whiteness of his skin reminds us of the white marble sculptures of ancient times.  But who is this Mars?  If we believe that Venus is Simonetta Vespucci, then should we believe that this reclining man is her husband or should we believe that in fact it is her “close friend”,  possibly her lover, Giuliano de’ Medici?  The figure in the painting has a long nose and deep-set eyes and they resemble the ones in his portrait which Botticelli completed of Giuliano around 1477.  As we know from mythological tales Mars was the lover of the already married Venus so are we to deduce that Botticelli had wanted to similarly portray Giuliano de’ Medici and the already married Simonetta as a comparison?

Look at the way Botticelli has portrayed the two characters.  The man lies back exhausted but the woman sits upright and looks quite composed.  Who has initiated the bout of love-making?  Who is the giver and who is the receiver?  I believe in this painting, Botticelli has given the power to the female.  She looks at the man with little emotion.  Maybe she is reflecting on the power she has over him.  The woman seems totally in command of the situation whereas the man appears worn out after what could have been a bout of love-making.  Is this a scene of male-female role-reversal in which the female has seduced the male, drained him of his vitality and in some ways neutralised him and now studies her conquest?

I am a great fan of Botticelli especially in his portrayal of women.  They must be some of the most beautiful ever painted.

I started this blog saying I would keep it concise and not too technical but the more I investigated the painting and its symbolism the more I got carried away with the subject.  More has been written about the painting by more knowledgeable people than me and if this blog has stimulated your mind and your thirst for knowledge about this work I suggest you visit some of the websites which discuss the work of art.  They are:

The autor of this site is by David Bellingham, of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art


The Three Pipe Problem, which is a truly amazing art blog and one i love to visit.  If you go to the “search facility” and insert “Venus and Mars” you will find some interesting articles about today’s painting.