Botticelli’s Venus has bewitched art historians, pop divas and secret agents since it was painted at the height of the Italian Renaissance
From Beyonce to James Bond, popular culture is enthralled by Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The artist painted the goddess of love and sex in the late 15th century, picturing her arriving at the shores of Cyprus on a scallop shell, propelled by Zephr, the wind god. Ever since its commission by the Medici family, Botticelli’s painting has remained an enduring icon of feminine splendor. Princesses, first ladies, models and film stars have made the pilgrimage to view the work at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
The painting’s influence can be seen in film, fashion, cosmetics, books, television and music. Terry Gilliam animated it – making Venus dance a jig – for Monty Python and later cast Uma Thurman as Venus in his film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Jerry Hall promoted Evian water by recreating a tableaux of the famed canvas at Selfridges, London, and supermodel Eva Herzigova emerged from a shell during the opening ceremony for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
In 2016, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London staged the exhibition Botticelli Reimagined, which explored the impact of the Florentine painter on the culture of subsequent centuries. The Birth of Venus has been interpreted by a variety of artists, from the English Arts and Crafts illustrator Walter Crane to contemporary photographer David LaChapelle. Dolce & Gabbana even designed a Venus print dress (as worn by Lady Gaga).
The work also figures in literature – James Bond boggles at Honey Rider, his very own Venus, as she steps out of the Caribbean surf in Dr No – and song: Icelandic star Björk reversed the gender roles with her hit single "Venus as a Boy":
He sets off
The beauty in her
Venus as a boy
And, in 2017, Beyonce created a sensation with an Instagram post in which she posed as Venus holding her newborn twins. “It’s a hyper-stylised image, and one that will likely break the internet,” observed The Guardian.
Venus has also cast her spell at Sotheby’s. In 2016, a complete portfolio of four screen prints of the goddess by Andy Warhol (1984) sold in our New York salerooms for $262,000. The year before Andre Derain’s Fauvist watercolor and crayon work on paper, La naissance de Vénus, après Botticelli, sold for £72,500 in London.
And, of course, works by Sandro Botticelli are coveted by collectors. In 2014, the artist’s pen and ink drawing Study for a Seated St Joseph, his head resting on his right hand sold for £1.34 million at Sotheby’s London. The sheet, thought to be the only drawing directly connected with one of Botticelli's painted compositions, remains an extraordinary testimonianza to the working methods of the artist who conjured up Venus in a shell.