Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

SANDRO BOTTICELLI, or, to use his original name, Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, was born at Florence in the year 1447. His father was a citizen in comfortable circumstances; and Vasari tells us that Sandro, the youngest of Mariano's four sons, was educated with great care, and ' ' instructed in all such things as children are usually taught before they choose a calling. " But the boy's strong will first showed itself in a violent distaste to learning. He was constantly discontented and absolutely refused to give his attention to reading, writing, and accounts, says Vasari; until at last his father, despairing of ever turning him into a scholar, placed him in the shop of a goldsmith named Botticello, a great friend of his and an excellent workman, who prom- ised to teach the boy his trade.

The sense of light and airy movement is wonderfully given in wind-blown draperies and falling roses, in rippling waves and tossing locks, in the swift action and glad gesture of the welcoming nymph, in the gliding motion of Venus herself. Sandro himself has never fashioned a fairer or more delicate form than this goddess whose ivory limbs may well have been modelled, as tradition says, from some antique marble in the Medici garden. In this masterpiece we feel that the painter has freed himself wholly from the influence of others and relies entirely on his own resources. The stiffness and rigidity of his early works have given way to perfect ease and grace, to a beauty of line and decorative completeness which has been rarely surpassed by the most consummate artist.

The other classical subject which Sandro painted about the same time, is the panel of Mars and Venus in the National Gallery. This time one of the Magnifico's own poems was the theme of his picture, which probably adorned a doorway in the Medici palace, and remained in Florence until it came to England in the Barker collection some fifty years ago. " The Loves of Mars and Venus " was the title of one of the curious dramatic compositions which Lorenzo wrote and may have been performed by his own children on some festive occasion. It consists of four monologues spoken in turn by Venus, Mars, Apollo and Vulcan, and contains some of Lorenzo's best and sweetest verse. In his painting Sandro represents the broad-chested, strong-limbed god of war reclining on the flowery sward, as with his head drowsily sunk back, he slumbers in the cool shade of the myrtle bowers on the shores of the summer sea, that dolce ospizio which is described in the poet's verse. Four little goatfooted loves play with his lance and helmet, and one mischievous boy blows through a shell in the sleeping warrior's ear without apparently producing the least effect. These sportive children were evidently suggested by a passage in Lucian's description of a picture of the Marriage of Alexander by Aetion. The Greek poet whose minute and critical account of works of art was very popular with Florentine humanists, exactly describes the three little Cupids carrying the hero's spear while he slumbers, which we see in Sandro's picture. On the opposite side Venus herself, clad in a white gold-braided robe, and resting her arm on a crimson pillow, sits up erect and grave, watching her lover with an air of contented repose. The careful arrangement of the goddess's curled and plaited locks, her life-like and expressive features, have led one distinguished critic, Dr Richter, to suppose that we have here a portrait of Simonetta, and that the sleeping god is none other than her lover the bel Giuliano. This conjecture may not commend itself to all, but there can be no question as to the rare decorative charm of the design, the admirable modelling of the war-god's limbs, the incomparable beauty of line revealed in living forms and flowing draperies, or the rich colouring of crimson cushions, gold-chased armour and green myrtles seen against the soft tints of sky and sea.

The companion panel to this picture (No. 916), a Venus reclining on a couch, while three Amorini play at her feet with bunches of grapes and red and white roses, which was also acquired by the National Gallery at the Barker sale, is now recognised as the work of Jacopo del Sellajo, 1 one of Sandro's most skilful assistants, who has recently been the subject of critical studies from the pens of Mrs Berenson and Herr Hans Mackowsky.