Where? Gallery 6 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned for? Most likely, either the engagement or marriage of Ginevra de’ Benci.
What do you see? The 16- or 17-year old Ginevra de Benci is painted. She is wearing a brown dress with blue laces and gold edges, and a black scarf. Below the dress she wears a subtle white blouse with a golden pin. She has a porcelain-like skin and her hair is styled in ringlets. Her expression is, one the one hand, a bit grumpy, and on the other hand, she seems proud. Her eyes emphasize this. Her left eye (for the viewer) is looking at the viewer, but her right eye seems to be looking down on something. Experts have interpreted the facial expression of Ginevra as an indication that she is not happy with the (upcoming) marriage. Note that Ginevra has only light eyebrows. Shaving the eyebrows was common at that time for women and can also be seen in the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Behind her is a juniper bush. The halo of spikes from the juniper leaves contrast nicely with the depiction of Ginevra. In the right background are the mountains, trees, water, a small town, and the hazy sky, which are typical for Leonardo da Vinci’s style.
On the back of this painting is another painting from Leonardo da Vinci, called Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper. It shows a juniper sprig, with a circular arrangement of palm and laurel around it. It also includes the inscription “Virtutem Forma Decorat”, which means “beauty adorns virtue.”
Backstory: This painting was created to commemorate Ginevra de’ Benci’s engagement or marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. Sources have shown that the wedding between both of them took place on January 15, 1474. Bernardo Niccolini was twice the age of Ginevra. During the Renaissance, women were typically only depicted when they got engaged or married. This is the first known portrait that Leonardo da Vinci painted and the only painting of him in the Americas that is available for public viewing. It was bought in 1967 for $5 million.
Symbolism: The juniper bush represents chastity, which was considered to be one of the most important moral standard for women in the Renaissance. At the same time, juniper is a reference to Ginevra’s name as juniper translates into Italian as “ginepro”. The laurel and palm on the back of the painting symbolize, respectively, the intelligence and moral values of Ginepra. However, the laurel and palm were also the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, who was thought to have a platonic affair with Ginevra. Bernardo Bembo was the Venetian ambassador to Florence, and he probably commissioned the back of this painting (and according to some also the front of the painting, but this is not proven).
Who is Ginevra de’ Benci? Ginevra de’ Benci (born in 1457 or 1458) was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker. She was considered to be one of the most intellectual people of her time and was a poet. Later in her life, Ginevra was exiled at her own request because of an unknown illness and tragic love affair.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in the Italian village of Anchiano, which was very close to Vinci, which is where he got his name from. He was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. Leonardo da Vinci is known to be one of the biggest multi-talented people that the world has ever seen. He created this painting while he was still a student of Andrea del Verrocchio. Other well-known paintings by Leonardo da Vinci include his Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum and Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre.
Fun fact: About one-third of this painting is missing. At some point in history, someone cut off the lower third of the painting, probably because it was damaged. Based on a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, it is believed that the part that is cut off probably shows Ginevra folding or crossing her hands in her lap. It is a pity that this part is missing as Leonardo was a specialist in drawing hands. With his diverse interests, he was obsessed by the anatomical correctness when he painted parts of the human body. Ginevra was possibly holding a flower in her hand to symbolize devotion.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas of Ginevra de' Benci; poster of Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper.
Where? Room 3 on the ground floor of the Bargello Museum
Commissioned by? Raffaele Riario, a cardinal and art collector.
What do you see? A life-like statue of the Roman god Bacchus. He is naked and standing with a large cup of wine in his right hand. He has curly hair made up of grapes and a wreath of ivy leaves in his hair. The effects of drinking the wine are visible in the expression of his face and his unstable pose. Bacchus seems to be looking at the cup, but his eyes are rolling. His unstable pose can be seen best from the right side as illustrated in the drawing of Maarten van Heemskerck of this statue in the garden of its owner Jacopo Galli. Bacchus is leaning somewhat backward with his shoulders pulled back and his belly pointing forward. Interestingly, when we look from the left side, the body seems to be quite balanced. So, when walking around this statue, he sometimes seems to be out of balance and from other angles he seems quite stable. In his left hand, Bacchus is holding a large bunch of grapes and a piece of animal skin that touches the rock-like base. You can see the face of the animal from the back of the statue and some have suggested that this is a wolf, though there are several other opinions on what animal it is. Behind his left leg is a tree trunk for the stability of the sculpture. Next to Bacchus is a young satyr, which is a male figure with a permanent erection and with the ears, horns, legs, and tail of a goat. The satyr is smiling an eating from the grapes.
Backstory: Michelangelo started to work on this painting in July 1596 when he was 21 years old. Cardinal Raffaele Riario commissioned the statue. He had earlier bought a statue from Michelangelo, called Sleeping Cupid. However, after he bought it, he discovered that the statue was not an antique one as was told to him, but rather a statue created by Michelangelo (the statue is now lost). However, Riario’s interest in Michelangelo’s talents was triggered, and he commissioned him to make a statue of Bacchus. However, upon completion, Riario rejected the statue. While it is not clear why he rejected the statue, it was probably because it was too radical. More specifically, it could be for reasons similar to other people who have criticized the statue, which include its uncommon pose, the vulgar face, and the somewhat unmanly body of Bacchus. It is interesting in itself that a cardinal commissioned such a pagan statue. The statue was instead acquired by the banker Jacopo Galli to put it in his garden. Together with the famous Pietà statue in St. Peter’s Basilica, created between 1498 and 1499, Bacchus is the only statue by Michelangelo that survives from his early period in Rome.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus is the Roman god of wine, intoxication, fertility, religious ecstasy, and drama. His equivalent in Greek mythology is Dyonisus. He is the son of Zeus, and there are different stories about who his mother is, but the most popular one is that his mother was Semele who was a mortal. Bacchus is often depicted with grapes, ivy leaves, wine, and satyrs (like in this sculpture). He has been a source of inspiration for many artists in ancient Greece and during the Renaissance. For example, Titian made a painting on Bacchus and Ariadne which is in the National Gallery in London. Caravaggio also created a famous painting of Bacchus which is in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, painter, poet, and sculptor. He was born in the Republic of Florence. Except for short periods in Venice and Bologna during his teenage years, he spent the rest of his life in Florence and Rome. In 1596, Cardinal Riario invited him to Rome where he was commissioned to make the statue of Bacchus. While in Rome, he also completed the Pietà statue. In 1499 he moved back to Florence. He only returned to Rome in 1505 to work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After finishing the ceiling, he moved back to Florence for 20 years, only to return to Rome in 1534 where he would soon start his work on the fresco of The Last Judgment.
Fun fact: The penis of Bacchus is missing. It seems to have been removed by a chisel rather than broken off. Also, the erection of the satyr, which was typical for him, is not present. Moreover, a hand of the statue had broken off (see the drawing of Van Heemskerck above) but was restored before 1553. It is unknown who removed some of these parts, but some people suggest that it could have been Michelangelo himself to make the statue look more like one from ancient Greece (where some of those body parts were often missing). Michelangelo’s intention with this statue was indeed to create it in the style of the Greek antique statues, and he succeeded in this as this statue was regularly mistaken to be a statue from ancient Greece. Michelangelo wanted the statue to be in this ancient style to prove that at 21 years old he would already rival the famous ancient Greek sculptors. In that way, he could establish his reputation quickly.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Framed poster of statue (Amazon links).
Where? Room 56 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Possibly Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruges, as a memory of his deceased wife.
What do you see? On the right is a woman in a green dress. On the left is a man with a big hat who raises his hand to the woman. The couple is holding hands. It is believed that this is their wedding day and they are dressed in expensive silk and fur. A small dog is standing in front of them. At first, it looks like the bride is pregnant, but this is not the case. When you look carefully, she pulls up her dress merely to indicate her desire for children. In between them, you can see a small part of an expensive Oriental rug. In the mirror, we can see two other people that entered the room. The mirror is surrounded by ten small paintings of the passion of Christ. Below the mirror is the signature of Van Eyck which reads: ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434’, which means ‘Jan van Eyck was here, 1434’. This signature may suggest that Van Eyck is one of the people we can see in the mirror. To the left of the mirror hang, so-called, prayer beads of crystal. Above the couple is a chandelier with candles. Only one of the candles above the groom is lit. The couple has both taken off their shoes. The white with black shoes of the man are in the left foreground and under the red bench is a pair of red shoes from the woman. On top of the bed is a wood carving of Saint Margaret with a dragon at her feet. To the left of this carving hangs a hand brush. On the left of the painting are four oranges and outside you can see a small part of a cherry tree.
Backstory: This painting is known by several alternative names, such as The Arnolfini Double Portrait, The Arnolfini Marriage, and The Arnolfini Wedding. The painting probably depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami on their wedding day, and the painting serves as a kind of marriage certificate. Giovanni was a rich Italian merchant from an influential family in Lucca in Italy. At the time of this painting, he was living in Bruges, which was an important trading city. He probably remained there for the rest of his life. This painting not only celebrates their marriage but is also a way to show off the valuable possessions of the couple. Around 1438, Van Eyck also created a portrait of Giovanni, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
Symbolism: This painting is full of symbolism. The couple holding hands represents the unity of the couple through marriage. The prayer beads are a gift from the groom and represent purity in the marriage. The couple has both taken off their shoes indicating that this is a sacred place. Besides, standing with bare feet represents fertility. The green dress of the woman also represents fertility. The carving of Saint Margaret symbolizes her role as the patron of childbirth. The bulge in the dress of the woman indicates her desire for children. She is standing in front of the bed, which further emphasizes this desire and shows her role in the marriage. The man is standing near an open window symbolizing his role in the outside world. The red color of the bed and the bench represent passion. The dog represents fidelity. The hand brush represents the role of the woman as a housewife. The oranges are also referred to as Adam’s apples and represent the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the paradise. They should remind the couple not to fall prey to the sin of lust. Only a single candle above the man on the chandelier is lit. The candle above the bride is not lit anymore (you can still see the leftovers of a burnt candle) and may refer to the fact that she died already. If Giovanni di Nicola Arnolfini is indeed the commissioner of this painting, his wife died in the year before the creation of the painting. The lit candle also represents the eye of God who can see everything.
Who is Van Eyck? Jan van Eyck was born between 1380 and 1390 in Belgium and died in 1441. He was well educated and active in Belgium, France, and The Netherlands. He was a court painter, but also took private commissions of which most were portraits. In addition, he served as a diplomat for the government. He is considered one of the most important painters of the Northern Renaissance. He has created both religious and nonreligious works which was fairly rare during his time. He was one of the first painters to sign his paintings and one of the first to use oil paint instead of the tempera method which was common during his time. He had a big influence on many future Flemish and Dutch painters, including Johannes Vermeer. His most famous work is the Ghent Altarpiece in the St Bavo's Cathedral. He created this piece together with his brother Hubert van Eyck.
Fun fact: It is hard to believe that during the time of this painting, couples could marry without the presence of a priest or any witnesses. In this painting, the couple gets married in a domestic setting, and only the presence of a notary was required. This is surprising given the important role of the church in society during that time. Only since the Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563, it was required that a priest and two witnesses needed to be present for the marriage to be valid. The presence of witnesses is still a requirement for weddings in a large part of the world.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
Where? Room 214 of the Old Hermitage building in the Hermitage Museum
When? Probably between 1481 and 1500.
What do you see? The Virgin Mary is nursing Baby Jesus. Mary looks dignified while breastfeeding. She has her eyelids lowered while looking at Jesus. She wears a bright red dress and a light blue mantle with orange-copper borders. She wears a transparent veil on her head, and the veil continues under her mantle to her right and left hand. Jesus has curly hair and looks a healthy chubby baby. He looks similar, though a bit younger, to Baby Jesus in Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery. Jesus greedily sucks the breast of his mother, while looking around to make sure he misses nothing that is going on in his surroundings. With his right hand he holds Mary’s breast, and in his left hand, he holds a goldfinch. Interestingly, Mary and Jesus have no halo around their head which is not in line with most paintings from that time but is not uncommon for Leonardo. In the background are two symmetrical arched windows through which we can see a mountain landscape and a blue sky with clouds.
Backstory: This painting is called the Madonna Litta because of a previous owner of the painting, the art collector, count Antonio Litta, from Milan, Italy. Tsar Alexander II acquired this painting in 1865 for the Hermitage Museum. It is not known when Leonardo da Vinci made this painting exactly as he liked to do multiple projects at once and he often took a long time to complete a painting. What is known is that, in 1479, he already completed the first sketch of a nursing Madonna (now in the Royal Library at Windsor, England). After that, he completed more preparatory works for this painting, including a sketch of the face of Mary which is now in the Louvre. It is assumed that Leonardo started this painting in 1481 and that he stopped working on it for a while because of other commissions.
Symbolism: The scene of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Baby Jesus shows motherhood and motherly love. The blue mantle of Mary symbolizes the Church and her red dress is a symbol of the passion of Christ. The goldfinch is a symbol of the future crucifixion of Jesus. The mountain landscape in the background represents the greatness of the Creation of the world by God.
What is Madonna Lactans? The Virgin Mary breastfeeding Baby Jesus is the perfect example of motherly love. This theme is referred to as Madonna Lactans or Nursing Madonna. Madonna Lactans has been the subject of quite some paintings from the 12th century until the middle of the 16th century when the Council of Trent discouraged the use of nudity in religious paintings. Madonna Lactans was also a frequent theme in the Orthodox Art in Russia, and this theme is better known as Mlekopitatelnitsa. This may explain why the Russian Tsar Alexander II bought this painting for the Hermitage Museum.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was an expert in a large number of different fields, including astronomy, geology, mathematics, music, and painting. He was born in Vinci, near Florence, and received his artistic education in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. During that time, he already created Ginevra de’ Benci, which is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. After he finished his apprenticeship with Verrocchio in 1478, he moved to Florence, and in 1482 he moved to Milan where he stayed until 1499. There he worked on many different projects, and he often moved on to the next project leaving the previous one unfinished. Over the next decade, he lived in several different places in Italy. During this time, he created his famous Mona Lisa.
Fun fact: There is a lot of debate whether this painting should be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci or one of his assistants. In 1482, Leonardo mentioned that he had completed one Madonna (probably the Benois Madonna, which is also in the Hermitage Museum) and had almost finished another one. This other Madonna can either be the Madonna Litta or the Madonna of the Carnation, which is in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The main reason that people doubt whether this painting is entirely created by Leonardo is the plain landscape, the somewhat dull outfit of Mary, the shadows in this painting, and the lack of details in her face (compare this to Leonardo’s drawing in the Louvre above). People argue that these aspects are not of the quality that we could expect from Leonardo. However, experts agree that the design of the painting and especially the complicated pose of Mary and Baby Jesus could well be from Leonardo. So, it is not unlikely that Leonardo has started this painting, but that an assistant, maybe Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, finished the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Room 7 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1430 and 1435
Commissioned by? The nuns of the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence.
What do you see? Jesus and the Virgin Mary are on top of a series of small clouds, floating in the sky. This painting depicts paradise. Jesus is crowning the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Mary has her arms crossed on her chest, slightly bends forward, and has a humble look on her face, while Jesus is decorating her golden crown with a jewel stone. Surrounding Jesus and Mary is a crowd of angels, blessed people, and saints. A choir of angels is playing music and dancing. You can see several angels scattered throughout the painting, recognizable by their wings, who are either playing music or are dancing. Three angels are dancing directly to the left of Mary, and you can see three others directly to the right of Jesus. On the top right and top left you can see some trumpets high up in the air and in the center foreground you can see two angels playing musical instruments. The angel in blue, turned with the back towards us, is playing a portable organ, and the angel to the left is playing a string instrument.
Backstory: The painting probably formed an altarpiece together with two side panels, Wedding of the Virgin and Death of the Virgin, which are now both located in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. This painting contains both elements that are Gothic and elements that are typical for the Renaissance. For example, the golden background is gilded and is an element that was common in Gothic painting. The use of halos is also typical Gothic. The realistic way in which the people are depicted and the three-dimensionality are examples of the Renaissance style.
Symbolism: The gold crown signifies both power (by being an advocate of the king) and wealth (regarding God’s promises). Jesus and Mary are surrounded by bright rays of light, symbolizing their divinity.
What is the Coronation of the Virgin? Mary is crowned by her son Jesus as the Queen of Heaven. This occurs after Mary has been assumed into heaven. In ancient times it was common for the king’s mother to be crowned queen. This subject was quite popular in art since the 13th century.
Why is Mary the Queen of Heaven? One of the many titles that Catholics have given to Mary is Queen of Heaven (Regina Caeli in Latin). Historically, in the Bible, the mother of the king had important powers in counseling the king and she was referred to as the Queen Mother. The reason that Mary is sometimes called the Queen of Heaven is that, according to the Catholic Church, Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In Heaven, she is crowned as the queen (which is the coronation of the Virgin) as she is the mother of Jesus, who is the heavenly king of the universe. On October 11, 1954, Pope Pius XII decided that Catholics should celebrate the Queenship of Mary. Since 1969, the Queenship of Mary is a public holiday on August 22 in several countries, such as France and Spain.
Another work of Fra Angelico on the Coronation of the Virgin? The current version originally belonged to the Church of Sant'Egidio in Florence and is shown in the Uffizi since 1825. However, Fra Angelico has painted another well-known version of the Coronation of the Virgin. This version is currently in the Louvre in Paris. In that painting, you can see that blue skies replace the more old-fashioned Gothic golden background.
Who is Fra Angelico? Fra Angelico was born around 1387 as Guido di Pietro and died in 1455. He was a Dominican friar and was widely respected because of his gentle personality. While he started in the monastery as an illustrator of manuscripts, he became known as a masterful painter of altarpieces. Only after his death the name Fra Angelico was given to him. In his work he freely interpreted biblical stories, rather than accurately depicting the stories, to trigger spiritual responses of the people seeing those paintings and to stimulate prayer.
Fun fact: Fra Angelico was known during his life as Il Beato Angelico or simply Il Beato (which means ‘the blessed’). He was a devout friar during his life and only painted religious works. He prayed before every painting, and once the painting was done he did not alter them anymore as he believed that God inspired his work. While he was already called ‘the blessed’ during his life, Pope John Paul II officially beatified him in 1982, praising his immaculate lifestyle and divine paintings.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 2 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, to decorate one of the rooms in his Ducal Palace.
What do you see? On the left is Ariadne in a blue dress. She is left behind by Theseus on an island. You can still see the ship of Theseus near the horizon in the middle left of the painting. An almost naked Bacchus is jumping out of his chariot, which is carried by two cheetahs. Bacchus is immediately in love with Ariadne, but Ariadne seems hesitant as she is still dealing with the fact that Theseus left. While her arms and body are still in the direction of the ship of Theseus, her head is turned to Bacchus. Bacchus convinces Ariadne to marry him. Bacchus promises Ariadne to turn the diadem that Ariadne was wearing during their wedding into a constellation of stars, which you can see in the top left of the painting. Bacchus has also brought his entourage of drunk and crazy people on the right. One of his followers is holding the leg with a hoof of a cow that he just ripped off. You can see the head of the cow in the foreground, which is dragged along by a young boy. Completely on the right is a man carrying a barrel of wine and in the foreground, a man is trying to break free from snakes.
Backstory: Alfonse d’Este originally commissioned Raphael and Fra Bartolommeu to make this painting but both died before they could start their work. He then decided to give the work to Titian. This painting is based on the mythological stories of the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid. The story is about Princess Ariadne from the Greek island of Crete. She fell in love with Theseus from Athens and helped him to kill the Minotaur. They left together from Crete, but Theseus abandoned her while she was asleep on the Greek island of Naxos. Ariadne was heartbroken when she discovered that and ran along the beach of Naxos to see if she could see any signs of Theseus. At that moment, Bacchus - the god the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy - arrived. Bacchus had fallen in love with Ariadne and asked her to marry him. The painting is famous because Titian is able to paint a moment that is frozen in time in a very energetic scene. Notice also the beautiful use of bright color, typical for the School of Venice, which makes this painting come alive.
Symbolism: Bacchus is wearing a crown of ivy leafs, which is the sacred plant to Bacchus to prevent intoxication (which is what people in the past believed that ivy could do). The constellation of stars (which we now refer to as Corona Borealis) on the top left is in the form of the diadem that Ariadne was wearing when she married to Bacchus. It is a symbol of their marriage. The wine barrel, tambourines, and snakes are all symbols of the lifestyle that Bacchus represents. The cheetahs refer to the collection of wild animals of the commissioner of this painting.
Who is Ariadne? According to Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, who was the King of Crete. Minos had built a labyrinth, with in the center a Minotaur (a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a human). He put his daughter Ariadne in charge of the labyrinth. Following an earlier dispute with Athens, every seven to nine years, 14 noble citizens from Athens were sacrificed to the Minotaur. One year, Theseus, was among these 14 noble citizens. Theseus became a hero as he killed the Minotaur, but to do that, he received help from Ariadne who was in love with him. Ariadne married in the end to Bacchus and gave him about 12 children. After Ariadne died, Bacchus brought her back from the underworld Hades and she became a Greek goddess.
Why Bacchus? Bacchus was a chronic alcoholic, which made him a great subject for mythological stories and also for artworks. Bacchus was also the inspiration for popular festivals, called Bacchanalia, which were introduced to Rome in the second century before Christ. These festivals contained a lot of alcohol and nudity and were a popular theme in Renaissance art.
Who is Titian? Titian (1488/1490 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Some well-known paintings by Titian are his Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Museum and Diana and Actaeon which is also in the National Gallery in London.
Fun fact: In the original story on Ariadne and Bacchus, the chariot of Bacchus was drawn by tigers. Instead, Titian painted two cheetahs. This was most likely the case, because Duke Alfonso d’Este did not have tigers, but did have cheetahs, in his menagerie. Collecting wild and exotic animals, called a menagerie, was an impressive way to show off to your guests. Menageries of that time included animals like panthers, leopards, and elephants.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1482 and 1485
Commissioned by? Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), ruler of the Florentine Republic and one of the most important driving forces of the Renaissance.
What do you see? The goddess Venus is shown naked on top of a shell on the seashore. She is born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman. Her facial expression is very peaceful and innocent. She tries to conceal herself with her hair and arm. This pose of Venus is inspired by the Greek statues made of Venus. For example, you can see the similarity to the positioning of the arms in the statue of Venus de' Medici (which is also in the Uffizi). If you look carefully, it looks like Venus is floating on the shell as the positioning of her feet and body is physically unrealistic. On the left, Zephyr, the god of the west wind, blows Venus to the shore. Meanwhile, Zephyr is carrying the nymph, Chloris. They are surrounded by flowers which are falling from the sky. On the right, Ores, goddess of the seasons, hands a flowered cloak to Venus to cover herself.
Backstory: This is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Venus is born from the sea foam (her Greek name Aphrodite means ‘arisen from foam’). According to the myths, the Greek god Cronus castrated the god Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. Aphrodite was later born from the foam of his genitals. The theme of the painting is inspired by the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Amazon link to the book), which consists of 15 books and 240 myths starting from the creation of the world until the deification of Julius Caesar. Ovid (also known as Homer) writes in his work about an adult Venus who is rising from the sea to inspire love.
Symbolism: Violets, the flowers of love, are blowing in the wind on the left. The shell represents feminism. The dress of Ores and the robe she is holding for Venus are decorated with various spring flowers related to the birth theme, including red and white daisies, blue cornflowers, and yellow primroses.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. According to the myths, she was born from the foam of the sea. This happened when the Titan Cronus castrated Uranus, his father, whose genitals fertilized the sea and led to the birth of Venus. The goddess Venus is known in Greek mythology as Aphrodite. In Latin, Venus means ‘sexual desire’. She is the mother of Aeneas who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. As such, Venus was considered the mother of the Romans and therefore a very popular goddess among the Romans. Perhaps because of this, Julius Caesar claimed to be an ancestor of Venus.
Why Venus? Whereas Mary was the ideal woman to paint from a Christian point of view, Venus represents the moral dangers and shame of the human body. Christianity taught the people to be ashamed of the nude human body. Botticelli was trying to blend the Christian worldview and the arising humanist worldview. From that background, you can understand why Venus is still partly covering her nakedness with her hair (the Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 by Titian will show you a much more explicit depiction of Venus). This is a transition from religious art to Renaissance art. In some sense, Venus represents the opposite of Mary.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter that belonged to the Florentine school of painters. He was a student of Filippo Lippi. Botticelli was in love with Simonetta Vespucci (a cousin-in-law of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), who was already married to Marco Vespucci. Simonetta was known as the greatest beauty of her time and died in 1476. As a result of that Botticelli never married. Throughout his life, he has been inspired by Simonetta, who has served, according to popular belief, as the inspiration for many of his paintings (including this painting). According to his wish, Botticelli was buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci.
Fun fact: Many people have noted the ‘cadaverous’ color of Venus, which is not considered very attractive. This was not some macabre fantasy of Botticelli, but merely a consequence of the deterioration of the pigment over time. And if you look carefully, the neck of Venus and her left arm are longer than you would expect. Botticelli incorporated these elongations on purpose as they were considered a form of beauty.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster and canvas.
Where? Room 83 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Guidobaldo II Della Rovere (1514-1574), the Duke of Urbino (a sovereign of central-northern Italy), commissioned this oil painting for his wife, Giulia Varano (1523-1547).
What do you see? A representation of a beautiful and sensual Venus, the goddess of love, is looking you straight in the eye. She lies naked on top of a white sheet in a room of a big Renaissance palace. Notice the beautifully painted folds in the sheets and the pillows. Venus is only wearing a gold bracelet with black enamels on her right arm, a ring on the pinky of her left hand, and a pearl earring. She has roses in her right hand, and you can see that one of the roses has already fallen on the red bed which has a pattern of black flowers. Her hair, partly woven in braids, is falling over her shoulders. Her body is contrasted with the dark background on the left, emphasizing her nakedness. Notice how the straight lines of the architecture nicely contrast with the curviness of Venus. The two maids in the background are apparently searching for Venus’ clothes in one of the two bridal chests.
Backstory: Guidobaldo II Della Rovere gave this painting to his young wife (who was 15 at the time of the painting), and the painting provides the meaning of marriage. Some people consider this as one of the most erotic paintings in history. But others have a less flattering opinion. The American author Mark Twain described the work as follows in 1880: “The foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses.” The theme of this painting is referred to as a ‘reclining female nude’, a genre that became popular in the early Renaissance. For this painting, Titian was inspired by a painting of the Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus) which was started by Giorgione and finished after his death by Titian. And this painting has inspired many future variations on the reclining nude, including Olympia by Édouard Manet.
Symbolism: The painting provides three lessons of marriage for Giulia Varano. She needs to be erotic, faithful, and become a mother. The clear eroticism in the painting should remind Giulia of her sexual obligations in the marriage. The dog laying on the bed is a symbol of marital faithfulness. The maid on the right side, who is overlooking a kid, is a symbol of motherhood. The chests on the right were a typical wedding present in Italy at that time. The white sheets on which Venus is laying represent purity. Venus holds some roses in her hand, which were a symbol of love. Similarly, the red bed on which she is laying also represents love.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. One of the two children of Venus is Aenaes, who was one of the few people to escape from Troy according to Virgil’s poem Aeneid. Two of the descendants of Aeneas were Remus and Romulus, who founded Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was a symbol of love and sensuality. As this painting was for private use, Venus was a symbolic inspiration for this painting. In reality, a contemporaneous model has been used to depict Venus, most likely Angela del Moro, a friend of Titian.
Who is Titian? Titian (1488/1490 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Many of the paintings of Titian throughout his long career contain nudity.
Fun fact: More than 300 works of Titian survived, partly because Titian became very old for his time. While there is quite some discussion about his actual year of birth, he claimed in a letter to the Spanish king, Philip II, to have been born in 1474. That would mean he died at the age of 102. The consensus nowadays is that Titian grossly exaggerated in that letter and that he was born around 1488-1490. Another characteristic of Titian was that, while he was considered to be the leading painter in Venice, he was notoriously greedy.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 35 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Mary sits on a paved terrace in front of a palace-like building and is reading at a richly decorated desk carved from marble. She gets surprised by a visit of the youthful Archangel Gabriel, who explains to her that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel raises his right hand to greet Mary and holds a white lily in his left hand. Mary hesitantly raises her left hand to greet the angel. The landscape in the back shows mountains, a sea, and cypresses, all typical elements present in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. All perspectives – height, width, and depth – converge on Mary, making her the center of attention. Interestingly, the desk of Mary and the palace-like building seem somewhat out of place in this setting, and the figures of Mary (who is usually described as a simple woman) and Gabriel seem to fit better with the bed of flowers and the nature-like background.
Backstory: This painting has been in the Uffizi since 1867. Before that it hung in the San Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveta Church in the countryside of Tuscany. There has been a constant debate on who painted this work. The consensus is now that this painting was created in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. A popular explanation is that the painting was started by Andrea del Verrocchio, who left a note to his pupil Leonardo da Vinci to finish the painting. This painting is now considered by many to be Leonardo’s first major work, as he made the background, the wings of the angel, and the finishing touches to the painting. The painting is based on Luke 1: 26-38, where the Archangel Gabriel foretells the birth of Jesus to Mary.
Symbolism: The angel holds a Madonna lily in his left hand. This lily represents the purity of Mary and is also the symbol of the city of Florence. Mary can be identified by her dress which is largely blue. The enclosed garden in which Gabriel is kneeling is a symbol of Mary’s virginity. The marble desk or sarcophagus in the middle has been painted after the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici which was carved by Verrocchio.
Who is Mary? The Virgin Mary has been the most popular subject in Christian art. She represents four Roman Catholic dogmas, which are at the basis of Catholicism: Perpetual Virginity (when she gave birth to Jesus), Mother of God, Immaculate Conception (Mary was already without sins in the womb of her mother), and the Assumption into Heaven at the end of her life.
Why the Annunciation? The ‘Annunciation’ has already been the subject of art since the fourth century. It has been a very popular theme in Florentine art. It shows the moment that the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. He is known to be one of the biggest multi-talents the world has ever seen. The fact that he studied science and nature extensively helped him in his artwork. He has produced a large number of sketches in which he practiced to draw specific human features, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, bone structures, and other anatomical features. Some of his most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another version in the National Gallery in London.
Fun facts: The wings of the Archangel Gabriel are painted by Leonardo da Vinci and are most likely copied from a bird in flight. However, if you look carefully, these wings have been extended later on by another unknown artist. People have also noticed some rookie mistakes in this painting, indicating that the young Leonardo was still mastering the tricks of perspective. For example, look at the right hand of Mary, which rests on the reading desk. The desk is closer to the viewer than Mary. However, that makes it strange that Mary’s right hand is on the left side of the reading desk. In other words, her right hand is too close to the viewer compared to the rest of her body. Finally, the painting lacks some of the emotions in the faces of the angel and Mary. But Da Vinci would learn over time how to include these emotions, which is clearly visible in his Mona Lisa.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1477 and 1482
Commissioned by? Lorenzo de’ Medici as a wedding gift to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici
What do you see? This painting is full of allegories (hidden meanings), which leads to much debate on how to interpret the painting. In the meadow, you can see hundreds of different flowers. The blue figure on the right is Zephyr, the god of the west wind. Zephyr is chasing the nymph Chloris, who is associated with flowers and spring. Zephyr’s breath turns Chloris into the woman with the dress decorated with flowers (who is thought to be the goddess of Spring, called Flora). The central figure in the middle is Venus. To the left of Venus, the three Graces (Charites in Greek) are dancing. The Graces are minor deities in Greek mythology. To the left of the Graces is Mercury (Hermes in Greek), the messenger of the Greek gods, who is scattering the clouds with his staff. Some people say that Mercury may be modeled after Lorenzo de’ Medici who commissioned this painting. On top on Venus is Cupid (her son) aiming his flaming arrow at one of the Graces.
Backstory: The painting only got his name, La Primavera in 1550 when Giorgio Vasari saw the painting. This painting is also known as the Allegory of Spring ('primavera' is Italian for 'spring'). While many interpretations have been given to the painting, a popular interpretation is that the painting is inspired by a story from the poet Ovid. In his book Fasti (Amazon link to the book), the nymph Chloris is naked and attracts the first wind of the spring, which is represented by Zephyr. When Zephyr captures her, flowers sprang from her mouth and she turns into the goddess Flora. After Botticelli completed the painting, it was placed in the summerhouse of the Medici family, where would hang next to The Birth of Venus which Botticelli completed a few years later.
Symbolism: Venus represents the goodwill (humanitas) and divides the spiritual values on the left from the material values on the right (the earthly desires shown by Zephyr). Notice that Cupid is blindfolded while aiming his arrow on one of the Graces. This is a reference to the saying that love is blind. In the background of the picture, you can see orange trees, which are a symbol of the Medici family. Venus stands in front of a myrtle bush (the dark leaves behind her), which is a sacred plant for her as it was the first plant she used to cover herself when she arose naked from the sea. The Graces on the left and the right are wearing expensive jewelry in the colors of the Medici family. Some people believe that each of the flowers symbolizes a unique message. At least for some of the flowers the message is clear. For example, the strawberries in the crown of Flora represent seduction and the roses in her hand symbolize love. Finally, the city of Florence is named after the goddess Flora (which is Latin for ‘flower’).
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Venus and Mars are the parents of Cupid. In art, Cupid is often depicted together with his mother, Venus.
Why Venus? Nudity was the natural state of Venus, which provided a good excuse to include nudity in an artwork. This was an important reason for her popularity in Renaissance art. Whereas in this painting Venus is still dressed, this will quickly change. A few years later Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in which she is already largely naked.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter who belonged to the Florentine school of painters. The name Botticelli means “little barrel”. He got this name because people described his brother as “fat like a barrel”. Botticelli was initially trained by his brother to become a goldsmith, but at the age of 14, he became an apprentice to the successful painter Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), known from the painting Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Later in his life, Botticelli became a mentor to both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Fun fact: The painting contains over 500 individual flowers and between 170 and 200 different varieties. Most of these flowers were growing in the spring around Florence. Botanical experts are already inspired for centuries by these flowers. They have been able to identify about 130 flowers, including daisies, forget-me-nots, jasmine, lilies, and violets. For the remaining flowers, there is quite some debate on whether these are fantasy flowers created by Botticelli or real flowers that existed in 15th century Florence but are now extinct.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe