Venere e Marte (c.1485)

Botticelli, Sandro (c.1445-1510)

Venere e Marte (Venus and Mars)
Tempera and oil on poplar, 69.2 x 173.4 cm
National GalleryLondon

Venus, the goddess of love, looks over at her lover Mars. She is alert and dignified, while he – the god of war – is utterly lost in sleep. He doesn‘t even notice the chubby satyr (half child, half goat) blowing a conch shell in his ear.

This picture was probably ordered to celebrate a marriage, and the unusual shape suggests it was a spalliera, a panel set into the wall of a room. These panels were ordered to decorate the semi-public reception room known as a camera (a sort of bedchamber).

Botticelli’s picture is colourful and amusing but was also very fashionable – the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome were admired by the elite in Renaissance Florence. Mars’ well-defined body refers deliberately to ancient sculptures. It might have had another function: women gazing upon beautiful male bodies were thought to be more likely to give birth to boys, essential for continuing the family line. (NG)