The for the newly-weds (It is ambiguous as

The function of a painting can be vague or
direct, there can also be different branches to its function. For example, a
cassone may clearly function as a wedding chest, but also, more subtly, as guidance
for the newly-weds (It is ambiguous as to whether Venus and Mars is a cassone (the wedding-chest) or a spalliera (the
backboard to a wedding chest or day bed)). To further explore the functions
intended for Botticelli’s Venus and Mars,
a viewer must understand what it depicts and what this means.

Just
as the title suggests; this painting is an interaction between the mythological
lovers, Venus and Mars. The myth involves the Roman goddess Venus (goddess of
Love) who has an affair with Mars (god of War) rendering Vulcan (god of Fire
and husband of Venus) cuckolded. In vengeance, Vulcan captures the pair in a
net and humiliates them for all the gods to see.

The
general themes of Homer’s story are adultery and revenge, yet Botticelli brings
an almost warped version of the classical Roman story and inverts it into one
of positivity, chastity and most importantly, a pure love. Bruce Cole explores
this juxtaposition in The Renaissance Artist at Work and observes that “the affair of Mars
and Venus as originally told by Homer was a simple case of adultery ingenuously
punished by a jealous husband, and was viewed by the poet with a humorous eye.
In the hands of the Renaissance allegorists it was elevated into something of
far greater consequence… Now it was the goddess of Love who conquered having
overcome the god of War.”1 Botticelli
does not illustrate the denouement when the pair are caught, instead, he
displays a peaceful still image where no action of significance is to be noted except
for the contented atmosphere between the lovers while Venus’s stance can be
considered as slightly imperious.

 

Venus and Mars
was most likely commissioned by the prominent Florentine Vespucci family as a
wedding gift though it is not known for who or when it was specifically made. The
first function I will introduce is the painting’s role in communicating what
Botticelli wishes to pass on to the couple; that love unequivocally conquers
war. A spalliera such as this one was a traditional gift for newly-weds in the
15th century and so, Venus and
Mars is performing as an encouraging allegory of the couple’s hopes for the
future of their marriage.

What
better figures to deliver this function than those who personify Love and War
themselves? By tweaking the story, he is able to express the omnipotence of
love, a heartfelt declaration of the power of this couple’s love perhaps, and
how it can overcome any obstacle. Venus holds an almost regal pose which can be
seen as slightly domineering or authoritarian due to her alert and controlled
positioning which greatly juxtaposes Mars’s who lies unarmed and pendulous in a
deep sleep. Caroline Campbell pays
specific attention to Venus’s dress.2
She notices that her intricate hair style appears to interlace with her dress,
thereby making it impossible to remove from her body. As we know from the myth,
her clothes must have been removed by Mars at some point. Botticelli eliminates
this unorthodox (by 15th century standards) fact by rendering it
impossible. A viewer is guided into altering the lewdness of her actions in the
myth – as her clothes appear to have remained on – and replacing it with this
chaste and almost pure image of a woman in love, despite the obvious fact that
Mars is not her husband. Venus is therefore, to an extent able to represent a
pure woman who does not betray the sanctity of marriage and thus this gift can
be deemed appropriate to function as a respectful gift for newly-weds.

In parallel, Mars appears to be engaged in
what Caroline Campbell describes as a ‘little death’3
(the heavy sleep one encounters after making love) in which nothing will wake
him. The irony in that the god of War has been defeated by making love is
almost poetic, depicting the sheer strength of it, thus creating an appropriate
atmosphere for a new couple. His armor has been removed by four satyrs, there
are wasps flying around his ears, and one satyr even blows on a conch all in
vain. The image is able to function as the provider of this light-hearted
humorous tone, creating the right climate that is associated with the joyous
occasion that is the wedding.

                                                                                               

Another
function of this spalliera is not only to perform as an appropriate gift for
newly-weds, but also to provide an illustrative example of the prescribed
behavior of the man and woman within the marriage. Ficino (a great influencer for Botticelli) in Liber de vita theorises that “people who are making babies often
imprint on their faces not only their own actions but even what they were imagining.”4 This
provided women with a need to only look at images of beautiful baby boys, to
ensure the conception of a healthy male heir, who was vital to ensuring the
security of their family’s fortune and power. This could be one of the functions
of the baby-like satyrs, Venus’s incomparable beauty and the handsome and bellicose
Mars. They help to ensure that a wife is surrounded by beauty in order to
influence successful conception. Therefore, the painting is functioning as an
aid to guide the couple’s future.

 

This
leads onto the third function in which Botticelli’s Venus and Mars must represent the commissioner’s family and what
this unification will mean to them personally. The wasps that fly around Mars’s
ears is homage to the Vespucci family. The word ‘vespa’ in Italian means wasp,
at the same time, it has a similar sound to Vespucci. Referring back to The
Renaissance Artist at Work, he describes the traditional function of a
spalliera as an object used to “display the family coat of arms or devises
either directly or allegorically by figures or other subjects.”5 In
this case the allegory would be the wasps representing the commissioning
family.  

What
is more, Bruce Cole notes that the “splendor or richness of his house and chapel
enhanced his prestige and power… what one commissioned was a fair indication of
what one was.”6 If we look at this
painting as simply a piece of art, it typically does not actually have a useful
function. This, in itself, provides the painting with its function. By
commissioning something that is simply for pleasure and generally unnecessary,
the commissioner is indicating that he has money to spend on such a luxurious
item. Therefore, another function of this painting could partially be to
demonstrate the owner’s illustrious wealth. When Venus and Mars is on display, he is indirectly alluding to his
affluence for all his visitors to see.

 

A more materialistic function of Botticelli’s
Venus and Mars is simply decoration. Bruce Cole when describing the
function of the spalliera states that “…whatever was painted on the spalliera
had to provide a pleasing but quiet pattern or shape… The function of the
spalliera must have been something like that of wallpaper or inlay: to decorate
a room without overpowering it.7 Venus and Mars was probably intended to
be inconspicuous all the while having a positive impact on the room and on the
people in it. Therefore, Botticelli’s intention to not include the defining
moment of the myth was perhaps not only to capture the intensity of the couple’s
love for one another, but also to avoid dominating the camera (the room in which
the spalliera would normally be displayed in). By endeavoring to provide the painting
with humor, humanity and pure love, Botticelli has provided the room with a
positive atmosphere fit for the heart of a new shared household.

 

An important
function to mention of Botticelli’s Venus
and Mars is to demonstrate who, specifically the artist is, and what he stands for.  Botticelli was associated with those close to
Lorenzo de’ Medici (the de facto ruler of Florence between 1469 and 1492).
Lorenzo was a highly influential patron of the arts and appreciated intellect, so
Botticelli, a promising and intelligent artist of the 15th century, was
held with high regard in his court. Alongside Botticelli, Marsellio Ficino, a
humanist philosopher, was also a prominent figure associated with Lorenzo. Ficino
set about to disseminate his Neoplatonic ideas of combining the identifiable Hellenistic
religious beliefs with ancient philosophical and theological ideas stemming from
Plotinus and his platonic doctrine. It seeks to explain the existence of our souls
and matter itself as a layering of spiritual levels leading from the soul, to
intellect and then to ‘One’.  Ernst
Gombrich claims in Botticelli’s
Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle that the
only way a “coherent reading of Botticelli’s
mythologies can be obtained is in the light of Neoplatonic imagery”8.
He draws attention to Ficino’s traditional application of astrological
interpretations to his Neoplatonic beliefs. He claims that the planet Mars
provides strength to all men on Earth through its own dominating strength among
the planets. Yet when in conjunction with the planet Venus, she appears to allay
Mars. Therefore, it can be said with confidence that Venus’s authoritarian pose
is an intentional allusion to Ficino’s explanation of his Neoplatonic ideas
because the figures in the painting appear to reconstruct the relationship
between their respective planets. Therefore, Venus and Mars functions as a contributor to the dissemination of
Botticelli’s Neoplatonic beliefs.

Within Botticelli’s painting, we can see his
intellect and exploratory nature in philosophy and theology. A high degree of intellectual
sophistication is beneficial especially within art as it is a platform for
spreading these ideas and gaining recognition not only as the artist but also
as the patron who supported them. As an artist, this painting functions as a
level of self-advertisement as this attribute makes him desirable to other
patrons.

Lastly, it must be recognized that history is
very much a dynamic process. Therefore, the function of Venus and Mars is also evolving over time; the modern function of
the painting differs from the contemporary function. In both eras, the piece
performs as a window into another world. However, in the 15th century,
it primarily functioned as the idealistic example of how to maintain a
successfully fruitful relationship. While a modern viewer would generally no
longer regard this image as a lesson to be learned as we do not hold chastity,
purity and the conception of a male heir with such importance when it comes to
a successful marriage. Now, Venus and
Mars maintains its function as a window into this mythological world but now,
also as a window into the social dynamics of the 15th century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Cole,
Bruce. The Renaissance Artist at Work:
From Pisano to Titian. London: John Murray Ltd, 1983.

 

Campbell,
Caroline. “Sandro Botticelli |Venus and Mars| NG15 – National Gallery.”

Nationalgallery.org.uk

 

Ficino,
Marsilio and Charles Boer. The Book of
Life. Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1996

 

Gombrich, E. H. “Botticelli’s Mythologies: A Study in
the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 8 (1945): 7-60. doi:10.2307/750165.

 

 

 

 

1 Bruce
Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work:
From Pisano to Titian (London: John Murray Ltd, 1983), 269.

 

2 Caroline
Campbell, “Sandro Botticelli | Venus and Mars | NG15 – National Gallery,” “Nationalgallery.org.uk

 

3 Caroline
Campbell, “Sandro Botticelli | Venus and Mars | NG15 – National Gallery,” “Nationalgallery.org.uk

 

4 Marsilio
Ficino and Charles Boer, The Book of Life
(Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications,1996).

 

5 Bruce
Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work:
From Pisano to Titian (London: John Murray Ltd, 1983), 164.

6 Bruce
Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work:
From Pisano to Titian (London: John Murray Ltd, 1983), 49.

7 Bruce
Cole, The Renaissance Artist at Work:
From Pisano to Titian (London: John Murray Ltd, 1983), 164.

8
Ernst Gombrich, “Botticelli’s
Mythologies: A Study in the Neoplatonic Symbolism of His Circle”,
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol 8 (1945): 7.