Boticelli – The Birth Of Venus

To look through the first five rooms of the Uffizi, and then stand before this picture and the Spring, nearby, is to relive one of the most delightful phases of the Renaissance. It is to leave behind the stiff, lugubrious world of medieval asceticism, and witness again the rebirth of the spirit of Venus in European art. Like the fresh sea-breeze that carries her ashore, there comes again an exhilarating freedom and lightness, a healthy joy in physical life and movement, in the fruit and flowers and open air of this world. Not that pagan naturalism is fully revived in these works: there is still far to go before the robust sensuality of Titian and Rubens will be reached. These forms—even the pregnant figure of Spring—are still delicate, restrained, cool and chaste. Not that a sensuous joy in bright color and graceful line was lacking in all the earlier men—one has felt it in passing the works of Lorenzo Monaco and Fra Lippo Lippi. But here that mood is entirely freed from an otherworldly, religious subject-matter, with its attendant limitations on form, and it has frankly devoted itself to recapturing the spirit of late Greek sculpture.

In spite of the obvious debt to Greek art, especially in the figure of Venus, there is a distinctly personal note through-out. It is found especially in the use of line, and whatever appeal the picture has from a standpoint of pure form is mainly linear. Botticelli is one of those artists who twine the outlines- of things into a definite, continuous melody that can be followed in itself, without regard to what they represent. He is akin to the Gothic craftsmen, and to those that covered the Mohammedan mosques with abstract tracery, in this love of linear music. But his music is suave and classically simple by comparison with theirs. It is never entirely lost in involved detail: one follows it easily and continuously, beginning in the outlines of the two Zephyrs at the left. One feels a sense of lively movement and of contrast in tracing their long, sweeping wings, their drapery bent into S-shaped curves, their arms and legs almost straight. Their floating, whirling movement is quickened by a clever arrangement of the four legs, so that one tends to see them as successive positions of one leg, raised at the left, dropped to vertical, and raised again at the right—as in a cinema film, or in some futuristic modern paintings. The breath of the Zephyrs, naively shown in a straight white line, carries this motion to the goddess, who sways supplely before the wind, her hair blown out ahead, as she drifts into the outstretched arms and cloak awaiting her. Over these main contours, and the static ones of shore, trees and shell, there plays a lighter melody of short irregular curves in hair and draperies, in falling roses and in V-shaped wavelets, blowing in the wind, darting and curling into impossible twists and scallops.

This emphasis on linear music has its drawbacks, when it is carried to the extreme of almost separating line from color, light and mass. The motion can never be as powerful as in Michelangelo and Rubens, where the masses themselves are caught up, or in El Greco, where it is conveyed in colors. Here it parts company with these, and winds itself into intricate convolutions of its own, dragging garment-folds and locks of hair into strained, frozen shapes. The total form loses in unity, in realism, and in the quality of well-rounded fullness that it has in Titian. Light and color are static and superficial here; everything is hard and sculptural, as if carved from stone and then covered with a thin layer of gilt and pigment. But, though color does not join the movement, or contribute a rich texture, it is agreeable as a pattern in itself. By comparison, all of Botticelli’s other works (including the Spring are dull and drab. This has a fresh, clear, daylight harmony of light blue, rose and white, in the dry, eggshell surface of old porcelain.