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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Masterpieces from Turin 2: The other Venus

Sandro Botticelli, Venus, ca.1485-1499, Galleria Sabauda, Turin, detail

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)


Oil on canvas


176 cm x 77,2 cm

Galleria Sabauda, Turin

In the collection of the Galleria Sabauda is displayed a Venus by Sandro Botticelli less known by the public.

Sandro Botticelli, beyond the iconic and famous The Birth of Venus of the Uffizi Gallery, painted several works with Venus as a main subject. His contemporary as the Florentine merchant Antonio Billi recorded as Botticelli painted beautiful naked women and also Giorgio Vasari in his “The Lives” confirmed it: “In the city, in several houses made tondi of his hands, and a lot of naked women”.

Of these Venus only three survived: one is in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, the second is in a private collection in Lucerne in Switzerland, the third one was recorded in 1844 in the Palazzo Feroni at Florence, later owners included the English clergyman Walter Davenport Bromley, the Tory politician Lord Ashburton (who bought it at Christie's for 100 guineas in 1863) and in the Twenties the Italian entrepreneur Riccardo Gualino.

The Gualino’s collection was ceded as a debt repayment contracted with the Italian Government: a part was given to the Galleria Sabauda another part to the Bank of Italy. The Venus of Turin entered in the collection of the Galleria Sabauda, in the 40s was exhibited in the Italian Embassy in London and still nowadays lent overseas as ambassador of the Italian culture in the world.

The Venus is a symbol of her time the Renaissance and to understand better we need to know more about the artistic career of his creator Botticelli.

Botticelli grow up in a cultural and vividly Florence marked at that time by the Platonism of the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy founded by Marsilio Ficino and supported by the Medici family.

The fallen of the Byzantine empire with Constantinople in 1453 brought back the attention to the Greek culture with a lot of scholars who started to teach in the Italian universities and influenced deeply the Renaissance.

Botticelli created the renaissance of the Greek style in Painting.

Botticelli was painting with a method that he considered was the one of the biggest Greek painters, Zeuxis, Parrhasius and Appelles, who Pliny the Elder described in the Naturalis Historia (Natural History).

Botticelli imitated their works just in a conceptual point of view as nothing of the Greek paintings survived but they survived in the descriptions and in the vascular paintings.

The Greek style was a linear one with lacks depth but with a strong attention to the figure that seems magically born. The Greek figure is an appearance.

As the art historian Claudio Strinati described The Birth of Venus and the Primavera by Botticelli are an appearance, “an evocation of the mind that create a world that doesn’t exist and it is burden by an incredible charm and seduction”.

Greek sculpture, Venus de'Medici, I century B.C., Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Botticelli learned the Neoplatonic lesson even if he didn’t have the philosophical deepness of Ficino, his works are the most vividly proof that the antiquity is reborn in art.

A renaissance and vitality that were ended with the death of Lorenzo de’Medici and the condemnation of art and the joy of the Renaissance life by Girolamo Savonarola supporter of a mysticism more devoted that caused a huge crisis in Florence and a spiritual crisis in Botticelli himself.

The three Venus with the one of the Galleria Sabauda of Turin are inspired by the model of the Venus Pudica, suggesting an action to cover the breasts and the pubis, a Greek model used in the statuary as the Venus de' Medici, a Greek sculpture of I century B.C.

The three Venus are lacking of a background just a black one on which they leaned on the top of a stone base as the classic sculptures.

Making a comparison of the three Venus it is possible to see the differences.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus Galleria Sabauda Turin, Venus Gemäldegalerie Berlin, Venus private collection Lucerne

The one in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, is curvier in the shape compared with the one of Turin and has long blond loose hair that descended in her left shoulder and covered her nudity with more delicacy.

The scholars had different opinion if the work is by Botticelli or by his studio.

The Venus of Lucerne is different for the quality and the subject in comparison with the other two works.

The breast is completely uncovered as both hands are handing a transparent fabric that covered the legs and feet. In the middle of the fabric, to cover her nudity there is a bouquet of flowers and leaves.

The painting seems more the work of the studio that never achieved the quality of the master.

The Venus of Turin is the one that has a quality and a precision of the details closer to the direct hand of Botticelli. In 1926 in the catalogue of the Gualino’s collection, the art critic Lionello Venturi supported that the Venus of Turin was not a copy of the one of Florence but instead it was an idea or a study for its creation.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus, ca.1485-1499, Galleria Sabauda, Turin

The Venus of Turin as a nymph of the Greek mythology has a transparent garment that gives harmony and elegance to her sinuous body.

The grace, the contrast of the chiaroscuro, the marked contours are characteristic of the style of Botticelli that we can see in the painting. The hair is darker and up really different from the one of Berlin. A pearl decorated her forehead, placed in the middle of the parting, probably to remember the valve of the shell where the goddess was conceived.

Through the infrared analyses it was possible to see the pictorial afterthoughts of Botticelli in the position of the hands, the feet and knees and in the marked contours in the oval face.

In the sweet and melancholic face, it was speculated to recognise the face of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci.

Simonetta was born in Genoa (or as in other records in Porto Venere in Cinque Terre) on the 28th of January 1453 from the nobleman Gaspare, manager of the Bank of Saint George, and Cattocchia Spinola.

When she was a child, she followed her family in exile in Piombino where she met her future husband the banker Marco Vespucci, cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, allied of the de’Medici, the richest, the more educated and powerful family in Florence.

When she moved to Florence with her husband, her beauty, elegance and grace conquered immediately the favour and the sympathy of all the citizens.

Angelo Poliziano described her as “the immortal beauty”. Simonetta showed her beauty, kindness and intelligence and she conquered all the upper class of Florence and among them Giuliano de’Medici.

This courtly love was known by everybody in Florence. Giuliano in the jousting tournament of 1475 held at the Piazza Santa Croce, entered the lists bearing a banner on which was a picture of Simonetta as a helmeted Pallas Athene painted by Botticelli, beneath which was the French motto “La Sans Par”, that means “The unparalleled one”.

Botticelli painted Simonetta with Giuliano in Venus and Mars of the National Gallery and in the Primavera in the Uffizi.

Unfortunately, Simonetta died at the age of 23 of tuberculosis a year later the tournament on the 26 April 1476 and Giuliano died two years later in the Pazzi conspiracy on the 26 April 1478.

Sandro Botticelli took Simonetta as his Muse even she never modelled for him but he could have seen her everyday as his studio was few meters apart from the Palace of the Vespucci family in Florence.

When Botticelli painted the Birth of Venus, Simonetta had been died for 9 years, but he remembered really clear in his mind her angelical shape.

Sandro Botticelli, The birth of Venus, 1485, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

It is possible that Botticelli himself was in love with Simonetta: he was deeply devoted to her and before of his death he asked to be buried closed to the most beautiful woman in the world and his desired was granted in the Church of All Saints in Florence.

Comparing the Venus of Turin with some portraits of Simonetta Vespucci by Botticelli as the one known as la Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta) in the Marubeni collection in Tokyo, Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph in Städel museum in Frankfurt and one of the three Graces of the Primavera in the Uffizi we can see some interesting similarities in the hairstyle.

Sandro Botticelli, Venus, ca.1485-1499, Galleria Sabauda, Turin, detail
Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, ca. 1480 , Uffizi Gallery, Florence, detail of one of the Graces

Sandro Botticelli, La bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), ca.1480-85,the Marubeni collection, Tokyo, detail
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph,ca. 1480, Städel museum, Frankfurt, detail

All the women have in their hair one or more pearls symbol connected to Venus and her birth from the sea.

The unusual hairstyle, the plait and string of hair and pearls created a network called Vespaio (a wasp nest). This is a reference to Vespucci that it is Simonetta last name.

All these portraits are idealised portraits of Simonetta. She wouldn’t hardly appeared in public with her hair loose like this something that the Florentine of her day would have considered unsuitable.

In the Birth of Venus Botticelli depicted the ideal myth of the birth of the Goddess of Beauty and Love, one of the most admired in the ancient times. The work hides a neoplatonic allegory based of love as vital energy, as a motive force of nature meants as spiritual beauty that represents purity, simplicity and pure soul.

Contrary to the title of the painting the subject depicted it is not the Birth of Venus but her arrival in the Isle of Cyprus.

Venus moves slowly on a shell on the sea surface moved by the waves in all her grace and beauty, naked and solid as a beautiful classic sculptuSimonetta Vespucci in many different records it is reported that she was born in a family house in Porto Venere, name gave to the area from a roman temple of Venus Erycina that was built in the same area in which today there is the church of St. Peter. The dedication to Venus probably it is to refer to the fact of the myth of Venus born by the sea foam, that is really copious under that cliff.

The birth of Simonetta in Porto Venere makes Botticelli recalled the Birth of Venus: one Goddess of the mytology, the other one a goddess on earth.

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