This picture was probably painted to celebrate a marriage, indeed its shape may point to its origins as part of a wedding chest (cassone). The subject was also appropriate for a Florentine wedding of the period; Venus, the goddess of Love gazes in a somewhat detached way in the general direction of her lover Mars, the god of War. It appears that Mars may have recently sampled the delights offered by the love goddess for he seems to be in the throes of post-coital slumber and of course the fact that his virility has been temporarily conquered by love would no doubt have been the source of comment and bawdy humour at the wedding celebrations.
Whether or not it was commissioned for a wedding, there are clues within the picture which may help to identify who commissioned the work. Mars, as he sleeps, is blissfully unaware of the wasps which can be seen buzzing around his head. They may symbolise the sting — the negative consequences — of desire but they might also be seen as a visual pun on the name of a very influential Florentine family, the Vespucci (the Italian word for wasps is vespe), who commissioned various works from Botticelli probably including the great Primavera. It is traditionally held that Simonetta Vespucci was the model for Venus in the Primavera as well as other works by Botticelli and the very beautiful features of both Venuses bear a strong resemblance to one another.
The presence of the baby satyrs could be interpreted as reinforcing the warning inherent in the presence of the wasps. The satyrisci (little satyrs) can be identified with incubi — bringers of nightmares, especially those of a sexual nature. Botticelli was closely associated with humanist circles in Florence and is often seen as an archetypal Renaissance artist, primarily because of the classical subject matter of a small number of famous pictures of which Venus and Mars is one. But curiously, beyond the fact that the subject is drawn from pagan antiquity, Botticelli makes no further effort to emphasise the classical nature of the scene. Rather this picture, in common with other compositions such as the Primavera and the Birth of Venus, betrays an affinity with earlier styles which we might call Late Gothic in character. In particular, the sinuous contours of Mars and Venus together with the lack of depth in the composition are redolent of the more decorative priorities of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. In other respects Botticelli is keen to stress the contemporary — the hairstyle and gown worn by Venus reflect the fashion of the day and the armour and lance are Renaissance, not antique in provenance.
The advent of the hell-raising friar Girolamo Savonarola, who arrived in Florence not long after this painting was completed, proved to be a watershed for Botticelli as well as the whole city (the Medici were temporarily overthrown). We are told by the biographer and painter Giorgio Vasari that he became a committed adherent of the radical sect which surrounded Savonarola who railed against the worldliness of the ruling Florentine elite. Among his many targets Savonarola criticised the practice among artists of modelling holy personages on identifiable Florentines and in 1497 and 1498 he instigated the ‘bonfires of the vanities’ in which such diverse objects as dice, books, mirrors and paintings were burned. After this period of tumult a change can be seen in Botticelli’s art — he returns exclusively to sacred subjects and becomes even more intent on following a retrospective path in which his later works lose the distinctive serenity of his mature period. No better example of this change exists than the Mystic Nativity also in the National Gallery.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1483 Luca Signorelli: The Last Days of Moses, Rome, Sistine Chapel
c1485 Hans Memling: Madonna and Child with Angels, Washington, National Gallery of Art
1480–85 Gerard David: Nativity, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art