The iconography of Birth of Venus is similar to a description of the event (or rather, a description of a sculpture of the event) in a poem by Angelo Poliziano, the Stanze per la giostra.
No single text provides the precise imagery of the painting, however, which has led scholars to propose many sources and interpretations.
Art historians who specialize in the Italian Renaissance have found a Neoplatonic interpretation, which was most clearly articulated by Ernst Gombrich, to be the most enduring way to understand the painting. Botticelli represented the Neoplatonic idea of divine love in the form of a nude Venus.
For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects:
1. she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love, or,
2. she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them.
Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty.
So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator.
A Neoplatonic reading of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus suggests that 15th-century viewers would have looked at the painting and felt their minds lifted to the realm of divine love.
More recently, questions have arisen about Neoplatonism as the dominant intellectual system of late 15th-century Florence, and scholars have indicated that there might be other ways to interpret Botticelli’s mythological paintings.
In particular, both Primavera and Birth of Venus have been seen as wedding paintings that suggest appropriate behaviors for brides and grooms.
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