Sandro Botticelli, 'Venus and Mars', about 1485
Venus, goddess of love, is dressed and fully alert, while her lover Mars, god of war, lies opposite her asleep, naked except for a loin cloth.
Identifiable by her attribute, the myrtle grove behind, Venus is seductively dressed in a diaphanous pleated gown; her coiffure, a fashionable 15th-century Florentine style. Mars’s auburn hair and red cloak evoke the god’s connection with fire, war, blood, energy, and passion, as well as the red planet, Mars.
Mars is oblivious to the wasps buzzing around his head and the mischievous baby satyrs that play with his armour and attempt to rouse him by blowing a conch shell in his ear. Botticelli has chosen satyrs, associated with lechery and sin, rather than the more traditional inclusion of Cupid: perhaps a reference to the couple’s adulterous union; Venus being the wife of Vulcan, god of fire. One of the satyrs holds a thorn apple, which, like the myrtle bush, was thought to be an aphrodisiac. This may be a visual pun on the apple that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. The artist imbues cheeky humour here, but also a moral message of the conquering and civilising power of love.
It is not known who commissioned the painting, though Botticelli's clients were typically wealthy 15th-century Florentines in the circle of the Medici, and it is likely that this painting would have called to mind a famous Florentine couple, Giuliano Medici, co-ruler of Florence, and the aristocratic Simonetta Vespucci, who were believed to have been adulterous lovers. The wasps’ nest may be a reference to her family coat of arms.
Venus and Mars is the only example outside Italy of the mythological paintings for which Botticelli was celebrated. Botticelli seems to have drawn on different sources, including the Old Testament and mythology, fusing elements together to create a unique interpretation.