A cartoon on a recent New Yorker cover pictured beachgoers taking cell phone photos of Venus on a half shell – the famed image in Sandro Botticelli’s painting “Birth of Venus” - as they would a beached whale. The cartoon is drawn by magazine staffer Roz Chast and it’s hilarious.
While the joke is on us and our obsessive cell phone culture, it’s also an unwitting poke at our illiteracy when it comes to the recorded belief systems of Old Rome. Again quite by accident, the cartoon brings into view how the ancients’ tale of Venus has been sanitized. If the true story were known, beginning with the Olympian goddess’ birth, the joke wouldn’t come off.
Far from Botticelli’s sublime vision of Venus delivered on a half shell blown to shore by a gentle sea breeze, the way the ancients scripted it, she came from the castrated genitals of the sky-god Uranos that Cronus,Titan god of time severed and tossed into the sea.
Botticelli’s visit-from-the-stork sort of scenario - his staging of a modest maiden coming to life so bashfully that she tries to cover her birthday suit with her hands - is visual drivel.
Hans Biedermann, noted authority on icons and their meanings, gives evidence that Old Rome associated Venus with sexual desire. Her love life makes his point. Married to Vulcan, she cheated on him many times with lovers like Zeus, Hermes, Aares, Dionysus, Mars and even a mortal – Acheses.
Mind you, none of this would matter a damn if the dewy-eyed version of Venus’ story didn’t hold sway over our lives. Distortions like these have an effect. They become part of the collective mind. They travel through time straight into literature. I’m thinking of fictional women like Circe, Medea, Medusa, Salome, Delilah and Lady Macbeth.
In trying to figure out the causes of these distortions, British art critic Edwin Mullin theorized in his 1985 tome “The Painted Witch” that since most art is about women by men who portray their fantasies about them either as virgins or vixens.
Such fantasies began with paintings and sculpture but have been perpetuated by historians through the ages. Wenda O’Reilly, noted for creating educational art games, plainly drank the Kool-Aid when she wrote in her 2001 book “The Renaissance Art Book” that both the Virgin Mary and Venus “brought divine love to the world.” By way of illustration, she pointed out that in Botticelli’s painting of spring called “Primavera,” he showed Venus with a halo. (Her perception).
And in his “Principles of Art History,” Heinrich Wolfflin compared Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” to the Venus de Milo and a similarly posed Venus by Lorenzo di Cridi - both of which shyly cover their nakedness with their hands. He said only, “Nothing is more illuminating than to compare the similar curve of the arm in the two pictures.”
The question that goes pleading here now is not how a femme fatale became an acceptable emblem of chastity, but why we perpetuate the myth?
My apologies to Chast for dissing her cartoon. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know the Venus story. Historians don’t seem to know it, either.