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"Ut Pictura Poesis":

Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Poliziano's la Giostra

The following is an excerpt from Angelo Poliziano's Stanze di messer Angelo Politiano cominciate per la giostra del magnifico Giuliano di Pietro de' Medici. Written between 1475-8, the poem includes a fictional description of reliefs cast by Vulcan for the doors of the Temple of Venus. It would seem likely that Botticelli would have known this text when he painted his Birth of Venus. In any case, both Poliziano and Botticelli were working in the context of the Medici court in Florence. Cosimo de Medici established a Platonic Academy modelled on the classical example of Plato's own Akademia. Included below are excerpts from Erwin Panofsky's account of the Platonic Academy. Study of classical texts was central to this humanist culture. In describing the imagined reliefs cast by Vulcan, Poliziano was employing a literary form that became popular in the Late Antique world known as ekphrasis, where one artistic form emulates another artistic form. The relationships of the arts, most specifically painting and poetry, was related to a famous dictum in Horace's Ars Poetica, "ut pictura poesis," or literally "As painting so is poetry." This comparison and rivalry between painting and poetry was an important way artists tried to elevate their status above the manual arts.


In the stormy Aegean, the genital member is
seen to be received in the lap of Tethys, to drift
across the waves, wrapped in white foam, be-
neath the various turnings of the planets; and
within, both with lovely and happy gestures, a
young woman with nonhuman countenance, is
carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by
playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven re-
joices in her birth.

C 100
You would call the foam real, the sea real, real
the conch shell and real the blowing wind; you
would see the lightning in the goddess's eyes,
the sky and the elements laughing about her; the
Hours treading the beach in white garments, the
breeze curling their loosened and flowing hair;
their faces not one, not different, as befits sisters.

CI 101
You could swear that the goddess had emerged
from the waves, pressing her hair with her right
hand, covering with the other her sweet mound
of flesh; and where the strand was imprinted by
her sacred and divine step, it had clothed itself
in flowers and grass; then with happy, more than
mortal features, she was received in the bosom
of the three nymphs and cloaked in a starry gar-

CII 102
With both hands one nymph holds above the
spray-wet tresses a garland, burning with gold
and oriental gems, another adjusts pearls in her
ears; the third, intent upon those beautiful
breasts and white shoulders, appears to strew
round them the rich necklaces with which they
three girded their own necks when they used to
dance in a ring in heaven.

CIII 103
Thence they seem to be raised toward heav-
enly spheres, seated upon a silver cloud: in the
hard stone you would seem to see the air trem-
bling and all of heaven contented; every god
takes pleasure in her beauty and desires her hap-
py bed: each face seems to marvel, with raised
eyebrows and wrinkled forehead.

CIV 104
Finally the divine artisan formed his self-portrait,
happy with such a sweet prize, still bristly and
scabrous from his furnace, as if forgetting every
labor for her, joining his lips with desire to hers,
as if his soul burned completely with love: and
there seems to be a much greater fire kindled
within him than the one that he had left in

The head of the Platonic Academy was Marsilio Ficino. In a commentary on Plato's Philebus, Ficino presents the following discussion of the myth of the birth of Venus which Ernst Gombrich has seen as a potential source for Botticelli's painting:

The story told by Hesiod in the Theogony of how Saturn (Cronos) castrated Heaven (Uranus)and threw the testicles into the sea, out of the agitated foam of which Venus was born, we should perhaps understand as referring to the potential fecundity of all things which lies latent in the first principle. This the divine spirit drinks and first unfolds within himself; after which he pours it forth into the soul and matter, which called the sea, because of the motion, time, and humour of generation. As soon as the soul is thus fertilized, it creates Beauty within itself; by an upward movement of conversion towards supra-intelligible things; and by a downward movement it gives birth to the charm of sensible things in matter. This conversion into Beauty and its birth from the soul is called Venus. And as in all aspects and in all generation of Beauty there is pleasure, and as all generation is from the soul, which is called Venus, many thought that Venus herself was Pleasure [Ernst Gombrich, Symbolic Images, p. 72].



Erwin Panofsky, "Neoplatonic Movement in Florence and Northern Italy," in Studies in Iconology, /p. 129: [T]he 'Platonic Academy' of Florence [was] a select group of men held together by mutual friendship, a common taste for /p. 130: conviviality and human culture, an almost religious worship of Plato, and a loving admiration for one kindly, delicate little scholar: Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)

This 'Philosophus Platonicus, Theologus and Medicus,' who seriously, half playfully patterned his life after Plato, and whose modestly comfortable villa at Careggi (a gift from Cosimo de Medici) purported to be the Academe redivivus [reborn Academy of Plato], was not only the life and soul but also the constructive mind of an informal 'society' which was a combination of club, research seminat and sect, rather than an Academy in the modern sense. In included, among others: Christoforo Landino, the famous commentator of Virgil, Horace and Dante and author of the well-known Quaestiones Camaldulenses; Lorenzo the Magnificent; Pico della Mirandola, who widened the intellectual horizons of the 'Platonica familia' by introducing the study of oriental sources, and generally maintained a comparatively independent attitude twoards Ficino; ...and Angelo Poliziano.

The task which Ficino had shouldered was threefold: First: to make accessible by translations into Latin --with epitomes and commentaries-- the original documents of Platonism, including not only Plato but also the 'Platonici,' viz., Plotinus and such later writeres as Proclus, Porphyrius, Jamblichus, Dionysius Pseudo-Areopagita, 'Hermes Trismegistos' and 'Orpheus.' Second: to co-ordinate this enormous mass of information into a coherent and living system capable of instilling a new meaning into the entire cultural heritage of the period, into Virgil and Cicero, as well as into St. Augustine and Dante, into Classical mythology as well as into physics, astrology, /p. 131: and medicine. Third: to harmonize this system with the Christian religion.

True, Philo of Alexandria had tried to subject Judaism (or rather an alloy of Judaism and Hellenistic mystery-cults) to a Platonic interpretation, and it had been a basic problem for Christian thinkers to incorporate an ever increasing amount of classical ideas into the framework of their thought. But never before had an attempt been made to fuse Christian theology, fully developed as it was, with a great pagan philosophy, without impairing the individuality and completeness of either. The very title of Ficino's proudest work, Theologia Platonica, announces his ambition both to integrate the 'Platonic' system and to prove its 'full consonance' with Christianity....

/p. 132: [For Ficino, the] universe... unfolds itself in four hierarchies of gradually decreasing perfection: 1) The Cosmic Mind (Greek: Nous, Latin: mens mundana, intellectus divinus sive angelicus), which is a purely intelligible and supercelestial realm; like God it is incorruptible and stable, but unlike him it is multiple, containing as it does the ideas and intelligence (angels) which are the prototypes of whatever exists in the lower zones. 2) The Cosmic Soul (...Latin: anima mundana), which is still incorruptible, but no longer a realm of pure forms but a realm of pure causes; it is therefore identical with the celestial or translunary world divided into the familiar nine spheres or heavens; the empyrean, the sphere of the fixed stars and the seven spheres of the planets. 3) The Realm of Nature, that is: the sublunary or terrestial world, which is corruptible because it is a compound of form and matter and can therefore disintegrate when these components are parted.... 4) The Realm of Matter which is formless and lifeless; it is endowed with shape, movement and even existence only in so far as it ceases to be itself and enters a union with form, so as to contribute to the Realm of Nature.

This whole universe is a divinum animal; it is enlivened and its various hierarchies are interconnected with each other by a 'divine influence emanating from God, penetrating the heaven, descending through the elements, and coming to an end in matter....'

/p.133: With all its corruptibility the sublunary world participates in the eternal life and beauty of God imparted to it by the 'divine influence.' But on its way through the celestial realm the 'splendour of divine goodness,' as beauty is defined by the Neoplatonists, has been broken into as many rays as there are spheres or heavens. There is therefore no perfect beauty on earth. Every human being, beast, plant or mineral is 'influenced'... by one or more of the celestial bodies....

/p. 135: [T]he Realm of Nature, so full of vigour and beauty as a manifestation of the 'divine influence,' when contrasted with the shapelessness and lifelessness of sheer matter, is, as the same time, a place of unending struggle, ugliness and distress, when contrasted with the celestial, let alone the supercelestial world. With a Florentine Neoplatonist it is not inconsistent but /p. 135: inevitable to revel in the 'presence of the spiritual in the material,' and yet to complain of the terrestial world as a 'prison' where the pure forms or ideas are 'drowned,' 'submerged,' 'perturbed,' and 'disfigured beyond recognition....'

Ficino and his followers shared the age-old belief in a structural analogy between the Macrocosmus and the Microcosmus. But they interpreted this /p. 136 analogy in a peculiar manner.... As the universe is composed of the material world (nature) and the immaterial realm beyond the orbit of the moon, man is composed of body and soul, the body being a form inherent in matter, the soul a form only adherent to it. And as the spiritus mundanus interconnects the sublunary world with the translunary, a spiritus humanus interconnects the body with the soul. The soul, now, consists of five faculties grouped under the headings of anima prima and anima secunda.

The anima secunda, or Lower Soul, lives in close contact with the body, and consists of those faculties which both direct and depend on physiological functions: the faculty of propagation, nourishment and growth; external perception, i.e. the five senses which receive and transmit the signals from the outer world...; and interior perception or imagination which unifies the scattered signals into coherent psychological images....The Lower Soul is, therefore, not free, but determined by 'fate.'

The anima prima, or Higher Soul, comprises only two faculties: Reason (ratio) and Mind (mens, intellectus humanus sive angelicus). Reason is closer to the Lower Sould: it coordinates the images supplied by the imagination according to the rules of logic. The Mind, however, can grasp the truth by directly contemplating the supercelestial ideas. Where Reason is discursive and reflective the Mind is intuitive and creative. Reason becomes involved with the experiences, desires and needs of the body as transmitted by the senses and imagination. The Mind, on the contrary, communicates, or even participates in, the intellectus divinus, proof of whichis found in the fact that human thought would not be able to conceive the /p. 137: notions of eternity and divinity if it did not share in an eternal and infinite essence....

All this accounts for the unique position of man in the Neoplatonic system. He shares the faculties of his Lower Soul with the dumb animals; he shares his Mind with the intellectus divinus; and he shares his Reason with nothing in the universe: his Reason is exclusively human, a faculty unattainable to animals, inferior to the pure intelligence of God and the Angels, yet capable of turning in either direction. This is the meaning of Ficino's definition of man as ' a rational soul participating in the divine mind, employing a body.' which definition says no more nor less than that man is the 'connecting link between God and the world,' or the 'centre of the universe' as Pico della Mirandola puts it: 'Man ascends to the higher realms without discarding the lower world, and can descend to the lower world without forsaking the higher.'

This position of man is both exalted and problematic. With his sensual /p. 138: impulses vacillating between submission and revolt, his Reason facing alternate failure and success