Botticelli's Venus

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As Botticelli’s masterpiece Venus graces Hong Kong, Ysabelle Cheung explores the history behind the nude figure and speaks to Italian Consul General Alessandra Schiavo and UMAG’s director Florian Knothe about the painting

She was the most beautiful woman in all of Florence, and perhaps of that age, some have said. Muse for poetry and art, Simonetta Vespucci, renowned throughout Italy for her luminous youth and aristocratic beauty, moved to Florence in the late 13th century, when the Renaissance movement was in its earliest stages, and it was there she met and became acquainted with an artist by the name of Sandro Botticelli.
Already married, she could not return the affections of other men (one of whom included a powerful Medici son, who would later commission Botticelli to paint The Birth of Venus) but that did not stop Botticelli painting her portrait in various forms: as the Virgin Mary, as the goddess of wisdom Athena and of course, as Venus, the immortal embodiment of sexuality and raw beauty.  

One of Botticelli’s earliest Renaissance paintings depicts the figure of Venus (and Vespucci) – in fact the same figure shown in The Birth of Venus, which was painted in the same year – and is to be shown in Hong Kong for the very first time at Hong Kong University. The loan of Venus is a personal victory for the Italian consul general Alessandra Schiavo, who has dreamt of presenting a Renaissance masterpiece in the city ever since her arrival three years ago. “Trying to move The Birth of Venus would probably cause a revolution in Florence,” she says jokingly. “But when we heard there was another masterpiece that displays the same artistic genius of Botticelli and history of the Renaissance, we were very eager to get it over to Hong Kong. The painting shows a more youthful, softer Venus, but it's the exact same woman we know from Birth of Venus.”

The Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) gladly opened their doors to the Botticelli nude and to the Italian Consulate. Also pairing up with the Italian Cultural Institute, and under the patronage of business entrepreneur Pansy Ho, UMAG presents a series of public seminars, talks and workshops to further elaborate on the painting’s significance in the Italian High Renaissance period. “We have several Chinese artists, who have studied the Renaissance styles of painting, showing the different techniques in workshops and in their works in the gallery,” says UMAG’s director Florian Knothe. “And as well as the usual university programmes, we have also organised some school programmes, especially for those grades who are just starting to learn about Western painters. In a small way, we’re trying to change things by presenting older international art that other museums may not be focusing on.”

A reproduced image of Venus does not do the painting justice – at full size, it stands 174cm tall – "a teenage Venus!" Knothe laughs – and demonstrates Botticelli’s references of classical Greek sculpture forms (which would later be fully fleshed out in The Birth of Venus) and hints at his unrequited love for Vespucci. Botticelli’s penchant for utilising translucent paint strokes, which layer to form the milky fleshed nude form of a Renaissance woman, can be studied up close in the gallery. Much more about the painting, Botticelli, Renaissance history and Italy’s continuing relationship with Hong Kong (the Italian Consulate and Italian Cultural Institute recently wrapped up their second Italian Film Festival) can be found at the site of the masterpiece at Hong Kong University. It has to be seen to be believed – as the old adage goes, a picture tells a thousand words.

Sandro Botticelli’s Venus University Museum and Art Gallery, Oct 18-Dec 15, hkumag.hku.hk. Free admission.

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