As Painting so is Poetry

 Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus), Sandro Botticelli, 1486

 
 

XCIX 99

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,
beneath 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 rejoices 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 garment.

 
 

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 heavenly spheres, seated upon a silver cloud:
in the hard stone you would seem to see the air trembling and all of heaven contented;
every god takes pleasure in her beauty and desires her happy bed: each face seems to marvel,
with raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead…

Angelo Poliziano
Stanze per la giostra
Written between 1475-8

 
 

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: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or 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 Sandro 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.

Venus is an Italian Renaissance ideal: red-haired, pale-skinned, voluptuous. Botticelli has picked out highlights in her hair with gold leaf and has emphasized the femininity of her body (long neck, curviness). The brilliant light and soothing colours, the luxurious garden, the gorgeous draperies of the nymph, and the roses floating around the beautiful nude all suggest that the painting is meant to bring pleasure to the viewer.

 
 

So-called “Capitoline Venus”, one of the best preserved copies of Praxiteles’ Cnidian Venus (4th century BC).

 
 

The central figure of Venus in the painting is very similar to Praxiteles‘ sculpture of Aphrodite. The version of her birth, is where she arises from the sea, already a fully grown woman.

 
 

Venus de’ Medici

 
 

The pose of Botticelli’s Venus is reminiscent of the Venus de’ Medici, a marble sculpture from classical antiquity in the Medici collection which Botticelli had opportunity to study. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence, specifically Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici under the influence of his cousin Lorenzo de’ Medici, close friend to Botticelli. The painting is on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Advertisements

The God of Beginnings and Transitions

Statue depicting Janus Bifrons in the Schönbrunn palace courtyard (Vienna, Austria)

 
 

Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, passages, endings and time. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. The Romans named the month of January (Ianuarius) in his honor.

Janus presided over the beginning and ending of conflict, and hence war and peace. The doors of his temple were open in time of war, and closed to mark the peace. As a god of transitions, he had functions pertaining to birth and to journeys and exchange, and in his association with Portunus, a similar harbor and gateway god, he was concerned with travelling, trading and shipping.

Janus had no flamen or specialized priest (sacerdos) assigned to him, but the King of the Sacred Rites (rex sacrorum) himself carried out his ceremonies. Janus had a ubiquitous presence in religious ceremonies throughout the year, and was ritually invoked at the beginning of each one, regardless of the main deity honored on any particular occasion.

The interpretation of Janus as the god of beginnings and transitions is based on a third etymology indicated by Cicero, Ovid and Macrobius, which explains the name as Latin, deriving it from the verb ire (“to go”).

Another etymology proposed by Nigidius Figulus is related by Macrobius: Ianus would be Apollo and Diana Iana, by the addition of a D for the sake of euphony. This explanation has been accepted by A. B. Cook and J. G. Frazer. It supports all the assimilations of Janus to the bright sky, the sun and the moon. It supposes a former *Dianus, formed on *dia- < *dy-eð2 from Indo-European root *dey- shine represented in Latin by dies day, Diovis and Iuppiter. However the form Dianus postulated by Nigidius is not attested.

 
 

Different depictions of Janus from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures

 
 

Janus frequently symbolized change and transitions such as the progress of future to past, from one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood. He represented time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other. Hence, Janus was worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest and planting times, as well as at marriages, deaths and other beginnings. He represented the middle ground between barbarism and civilization, rural and urban space, youth and adulthood. Having jurisdiction over beginnings Janus had an intrinsic association with omens and auspices.

In Act I Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago invokes the name of Janus after the failure of his premiere plot to undo the titular character. As the story’s primary agent of change, it’s fitting that Iago align himself with Janus. His schemes prompt the beginning of each of the main characters’ ends: in his absence, Othello and Desdemona would likely have remained married and Cassio would have remained in his respected position of power. Iago guides (if not forces) the story through inception, climax, and finale. Furthermore, Janus’ common two-faced depiction is the perfect visual metaphor for Iago’s character. Othello’s characters believe him to have only the best of intentions, even going as far as to call him “honest Iago,” completely unaware that he spends every unwatched second plotting their undoing. He appears selfless and compassionate but, in truth, is power-hungry, amoral, and without regard for the well-being of others.

Pilgrimage to India

 
 

Baba B.G., Walton Ford, 1997. The reference of this large scale watercolor responds to Microsoft chief Bill Gates’ visit to India in 1997, when Ford and his family were spending an extended time there. It shows “Baba B.G.” as a North American kingfisher holding court to eight other brilliantly plumed birds sitting lower down on the same branch. A large fish, skewered by the branch where it meets the trunk, hangs nearby, spilling smaller fish from its slit gut. Some of those tumbling from its belly are shown in the process of eating even smaller fish. Such is the law of economic imperialism.

 
 

 
 

The protagonist of Baba goes on a spiritual pilgrimage to India where she encounters a guru who, like many spiritual teachers in India, is referred to as “Baba”. The word “Baba” means “father” in the Hindi language. Alanis Morissette opened most of shows during the Junkie era with the song, and it was featured as an opener during her 2002 tours. It has been seldom played since then. Baba opened Morissette’s performance on the television show MTV Unplugged in 1999, but it was excluded from the CD release Alanis Unplugged. Another live version of “Baba” was released on the No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees CD.