It shows the Roman gods Venus and Mars in an allegory of beauty and valour. The youthful and voluptuous couple recline in a forest setting, surrounded by playful satyrs. The painting is typically held as an ideal of sensuous love, of pleasure and play.
In the painting Venus watches Mars sleep while two infant satyrs play carrying his armour as another rests under his arm. A fourth blows a small conch shell in his ear in an effort to wake him. Although the work draws from classical sources, it diverges in important aspects, and is a product of early renaissance allegorical teaching. The scene is set in a haunted forest, and the sense of perspective and horizon extremely tight and compact. The sea from which Venus emerged can be seen in the distant background. In the foreground, a swarm of wasps hovers around Mars’ head, possibly as a symbol that love is often accompanied by pain or it may be no more than a symbol of the stings of love. Another possible explanation is that the wasps represent the Vespucci family that may have commissioned the painting; the symbol of the Vespucci house is the wasp. The painting is thought originally to have been the back of a lettuccio, a wooden sofa.
The image may be based on the Stanze of Angelo Poliziano. Stanze 122 describes how the hero found Venus “seated on the edge of her couch, just then released from the embrace of Mars, who lay on his back in her lap, still feeding his eyes on her face”. Poliziano was one of the humanist scholars in the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and in his stanze he alludes to Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici’s prowess in a jousting tournament his older brother Lorenzo had organized to celebrate a treaty with Venice.
Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici is most likely the athletic model for the war god who slumbers next to the goddess in this work. However, the description, with Mars in Venus’ lap, gazing up at her, is a poor fit to the painting. Venus may have been Simonetta Vespucci, a great beauty of the time, married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci. Sandro Botticelli, who portrayed her many times after her death, asked to be buried, as she had been, in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence.