Venus and Mars

Love conquers all in Botticelli’s sensuous mythological masterpiece. 

Venus and Mars, by Sandro Botticelli, c.1485, National Gallery, London © Bridgeman Images.

Sir William Boxall, Director of the National Gallery in London, was accompanied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, to a sale at Christie’s auction house in June 1874. The collection of the dealer Alexander Barker was up for sale and Disraeli wanted to secure some of the works for the nation. It was a canny decision: in the mid-Victorian period Old Masters were hugely undervalued, though the reputation of Sandro Botticelli, the Florentine Early Renaissance painter, was beginning slowly to rise thanks to his rediscovery by the Pre-Raphaelites. His Venus and Mars cost the nation £1,050, a fraction of the prices paid at the time for works by contemporary artists.

It is likely that Venus and Mars was commissioned for a wedding. The wasps that buzz around Mars’ head suggest that it may have been painted for a member of a family he knew, the Vespucci; their name translates as ‘little wasps’. Languid and sensuous, the image marks the victory of love (Venus) over war (Mars) and was originally a spalliera, a fashionable item among the Tuscan aristocracy, which was set into panelling, such as the headboard of a marital bed.

Whether the subject matter is entirely appropriate for newlyweds is a moot one. The relationship between Venus and Mars is adulterous – she is married to Vulcan, the god of fire – though Harmony would be the name of the daughter born of this illicit bond.

Venus and Mars appears to be an attempt by Botticelli to recreate a long-lost painting by the Roman artist Echion, or Aetion, described by the second-century Roman poet Lucian (who wrote in Greek). It depicted the marriage of Alexander the Great and Roxana, in which putti (cherubs or cupids) played with Alexander’s armour, just as the mischievous satyrs do in Botticelli’s work. A Roman sarcophagus, now in the Vatican, features a similar theme. 

The description of Venus and Mars in Lucretius’ De rerum natura (‘The Nature of Things’), written in the first century bc, also offers a template: ‘Mars the War Lord rules war’s savage works, yet often he throws himself into your arms, faint with love’s deathless wound, and there, with arching neck beat back, looks up and sighs.’

Botticelli was a disciple of Neoplatonists such as Marsilio Ficino, priest, astrologer and head of the Florentine Academy, who defined the relationship between Venus and Mars: ‘He is outstanding in strength among the planets, because he makes men stronger, but Venus masters him ... she seems to master Mars, but Mars never masters Venus.’ Love conquers all.