If you did not look at the fruit, you would think it was all about love. Now David Bellingham, a programme director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, says the fruit was overlooked and so was the subversive message in Botticelli’s painting:
- “This fruit is being offered to the viewer, so it is meant to be significant. Botticelli does use plants symbolically. Datura is known in America as poor man’s acid, and the symptoms of it seem to be there in the male figure. It makes you feel disinhibited and hot, so it makes you want to take your clothes off. It also makes you swoon.”
Is there another way of reading it? Mars is lost but Venus is in her senses and fully clothed. Why would the man decide to get high and feel uninhibited if there is nothing to gain? If it is for him to be put into a stupor, then again Venus gets nothing out of it.
Take one operative phrase – removal of clothes. This is also a giving up of a part of oneself, baring oneself to the other. Exposure is not without its fallout.
- The National Gallery description of the painting notes: “The scene is of an adulterous liaison, as Venus was the wife of Vulcan, the God of Fire, but it contains a moral message: the conquering and civilizing power of love.”
Is this also a message of guilt? Is the seduction incomplete? Did Venus seduce him or did they get intimate and this painting is the post-coital depiction, where she is sitting dressed up and unsure?
Though many paintings do show her in splendid naked glory - was she high on drugs then? Was it loneliness and not love that drove her to it?
Can Mars pretend that he was under the influence and therefore he is unclothed? If the fruit is capable of making people go mad, then the madness could be a metaphor for losing one’s senses as sublimation.
The fruit is being offered to the viewer. Is it to tempt us? Is the precursor none other than the Garden of Eden?
The idea of drawing the viewer in is also part of the voyeuristic exercise where art itself needs an audience; the painting has other characters in the sublime love story. The satyr’s apparent insignificance – or invisibility – conveys a delightful tension that exists in relationships, among artists and interpreters as well as the person and the Self.
Of course, we can settle for a most pragmatic analysis and imagine that this was supposed to be an aphrodisiac that ended up working as a sedative. I believe it happens.