While researching a class on Botticelli and the renaissance, I was lucky to happen on an interesting book from the French scholar, Georges Didi-Huberman, published in 1999. The cover of the book- Ouvrir Venus, or Open, Undo or inaugurate Venus- is reproduced here. What I like about this book is its originality. It's fresh because it doesn't rely on established art history- though it's acknowledged- to explain the iconography in Botticelli's paintings. Instead, GDH enlists psychoanalysis, the history of medicine and even the travel diaries of the Marquis de Sade, to open up Venus to scrutiny.
Take GDH's discussion of Botticelli's set of paintings on the story of the knight of Ravenna- Nastagio degli Onesti. GDH points up the thematic correspondences between the scene where a young warrior cuts open the vulnerable body of a beautiful female- clearly modeled on the Botticelli Venus type- and an 18th century statue of an anatomized woman, known as the Venus of the Medici, by Clemente Susini, shown above. Of course, Medici in Italian means doctor, and what GDH is doing here is performing his own kind of art historical operation- revealing a different body of Venus, not the perfect, idealized one that conventional art history has swooned over, but the darker, lesser-known body of Florence. This, as GDH notes, was the Florence of the anatomists and obstetricians, not the composers of romantic poetry nor the frequenters of renaissance pageants. We are a long way from the light and sun of Medici art and closer to Florence's dark side, the ugly reality of Venus's interior that fascinated the Marquis de Sade. Stopping off on his Italian travels at the Museum of the History of Science, in Florence, he cast a cruel and measured eye over the instruments of medical dissection on display, not forgetting the Venus of the physicians. Anatomization and cruelty are unquestionably present in Botticelli's art, but this- as far as I know- has never been confronted in the literature on the artist. It's good to see a French art historian, with no stake in preserving art history decorum, revealing a different, uncomfortable renaissance to our view.