Analysis: Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars”

As we continue our analysis of artworks, we have examined Botticelli’s enigmatic painting known as “Venus and Mars.” Sandro Botticelli, born in 1444 or 1445 with the name Allessandro Filipepi, was an artist in the Italian Renaissance producing paintings from about 1470 until his death in 1510. His knowledge of what is today called “the occult” is apparent throughout his many wonderful works. 

Historians have noted that Botticelli’s paintings often reflect his examination of the roles of Western women—in contrast with the roles of men—throughout history and in the society of his day. This included showing females expressing attributes that were masculine, nontraditional, and contradictory to cultural values expressed in the hierarchical structure and behavioral norms of civilized states. 

Such works include: “Return of Judith to Bethulia,” which depicts an imagined scene from the non-canonical/apocryphal Book of Judith. Judith, an Israelite, represented the same archetype as Joan of Arc (1412-1431) in France. Judith seduced and beheaded the commander of the Assyrian army in order to save her home town of Bethulia. The painting, which shows Judith holding her sword, proudly portrays the violent potential of females, the capacity for coldly calculating and carrying out bloody murder firsthand. His painting: “Discovery of the Body of Holofernes” helps one visualize not only the triumphant Judith but also the scene of the act. By drawing upon an apocryphal story, it would appear that Botticelli was subtly bringing to light (and perhaps protesting) the fact that the full nature of femininity was suppressed by the omission of such books from the Holy Bible. 

In contrast with the readily acceptable idea of male domination, the female aspect of the human impulse/intention to dominate and control is displayed in Botticelli’s “Minerva and the Centaur.” As in the case of Judith, Minerva represents a feminine willingness to commit violence in order to eliminate threats to harmony and assure peace. This peacemaker aspect of the warrior is made clear by the presence of the olive branches. The olive branch was also a symbol associated with Minerva’s Greek counterpart. 

PluribusOne™’s contribution to the study of Botticelli’s works is an analysis of his “Venus and Mars” (1483), an analysis that supersedes previous analyses by including the scene as one of those depicting a male-female role reversal, one in which the female, like Judith, has seduced the male for the purpose of “neutralizing” him. The war-like energy of Mars is seen stemming from the woman while the man is overcome with desires for pleasure associated with Venus. She is initiator of the action—he is receiver of the effects of her aggression. He is overcome and stripped of power; she is completely alert and fully garbed. The presence of the plant, Datura stramonium, is not in the painting to imply the use of a hallucinogenic drug for heightening sexual pleasure; it is there as a clue to her intention: to deliver a lethal overdose of this weed in the nightshade family of plants. 

Is there any way to corroborate this conclusion?   

It is known that the Renaissance period was a time during which the black art of poisoning flourished. The use of poisons by female as well as male members of some of the same wealthy families that commissioned large numbers of artworks is well documented—the Medici family for example. Some say a Medici commissioned this painting. In any case, it would have been a perfect way to hide the secret formula in plain sight. Perhaps it also served as a secret confession—or boast. (See the Image File # 22.)


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14 Responses to “Analysis: Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars””

  1. The Donald Says:

    If you are correct, you have the makings for a story on par with The Da Vinci Code. It should also magnify the value of the painting. Are there other clues you are willing to share here?

  2. PluribusOne™ Says:

    As is true for all of our posts, there is more to tell that will be revealed in our book, which we hope to see in print within the next year.

    Meanwhile, I will share two more tantalizing bits of evidence: The flower of Datura stramonium can be an indigo-to-purplish color in the “throat” of the flower, an apparent match to the lance vamplate as well as the helmet worn by the lance-wielding satyr whose face is hidden (and would not be cherubic), all of which symbolizes the male figure’s unwitting oral ingestion of an intentionally fatal overdose of this toxic plant. A lance is obviously a lethal weapon. The female figure’s eye contact with the agreeable satyr guiding the deadly lance to its destination indicates that these “nature spirits” (spirits relating to this natural substance) are doing her bidding.

  3. Sara B. Good Says:

    The fact that she appears to be looking at the one satyr-like figure is not enough to convince me that she is part of or perpetrator of the act you see as having taken place. If the female figure was Simonetta Vespucci, as is generally accepted, then I also find no historical reference to her having been involved in a murder or suspicious death. Please share more of your argument now.

  4. PluribusOne™ Says:


    I have no evidence at this time to indicate that the female figure is anyone other than Simonetta, so I agree with that. The helmet in the painting is definitely associated directly with her, and here’s how: In 1475, Giuliano de Medici paid tribute to her beauty by carrying a banner displaying a picture of her wearing the helmet of the Greek goddess of war.

    Now, is there anything more to connect Simonetta with poison or poisoning? Yes. In a portrait of Simonetta painted by Piero di Cosimo in or about 1480, four years after her death, she is shown with an asp around her neck to associate her with Cleopatra. Cleopatra committed suicide by poisoning. Cleopatra’s lover, Marc Antony, predeceased her and the details of his death are controversial although there seems to be no controversy that Cleopatra was responsible and that Antony died in her presence.

    Datura stramonium is mentioned in the story of Antony and Cleopatra, and there is no certainty that Cleopatra used the poisonous snake to seal her demise. If Simonetta poisoned a lover, someone she seduced for political purposes, it may be that she, like Cleopatra, poisoned herself at a later time. The cause of Simonetta’s death does not seem to have been well established, but it apparently involved some failure of internal organs. The common belief is that she died of a pulmonary disease, and we note that one of the effects of an overdose of Datura stramonium is respiratory arrest.

    There is more, enough to do a book-length treatment of this.


  5. Sara B. Good Says:

    But the man in the picture is said to be Giuliano Medici according to historians. This fits with him paying tribute to her beauty, but he didn’t die until a couple years after her death, so she didn’t poison him. In fact he died of other causes altogether.

  6. PluribusOne™ Says:


    That is true. However, we note that Giuliano was murdered on April 26th of 1478, exactly two years after she died. This coincidence is enough to fuel speculation that he and Simonetta had something more than a casual relationship and that someone was seeking retribution for her death, or for a death she caused that involved him. In any case, the man in the painting must be someone other than Giuliano or her husband, Marco Vespucci. Many men of Florence must have lusted after her, some of whom would have resembled the Medici brothers whose likenesses seem to fit with the man in the painting.

    Her motive for poisoning the unidentified man is unknown, but if she did so at Giuliano’s behest it would explain why Giuliano de Medici was brutally murdered on the second anniversary of her death. Among the men who would have seen her as a trophy mistress, some must have been members of other wealthy rival families of Florence, such as the Salviati, Pazzi, and della Rovere families. Of course she was an aristocrat in her own right, a member of the della Volta family, members of which were not unfamiliar with the intrigues of Church and State.


  7. Sara B. Says:

    Your analyses of Botticelli’s works has given me a deeper appreciation for his genius and purpose as more than an artist. Considering the extent of your research into the political forces at play during this period of Florentine history, you must have some idea who the man is in this painting. Is there a reason you are withholding your opinion about that, or do you really have no solid speculation?

  8. PluribusOne™ Says:

    We do have a theory about the identity of the poisoned man, a theory that answers the matters of: means, motive, and opportunity. Our theory also accounts for the means, timing, and location of the deaths of Simonetta Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici. Although much evidence has been assembled, we are seeking one further piece in order to make our case solid enough to stand up in a modern-day court of law.

  9. Stark Raven Says:

    To me the female figure is Venus and therefore represents femininity, love and sexuality and the scene shows her with her lover, probably Giuliano de Medici. I don’t see the role reversal.

  10. PluribusOne™ Says:

    In addition to our perspective as expressed in the post itself and in comments above, we note the fact that the female figure (Simonetta) is neither naked nor “nude”—neither unclothed to denote Venus the goddess, nor unclothed for the purpose of displaying a goddess-like woman admired for her physical beauty. She is fully clothed.

    More indicative of her Mars-like quality is that she is not looking outward as if aware of or otherwise acknowledging any admirer. If she were, it would tend to indicate girlish vanity, submissiveness to a male spectator (e.g., the painter or owner of the artwork); instead, there is no sign of any intention to appear sexually provocative. Instead, she is focused internally, unemotionally observing the vain and over-indulgent man, and pondering the working of her own will and intention, as symbolized by the helmeted satyr and the bolstering Mars-red pillow on which she rests.

    This is a woman who exercises power, not one who submits to the kind of power associated with men, especially in that culture. In fact, it is easy for us to imagine her facial expression—self-reflective confidence—on the portrait of a man: a statesman or heroic soldier certain of his power as evidenced by his victories in politics or battle.

  11. Stark Raven Says:

    Your thinking that this “love drug” was used as a poison seems overly imaginative to me. Is there any basis for this other than pure speculation?

  12. PluribusOne™ Says:

    Yes there is a solid basis for this. Poisons are known to have been added to or substituted for aphrodisiacs.

    Watch the 1994 Miramax film: “Queen Margot,” which is based on an Alexandre Dumas’ book of the same title. It shows a good example of how a person may be duped into taking a poison and even poisoning a third party unwittingly while believing they have been given an aphrodisiac.

    Dumas was a famous French author whose historical novels might not have been accurate in every respect, but he was masterful in his use of factual detail. While there are more authoritative works to support our thinking, I recommend the film because it is readily accessible on VHS and DVD and shows that the idea is not wildly speculative.

  13. Juliette Says:

    In what ways does this painting reflect the values of the renaissance?

  14. PluribusOne™ Says:

    Our larger study of the period reveals that the values expressed through the actions and artworks available to us for analysis today have never been fully understood and appreciated—at least not by the public-at-large.

    “Renaissance” is generally defined as a time of rebirth of learning in Europe, a reeducation that focused on reaching back into classical antiquity to recover knowledge that had been tabooed and hidden to the point of seeming lost by the Middle Ages. But we see it as much more: The European Renaissance was a radical and rebellious “reassertion” of values that had been increasingly suppressed from the foundation of the Roman Empire.

    At the heart of the Renaissance was renewed recognition of the Infinite Feminine, the aspect of Source Energy (God) that had been shoved aside by the patriarchal forces that shaped the Holy Roman Empire and denied the culture “wholeness.” Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” symbolizes the epitome of this core Renaissance agenda, as initiated and promoted by the Medici family and others. See our blog for the true identity of the figure depicted in the painting, a truth that continues to be suppressed.

    Despite the overarching significance of “Mona Lisa,” the full flavor of the Renaissance attitude and agenda is nowhere better expressed than Donatello’s later sculpture of victorious David, which portrays a David full of the feminine energy that the war goddess of Greek mythology, Athena, embodied (as well as her Roman counterpart, Minerva). That sculpture, commissioned by Cosimo de Medici and intended to mark a turning point in world history, was centerpiece for the courtyard of the Medici Palace. Donatello’s “David,” although bolder in its symbolism than “Mona Lisa,” was a subtle declaration of war against the Goliath-like culture that enlightened leaders intended to decapitate via the Renaissance. (See Image File #33.)

    Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” was, as we have been the first to conclude, was painted to immortalize one woman’s successful covert (Judith-like) mission in that war and to encourage others in the organized pursuit of a long-range vision: a new world order.

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