One of the National Gallery’s best-known paintings, a scene of pastoral bliss by Botticelli, is officially regarded as a story of the all-conquering power of love, but a new study suggests that it has a more racy meaning. Venus and Mars may also be an illustration of the potency of hallucinogenic drugs.
A fruit held by a satyr in the bottom right of the painting has been identified as belonging to Datura stramonium, a plant with a history of sending people mad and making them want to strip off their clothes. Its hallucinogenic effects were recorded in Ancient Greek texts and it has since been used as an aphrodisiac and a poison.
The fruit was overlooked by art historians until David Bellingham, a programme director at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, showed it to experts at Kew Gardens, where they have a specimen of the plant, which is also known as thorn apple and Devil’s trumpet.
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 civilising power of love.”
Mr Bellingham, who spotted the detail while researching an academic study of Venus in art, believes that Botticelli’s message is more subversive. “This fruit is being offered to the viewer, so it is meant to be significant,” he told The Times. “Botticelli does use plants symbolically. In the background are laurel [bushes], for example, which are a reference to his patrons, the Medicis. 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.”
Mr Bellingham believes the 15th-century painting was intended not only as a depiction of Venus and Mars but also of Adam and Eve. He believes that the Datura may represent the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge that Eve offered to Adam, triggering their ejection from the Garden of Eden. The fruit is commonly depicted as an apple, but was not specified as such in the Bible.
Alison Wright, an art historian at University College London, said: “The fruit is not being proffered by her or in any other way directly associated with her, though the lascivious-looking satyr also presumably alludes to their lovemaking. He seems to me to be mischievous rather than serpentine and evil ... For some viewers an allusion to Eve and Adam might have been perceptible but I doubt whether it was intentional. Perhaps that doesn’t matter.”
The plant is highly poisonous. Guy Barter, of the Royal Horticultural Society, said that it became notorious in the late 17th century when it was eaten by British soldiers visiting Jamestown, Virginia. “They went off their heads for a few days,” he said.
May 27, 2010
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Botticelli’s painting Venus and Mars may allude to sex and drugs