Teaching Botticelli’s Venus and Mars

How to teach Botticelli's Venus and Mars
Sandro Botticelli , Venus and Mars. 1483 National Gallery of Art UK

Teaching Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, a lighthearted painting perfect Valentine’s Day study. It’s a fun way to incorporate art history into your February homeschool plan?

This painting has fun details that are sure to delight a curious child, and in this post I’m going to give a quick lesson plan including a hands on exercise.

A word of warning before we begin. I start all of my art history lessons with a time of observation. There are many reasons to do this but one of them is that focusing on what children notice keeps the lesson age appropriate. When teaching Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, it is likely a 7 year old will notice the little satyrs playing with Mar’s armor, and a wasps nest over his head.  A Jr. High student who has read the Percy Jackson books will know that Venus is married to Vulcan, not to Mars and that this relationship is illicit. Adults might pick up on the fact that Mars is sleeping because the two have just had sex. Depending on our age and life experience we will view the painting differently.

By following your child’s observations and questions the lesson will develop naturally at the appropriate level, no need to reveal all.

Teaching Botticelli's Venus and MarsObservation

This is a foundational exercise that is simple yet profound. Do not let the simplicity fool you. This is where students will begin to make meaningful connections of their own with the work of art, and that is our goal. We begin this exercise with 2-minute observations. This exercise will begin to whet your students curiosity about the painting and develop the habits of observation and attention to detail. 

Level 1 Observation

  •  Show your students the painting.  
  •  Set a timer for 2 minutes and just have them look.
  •  Either hide the computer screen, or if you’ve printed the PDF of the work, turn it over  and ask your students to tell you what they remember. (This is called narration, a term I will be using.) This first time through, don’t prompt, just listen.
  • When students have finished sharing look at the painting again ask them if they have missed anything. Allow for discussion
  • Note: You can vary the way children narrate. You can also change things up by having students sketch what they remember, write out their narration or recreate a work with playdough. Each variation will hone different skills and keep interest high.

Level 2 Observations for teaching Botticelli’s Venus and Mars

 Now we are going to go a bit deeper. Choose a few questions from the list below to discuss. Start with just a few questions, if students are still engaged and interested in the discussion, then you can add more questions. The goal is to wrap up the discussion before interest wanes so that the students have a positive experience. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Our goal is to create a safe place for an exchange. That said, students should have reasons for their opinions directly connected to what they have observed in the painting. 

  •  What is going on in this work?
  • Did you like the work when you first saw it?
  •  Did you change how you felt about the work after examining it?
  • How did the artist use lines?
  • Describe the colors in the work, how they are used and how they make you feel.
  • What do you think is the most important part of the work? 
  • Are there any elements that confuse you?
  • What parts of the work feel real? 
  • Is there anything strange about the work? 
  •  Is the work boring? 
  • Could you describe the work to someone who has never seen it? 
  • If this painting had sound effects how do you think it would sound? 
  • What are the textures in the work, is there anything you would like to touch, or something you would be afraid to touch? 
  • Does the work remind you of any kind of music, a particular song? 
  • Do you think the artist had a message when he made it? 
  • Is the artist telling a story? 
  • What is the mood of the work? 
  • Would you like to see this work of art in real life? 
  • Does the artwork remind you of anything you’ve studied in science, history, or math? 
  • If you were the artist is there anything you would want to change?

Discussion points for Teaching Botticelli’s Venus and Mars

Venus and Mars
Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars

You can go to my essay to get a fuller explanation, but I’m going to give a few quick ideas from the painting to discuss right here.

Venus and Mars

Venus is the goddess of love; Mars is the god of war. With Venus awake and alert, and Mars dead to the world, it is clear the artist, Botticelli, wants us to understand that love has conquered war.

The figure of Venus is reclining in a classical gown, looking regal and calm. The plait of her hair wraps around and becomes part of the adornment of her dress. She embodies grace and beauty and stands in stark contrast to Mars.

Mars Sleeping

Mars is not just dozing, he is sound asleep. Hardly the god of war in this painting, he’s put aside his weapons and armor and is sprawling defenseless on the ground. Botticelli has emphasized just how sound asleep he is in a variety of ways. We have the four little satyrs playing with his weapons and wasps buzzing around his head. With his head tipped back, and his lips parted it appears that Mars might be lightly snoring.

V’s and Wasps

The history of this piece isn’t known, but it is believed it likely commemorates a wedding, or was  a wedding gift commissioned by the Vespucci family.  Botticelli had accepted commissions from the Vespucci’s in the past, and they had been his neighbors when he was a child. Their coat of arms includes the wasp.

Actually, Vespucci’s name means ‘little wasps’ in Italian. Frequently in commissioned paintings, the family crest of the patron would be included in the painting. It is believed Botticelli decided to incorporate  a wasps nest hanging beside Mar’s head, as a nod to his patron and a bit of a visual joke.

Beyond the real wasp there is the image of a wasp on the jewel that hangs around Venus’ neck, and with her hair forming a V we have another symbol of the Vespucci family. In fact, you may want to see if you can count the incredible number of V’s in the painting, including the trim on Venus’s gown.

The Legs?

It should be noted that while we have a presentation of idealized beauty, the bodies we are looking at are not perfect. The dimensions are off. The leg of Mars that is raised is too short, and the position of Venus’ legs is unnatural, in fact, it’s hard to find her right leg at all.

When my husband was reading this article we got into a debate about Mars’ legs. I think the top one is short, he thinks the bottom leg. At the very least I think the bent leg is a little strange looking. but it does seem the distance of the thigh might be longer. Let us know where you weight in on all of the legs in this painting. Is Venus missing a bottom leg? Are Mars’ legs mismatched? It was these inconsistencies that kept Botticelli out of the top rung of Renaissance artists.

Teaching Botticelli's Venus and MarsAn Exercise

Botticelli is noted for using outlines in his paintings. You can see the black outlines around Mars leg and hands in this close up. The lines are also clear around the Satyrs face and body. These fine outlines give Botticelli’s paintings a crisp feeling.

For this exercise all you need is a fashion magazine, and a fine black pen.

Have students choose a photo of a person, and using the pen add a few outlines. Perhaps around the face, or to bring more clearly define an arm or torso.

Note how the addition of even a very thin black line changes the image.

Do you think the lines improve the image?

Further exploration

If you have older students (I let you define ‘older’, but the painting includes nudity) you might want to go to watch this video. The video is about Peter Paul Rubens interpretation of the Venus and Mars story. In his work Mars is rushing into war and leaving Venus or love behind. This painting provides an interesting contrast to Botticelli’s.

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