Sophie Conran chooses her favourite painting for Country Life
Birth of Venus, 1484–86, by Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), about 1445–1510, 68in by 1091⁄2in, Uffizi, Florence
Sophie says: ‘I first saw this painting when I went to Florence with my family when I was 12 and I was totally bowled over by the sheer beauty of it and the fact that it’s so old, so alive and so incredibly beautiful.
‘I love the essence of womanhood and the abundance of Nature it carries and the freedom depicted. I like the scale of all Botticelli’s pieces. They’re monumental and yet extremely sensitive, hugely impactful, but not too aggressive—there’s something very peaceful about all of them. He appears to really love women.
‘This painting reminds me of all the wonderful art we saw during our time in Florence, which formed part of a gastronomic tour. We ate in amazing places and drove around Italy visiting all the cultural sites—it was a trip of a lifetime.’
Sophie Conran is a designer and cookery writer. The daughter of designer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran and food writer Caroline Conran, she launched her online shop in 2013 www.sophieconran.com
John McEwan comments: ‘Florentine Botticelli was acclaimed the equal of the legendary Apelles of ancient Greece, but, with his death and the High Renaissance, he fell out of fashion until the 19th century. Then the Gothic Revival did for his sacred works what the aesthetes of the fin de siècle did for his ‘pagan’ pictures, seeing in them a lost Arcadia.
‘Now, with the western decline in faith, his star is waning once again, as witness his long overdue appearance in this series. ‘Botticelli’ (‘little tub’) was a nickname. He was the youngest of eight children, his father a Florentine tanner successful enough to own a small country villa. As was the Italian custom, Botticelli lived with his family all his life, except for a year in Rome, where he was summoned to add frescoes to the Sistine Chapel.
‘A pupil of Fra Filippo Lippi and master in turn of Lippi’s son, Filippino, he had a large workshop, enjoyed ripostes and playing practical jokes and survived one of the most turbulent periods of Florentine history.
‘Birth of Venus is a 19th-century misnomer. The goddess of love and beauty, born of the sea’s foam, lands on her island kingdom Cyprus. Roses, born at her birth, and leaves from her favourite tree, the myrtle, garland Flora, goddess of spring, who welcomes her with a cloak. Her regal scallop shell is blown ashore in a shower of roses by Zephyr, male spirit of the west wind, and gentle Aura’s breeze. ‘There is no more radiant picture in European art than this,’ wrote Botticelli’s 1989 monographer Ronald Lightblown.’