If I compare myself to the notion of beauty and love that was depicted by Botticelli in his 15th century painting “The Birth of Venus” I am forever doomed. The only faint similarity is that she and I are both white, and even that is debatable, as her unblemished complexion and milky skin do not mimic my sun-pocked, uneven tones. And right there, the similarity ends. Venus is classically ethereal, gentle and docile, her expression serene and faraway wistful. She is angelic, illuminated by a soft, delicate light, innocent, physically able, and aligned with a gentle vision of nature. In my media indoctrinated head, she is the pinnacle of femininity. She is desirable. Today, I look at her and think, she’s just about everything that I am not, nor ever have been. Yet, I think I’d still like to be desired…
I wanted to know more about the muse who had inspired Botticelli’s vision – and was fascinated to know that Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci was a married noblewoman from Genoa; a tender age of twenty two when Botticelli was believed to have fallen in love – or lust – with her. She died before she reached the age of twenty three, and so enraptured by her charms was he, that he continued to paint her from memory, even ten years after her death. So enraptured by her charms was he that he also, upon his death, arranged to be buried at her feet! Botticelli – his nickname translates to ‘little barrel’ – had never married.
Botticelli’s enigmatic Primavera also depicts her, possibly in every one of the three muses on the left, and the three goddesses on the right, and certainly, in the figure of Venus, front and centre. They were all made in Simonetta’s image, and Botticelli’s obsessive attention to detail with the figures and more than two hundred different, identifiable flowers – means this painting was a labour of love in every sense.
But I am troubled that her traditional ‘norm’ of beauty is not only restrictive, but frequently hurtful and often predatory. I wonder if it was to her too? Recently, I watched, on Gogglebox, the reactions of men – and women – to a contemporary embodiment of Venus, the media-labelled ‘Goddess’ that is Nigella. She, too, is everything that I am not.
She is often lambasted for her lascivious-inducing commentary and she always responds with denial and innocence, absolutely insistent that it is not her intention to use sexual innuendo or to seduce and intoxicate in the manner that comes across. Yet it has become a pop-culture reference, parodied by shows such as Modern Family and even Mary, on the said GB episode, mimicked her. The reaction of Giles, Mary’s husband, speaks volumes!
In an interview, when accused of the purposeful use of her sexuality and euphemistic suggestion, Nigella countered that it is the careful and clever editing by the production company. ‘You have this way of saying things,’ the male interviewer suggested. ‘I have this way of people projecting things on me!’ Nigella hit back, ‘I’m so not the kind of person who would do that intentionally.’
The production company reminded me of the Medici brothers, who commissioned Botticelli’s daring celebration of human desire. They ruled Florence and in such patriarchal settings, and in some prevailing cultures, women were/are considered to be carnal — the deliberate temptress to men who were thought to be rational and moderate but for these women. It is a more ‘modern’ notion that men are considered more sexual than women, and that they are unable to control their sexual desires in ways that women can. Is this a function of patriarchal norms, requiring a woman’s sexuality to be only in the service of her husband, or art patron, or lover or pimp, rather than as an integral part of her humanity? This notion has demanded that women restrain their sexuality for so long, that as a society we’ve started to believe it is an easy and natural thing for us to do. Expecting Nigella to put a lid on her inherent sexuality is expecting her to deny her actual self.
Think of the damage to her soul!
Then, I remember the damage to mine. I want to be desired; I think that many women do but with this can come either the feeling of entitlement and of possession or the feeling that somehow we demean ourselves! The reaction of those watching her on Gogglebox screamed, “Women such as you are in the world for men’s pleasure and enjoyment; you are exploiting your sensuality” and that is something that few women enjoy because it’s objectifying. Let me tell you, it’s even more objectifying and humiliating when you are not considered within the realms of the classically beautiful. Our physical selves are as intrinsic to who we are as our emotional selves. They cannot easily be separated from us and our deepest soul.
It’s the whole package that makes us beautiful – not a face, not a voluptuous body. I want to be seen and valued for myself; I don’t want to be a hawked around like a commodity. And then, I remembered Warhol’s quite obsessive fascination with the pop art print of the face of Venus, reproduced time and again and contemplated how it is not only famous artwork, but also women and beauty that can be as commoditised as a can of soup!