Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” and Jimson Weed

May 27, 2010, 1:50 pm

An article today in The Telegraph (U.K.) claims that Botticelli’s great painting “Venus and Mars” depicts not post coital bliss (or tristesse) but Jimson Weed (Datura stromonium) poisoning!  A description from London’s National Gallery, which displays the painting, comments that: “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”.

Not so fast, says David Bellingham of Sotheby’s. According to the Telegraph article, he claims that a” plant being held by a mischievous-looking satyr in the bottom right corner of the painting has been recognized as a specimen of Datura stramonium, a plant which causes madness and the urge to take one’s clothes off.”

Say what? DoseNation provides a helpful close-up of the satyr in question, and it seems quite clear that he is holding nothing at all, certainly not a plant clearly identifiable as Datura.  Am i missing something?

Addendum (6/12/10): Thanks to the brilliant contributions of some bloggers and readers, I think the mystery of what plant the satyr is holding has been solved.  To read the solution, click here.

7 Comments:

  1. Rosalind Says:

  2. Mark Says:

    There are a number of reasons to think this is not Datura:

    1. Datura fruits are very spiny. The fruit in the satyr’s hand is not spiny. And Datura fruits are much smaller – would fit within a satyr’s hand.

    2. Datura stramonium is a Mexican plant and did not reach Europe until after Columbus’s first voyage in 1492. The painting dates to 1485.

    3. The fruit is a much closer fit with that of the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium. This is a Mediterranean native – and the symbolism is obvious!

  3. Leon Says:

    Thanks, Mark! Great points.

    If the plant is indeed Ecballium elaterium, it seems to me this would constitute one of the greatest visual puns in the history of art.

  4. H Niyazi Says:

    Thanks to Mark for popping over to my site and commenting on my article on this! I have been in communication with the Sotheby’s source the article quotes, whom himself stated that the identification is not nearly as definitive as the articles promoted it as.

    There is a great historical element to this story too, a real life passionate affair between Florentine youngsters. For more info, feel free to peruse my article on it >>

    http://threepipeproblem.blogspot.com/2010/05/misrepresenting-botticelli-for-modern.html

    Cheers Mark, whomever you may be!

    H Niyazi
    threepipeproblem.blogspot.com

  5. Leon Says:

    Many thanks to H. Niyazi for the previous comment. The blog “Three Pipe Problem” has an amazingly detailed and interesting discussion of the true identity of the plant held in the left hand of the figure in the lower corner of the picture. It thoroughly conviced me that, yes, Datura stromonium was known in Europe at the time the painting was completed (~ 1485), but that for botanic and symbolic reasons the plant is most likely the squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium. A recent post on “Three Pipe Problem” provides a great link to an extreme close-up of the plant in question:

    http://threepipeproblem.blogspot.com/

  6. Mark Says:

    I’ve added a further comment at

    http://threepipeproblem.blogspot.com/2010/05/misrepresenting-botticelli-for-modern.html

    on the question of whether Datura is even a possible plant occurrence in a pre-Columbian (i.e. pre-1492) European painting such as this. A forensic analysis of the relevant bits of Dioscorides and Renaissance herbals was carried out by Symon & Haegi in 1991, showing conclusively that Datura is absent from any Old World herbal written before c. 1540. That’s not surprising given overwhelming botanical evidence that Datura species originated in Mexico, and could not have spread to Europe before Columbus reached the West Indies.

  7. H Niyazi Says:

    Great work Mark! Thank you for all your assistance in this.
    Being a scientist myself I’m pleased at the outcome – empirical evidence always trumps documentary evidence!

    The copy of Materia Medica I cited in the original article reviewed an arabic manuscript belonging to the Ottomans. The 2001 Congressus Historiae Pharmaciae identified it as Datura, but there really aren’t any definitive dates in that article.

    As discovered by Renaissance scholars such as Leoniceno and Barbaro, translating ancient texts such as Pliny’s Natural History or the Materia Medica can yield more grief than enlightenment – due to the errors the manuscripts would have acquired over time and with subsequent translations.

    Thanks to you, we can correct and complete the record for our Art Historian friends 🙂

    H Niyazi
    threepipeproblem.blogspot.com