Botticelli mystery solved — it’s the squirting cucumber!

June 10, 2010, 12:15 pm

Several weeks ago I wrote about the controversy concerning what — if anything —  is being held by the weird satyr in the lower-right corner of Botticelli’s great painting “Venus and Mars”. An art historian from Sotheby’s had claimed that the satyr was clutching Datura stromonium (Jimson Weed), suggesting that the sleeping Mars was not so much post-coital as stoned out of his mind.

I didn’t see anything in the satyr’s hand, and even a moderate close-up didn’t help clear things up.  But thanks to the amazing and diligent work of bloggers and readers who were kind enough to correspond with me about this, I think the mystery is solved.

H. Niyazi — writing on the amazing blog “Three Pipe Problem” — posted an impressively detailed and thorough analysis of the Datura question, demonstrating that despite claims to the contrary, the plant was indeed known in Europe before Columbus’s first voyage in 1492.  A subsequent post on the blog linked to an extreme close-up of the satyr’s left hand, clearly showing that he is indeed holding a plant:

But what plant? The answer, I think, has been provided by a very astute correspondent named Mark, who wrote to both the Three Pipe Problem blog and this one.  Mark made the point that the fruits of Datura are  very spiny, clearly unlike the one pictured above. Here’s a photo of Datura:

Mark also made the brilliant suggestion that a much better fit is Ecballium elaterium, the squirting cucumber:

And as the final piece of the puzzle, Three Pipe Problem blog found this clip clearly showing why Ecballium elaterium perfectly fits into the symbolism of the painting:

Case closed!

Ecballium itself is toxic. Chemicals contained in the fruit are highly irritating to mucous membranes and the gastrointestinal tract, causing nausea and vomiting.  The plant is used in some cultures as an herbal purgative and cathartic agent.

One Comment:

  1. H Niyazi Says:

    Great summary! We are indebted to Mark for his kind help on this! Ecballium is native to Malta and prevalent in Italy, even during antiquity. It is mentioned in Pliny’s natural history and Materia Medica(amongst other texts) I have completed an updated post, including some journal articles looking at Ecballium in history and also how Datura Metel may have made it across during the 1st Millennium CE.

    More info here:

    kind regards
    H Niyazi