Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” has made it onto kitschy coffee mugs, fridge magnets and a Dolce & Gabbana dress worn by Lady Gaga. The image of Venus emerging from the sea, hair flowing, on an oversized half-shell has become an instantly recognizable emblem of Renaissance culture and idealized beauty.
But it wasn’t always this way. Before the early 1800s, the work meant little to art historians and even less to the general public. In the 18th century, visitors to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, which still holds many of the artist’s works, might leave the museum without ever having heard the name Botticelli. (“The Birth of Venus” wasn’t even there at the time.)
“Almost nobody outside Florence” knew of him, says Ruben Rebmann, one of a team of curators, including Stefan Weppelmann, behind a new exhibition that explores the artist’s unlikely rise and legacy. “It’s only by chance Botticelli became the superstar he is today.”
“The Botticelli Renaissance,” which opens Thursday at the Berlin State Museums’ Gemäldegalerie and will move in March to London’s Victoria & Albert museum, features about 150 works, from paintings and drawings to photography, video, sculpture and fashion pieces. Such artists as Edgar Degas, Andy Warhol and David LaChapelle offer riffs on Botticelli’s now-famous works—50 of which are included in the show.
The results are often knowing or tongue-in-cheek. A 1957 painting by the surrealist René Magritte places a figure from Botticelli’s “Allegory of Spring” on the back of a man staring into a springtime forest. A Cindy Sherman photo recreates the artist’s 1480 painting, “Allegorical Portrait,” in which a woman squirts milk from her exposed breast. The newest work in the show, by Japanese artist Tomoko Nagao, depicts a cartoon Venus with green hair (still flowing) on a sea of Baci chocolates and Barilla pasta boxes.
The son of a tanner, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi was born in Florence in 1445. Botticelli was a nickname meaning “little barrel.” Giorgio Vasari’s 16th-century “The Lives of the Artists” is one of the few sources of information on Botticelli. A poor student (according to Vasari), Botticelli apprenticed as a goldsmith and then as a painter. Later he ran his own studio and completed commissions for the Medici family, as well as frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Vasari devoted just a few dismissive pages to Botticelli, pegging him as outmoded next to Michelangelo and Raphael. “He earned much, but wasted everything through negligence and lack of management,” wrote Vasari.
Botticelli’s legacy languished after his death in 1510. In the 19th century, art historians interested in Raphael rediscovered his predecessor, Botticelli. In 1867 the British poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a leading member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, bought a portrait by Botticelli for £20 and spent the next several years imitating it in his own paintings. Rossetti happily sold the portrait years later for more than 10 times what he had paid—but less than the price of one of his own paintings. “The idea of selling pictures you don’t have to paint is certainly a very great one,” he wrote at the time.
In the late 1930s, Mussolini organized a grand touring exhibition of Italian masters. “The Birth of Venus” stood flanked by curtains and dramatic lighting on a raised platform in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and drew more than a quarter million visitors. Nearby, at the New York World’s Fair, Salvador Dalí created an otherworldly “Dream of Venus” pavilion, complete with aquatic dancers and a copy of Botticelli’s “Venus” above the entrance.
At the Berlin exhibition, visitors will walk through the works in reverse chronological order, beginning with contemporary pieces and moving toward the Botticellis. The “Venus,” which seldom travels from the Uffizi, will not be on display.
Curators considered hanging the new works alongside the old but thought better of it. “It’s one of the goals of this exhibition to show the distance from which we normally have to view these original Botticelli works,” said Mr. Rebmann. “It’s an entirely different world from which they came.” There was another reason, he added: “It wouldn’t be fair to put this more or less aged painting beside a David LaChapelle photograph with its glowing colors,” Mr. Rebmann said.