Celebrity photographer David LaChapelle explains why the works of Sandro Botticelli are as fresh today as they ever were
Botticelli’s Venus standing in an open shell with her knee bent and head tilted in The Birth of Venus (1484-86), above, is one of the most celebrated female nudes in the history of art. I’ve always been influenced by Renaissance sculpture and painting. Right back in the early Eighties in New York, when I used to shoot my friends at my East Village squat, I remember a roommate trying to recreate Michelangelo’s Dying Slave post. With my work The Rebirth of Venus (2009), top, I wanted to put a contemporary take on Botticelli’s masterpiece and celebrate the beauty of the female form in its unashamed nudity.
The noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci posed as Venus for Botticelli. Considered a great beauty (legend has it Botticelli was in love with her), she also modeled for gus Venus and Men, which hangs in the National Gallery and was the inspiration for another of my works, The Rape of Africa (2009), for which Naomi Campbell sat as Venus.
I chose a Czech model Hana Soukupova to pose for The Rebirth of Venus. She was doing a series of photographs with me in Hawaii, where I live, and I just thought she was beautiful. Traditionally in paintings the seashell represented the female sex; instead of having Hana standing on a shell, one of the god-like young men is holding a conch in front of her arrival and proclaiming her beauty.
It was a spontaneous shoot, which we set up on a bluff’ in the rainforest overlooking South Pacific. I know the spot well and I’d always wanted to shoot there. We started at sunrise, and by the time we finished we were all totally sunburnt and looked like lobsters. It took a while to shoot because it was such a precarious location; everyone was balancing sticks and ladders.
The tropical setting was not exactly the Mediterranean that would have inspired Botticelli’s palette; the colors are punchier. The ribbons, which break up the frame, are a reference to another Botticelli painting, The Three Graces (circa 1482), in which it’s as if the painter’s three female figures are dancing round a maypole. I loved the ribbon’s energy- it’s almost like there’s a scribble across the photograph.
During Botticelli’s time a lot of his so called pagan art, depicting classical gods rather than one Christian God, was thought to be immoral and was burnt by the Florentine friar Savonarola- the Donald Trump of the time. But Botticelli’s work wasn’t pagan, it was about the human condition. His Birth of Venus is about pure beauty; give it time and it will transport you away from the darkness of the world. Which is why his work, with its themes of conflict and beauty, continues to be relevant to this day."
“Botticelli Reimagined” is at the V&A SW7 from March 5 to July 3