"A large painting on canvas [called the] Birth of Venus, made by Peter Rubens, with a blue silk curtain over it"

Recorded in the sitting room in the front part of the house, Peter Paul Rubens's Birth of Venus was the most spectacular painting of a nude owned by Emmanuel Ximenez. Dated c. 1613-14, the painting formerly at Sanssouci in Potsdam is either identical with or a version of the composition originally owned by Ximenez. Given the crucial importance of the maritime world for members of the Portuguese nation, it is not surprising that the learned merchant-banker wished to present his guests with a maritime allegory by Antwerp's foremost painter, who by that time was already known as the Apelles of his age. In his Birth of Venus Rubens re-staged the most celebrated painting by Apelles, showing the foam-born Venus "squeezing the sea water with both hands from her hair and face," as described by Natale Conti in the Mythologia.

Rubens depicted the goddess of love in full length, floating on her shell across the waters and welcomed by Neptune and Amphitrite as well as various other inhabitants of the sea: A triton is blowing his horn, two sea nymphs and an elderly sea-god (perhaps Proteus, famed for his power of transformation) are proffering her gifts: shells, corals, and a string of oriental pearls – the very goods Ximenez traded and collected. A cloud of playful spiritelli, referring both to the subtle breezes that blew the goddess to the shore and the feelings of love aroused by her sight, animate the composition: one putto is shooting an arrow, another is holding a torch. In emulation of Apelles Rubens presented a showpiece of painterly effects including the subtle transitions between air and water, the latter dissolving into spray, bubbles, and foam; the flesh tints, changing between male and female; Venus's swirling hair; and the luster of pearls and seashells. According to the inventory Rubens's painting had "a blue silk curtain in front of it." Drawing aside the curtain would have revealed the allure of the painting and thus provoked wonder and pleasant surprise.

Ancient and modern literature on mythology was widely available in early seventeenth-century Antwerp and shared in circles of learned friends. Mythographic works with descriptions of the foam-born Venus in Ximenez's library included an illustrated edition of Vincenzo Cartari's Le imagini de i dei de gli antichi, published in Venice in 1581, and a copy of the 1581 Venice edition of Bocaccio's Genealogia de i Dei antichi. As an avid reader of Lucretius's De rerum natura, which begins with the famous invocation to Venus, Ximenez must have associated Rubens's astonishing mythology with the generative power of water. Moreover, the sea-born Venus plays a pivotal role in Luís de Camões's The Lusiads of 1572, the extraordinary epic poem celebrating the Portuguese seafaring enterprise along the African coast and in India; Ximenez's library contained an edition of the book. In the poem, Venus is presented as protector of the Portuguese global aspirations in competition with Bacchus defending his own claim over India.

Christine Göttler, University of Bern


McGrath, Elizabeth. "The Streams of Oceanus: Rubens, Homer and the Boundary of the Ancient World." Ars naturam adiuvans: Festschrift für Matthias Winner zum 11. März 1996. Ed. Victoria von Flemming, and Sebastian Schütze. Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Zabern, 1996. 464-476.

McGrath, Elizabeth. "Artists, their Books and Subjects from Mythology." Classical Mythology in the Netherlands in the Age of Renaissance and Baroque. Proceedings of the International Conference, Antwerp, 19-21 May 2005. Ed. Carl Van de Velde. Leuven: Peeters, 2009. 301-332.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Birth of Venus, c. 1613-1614. Formerly Bildergalerie Sanssouci, Potsdam (whereabouts unknown since World War II).