An update on Botticelli's Venus and Mars

June 10, 2010

Recently, I wrote this post  trying to make sense of the article published in various UK newspapers discussing the appearance of the hallucinogenic plant datura stramonium in Botticelli's Venus and Mars.

The papers were very loosely paraphrasing the work of David Bellingham, of the Sotheby's Institute of Art. Having recently been in contact with Mr. Bellingham, I can report that he was also interested in receiving more information that may confirm or deny the identification.

We are fortunate to  have had some input from Mark, who has provided a significant level of detail about the established botanical evidence pertaining to datura stramonium.

One factor missing from the evidence produced thus far has been a consideration of the the availability of this plant during the time of Botticelli. Owing to the work of Symon and Haegi, datura has been identified as native to Mexico, with its origins in Europe being associated with its introduction in the late 16th Century and the arrival of the Spanish fleets from the New World.

Some further digging around has found some more work done on the datura species. It is now widely accepted in the Botanical community that datura stramonium is of Mexican origin, however some argue that a related species datura metel may have made it across to Asia during the first Milennium. source

Examination of mentions of datura in translations of  ancient writings  such as Theophrastus Historia Plantarum or Dioscorides Materia Medica, have not yielded satisfying results with regards to either accurate identification of the plant or relevant dates. Indeed, the earliest versions of both Theophrastus' Dioscorides' works simply define such plants as strychnos manikos - 'The strychnines which makes one wild.' 

 A 1644 Print of  a Latin translation of Theophrastus' Historia Plantarum

As outlined in Symon and Haegi, there is no significant evidence for the appearance of datura stramonium prior to mid 15th century. Historical mentions of the plant seem to be based on poor translation, or possible confusion with a Belladonna variant, which also contains the psychoactive chemical Atropine - producing similar effects.

In fact, due to the stigma associated with the effects of datura and the association with witchcraft from the 16th century onwards, it seems 'datura' became inserted retroactively into descriptions of events where an intoxicant plant was concerned.

A good example of this is the mention of datura being responsible for driving Mark Antony's troops mad  during the war against the Parthians. This is related by Plutarch(c.46-120 CE) in The Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. In the the Life of Mark Antony, however, a closer look at Plutarch's actual words will see that he merely mentions a herb with intoxicating effects. Later analysts have added the datura element, purely from their own imagination it seems! I have even located this misconception creep into commentaries on Shakespeare, even an article in The Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

"Resorting, therefore, to vegetables and roots, they could find few to which they were accustomed, and were compelled to make trial of some never tasted before. Thus it was that they partook of an herb which produced madness, and then death. He who ate of it had no memory, and no thought of anything else than the one task of moving or turning every stone, as if he were accomplishing something of great importance. The plain was full of men stooping to the ground and digging around the stones or removing them; and finally they would vomit bile and die, since the only remedy, wine, was not to be had"  -Plutarch

Now let us examine the actual appearance of datura stramonium and datura metel and the fruit depicted in the painting. Here is a close up of the image from Botticelli's Venus and Mars. The National Gallery London currently houses this painting - its website has a wonderful high resolution image you can zoom in on. Have a close look!

Now let us take an image of the fruit of the datura stramonium and datura metel. I had previously presented a botanical drawing - here is the real thing - we can clearly see why they are called 'Thorn-apple' in its English nomenclature. The 'Trumpet' part which appears in other names refers to the flower.

Datura metel aka The Sinister Thornapple - doesn't look like something a playful satyr would hold

You do not need botanical training to see that neither datura stramonium nor datura metel are the same as the fruit depicted in the Botticelli.

A more likely candidate? Thanks again goes to Mark, who commented on the original article - he was the first to suggest that the Botticelli image depicts ecballium elaterium also known as the 'exploding cucumber' or 'squirting cucumber.'  It is also a poisonous plant and appears in ancient texts - including Pliny's Natural History and Dioscoride's Materia Medica. There is a wonderful journal article at The Annals of Botany examining the appearance of this plant in ancient writings.

Beware the squirting cucumber

We also know from Botanical sources that the ecballium elaterium is common around Europe, including the Mediterranean, hence there is no need to examine the plausibility of this plant being known during the 1480s, as was the case for datura stramonium.

Those keen on seeing the link with the Tree of Knowledge story may want to point out that this plant is also called 'The Wild Balsam Apple.' However, as was the case with datura stramonium, the 'apple' reference comes purely from its English moniker - and would not have been referred to by this term in Botticelli's era.

The question that now follows - why would Botticelli use this plant in an allegorical sense?

Ecballium elaterium is indeed a squirting cucumber! When sufficiently ripe, it releases it seed via mucilaginous spray. This often occurs in response to motion or touch, but can also happen spontaneously. In terms of its use in this image, there is simply no more wonderful way to symbolise intoxicating passion! This fits in perfectly with the romantic story of Simonetta Vespucci and Giuliano de' Medici outlined in Poliziano's La Giostra, and is also an apt symbol to have in a wedding painting.

Thank you to David Bellingham from Sotheby's Institute of Art, Monica Bowen from Alberti's Window and David Packwood from Art History Today for their help and encouragement during the writing of these related articles.


Mark said...

Many thanks for this fully illustrated update - amazing what you can find on Youtube these days!

I must just return to the supposed occurrence of Datura stramonium in classical/medieval texts. It's important to use modern botanical research when talking about plant distribution, particularly for Datura. The definitive reference is Symon & Haegi (1991), unfortunately missed by some recent translators of Dioscorides.

Symon & Haegi point out that the relevant text in Dioscorides (his Struchnon manicon) has long been recognised as very confused and possibly corrupt. The characteristics of the plant cannot be ascribed to any one species, but the description of the fruits (round, black... soft as a grape) absolutely rules out Datura (see the spiny fruits above). More plausible species are Atropa belladona, or a species of Solanum.

The first authentic accounts of Datura in herbals occur in 1542 (Fuchs, D. metel) and 1561 (Cordus, D. metel). Both are 40+ years after the discovery of the Americas. Datura is absent from early Chinese herbals. The authors conclude "A wide ranging search has failed to locate any convincing evidence that Datura occurred in the Old World before 1500... Datura is a New World genus with a relatively restricted natural distribution centred in Mexico."

Thus Datura can be excluded as a likely subject in any painting made in Europe before 1500, such as Botticelli's Venus and Mars.


Symon, D. E. & L. Haegi (1991): Datura (Solanaceae) is a New World genus. Pp 197-210 in: J. G. Hawkes, R. N. Lester, M. Nee & N. Estrada-R. (eds.) - Solanaceae III: Taxonomy, chemistry, evolution. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Handy online sources for the native distribution of (mainly useful)plants:

Mansfeld's World Database of Agriculture and Horticultural Crops

GRIN Taxonomy for Plants

Unknown said...

Excellent Work Mark! Thank you very much for your assistance in this. I will pass this on to Mr Bellingham from Sotheby's to complete the information already supplied.

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 - the identification being based on an illustration.

What I'm most surprised at is how Mr Bellingham's Kew Gardens contact wouldn't have thought about all this....

Thanks to you, we can correct the record for our Art Historian friends :)

I will also amend both articles to reflect the more complete picture we now have.

H Niyazi

Alberti's Window said...

Fascinating discovery! I think you are definitely right - this "exploding cucumber" looks a lot more like the correct plant that Botticelli used.

What great research! I think Mr. Bellingham will be very pleased to find this information (if only he had consulted you before going to press with his earlier announcement regarding the hallucinogenic datura!) I've tweeted to my followers about this post.

It's been fun to follow your process of research and discovery.

Alberti's Window said...

One further thought - I seem to remember reading in the Times article that the lacivious-looking satyr's expression could refer to lovemaking. I think that lascivious expression fits well with your discussion about the plant's spray, etc. The phallic references are unmistakable.

alexandra korey said...

Nice find. I still cannot believe you do this for fun, in your spare time ;-)
I have a professor friend who will be very interested in the exploding cucumber as an obvious sexual analogy; she has been following stories of salami and peaches and other metaphoric ediblges ;-)

Unknown said...

Cheers Alexandra! I'm glad you enjoyed the article - it was definitely fun to write!


K. Bender said...

I am new to this blog which I find fascinating. Therefore, this late comment. The post and comments on David Bellingham's interpretation are excellent information. In his original paper he explores the many different meanings which can be given to the painting, but he does not discuss why the painting was never recorded before it re-appeared more than 350 years later? Could a satirical or subversive meaning, as suggested long ago but dismissed by the authority Gombrich, not be a reason for the total uncertainty where and by whom it was concealed?

Anonymous said...

very interesting and satisfying

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