The value of the book lies not in its broader claims, but in its pleasurable selection of interesting objects on which to reflect, and fascinating nuggets of information. We learn that when Venice took control of Cyprus in the early fifteenth century Venetians celebrated their victory by displaying a marble relief of Venus as an allegory of Cyprus at the foot of the bell tower in St Mark’s Square. They also claimed that the name Venice derived from Venus, when, in fact, it stemmed from the ancient Veneti tribe. Tracing their ancestry back to Venus was something the ancient Romans did too; Venus was said to be the mother of Aeneas, legendary founder of Rome.
In this lively, wide-ranging book, Hughes paints a portrait of a darker Venus, a violent, vengeful, “shape-shifting” Venus, with salt in her hair and surf at her feet. Hughes, the author of biographies of Helen of Troy and the city of Istanbul, takes us from creation to myth to modern advertising campaigns (Gillette Venus razors: “Reveal the goddess in you”) by way of Titian, Rubens and Velázquez. After reading this book, there’s no excuse for standing ignorant and philistine before Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and thinking: “Cor, check out the clam shells on her!”