Venus and Mars: the heavenly couple

We know that the Etruscans – in their tongue which has yet to be decoded – called them Turan and Laran. These names mean nothing to us today: our language, which derives heavily from Latin, has got us used to calling them Venus and Mars. Or if we want to be even more classical, we could go back to the Greek: Aphrodite and Ares.

It’s interesting how all the major civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean found a place in their respective cosmologies for gods that resembled Venus and Mars. They seem almost to represent fundamental aspects of the human psyche, part of its essential make-up. The love, the imperfect, irresistible beauty of Venus on the one hand; on the other, the aggressive instinct of Mars, an embodiment of the violence and war that splintered the ancient world. But Mars was more than that, though: he was also the god of duels, of the competitive spirit, and, when coupled with Venus, a god of fertility.

Maybe this is what the peoples of the ancient world saw in Venus and Mars: a couple. Not necessarily a couple of persons, but the essence of impulses and emotions that somehow complement each other.

This is the essence that art has sought to capture, the very deepest significance of it. Sculpture approached it before painting, at least the sculpture that has survived. The great sculptor Praxiteles is thought to have modelled his so-called Aphrodite of Knidos on his muse Phryne, ancient Greece’s most famous courtesan: a liberated, cultivated, highly intelligent woman. Then, the Hellenistic era produced one of the most famous artworks of the ancient world: the Venus of Milo, which stands today in the Louvre. But even older works of art have come down to us: golden statues from the Etruscans which depict the god Laran, brandishing shields with the insignia of their owners. And these shields represent some of the earliest paintings that we have today, shields such as those found in the Tomb of Velcha, in Tarquinia, a tomb named after the powerful family that built it.

Fast forward to the Renaissance and Sandro Botticelli, whose most famous paintings include a Venus and Mars from 1483, housed today in the London National Gallery. Botticelli takes a universal concept and translates it into something vivid, almost material, and something which was quite brave at the time: the triumph of love over arms. It’s a concept that inspired the genius of not a few painters: the sensual kiss of Titian, the colours of Paolo Veronese, the geometry of Tintoretto and, going back to sculpture, the neoclassical litheness of Canova. In more recent times, music has also become hooked on the subject of Venus and Mars. Paul McCartney named an album after them, as did Italian pop icon Marco Mengoni.

But for all the attention that the great artists have lavished on them, Venus and Mars can be found just as well outside museums. Just find a nice, safe place from which to look at the night sky. The ancients knew those heavens so well, or at least well enough to attribute human characteristics to the stars and read a celestial influence into earthly events. And even our more recent ancestors were accustomed to watch these skies from the fields, the farms. It is no coincidence that Venus happens to be the most visible planet in the sky, the last planet to disappear into the dawn, and the first to rise at dusk. She performs her symbolic dance around the sun, while Mars looks on admiringly from the side, himself blazing in the night sky.