Monday, June 14, 2010

Hallucinogenic Plant or Exploding Cucumber?

Over the past few weeks or so, there has been some fascinating discussion about Botticelli's Mars and Venus (c. 1485).  I've tweeted about this a bit, but I wanted to write out some of the details about this discussion.

About two weeks ago, a Times article publicized a new argument that the plant located in the lower right-hand corner of Botticelli's painting (underneath the hand of the satyr) could be datura stramonium, a plant which is known for its hallucinogenic properties.  In essence, this article suggested that Mars is swooning due to effects from this drug plant.

This news was picked up in several places in the art history community of blogs, including the Art History Newsletter (see here) and Three Pipe Problem (see original post here).  I'd encourage you to read the comments for both of these posts, so you can follow the different arguments and ideas that were presented to critique this argument for the hallucinogenic plant.  Hasan Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem researched the history of datura stramonium even further, and came to the conclusion that the plant depicted is actually quite different (see his fascinating findings here).  Instead of datura stramonium, Niyazi finds it more likely (and I agree) that the plant depicted is ecballium elaterium, commonly known as the "exploding cucumber" plant. For one thing, the plant depicted simply looks a lot more like an "exploding cucumber" than datura stramonium.  I also think the phallic shape and properties of this plant are unmistakable, which makes this plant a more appropriate fit for the Mars and Venus theme of love.

Congratulations to Niyazi on some great research!  This is a very convincing argument, especially since Niyazi can assert that the "exploding cucumber" would have been commonly found in Europe during Botticelli's day (which cannot be confirmed for the datura stramonium).

Although it can be disappointing to realize that the painting may not contain a reference to drugs or hallucinogenics, I think it's quite fun to know that an "exploding cucumber" could be located on the canvas instead.