GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(Soundbite of song, "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll")
Mr. IAN DURY (Musician): (Singing) Sex and drugs and rock and roll.
RAZ: Well, maybe not the rock and roll part, but 15th century painted Sandro Botticelli apparently knew a lot about the other two. If you've ever visited the National Gallery in London, you've probably seen his Venus and Mars, the one where the goddess of love draped in gold and white, lounges in a meadow as Mars lies beside her asleep.
The official description at the museum says Botticelli's painting depicts, quote, "The conquering and civilizing power of love." But an art historian named David Bellingham recently came to a different conclusion. He realized that the small fruit Botticelli painted into the lower right corner is Datura stramonium, also known as poor man's acid or locoweed. In short, Venus and Mars are stoned.
David Bellingham is with Sotheby's Institute of Art and he joins me from London.
Mr. DAVID BELLINGHAM (Sotheby's Institute of Art): Hello there.
RAZ: So, when did you first notice this sort of mysterious fruit in the painting?
Mr. BELLINGHAM: Well, I was looking closely at the painting and this particular figure is very close to the viewer and appears to be proffering a fruit underneath his hand to the viewer and is looking...
RAZ: This is the - the figure you're talking about is the satyr.
Mr. BELLINGHAM: The little satyr, that's right, with his mischievous smile. And so I immediately became suspicious that the painter must have intended this to be significant.
RAZ: Why are you even looking at this painting that has been studied by scholars and historians for hundreds of years? Why did you even start to look it at all?
Mr. BELLINGHAM: To me, it's a classicist. It's a very enigmatic painting, because I'm used to studying classical scenes of Venus and Mars where we have cupids, little innocent winged figures playing with Mars' armor.
Mr. BELLINGHAM: And I'd always noticed that why would Botticelli have transferred these innocent little figures into these rather devilish, mischievous satyrs.
RAZ: Right. So how did you figure out that it was the datura stramonium?
Mr. BELLINGHAM: Well, I started looking through photographs on the Internet and in books in the British Library and I suddenly came across this fruit that looked more than any other fruit like the fruits underneath the satyr's hand, and it was datura stramonium.
RAZ: And what kind of effect does datura have on humans?
Mr. BELLINGHAM: It produces similar experiences to LSD. It can produce a great deal of, first, hallucinations and eventually the person swoons and falls asleep.
RAZ: So, basically, Venus and Mars are on an acid trip?
Mr. BELLINGHAM: I'm not certain about the female figure but in as much as this little mischievous satyr holding the fruit is actually beneath the so-called Mars figure who is actually fast asleep, I would suggest that that is what has happened to him.
RAZ: So at the National Gallery in London, the official description says: This painting depicts the conquering and civilizing power of love. Do you think that that's what it's trying to tell us?
Mr. BELLINGHAM: That is one of the theories, which I think is true. But my main theory is that people at the time of Botticelli would have read these paintings on a number of different levels and they were trained to do that. So, indeed, people like the satyrs are devilish. But for example, Venus in the Renaissance could be a lusty, earthly sexy woman. But she also represented another side of Venus was that she was totally spiritual and could take us into the celestial world if you like.
There are other aspects of the painting that made me believe it's also meant to be Adam and Eve as well as these other lovers such as Venus and Mars. In the Bible, it is never labeled as an apple, which we all think is the fruit that Eve gave to Adam.
For example, Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, when he shows Adam and Eve, he shows them holding a fig. So what I am saying is that this painting could be read on all of those layers of meaning.
RAZ: Do you think that there ought to be some kind of like re-launch party for this painting? I mean, it completely changes the meaning of it.
Mr. BELLINGHAM: Well, it doesn't, you see. I'm not critiquing any earlier art historian's reading of the painting. I'm just saying that whereas early art historians have only read Venus and Mars, which is a modern title of the painting, into the painting, other - some other art historians think that we see portraits of contemporary lovers at the time of Botticelli.
But I imagine the Christian reading to the painting, if you like, that it's Adam and Eve. And it can also be read as Mary Magdalene, the prostitute, and Christ deposed from the cross. So I'm suggesting that this is a really sophisticated painting that could be read on a number of different levels almost simultaneously.
RAZ: That's David Bellingham. He's a program director at Sotheby's Institute for Art. You can see a photograph of that painting, Venus and Mars, at our website, npr.org.
David Bellingham, thanks for joining me.
Mr. BELLINGHAM: Thank you.