This large picture may have been, like the Primavera, painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici's Villa di Castello, around 1482, or even before. Some scholars suggest that the Venus painted for Lorenzo and mentioned by Giorgio Vasari may have been a different work, now lost. Some experts believe it to be a celebration of the love of Giuliano di Piero de' Medici (who died in the Pazzi conspiracy in 1478) for Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, who lived in Portovenere, a town by the sea with a local tradition of being the birthplace of Venus. It must be noted that Botticelli himself also privately loved the beautiful Simonette, who was de' Medici's mistress. Whatever inspired the artist, there are clear similarities to Ovid's Metamorphoses and Fasti, as well as to Poliziano's Verses. Simonetta is also believed to have been the model for Venus in this painting, as well as for several other women in other Botticelli works, such as Primavera.
The classical goddess Venus emerges from the water on a shell, blown towards shore by the Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passions. She is joined by one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, who hands her a flowered cloak.
The effect is distinctly pagan, considering it was made at a time and place when most artworks depicted Roman Catholic themes. It is somewhat surprising that this canvas escaped the flames of Savonarola's bonfires, where a number of Botticelli's other alleged pagan influenced works perished. Botticelli was very close to Lorenzo de Medici. Because of their friendship and Lorenzo's power, this work was spared from Savonarola's fires and the disapproval of the church.
The anatomy of Venus and various subsidiary details do not display the strict classical realism of Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael. Most obviously, Venus has an improbably long neck, and her left shoulder slopes at an anatomically unlikely angle. Some have suggested it prefigures mannerism.