Italy: the Star of Venus

The founding legend of Rome and the Roman Empire was heavily associated with the goddess Venus in Roman mythology, therefore the state of modern Italy is now also known as the land of sunset and love.

Italy
Location of Italy (maphill.com)

Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DuXkhyYbx0

1. History of Italy

Italy has territories stretching out to the central part of the Mediterranean. In early times, inhabiting this area were ancient peoples such as Italic, Phoenician, Carthage, Greek, Etrusca and Celt. Among them, an Italic tribe, the Latins, founded the Roman Kingdom at the legendary mark of 753 BC. After that, the Roman Republic spread out to conquer the surrounding peoples and became the dominant force over a vast territory in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Many factors of Greek culture were passed on to Rome from the Etruscans and were developed to their peak. Rome entered its Golden Age, a peaceful and prosperous period under the rule of the first emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14). Rome later became the center of culture, politics, and religion of Western civilization in ancient times. The greatest heritages that Rome contributed to human civilization to this day are culture, law, Christianity, and Latin language.

augustus
Emperor Augustus Ceasar (civilization.wikia.com)
leonardo-da-vinci
The famous scientist Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance period (zing.vn)

In the 5th century, Rome collapsed due to invasions of Germanic tribes from the North. By the 15th century, the Renaissance movement began in Italy and thinkers tried to recover the good, civilized values of ancient Greek – Roman civilization. The movement was then spread throughout the rest of Europe, opening a period of progress in science, arts, exploration and humanism.

Modern Italy was unified by merits of General Giuseppe Garibaldi, Prime Minister Cavour, reporter Mazzini and King Vittorio Emanuele II. On April 17th 1861, King Vittorio Emanuele II took the title of King of Italy to become the first king of a united Italy. The Italians gave him the title Father of the Country.

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Giuseppe Garibaldi, Cavour, Giuseppe Mazzini and Vittorio Emanuele II, fathers of modern Italy.

The national symbol of Italy is the Stella d’Italia or Stellone d’Italia (meaning ‘Star of Italy‘), depicted as a white 5-pointed star with red border, symbolizing the origin of the ancient Roman Empire as well as the shining destiny of Republic of Italy today.

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Stella d’Italia (wikipedia.org)

2. Legend of Aeneas

homer
Ancient Greek poet Homer (wikipedia.org)

The connection between a star symbol and the land of Italy originated back to ancient Greece when the Greeks associated the image of the star of Venus with the West, which is the position of the Italian peninsula. Greek – Roman literature strengthened this idea by creating the legend of the hero Aeneas and his journey back to his homeland Italy with the help of the goddess of love and beauty Venus after being defeated at Troy.

In Greek mythology, specifically in the Illiad of the blind poet Homer, Aeneas was said to be the son of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) and a mortal, prince Anchises. Anchises was originally a cousin of king Priam of Troy, therefore during the Trojan War, Aeneas led his troops to defend the city against the Greeks. Aeneas’s mother, goddess Aphrodite, along with the sun god Apollo usually helped and saved him from grave dangers on the battlefield. Even Poseidon, who normally favors the Greeks, came to rescue him when he was defeated by mighty Achilles, noting that even though Aeneas was from a junior branch of the royal family, he is destined to become king of the Trojan people. 

aeneas
Aeneas carried his father and ran away from Troy (by Federico Barocci, 1598)
virgil
Roman poet Virgil (wikipedia.org)

Aeneas became an inspiring source for Romans’ national pride when they did not previously have thrilling myths about mighty heroes and majestic gods like the Greeks did. His story continued to be further developed by Roman writers in their works, the most famous was Aeneid by the poet Virgil. In Aeneid, it was said that when the Greeks invaded Troy, Aeneas led a group of people in the city to flee to Italy, and they were called the Aeneads, ancestors of the Romans later .

The homecoming journey of the Aeneads was not easy but was challenged multiple times by goddess Juno (Hera). Once she hurled down a hurricane on the crew that they were forced to stop at the port Carthage (Tunisia today). There, Aeneas had a brief relationship with queen Dido, who suggested that the party should stay in Carthage and Aeneas would rule with her.

The meeting between Aeneas and Dido (tate.org.uk)

However, Jupiter and Venus sent the messenger god Mercury down to remind Aeneas not to forsake his destiny, so he left Carthage quietly and continued the journey. When Dido heard about this betrayal, she ordered uttered a curse that her descendants (Carthage) would forever be enemies against Aeneas’ descendants (Rome). Then she committed suicide by stabbing herself with the same sword she gave Aeneas when they first met. This story was to explain the enduring battles between the Roman empire and Carthage, called the Punic Wars later (264-146 BC).

As soon as Aeneas set foot on Italy, Latinus, the king of the Latins, welcomed Aeneas’s crew and let them resettle there. His daughter, Lavinia, had been promised to Turnus, king of Rutuni, but Latinus received a prophecy that Lavinia would marry another man from another country, who is Aeneas. Latinus obeyed this prophecy and Turnus inevitably started a war with Aeneas.

aeneas-and-latinus
Aeneas at king Latinus’s court (wikipedia.org)

Aeneas won the war and captured all of Turnus’s peoples, but king Latinus died in the war. Aeneas later founded the city of Lavinium, named after Lavinia (now his legitimate wife). From there Aeneas rstablished the great Roman Empire on the land of Rome.

aeneas-and-turnus
Aeneas defeated Turnus (by Luca Giordano, 1634–1705)

In this story, it was said that goddess Venus always enlightened, guided the way for Aeneas’s crew as they were sailing on the high seas via the evening star of Venus. Hence, Italy is considered the “land of the sunset”, and the land of love. Roman emperors like Julius Caesar or Augustus Caesar later claimed that their ancestors originated from Aeneas, so they were also divine descendants of goddess Venus.

venus-on-the-sea
Venus on the sea (wikipedia.org)

3. Goddess Aphrodite – Venus

Similar to the goddess Venus in Roman mythology, the worship of Greek Aphrodite originated from the goddess Ishtar in the Near East. In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is the goddes of love, beauty, sex, the patrol goddess of feminism, childbirth and sailors. Aphrodite was born from sea sponges, because the genital of sky god Uranus was slashed by titan Cronus and fell into the se . Naked Aphrodite rose above the waves, rode on a shell in the city of Paphos, Cyprus island, where later became her main cult center.

Aphrodite
Birth of Aphrodite (painting by Sandro Botticelli, 1486)

Because of the absolute beauty of Aphrodite, the gods feared that merciless competition to possess her would cause wars, so Zeus decided to give her to the ugly and disabled blacksmith god Hephaestus. After being married to Hephaestus, Aphrodite was usually unfaithful to her husband and fooled around with other gods. To punish this, Zeus caused Aphrodite to fall in love with a mortal, who wasprince Anchises, Aeneas’s father.

aphrodite-and-anchises
Aphrodite and Anchises (by Abraham Bloemaert, 1632)

Aphrodite was also the goddess who directly led to the Trojan War. Wanting prince Paris of Troy to recognize her as the most beautiful goddess, even more beautiful than Hera and Athena, to possess the golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, Aphrodite promised that Paris would have the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris decided to hand the golden apple to Aphrodite and in return, he received Helen, wife of king of Sparta, Menelaus. The Greeks, with the excuse of reclaiming Helen for Menelaus, waged the Trojan war that finally completely destroy Troy. 

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3 goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite came to Paris for his judgment (picture by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636)

4. Venus planet

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Venus planet (wikipedia.org)

In reality, the star that Aeneas and his crew saw in the vast ocean to return to Italy was Venus (named after the goddess herself) the second planet in the Solar system. After the Moon, Venus is the brightest natural object on the night sky. Venus reaches its greatest brightness just before sunset or dawn, so it is also known as Hesperus (Evening star) when the planet rises at sunset and Lucifer (Morning star) when the planet rises at dawn.

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Symbol of Venus, female and copper metal (wikipedia.org)

As one of the brightest celestial bodies in the sky, Venus has long been known to humans and has held a strong position in human culture throughout history. In Western culture, Venus is the only planet in the Solar System named after a goddess.

Astronomy symbols of Venus are similar to those used in biology for female: a circle with a cross below. Medieval western alchemists also used this symbol for copper metal. Copper was polished and used as a mirrors ancient times. Therefore, the Venus symbol is sometimes misunderstood as a mirror of the gods.

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The mirror of Venus (Titian’s painting, 1555)

5. Become the national symbol

In modern times, Stella d’Italia was often associated with Italy Turrita, a national personification of Italy, a beautiful woman with the Stella d’Italia attached to the wall-shaped crown symbolizing national defense.

italia-turrita
Italia Turrita and Stella d’Italia on her crown (deamoregallico.com)

The legend of Aeneas and the national star symbol were also recalled by the founders like Mazzini and Cavour during the period of building a modern Italy in the 19th century.

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Emblem of Kingdom of Italy, 1861 – 1946 (wikipedia.org)
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Italian military insignia (wikipedia.org)

Since 1947, Stella d’Italia has become the central symbol on the national emblem of Republic of Italy as an official and legal recognition of its divinity to this boot-shaped country.

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National emblem of Italy today (wikipedia.org)

References:

Cotterell, A. & Storm, R.. (2017). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Annes Publishing

Bazzano, N. (2011). Donna Italia. L’allegoria della Penisola dall’antichità ai giorni nostri. Angelo Colla Editore

Evans, J. (1998). The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford University Press

Homer. The Illiad

Jepson, T. (2012). National Geographic Traveler: Italy. National Geographic Books

Jordan, M. (1993). Encyclopedia of gods: over 2,500 deities of the world. New York: Facts on File

Kingfisher. (2014). Bách khoa thư lịch sử (The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia). Hà Nội: Nhã Nam

Rossi, G. (2014). Lo scudo crociato. Un simbolo medievale nella comunicazione politica del Novecento. Armando Editore

Stearn, W. T. (1961). “The Male and Female Symbols of Biology”. New Scientist (248)

Virgil. Aeneid

Waldman, C. & Mason, C. (2006). Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Infobase Publishing

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italy

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