Italy’s tourism ministry thought it had a surefire way to bring travelers to the country: transforming a 15th-century art icon into a 21st-century “virtual influencer.”
The digital rendering of Venus, Goddess of Love, inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece The Birth of Venus, can be seen swaying on pizza and taking selfies for her Instagram page. Unlike the original, this one is fully clothed. The influencer claims to be 30 years old, or “maybe a little younger (older) than that.”
But the new ad campaign is facing a backlash — with critics calling it the “new Barbie” that decimates Italy’s cultural heritage.
Livia Garomirsini, an art historian and activist with Mi Riconosci, an arts and heritage campaign organisation, said in response to the project that the tourism campaign “reduces our heritage in a vulgar way, transforming Botticelli’s Venus into another stereotypical female beauty”. Last month.
The year-long campaign, produced by national tourism agency ENIT and ad group Armando Testa, has an estimated cost of 9 million euros (about $9.9 million), according to Ivana Jelinek, CEO of ENIT.
Jelinek said the campaign is designed for overseas markets to attract young tourists. Venus launched online in Italy on April 20, and made its international debut in Dubai at Arabian Travel Market earlier this week.
“We loved the idea that it would be a timeless work of art,” Jelenic told the Associated Press, adding that Botticelli’s Venus “seemed to us like a timeless icon that could well represent Italy.”
New Venus has already been mentioned mercilessly on the Internet, appearing among the trash cans, along with Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, and in other less than godly places.
Criticisms extend beyond the use of masterpiece to the way the campaign has been structured, including its use of stock photos and other missteps such as a promotional video featuring a winery in Slovenia, used as a stand-up display for Italy.
An even greater sin for many is the campaign’s slogan, “Open to Meraviglia” (Open to the Wonder), as it blends the English language into an Italian tourism campaign even as the country’s government seeks to protect the Italian language as a pillar of its culture.
There is another faux pas language.
On the campaign’s website, a machine translator has converted Brindisi, a port city in southern Italy, to its literal English definition: “toast,” according to Matteo Flora, a professor at the University of Pavia. This part of the site is now blocked.
“Let’s not talk about a creativity point of view, you may like it (the campaign) or not, but from a technical point of view, it was… kind of an avalanche of problems,” said Flora.
This includes failing to secure domains, allowing anyone to grab material and mock the project with it.
Flora said the campaign also wasted money. The campaign’s creative team chose to use “Human Creation Intelligence”, rather than AI, to build the virtual Venus – but Flora showed how he could quickly come up with a similar campaign using AI at a cost of €20. Thousands of people shared his posts on social media.
The use of likeness to Botticelli’s masterpiece has also been criticized by art historians, who say it greatly diminishes the beauty and mystery of the 15th-century original.
“Perhaps Botticelli will not be happy about this,” said Massimo Moretti, professor of art history at the University of Rome, Sapienza.
Marketing experts say any use of an iconic image like “The Birth of Venus” risks hitting a cultural nerve.
“The more you try to change something historical, the more protests you’ll probably get,” said Larry Chiagoris, professor of marketing at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.
Chiagoris added, “People will say, ‘You’re changing the culture.'” You change who we are, because it’s part of our history.”
“I didn’t like the fact that they used Botticelli’s Venus in this way, because it’s a piece of art,” said Riccardo Rodrigo, a high school student in Rome. “They made it a socially friendly thing for Gen Z amusement, which I guess wasn’t necessary because it could be used just as is and not modified like they did.”
The Uffizi Galleries, which include Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in Florence, declined to comment on the campaign.
But for campaign makers, any press is good press.
“It just went viral,” said ENIT’s Jelinek, adding that “web users have brought it to life” even when placing the new Venus in not-so-glamorous spots.
“I find it interesting in terms of social contact,” Jelinek said. “Our campaign is more engaging than (the critics) want to admit.”
Tourism officials plan to expand the campaign through the use of billboards and video screens at airports and railways.
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