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Venus of Urbino: this Beautiful Nude Is a Trifle?

Updated on October 14, 2016
Titian, Venus of Urbino (detail)
Titian, Venus of Urbino (detail) | Source
Titian, Venus of Urbino (detail)
Titian, Venus of Urbino (detail) | Source

Mark Twain and the Venus’ Act

The Venus of Urbino is considered one of the most provocative nude in the history of art. Painted by Titian in 1538 for Guidobaldo II della Rovere, heir of the Duchy of Urbino, since the end of 1600s it hangs in the galleries of the Uffizi, where was seen by Mark Twain in 1880. Evidently, the writer did not appreciate the sensuality which emanates from the goddess, reclining naked in the foreground and he described the work as the “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses” (A Tramp Abroad, 1880). He continues: “It was painted for a bagnio (the Italian word bagno means toilet) and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong".

Really, Titian might also have agreed with this sentence, at least with the first part. In fact, the Venus had been painted for the private rooms of Guidobaldo della Rovere, and it had to be dedicated to his sixteen years wife, Giulia Varano. The ubiquitous Vasari refers to have seen the painting in the wardrobe of the Duke. Not at all impressed by the nudity and the pose of the woman, he describes her as a “young Venus lying with flowers and some clothes around, very beautiful and well finished”. He praises the clothes rather than the beauty of the woman.

So, what in this painting has so much irritated Mark Twain? The nudity of the Venus, her direct stare towards the observer is deliberately erotic, though they can be explained in the full contest of the work. What especially disturbs Mark Twain is the gesture of the woman’s hand, which might allude to an erotic pastime, more than to the act of decency of covering her pudenda.

To be honest, this kind of subjects was quite common as wedding gift in those days. They were a wish of happiness in love and fertility. The model for the Titian’s Venus is the Sleeping Venus, by his master Giorgione, who lies in the open air, not so sensual and provocative, perfectly fused with the around nature, showing the same gesture. This is the traditional gesture which we find in the ancient statues and in the Botticelli’s Venus (this one undoubtedly innocent) and it is difficult to think that Titian’s contemporaries might see something different in it, as the skinny description of Vasari demonstrates.

Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Florence Uffizi Gallery - Oil on canvas, size: 119.2 cm (46.9 in) x  165.5 cm (65.2 in)
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538), Florence Uffizi Gallery - Oil on canvas, size: 119.2 cm (46.9 in) x 165.5 cm (65.2 in) | Source
Giorgione, Sleeping Venus (a. 1510), Dresden Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister - The painting was left unfinished by Giorgione and completed by Titian, who added the white cloth and the cushions and perhaps removed a Cupid in the right side
Giorgione, Sleeping Venus (a. 1510), Dresden Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister - The painting was left unfinished by Giorgione and completed by Titian, who added the white cloth and the cushions and perhaps removed a Cupid in the right side | Source
Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Guidobaldo II della Rovere (1532), Florence Pitti Palace - In this portrait Guidobaldo is 29, but he lacks the proud expression which his father shows in the Titian's portrait.
Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Guidobaldo II della Rovere (1532), Florence Pitti Palace - In this portrait Guidobaldo is 29, but he lacks the proud expression which his father shows in the Titian's portrait. | Source
Titian, Portrait of Giulia Varano (1545- 1547), Florence Palatine Gallery
Titian, Portrait of Giulia Varano (1545- 1547), Florence Palatine Gallery | Source

History

It is known that the painting was commissioned to Tiziano by the heir of the Urbino Duchy, Guidobaldo II della Rovere. At the age of twenty, in 1534, this guy was in love with a beautiful girl, daughter of Giordano Orsini, but his father opposed to this marriage and he had to fall back on Giulia da Varano, who was still a child (eleven years). In 1538, the child entered the adolescence and Guidobaldo thought that she had the right age to become a true bride. All in all, fifteen is the age at which the Shakespeare’s great heroines fall in love and combine all the messes we know. The parents of Guidobaldo, Francesco Maria della Rovere and Eleonora Gonzaga, had been portrayed by Tiziano, so he had to think of him as the right author of a painting that could gently remember Giulia the duties and the pleasures of the marriage. As far as we know, this is the genesis of the Venus of Urbino. Guidobaldo urged his agent in Venice to buy the painting of the “naked woman”, but the mom Eleonora did not to want to finance his son’s caprice. Perhaps Guidobaldo had to commit some of his own assets, but at last the painting arrived to Urbino, where Vasari saw it in the private rooms of the Duke and where it has stayed for about a century.

In 1631, Vittoria della Rovere, last descendant of the family, married Ferdinando II de’ Medici, and the painting, with many others of the Duchy, took the road to Florence. In 1694 it is found in the inventories of the Uffizi collections. Around 1830, the Italian sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini made a plaster copy of the Venus and he convinced his friend Ingres, who was in Florence in those days, to execute a copy on canvas, which nowadays is displayed at the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

The Venus of Urbino was restored in 1996.

Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres, Reclining Venus (1821), Baltimore Walters Museum of Arts
Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres, Reclining Venus (1821), Baltimore Walters Museum of Arts | Source

Guidobaldo and His Child Bride

Guidobaldo II della Rovere and Giulia da Varano were married in 1534, when he was twenty and his bride only eleven. This marriage had been combined by Guidobaldo’s father, Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, to thwart the ambitions of the pope on the territory of Marche. Giulia Varano, duchess of Camerino, was the descendant of the family who for centuries had a key role in the control of that territory. The two spouses had a daughter, Virginia, in 1544. Giulia died three years later, in 1547, when she was 23. The year after Guidobaldo married Vittoria Farnese, who gave him three children. Guidobaldo fought for the State of the Church and the King of Spain, but he had to quell a revolt in 1573 because of the excessive taxation he had imposed in the Duchy. He died in 1574 at the age of 60.

Inside the Venus

Description and Analysis

A naked woman, supposed to be a Venus, lies in an unmade bed, wearing nothing but a ring (at the little finger of the suspect left hand), a bracelet and a pearl earring. Apparently, she is waiting for the clothes that the two maids in the background are extracting from the decorated chests. An external garden is visible from a window, which lets the golden light of an early morning or a late afternoon to come in. A myrtle plant is placed in backlight on the windowsill. The dark colours of the background exalt the clear body of the woman.

The Venus is inserted in a domestic environment, a luxury Renaissance apartment, without any mythological reference. She holds in her right hand a bouquet of red roses, symbol of love, but also of the decadence of every human beauty, sacred to the goddess as the myrtle plant on the windowsill. The image is clearly taken from the Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (or Dresda Venus). However, while that one is sleeping and passive, here the goddess turns his gaze to the viewer (who might also be her husband) without any modesty, as to say: Here I am. The folds of the cloth, the cushions where Venus puts the elbow and the head, underline the sensuality of the scene, built on the white and red colours, the colours of the purity and the passion, used also for the clothes of the two servants in the background. The creamy skin of the Venus, the chiaroscuro which models her body, is a clear example of the Titian’s chromaticity, where the colours are used to build the image at the expense of the drawing, as Vasari and Michelangelo had already observed. The small dog (may be the same appearing in the portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere, mother of Guidobaldo) crouched in a corner of the bed may symbolize the fidelity, as to say that this exhibited nudity is for a man only.

The horizontal pose of the Venus lying on the bed occupies all the width of the foreground and contrasts with the verticality of the elements in the background (the two maids, the column of the window, the tapestry on the wall). The two maids appear to be ancillary to the scene, as they were just architectonic components of the chamber, made remote by the perspective.

About the identity of the woman, any hypothesis that she had to be identified with a real person, such as Giulia Varano or Eleonora Gonzaga, has been discarded by scholars. The model for the Venus is commonly identified with the courtesan Angela del Moro.

From Courtesan to Goddess

Titian, La Bella (a. 1536), Florence Palatine Art Gallery
Titian, La Bella (a. 1536), Florence Palatine Art Gallery | Source

The model for the Venus probably has a name: Angela del Moro. According to the terminology of the period, she was a courtesan (nowadays the term used would be “escort”). She is known as one of the most paid courtesans in Venice and probably was also a good companion to Titian and his friend and supporter Pietro Aretino, playwright and author of erotic poems. Very little is known about her life, but her face has entered the history of art. She appears in at least three more portraits by Titian, all belonging to the same period (1535-1537): the famous Bella, the Girl in a Fur and the Portrait of a Young Woman with Feather Hat. Titian was used to hire such kinds of models for his pictures, so that once an ambassador of the Duke Alfonso d’Este, charged to oversee the progress of his work, wrote that “…the girls whom he often paints in different poses arouse his appetite, which he then satisfies more than his delicate constitution permits; but he denies it…”

Meaning

The most credited interpretation of the picture relies on his educational function towards Giulia Varano. In this sense, the scene would have its meaning within the life of the couple, symbolizing the different aspects of the marriage: the sensual one (surely prominent) represented by the lying Venus and the domestic one, represented by the two maids who rummage in the chests.

However, the young age (she seems to be a child) and the white dress of the kneeling maid may also suggest a slightly different message directed to Giulia. I.e. that the age of keeping the clothes in order, the age of playing to be a good, pure housewife is now far (as far is the kneeling child, in the accurate perspective of the scene), overcome by the age of being a woman and to love as a woman.

An alternative interpretation sees the painting as a representation of the commemorative love: the love which generates new life after the death. The column of the window would be a reference to the poetess Vittoria Colonna (“colonna” is the Italian word for column), who in 1538 had published a book of poems, and the black ring at the little finger of the Venus a sign of mourning: the death of Vittoria’s husband Ferdinando Francesco d'Avalos, happened in 1525. The rose petal which falls on the red mattress would reinforce the sense of detachment and love beyond death.

Really, it is to say that in the October 1538 Guidobaldo’s father had died and the black ring at the Venus finger might also have been added by Titian before sending the painting to Urbino, perhaps as a simple reference to the mournful fact.

Aphrodite of Cnidus, copy from Praxiteles (IV century b.C.), Rome Altemps Palace
Aphrodite of Cnidus, copy from Praxiteles (IV century b.C.), Rome Altemps Palace | Source

Trifle or Masterpiece?

Do you agree with Mark Twain about the Venus of Urbino?

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Influences (a Matter of Hands and Gazes)

The explicit model for the Venus of Urbino is the Sleeping Venus, which Giorgione painted around 1510, for the wedding of Girolamo Marcello. Probably the canvas had been left unfinished because of the Giorgione’s death and Titian was asked to complete the work. He added the soft white cloth and the red cushion, which confer the scene a greater sensuality. Giorgione has updated the pose of the so-called venus pudica (the naked Venus who covers her pudenda with a hand), recurrent in the statues of the Greek and Roman antiquity, adopting a horizontal position which will become in turn a very frequented model.

In 1863 Edouard Manet recalls the themes of the Titian’s Venus in his Olympia, one of the most famous works of the artist. Olympia is a declared prostitute and having figured her in the classic pose of a goddess is surely ironic and debunking. She covers her pudenda with a clear gesture, which may mean: “I do what I want with this” and stares at the spectator with a look of defiance. The small dog crouched is substituted, significantly, with a black cat standing on the legs with the tail raised. The painting caused a scandal, but it was defended by the writer Emile Zola, who said: “when the other artists correct the nature painting Venus, they lie. Manet asks himself why lie. Why not to tell the truth?”

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863), Paris Orsay Museum
Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863), Paris Orsay Museum | Source

The Nude Maja, by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, is dated around 1800 and hence is earlier than the Olympia, but really it might be at the end of an ideal route which departs from the Sleeping Venus passing through the Venus of Urbino and the Olympia. Goya’s Maja has completely abandoned the gesture of the venus pudica: at last, the hands are up and no misunderstandings are possible. She keeps her hands behind the head, offering the observer the integral nudity of her body, while looks at him without any timidity, but also without the look of defiance of the Olympia.

Francisco Goya, Nude Maja (a. 1800), Madrid Prado Museum
Francisco Goya, Nude Maja (a. 1800), Madrid Prado Museum | Source

© 2014 Massimo Viola

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