“It is not extravagantly hypothetical to imagine how much more direct an appeal such a picture must have made to the sexual responses of some sixteenth-century beholders."1 This painting proves that a piece of art is dependent on the context in which it is viewed, be it cultural, historical or even geographical. Its significance, function and 'meaning' is constantly shifting. The true friction at this painting's heart is in the contrasting definitions of art and pornography. This essay will address this friction, questioning whether it has any impact on the work's overall importance.
Fig. 1 - Titian, The Venus of Urbino, 1538
1 Goffen, R. (1997) Titian's Women. Yale: Yale University Press.
Before looking at its reception, it is vital to analyse the painting's content. Based on Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, a female nude clutches a bunch of roses, the symbol of Venus, but bears no other resemblance to the goddess. Reclining nudes are often portrayed with their eyes shut2, however Venus keeps her's locked, unabashed and interacting with the viewer. A playful smile invites the viewer in, prompting speculation that the subject may not be the goddess, but a courtesan. If indeed she is, it appears far more likely that the painting was produced to arouse. The subject lies on a crimson couch, reflecting lust, but also a fine example of colour associated with classic Venetian painting, creating conflict between traditional style and erotic undertones. The central composition leads the eye to her loin, and the hand which has caused so much debate since its conception. It falls across her pubic area in the 'Pudica' pose, often associated with Venus protecting her modesty.3 However, the overtly confident aura of the figure has caused viewers to question whether she is holding her hand in a masturbatory gesture. Her hair falls over her shoulders, and she wears nothing but a loose bracelet and ring, attracting more attention to this questionable hand. The painting is split into two sections, a dark drape as background of one, and the other showing examples of traditional Italian Renaissance iconology. Two servants search for clothes in a cassone – a traditional marriage chest. Rona Goffen argues that the involvement of the cassone suggested the subject was a representation of marriage, as these chests typically carry garments of the bride.4 However, other imagery points to the figure as a courtesan; a sleeping dog at her feet, a creature traditionally representing fidelity, suggesting the opposite in sleep. The presence of such iconology may have been to shield its use as a stimulating picture.
The painting was bought by Guidobaldo II della Roveure, the Duke of Urbino, who saw the piece in Titian's studio and purchased it immediately. He initially called the piece “la donna nuda” meaning 'the nude woman', implying the Duke had no interest in the presence of Venus. The lack of 2 See Reuben's Angelica and the Hermit, 1630 and Lucas the Elder Cranach's Nymph of the Fountain, 1534. 3 See Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, 1485 and Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, 1510 4 Goffen, Titian's Women
a specific commission for the painting suggests that Titian may have...