The Triumph of the City


The High Renaissance



(Renaissance  Art Map)


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In the great Gothic church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, Titian worked on two altarpieces that progressively moved away from the rigid centralized schemes of the Early Renaissance to form a new style. In the Assumption of the Virgin (1518), the composition follows the dynamism of the action. To the excitement of the apostles below, angels raise the Virgin towards the open arms of the Lord. It is a picture of motion, light, and colour, in which all the movement follows a circular rhythm, immersed in an atmosphere of golden light, moving from the dark tones of the earth to the brilliance of the heavens. In Madonna of the House of Pesaro, commissioned in 1519 for a lateral altar in the Frari, Titian adopted a strong diagonal composition in preference to the traditional centralized scheme. He placed the Virgin Mary to one side, against one of two vast columns that soar up and disappear out of sight. The configuration of the saints and donors conforms to Titian's diagonal-triangular principle; the primary point of the triangle being the Virgins head, the other points formed by the heads of the two kneeling chiefs of the Pesaro family.




born 1488/90, Pieve di Cadore, republic of Venice [Italy]
died Aug. 27, 1576, Venice

Italian in full Tiziano Vecellio , or Vecelli the greatest Italian Renaissance painter of the Venetian school. He was recognized early in his own lifetime as a supremely great painter, and his reputation has in the intervening centuries never suffered adecline. In 1590 the art theorist Giovanni Lomazzo declared him “the sun amidst small stars not only among the Italians but all the painters of the world.”

The universality of Titian's genius is not questioned today, for he was surpassingly great in all aspects of the painter's art. In his portraits he searched and penetrated human character and recorded it in canvases of pictorial brilliance. His religious compositions cover the full range of emotion from the charm of his youthful Madonnas to the tragic depths of the late “Crucifixion” and the “Entombment.” In his mythological pictures he captured the gaiety and abandon of the pagan world of antiquity, and in his paintings of the nude Venus (“Venus and Adonis”) and the Danae (“Danae with Nursemaid”) he set a standard for physical beauty and often sumptuous eroticism that has never been surpassed. Other great masters—Rubens and Nicolas Poussin, for example—paid him the compliment of imitation.


Early life and works

The traditional date of Titian's birth was long given as 1477,but today most critics favour the later date of 1488/90. Titian was the son of a modest official, Gregorio di Conte dei Vecelli, and his wife, Lucia. He was born in the small village of Pieve di Cadore, located high amid mountain peaks of the Alps, straight north of Venice and not far from the Austrian Tyrol. At the age of nine he set out for Venice with his brother, Francesco, to live there with an uncle and to become an apprentice to Sebastiano Zuccato, a master of mosaics. The boy soon passed to the workshop of the Bellini, where his true teacher became Giovanni Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of the day. Titian's early works are richly evident of his schooling and also of his association as a young man with another follower of the elderly Giovanni Bellini, namely, Giorgione of Castelfranco (1477–1510). Their collaboration in 1508 on the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the German Exchange) is the point of departure for Titian's career, and it explains why it is difficult to distinguish between the two artists in the early years of the 16th century. Only ruined outlines of the frescoes survive, the “Allegory of Justice” being the chief scene assigned to Titian. The etchings (1760) of the frescoes by Antonio Maria Zanetti, already in a much faded condition, give a better notion of the idealism and the sense of physical beauty that characterize both artists' work. The problem of distinguishing between the paintings of Giorgione and the young Titian is virtually insuperable, for there is little solid evidence and even less agreement among critics about the attribution of several works. The present tendency among Italian writers is to assign far too much to Titian in his youth.

It is certain that Titian's first independent commission was for the frescoes of three miracles of St. Anthony of Padua. The finest in composition is the “Miracle of the Speaking Infant”; another, the “Miracle of the Irascible Son,” has a very beautiful landscape background that demonstrates how similar in topography and mood were Titian's and Giorgione's works at this time. In fact, after Giorgione's deathin 1510, Titian assumed the task of adding the landscape background to Giorgione's unfinished “Sleeping Venus” (Gemaldegalerie, Dresden), a fact recorded by a contemporary writer, Marcantonio Michiel. Still Giorgionesque is the somewhat more lush setting of Titian's “Baptism of Christ” (c. 1515, Capitoline Museum, Rome), in which the donor, Giovanni Ram, appears at the lower right.

The authorship of individual portraits is the most difficult of all to establish, but the “Gentleman in Blue” (so-called “Ariosto”) is certainly Titian's because it is signed with the initials T.V. (Tiziano Vecellio). The volume and the interest in texture in the quilted sleeve seem to identify Titian's own style. On the other hand, “The Concert” has been one of the most debated portraits, because since the 17th century it was thought to be most typical of Giorgione. The pronouncedpsychological content as well as the notable clarity of modelling in the central figure has led 20th-century critics to favour Titian. Technique and the clear intelligence of the young Venetian aristocrat in the “Young Man with Cap and Gloves” has led modern critics to attribute this and similar portraits to Titian.

The earliest compositions on mythological or allegorical themes show the young artist still under the spell of Giorgione in his creation of a poetic Arcadian world where nothing commonplace or sordid exists. The inspiration lies in the idyllic world of the love lyrics of the 16th-century Italian poets Jacopo Sannazzaro and Pietro Bembo. “The Three Ages of Man,” where the erotic relationship of the young couple is discreetly muted and a mood of tenderness and sadness prevails, is one of the most exquisite of these. The contemporary “Sacred and Profane Love” is likewise set in a landscape of extraordinary beauty, but here the allegory is less easily understood. The most generally accepted interpretation holds that the two women are the twin Venuses, according to Neoplatonic theory and symbolism. The terrestrial Venus, on the left, stands for the generative forces of nature, both physical and intellectual, while the nude Venus, on the right, represents eternal and divine love. Essentially an ideally beautiful young woman rather than a cruel biblical antiheroine is the lovely “Salome.”




Mature life and works

Sometime in the early 1520s Titian brought to his house in Venice a young woman from Cadore whose name was Cecilia. Two sons were born in 1524 and 1525, first Pomponio, who became a priest, and second Orazio, later a painter and Titian's chief assistant. During Cecilia's grave illness in 1525, Titian married her. She recovered and later gave birth to two daughters, Lavinia (born 1529/30) and another who died in infancy. On Cecilia's death in 1530, the artist was disconsolate and he never remarried.

Mythological paintings

Titian's fame had spread abroad, and Alfonso I d'Este sough thim as one of the chief masters in a cycle of mythological compositions for his newly rebuilt rooms called the Alabaster Chambers in the castle at Ferrara. Two of the canvases are now in the Prado at Madrid: the “Worship of Venus” and “The Andrians”; one of the most spectacular, the “Bacchus and Ariadne,” is in the London National Gallery. The gaiety of mood, the spirit of pagan abandon, and the exquisite sense of humour in this interpretation of an idyllic world of antiquity make it one of the miracles of Renaissance art. Warmth and richness of colour help to balance the intentionally asymmetrical grouping of the figures, placed in richly verdant landscape that is also an integral part of the design. At this time Titian partially repainted the background of Giovanni Bellini's “Feast of the Gods” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), so that the picture would better fit the series in the same room at Ferrara.

The standard for the reclining nude female obliquely placed in the picture space was established by Giorgione in the “Sleeping Venus.” In Titian's “Venus of Urbino” the ideal rendering of the body and the position remain virtually unchanged, except that the goddess is awake and reclines upon a couch within the spacious room of a palace. For sheer beauty of form these two works were never surpassed. Despite the inherent eroticism of the subject, Titian managed it with restraint and good taste. Variations on the theme recur throughout his career.

Bacchus and Ariadne

Oil on canvas, 175 x 190 cm
National Gallery, London


Religious paintings

Among the religious paintings Titian produced between 1516 and 1538 is one of his most revolutionary masterpieces, the “Assumption” (1516–18; see photograph ). This large and at the same time monumental composition occupies the high altar of Sta. Maria dei Frari in Venice, a position that fully justifies the spectacular nature of the Virgin's triumph as she ascends heavenward, accompaniedby a large semicircular array of angels, while the startled Apostles gesticulate in astonishment at the miracle. When the painting was unveiled it was quickly recognized as the work of a very great genius.

The posture of the Madonna in the “Assumption” and the composition of Titian's “Madonna and Child with SS. Francis and Alvise and Alvise Gozzi as Donor” reveal the influence of Titian's contemporary Raphael; and the pose of St. Sebastian in the “Resurrection Altarpiece,” the influence of Michelangelo. These influences, however, are of secondary importance since the landscapes, the physical types, and the colour are totally Titian's own.

In the “Pesaro Madonna” (1519–26) Titian created a new type of composition, in which the Madonna and Saints with the male members of the Pesaro family are placed within a monumental columnar portico of a church. The picture is flooded with sunlight and shadows. This work established a formula that was widely followed by later Venetian Renaissance painters and served as an inspiration for some Baroque masters, including Rubens and Van Dyck.

Such a quantity of masterpieces by Titian followed that only a few can be mentioned. The poetic charm of the artist's pictures with landscape continues in the “Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and a Rabbit” and the “Madonna and Child with SS. John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria” (c. 1530). The “Entombment” is his first tragic masterpiece, where in a twilight setting the irrevocable finality of death and the despair of Christ's followers are memorably evoked. The stately “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple,” a very large canvas, reflects the splendour of Venetian Renaissance society in the great architectural setting, partlyin the latest style of the contemporary architects Serlio and Jacopo Sansovino. The pageantry of the scene also belongs to well-established tradition in Venetian art, but the organization, with its emphasis on verticals and horizontals, constitutes Titian's interpretation of the High Renaissance style.





One of Titian's great triumphs came when he answered the call to Bologna in 1530 at the time of Charles V's coronation as Holy Roman emperor. In 1531, in keeping with his social state, he moved to a Venetian palace known as the Casa Grande, which survives as a 20th-century slum. Titian returned to Bologna to portray Charles V again on the occasion of the second meeting of Charles V and Pope Clement VII in the winter of 1532–33. The portrait of “Charles V in Armour” (1530) and another painted in January 1533 are lost, while only a less important work, “Charles V with Hound” (1532–33; Prado, Madrid), a copy of a portrait by Jakob Seisenegger, survives. Charles was so pleased with Titian's work that in May 1533 he bestowed upon the artist the most extraordinary honour of knighthood. Thereafter, the Austrian-Spanish Habsburgs remained Titian's most important patrons. Charles attempted to induce Titian to go to Spain in 1534 to prepare a portrait of the Empress, but the artist wisely refrained from undertaking the arduous journey.

Titian's other portraits in the 1520s and 1530s provide a gallery of the leading aristocrats of Italy. A splendid exampleis “Alfonso d'Avalos, Marques del Vasto” (1533), brilliantly rendered in gleaming armour ornamented with gold. He is accompanied by a small page whose head reaches his waist. The introduction of a secondary figure to give scale is a device frequently adopted by Titian. Another refulgent portrait in armour, but without the secondary figure, is that of “Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino” (1536–38). Emphasis here is given to the Duke's military career, not only by the armour but also by the baton in hand and the three others in the background. These works are essentially idealized state portraits, although the heads are very convincingly rendered. “Doge Andrea Gritti” is to a greater extent a symbol of the office—that is, that of ruler of Venice. The gigantic body in a canvas of large size is sweeping in design and commanding in presence. In later works, too, Titian very effectively managed the scaling of a figure to appear massive by filling the space of the canvas—in his portraits of Pietro Aretino, for example, where he gives his subject a leonine bulkiness. Allowing more space around the figure in “The Young Englishman,” he projected a personality of cultivated elegance and human warmth.




Travels and commissions


The large number of masterpieces in portraiture that Titian continued to create throughout the rest of his life is astounding. Pope Paul III and his grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, began to compete with Emperor CharlesV for Titian's services. At the request of the Pope, the painter travelled to Bologna in May 1543 and there prepared the celebrated official portrait of “Pope Paul III Without Cap. ”Although a state symbol of the Pontiff, the characterization of the crafty statesman, bent with age, comes through.

Titian's next major association with the Farnese came in 1545–46, when he made his only visit to Rome, lodged in the Belvedere Palace of the Vatican. For the first time Titian was able to see the archaeological remains of ancient Rome and also the Renaissance masterpieces of Michelangelo, Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, and others. The effect upon the master's own style was relatively slight, understandably enough, since he was already a mature and famous artist.

Of portraits of the Farnese family carried out at this time, fewremain. The most celebrated of all is “Paul III and His Grandsons Ottavio and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese” (1546; Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples). A painting of a family group, it is most searching in psychological revelation. The feeble Pope, then aged 78, appears to turn suddenly in his chair toward Ottavio Farnese,his 22-year-old grandson. Ottavio's overly obsequious bow and his shrewd Machiavellian profile demonstrate Titian's sheer genius in understanding and recording character. As a foil, the great churchman Cardinal Alessandro Farnese stands quietly by. It is no wonder that the portrait is not completely finished, for Paul III must have found it too revealing of the feud within the Farnese family.

If one were forced to name Titian's two greatest portraits, the choice might fall upon the Farnese group and upon another, “The Vendramin Family.” Here the situation is quite different, for the two heads of the clan kneel in adoration of are liquary of the Holy Cross, accompanied by seven sons ranging in age from about eight to 20. This portrait group is a tour de force in technical brilliance, richly beautiful in colour, running the emotional gamut from gravity to the innocence of childhood.

On his departure from Rome, in June 1546, Titian's association with the Farnese ended. He received no payment for his pictures, and his hopes for recompense in the form of a benefice for his son Pomponio were never realized. Titian decided to throw in his lot with the Habsburgs. Consenting to undertake the arduous journey to Augsburg, he set out in thedepths of winter in January 1548 to cross the Alps to reach the Emperor's court. There he carried out one of his most memorable works, the equestrian “Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg,” designed to commemorate the Emperor's victory over the Protestants the year before. It is the great state portrait par excellence, intended to show the Emperor as a Christian knight, as he wished posterity to remember him. Titian minimized the disfiguring lantern jaw and gave great dignity of bearing to his subject. In sheer mastery of the painter's art, the picture is unsurpassed. The handsome armour, with its gleaming highlights and reflected colour, therose sash across the chest (a symbol of the Catholic party and the Holy Roman Empire), and the superb sunset landscape all contribute to make it one of the masterpieces of all time.

In December 1548 Charles instructed Titian to proceed to Milan to prepare likenesses of Prince Philip on his first trip outside of Spain. Once again, in the fall of 1550, Charles obliged Titian to travel to Augsburg to remain until May 1551, when he executed one of his greatest state portraits, the “Philip II” in full length. In this portrait of Philip, when stilla prince aged 23, Titian achieved another tour de force in sheer beauty of painting, and he treated gently the surly face of the arrogant young man.




Religious paintings

Like some of Titian's earlier religious paintings, “Christ Before Pilate” is a work in which Titian managed a large crowd in a processional manner leading to the focal point, the figure of Christ at the left. Here the people are in a state of turmoil as they demand Christ's crucifixion. The composition, however, marks a new phase in Titian's development, far removed from the Renaissance serenity of the “Presentation,” which is not explainable by the subject alone. The compact massing of figures, the oblique position of the steps and the wall at the left, and the general effect of excitement are indicative of the mid-16th-century style known as Mannerism. Titian assimilated and recreated, however, to produce a masterpiece far surpassing anything of which the Mannerist artists were capable.

Titian's religious compositions after his visit to Rome in 1545–46 reveal to some degree his contact with ancient art and the works of Michelangelo. In “Christ Crowned with Thorns” the burly muscular figures are thus explained, as perhaps is the violence of the whole interpretation.




Last years in Venice

On his return to Venice in 1551, Titian remained there for the rest of his life except for summer visits to his native city of Pieve di Cadore. In his last 25 years his productivity was undiminished in quantity and in creative ideas.
Late life and works


Among his portraits is the full-length, dashingly rendered figure of the Duke of Atri, who is dressed in red velvet. One ofthe latest and most dramatic was “Jacopo Strada,” in which this brilliant antiquarian, writer, and art collector is shown presenting to the spectator a small statue, a Roman copy of an Aphrodite of Praxiteles. Here again, the scope and varietyof Titian's invention is astonishing in this new composition, so notable for lively action, psychological perception, and pictorial beauty. One must not forget Titian's “Self Portrait,” in which he presents himself with great dignity, wearing the golden chain of knighthood. The intelligent, tired face is fully rendered, while the costume is sketched in lightly with a free brush. One of the most remarkable late works is the “Triple Portrait Mask” or “Allegory of Prudence,” in which Titian, gray-bearded and wearing a rose-coloured cap, represents old age, his son Orazio, maturity, and presumably Marco Vecellio stands for youth.




Religious paintings

The “Trinity” (or “La Gloria”), painted for Charles V's personal devotion, reflects central Italian art to a lesser degree than the earlier “Christ Crowned with Thorns.” The glowing richness of colour predominates in this adoration of the Trinity in which Charles V and his family appear among the elect. The “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” marks a further step in new compositional directions that culminate in Baroque form in the following century. St. Lawrence upon his gridiron is placed obliquely in space, and the steps reverse the direction to the right. Although dramatic power invests the main action in the foreground, the night scene with the tall flares and mysterious light suggests the supernatural. In his late religious pictures Titian veils the human forms in shadowy light and so increases the dominant mood of spirituality. One sees this effect in the late “Entombment,” in which muted colour prevails, and in the awesome tragedy of the “Crucifixion.” The “Christ Crowned with Thorns,” employing essentially the same composition as in the earlier version, is now seen through a veil of darkness, and the colour is broken into tiny spots and areas. All is miraculous in the “Annunciation,” in which Gabriel rushes in and an assembly of angels in glory hovers about the Virgin. Titian's final word and last testament is the “Pieta,” intended for his own burial chapel but left unfinished and completed by Palma il Giovane. The master and his son, Orazio, appear as tiny donors on the small plaque to the right. The monumentality of the composition is established by the great architectural niche flanked by Moses and the Hellespontic sibyl, while the figures are grouped in a long diagonal. The subdued colour befits the all-prevailing sorro wand the immutability of death in this, one of the artist's most profound achievements.



Venus with Organist and Cupid
Oil on canvas, 148 x 217 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid




Mythological paintings

The “Venus and Cupid with an Organist” and the “Venus and the Lute Player” are variations on the theme of the earlier “Venus of Urbino.” Aside from the emphasis on the idealized beauty of the nude goddess, it is generally believed that symbolism is involved in these pictures, although the precise meanings have been variously interpreted. Beauty of sound (music) and beauty of vision are common to both. In the first example, a Renaissance garden with fountain and trees in perspective completes the background, which is separated from the figures by a dark red velvet curtain. More symbolism of an erotic nature is present in the embracing couple, a stag, and the satyr on the fountain. In the second picture, the background consists of a broad river valley and the distant Alpine peaks so dear to Titian's heart. This late landscape, painted in the artist's free illusionistic style, is extraordinarily beautiful.

The “Venus with a Mirror” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the one original among several versions, is a natural theme for the goddess of love and beauty. Yet Titian is the first artist to show her with a mirror held by Cupid. Her form is somewhat more heroic than hitherto, and her head to a limited degree is inspired by ancient sculpture.The superb quality of the flesh tones is enhanced by the cloak of dark red velvet, trimmed with fur.

A group of several important pictures of mythological themes was created by the master in 1554–62 for Charles's successor, Philip II of Spain, who never bothered to remunerate Titian for any of them. From the letters of the artist to the King, it is clear that he planned the paintings in pairs, but otherwise they do not constitute a comprehensive iconographic program. The first pair (still in Madrid) consists of the “Danae with Nursemaid” and the “Venus and Adonis.” The magnificent nude Danae lies upon her couch, knees raised, as Jupiter descends to her in the form of golden rain, and her nursemaid rather amusingly attempts to catch the coins in her apron. This work (of which there exist numerous replicas and copies) is undoubtedly the most voluptuous in Titian's entire repertory. In colour and technique, as well, the “Danae” is one of Titian's greatest achievements; one is tempted to say that no other artist ever equalled him in imagination and in the depiction of sheer beauty of this work. In the “Venus and Adonis,” the goddess, depicted from the back, attempts to restrain her muscular young lover as he is about to depart for the hunt, his dogs straining at the leash. The rose of his costume and the red velvet cushion beneath Venus are foils in the colour composition to the flesh tones and the sunlit landscape.

The “Perseus and Andromeda” was intended to be a companion to “Medea and Jason,” according to Titian's letter, but for some reason the second picture was never carried out. Andromeda, bound to the rock at the left, awaits deliverance as Perseus descends from the sky to slay the monster. Her powerful physique reflects Titian's familiarity with the work of Michelangelo, yet Andromeda's body is more feminine and graceful than any of the Florentine's masculine-looking women. Titian's sensitivity to female beauty is unfailing.

“The Rape of Europa” is surely one of the gayest of Titian's “poesies,” as he called them. Taken by surprise, Europa is carried off, arms and legs flying, on the back of Jupiter in the form of a garlanded white bull. A putto (chubby, naked little boy) on the back of a dolphin appears to be mimicking her, and cupids in the sky follow the merry scene. Titian's fondness for oblique compositions is most successfully applied here, for it contributes to the sense of movement, and it allows for the extensive seascape and the mountainous shore. The sheer wizardry of Titian's technique is nowhere more fully demonstrated than in the misty distances shot through with blues and sunset rose and in the expanse of sea with its iridescent lights.

In “The Rape of Europa” Titian reached the climax of his powers, and by good fortune the picture has survived in almost perfect condition. On the contrary, two other great “poesies” done for Philip II are sadly abused by time and restorers, particularly the “Diana and Callisto,” and less so the “Diana and Actaeon.” The assembly of female nudes in avariety of poses, befitting the action, illustrates two episodes of the Diana legend as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, books II and III. “Diana and Actaeon” depicts Actaeon, the youthful hunter of heroic body, just as he unwittingly happens upon Diana and her nymphs as they are bathing (and before Diana punishes him by transforming him into a stag). Behind him is a great rose-coloured curtain. A landscape of extraordinary beauty and a vaulted passage form the setting within which the maidens are gathered. The organization of the rather complex design once more presages Baroque compositional methods. In the companionpicture, the goddess discovers that Callisto, one of her maidens who had taken the vow of chastity, is pregnant. Though she was deceived by Jupiter's trickery, she is, nevertheless, banished and later, according to the legend, transformed into a bear. A standing and rather fulsome nude rips the drapery from the reclining Callisto. The golden canopy in the trees above Diana is the cloth of honour referring to her divinity. The glorious deep blue sky with golden clouds and the green branches of the tree supply the backdrop for the nude bodies. Diana, tall and imperious, is magnificent, despite the surface damage that has destroyed much of the paint. Subtleties abound in every movement andevery gesture.

The latest of these compositions carried out for Philip II was the “Tarquin and Lucretia,” a dramatic work of great vigour that proves that the aged master had lost none of his creative powers. Rather than Lucretia's suicide because of her rape by Tarquin, which is the more common subject, Titian chose to represent Tarquin's violent attack upon her. Again the rich colour is equally as important as the action. Against the green curtain and white sheets the rose velvet breeches of Tarquin and his green and gold doublet stand out in rich brilliancy.

The great master died of old age in 1576, while a plague was raging in Venice. He was interred in the church of Sta. Maria dei Frari, where two of his most famous works may still be seen.

Through his long life Titian was highly successful in all branches of the painter's art. In his interpretation of Christianiconography he was infused in his youth with the poetic styles of the elderly Giovanni Bellini and his contemporary Giorgione. Titian created new compositions such as the “Assumption” and the “Pesaro Madonna” and later in his life the “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,” and he carried out a never-ending succession of new conceptions as his career matured. He gained international fame as a portraitist, beginning as a Giorgionesque painter and developing into a major creator of the state portrait for the glorification of rulers. The revival of the culture of the ancient world lies at the root of Renaissance culture in the arts and in literature; inspired by the ancient poets such as Ovid, Catullus, and Theocritus, Titian recreated pictorially the legends of Greece and Rome in a series of incomparable masterpieces.

Harold E. Wethey

Encyclopaedia Britannica



See collection:  Titian





From the canopy of Heaven to a four-poster bed

Titian: Venus of Urbino, c. 1538

The Venus of Urbino
Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


On 9th March 1538 Guidobaldo delk Rovcre, son of the Duke of Urbino, wrote a letter to his father's ambassador in Venice. He was sending a courier, he wrote, or rather dictated, to "bring me two paintings currently in the hands of Titian". The courier was, under no circumstances, to return without the paintings, even if it meant waiting for two months.
The situation was complicated, for Guidobaldo ciid not have enough money to pay for the works. The ambassador, so he requested, was to use his good offices to elicit an advance, or a guarantee for the required sum, from his mother, the Duchess. In a later letter Guidobaldo wrote that "if the worst comes to the worst" he should have to "pledge that which is mine". He was determined to have the two Titians. One was his own portrait, the other was "la donna nuda", the "naked woman". Known today as the Venus of Urbino, this 119 x 165 cm Renaissance painting can now be seen in the Uffizi, Florence.
In the spring of 1538 Guidobaldo reached the age of 25 years. Titian (probably born between 1488 and 1490) was twice Guidobaldo's age. By that time he was, in all likelihood, the most highly-regarded artist in southern Europe. He had worked for churches and monasteries, for rich merchants and the Republic of Venice, for Italian princes and the Emperor, Charles V. Titian enjoyed the highest social and artistic esteem. Charles V had elevated him to the rank of Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur - an extraordinary honour for a painter.
Guidobaldo may have become acquainted with Titian through his father, Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino since 1508. Francesco was known for his violent temper and prowess as a military strategist. He had killed a cardinal with his bare hands, fought for the papacy and led a Venetian army into battle: in short, he was a typical condottiere. He owned a palace in Venice and died in October 1538, presumably poisoned by his rivals.
This condottiere loved paintings and sophisticated company. He was married to the much-admired Eleonora Gonzaga: "If ever knowledge, grace, beauty, intellect, wit, humanity and every other virtue were joined in one body, then in this", enthused the writer Baldassare Castiglione. Francesco had commissioned paintings by Titian since 1532: a Nativity, a Hannibal, and a Christ for the Duchess. Later he commissioned a Resurrection and purchased a Woman in a Blue Dress. Portraits of the Duke and Duchess followed.
Guidobaldo continued the family tradition, commissioning new paintings more or less regularly until his death in 1574. Like his father, he served as a general in the Venetian army, frequently staying at Venice. His financial problems of spring 1538 were solved by the death of his father in the autumn of that year. He was now Duke of Urbino. And his mother had paid for her son's portrait, though not for the "naked woman".



The Venus of Urbino (detail)


Who was the "donna nuda"?

It was later claimed that the future Duke of Urbino wished to possess the painting because it portrayed his mistress. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Titian painted his own mistress, for the woman appears in his paintings no fewer than three times. A rumour during the nineteenth century maintained that the painting showed Guidobaldo's mother, Eleonora Gonzaga, for it was difficult to ignore a certain resemblance between her portrait from Titian's hand and the "naked woman". Moreover, both paintings contained the same curled-up lapdog.
There is no evidence to support any of these theories. An Italian "lady of quality" was unlikely to have herself portrayed in the nude, for this would have been irreconcilable with her role in society: she was expected to bear children, hold house, put her husband's honour above all else and stand by his side on public occasions. Though the human body was increasingly exalted during the Renaissance, the exhibition of a woman's body unclothed to eyes other than those of her husband would have provoked ugly scenes indeed, had the terrible facts been revealed in public by a painting.
The ideal of uxorial respectability did not include the expression of sexual and sensual pleasure, so evident in the present painting. The church, with its repudiation of the body and disdain for women, did whatever it could to ensure that the respectable ideal became respectable practice. Men were permitted to indulge their sexuality, women were not. It is probable that the opportunities for such gratification within marriage were limited, for marriage — both to the aristocracy and to the bourgeoisie - had less to do with personal inclination than with politics, or finance.
Families were expected to afford their members protection; safety was more highly valued than love.
The constraints imposed by men on their wives and daughters drove the former to seek their consolation in mistresses and prostitutes. According to the diary entry of a man called Pnuli, there were some 11,000 prostitutes in Venice c. 1500, and, according to another source, there were 6800 in Rome c. 1490. If one relates these figures to the total population of the towns at the time - Rome had 40,000 inhabitants, Venice 120,000 - one arrives at the figure of almost 20 percent of the female population in one case, and over 30 percent in the other. Even if these figures seem too high to sustain credibility, they nonethless suggest that prostitution was anything but a marginal social phenomenon. Countless anecdotes confirm this. Payment for sexual favours was socially acceptable. Priests damned it, of course, but Cardinal de' Medici, during his stay in Venice in 1532, made no secret of living with a girl called Zeffetta.
Alfonso d'Este, who married Guidobaldo's sister Julia, was even praised for it on one occasion: instead of simply seducing young girls, he at least asked their parents' permission before taking the girls to live with him. Later, he married them off with an excellent dowry. For the poorer strata of the population, giving away one's daughter as the mistress of a wealthy man was practically considered a normal means of securing her existence.
The prerequisite was, of course, that the girl was as appealing as Titian's model. Titian himself lived for many years with a barber's daughter, who bore him two children. Titian then did something quite unusual: he married her.

Titian painted a bouquet of roses in the reclining nude's hand. Roses were an attribute of Venus. Whether mythical figure or "donna nuda", her body reflects the ideals of beauty and erotic predilections of the High Renaissance.
Her high forehead, however, was untypical of the period. Throughout the Middle Ages, women whose circumstances had granted them leisure to indulge in fashion had plucked their hair above the forehead in order to lengthen their faces.


The Venus of Urbino (detail)


Bodies change with fashions

The curve of the head between forehead and cranium was considered attractive, and was emphasized for that reason. High foreheads, however, were now a thing of the past. Even married women no longer concealed their hair under bonnets, and the locks of unmarried women fell loose about their faces, softening their features.
Although the hair of most Italian women was black by nature, the most fashionable colour at the time was blonde. Almost all mythical figures painted during the Renaissance have fair hair. It was said of the women of Venice in 1581 that they used "spirits and other remedies to turn their hair, not only golden, but snow-white".
In Gothic art, women generally appear slender and elongate, an effect emphasized by their trains, tapering bonnets and sloping shoulders. The ideal female figure of the Renaissance was more solidly built. Broad shoulders, enlarged and embellished by the ploys of dressmakers, were an important characteristic of this type. Titian gives special emphasis to the reclining nude's right shoulder, while a servant in the background wears fashionably puffed sleeves. Breasts were considered beautiful only if small, round and firm, lacking the fullness of maturity. This was the view expressed in an Italian text of 1554, a view evidently shared by Titian. A narrow waist, the distinguishing feature of 19th-century fashion, was considered undesirable. The latest Spanish fashion was a high corset that flattened the breasts, denied the waist and enclosed the trunk of the body like a tube. However, this puritanical garment, turning the female body into a kind of geometrical figure, gained little acceptance in Italy.
Titian painted his nude with a gently rounded belly. In Gothic art, the stomach tended to protrude further than the breasts. Renaissance painters, on the other hand, hoping to capture a more natural attitude, did away with exaggerated curves. Nonetheless, the belly, the symbol of fertility and procreation, remained the focal point of the female body.



The Venus of Urbino (detail)


A chest was part of every dowry

Titian's "donna nuda" reflected the Renaissance ideal in a number of details, and it was perhaps for this reason — as much as for its quality as a work of art - that Guidobaldo was so desperate to possess it. The artist emphasizes the nuditv of the reclining woman bv showing two fully-clothed servants in the background. The kneeling woman is seen from behind, an unusual posture. Indeed, Titian may be the only artist of his day to have painted a woman in this attitude.
The interior and furnishings are typical of the period. The kneeling woman is rummaging in a clothes-chest, referred to in Italian as a cassone. Clothes-hangers and wardrobes had not yet come into use, and clothes were kept in chests. They formed an integral part of every dowry and, depending on whether their owners were wealthy enough, would often be inlaid with marquetry, or painted. Titian, too, had painted cassoni'm his youth. They tended to be low, since they doubled as seats. Some were even fitted with backrests.
The bed was probably a four-poster, supporting a canopy and with crossboards for hanging curtains; neither posts nor crossboards are visible in the present painting, however. With its curtains drawn, a bed was transformed to a room within a room, a realm of privacy. Maids and servants often slept in the master bedroom, or in front of the door, since the majority of houses did not have servants' quarters. Titian painted his beauty half-sitting; the pose reflects contemporary sleeping habits.
Titian's interior contains little but a bed and chests; in fact, these were the most important, and sometimes the only pieces of furniture to be found in a house. There were few proper tables; meals were generally eaten at boards which were laid across trestles and later stowed away. It is difficult to see whether the hangings in the background are tapestry or leather.
Venice, with lively trading relations to the Near East, was one of the main transshipping ports for oriental carpets, and the best, or most famous, gold-printed leather was imported from the Spanish town of Cordoba. Marble floors were found in all the wealthier homes. Artists treasured their regular square patterns, which provided a means of lending mathematical precision to perspective; this had been an important feature in painting since the development, in Florence a century earlier, of artificial perspective.
The windows of domestic interiors were relatively small, and were closed with wooden shutters. The open space shown in Titian's painting may be part of a room used only in summer, perhaps at a country villa. A view of pleasant, surrounding countryside was an essential feature in every Renaissance villa.
While Titian's work contains many details epitomizing life at the time, it was not his intention to paint a realistic picture. This is made abundantly clear by the dark plane dividing the painting into two halves, whose right edge ends just above the reclining nude's hand. Though evidently intended to suggest the curtain of the bed, it is entirely lacking in definition. The plane helps balance the two halves of the picture, as well as providing a background against which the upper half of her body stands out more clearly. The vertical border also emphasizes her mons veneris, which the nude covlv conceals.

The Venus of Urbino (detail)


The goddess becomes a woman

In c. 1485, Sandro Botticelli painted his Birth of Venus, one of the loveliest Venus nudes to emerge from the Florentine Renaissance. She is shown standing upright, almost floating. It was the Venetian Giorgione who devised the first reclining Venus. Against a natural setting, we see her asleep with her head resting on one arm. Giorgione died in 1510, before he could finish the work. Titian, his collaborator, completed it. He returned to the theme more than a quarter of a century later, this time replacing the outdoor setting with a domestic interior.
The three paintings show a progression. Botticelli's Venus is a supernatural apparition in human form, untouchable, not of this world. Giorgione's Venus has a realer presence. She is shown reclining in an attitude of abandon - to sleep, rather than a man's gaze. She, too, retains something of the aura of a Nature goddess. Titian has removed her from natural surroundings, placing her in a man-made setting instead: a four-poster bed. The goddess is transformed: a young woman meets the spectator's gaze, conscious of her appeal, revealing her body and expecting, if not caresses, then admiration. It was Titian who liberated the nude from the constraints of the mythical stereotype, seeing a real woman in the female figure. To his contemporaries, this must have been an exciting development. It can hardly be put down to accident that Guidobaldo, who wanted the painting so badly, spoke only of the "donna nuda", the naked woman.
It was not until later, through the intervention in 1567 of the art historian Vasan, that the nude became known as Venus. Her identity was confirmed in a later inventary. Though the chief attribute of antique Venus, her son Cupid with his bow and arrows, seems to have deserted her in the present picture, Titian nonetheless paints her with her characteristic flowers: he shows her holding roses, the symbol of pleasure and fidelity in love, and places a pot of myrtle on the window ledge to indicate constancy in marriage. The lapdog is an unusual figure here. It symbolized carnal desire, but also devotion; on the gravestones of many married couples a dog was shown lying at the woman's feet. Perhaps it found its way into the painting quite by accident. Perhaps it belonged to the artist's workshop, and Titian simply enjoyed painting it.
Some scholars have suggested that Guidobaldo commissioned the work to mark the occasion of his wedding in 1534, which would explain his eagerness to possess the work. There is no evidence for this. At the same time, however, it is impossible to overlook the symbolic reference through roses and myrtle to conjugal fidelity. Titian may have wished to show more than Venus' conventional attributes. Perhaps he wanted to show an alternative to the widespread division of the female population into repectable housewives and paid paramours, demonstrating that sensual pleasure could be found in marriage too. Guidobaldo, as his letters testify, was very happily married.


See collection:  Titian



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