Located in the famed Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Titian’s “The Venus of Urbino” (1538) remains as seductively controversial as she was when first painted. Along with fellow Venetians, Titian followed the hedonistic spirit, and its essence can be seen in the vivid colors and forthright nudity displayed in this work of art.
In contrast to the demure “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, the bawdy Titian artwork stands in stark contrast, even though it is no less skillfully crafted. The bright colors of the painting and the reclining nude suggest a more earthly, sensuous Venus than Botticelli’s ethereal nude emerging from a sea shell.
“The Venus of Urbino” and Messages for a Bride
While it’s clear that the sensual appeal of the painting would enchant any husband, the painting (commissioned by Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo II Della Rovere) was laden with instruction for his young bride, Giulia Varano, about her “wifely duties.” In Titian’s painting, the goddess of love is not merely intended to be a spiritual inspiration, but also meant for the sexual pleasures that accompany love.
Other symbols (the maid in the background going through a chest searching for clothing and the small dog) relate to marriage as well. The small dog is a symbol for fidelity, while the maid with the chest of drawers refers to motherhood. The chest of drawers (cassone) was typically given as a wedding gift, and would have been decorated with a painting akin to “The Venus of Urbino.”
In this work of art, Venus is intended to be not just a goddess of love, but also to embrace the concept of the perfect Renaissance woman (and wife). She should be someone who is imbued with qualities such as beauty, fertility, and love.
Nod to the “Sleeping Venus” and Influence for “Olympia”
Titian’s painting was not only a private domestic lesson, but an ode to another painting by Giorgione, a Venetian artist whose life was cut short by death at age 30. Because of this, Titian was the artist to complete Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” (1510), filling in the background landscape. The pose of the Venus in Giorgione’s painting is mirrored by “The Venus of Urbino.”
While Giorgione used the landscape to parallel the curves of the nude Venus in “Sleeping Venus,” in contrast Titian used dark colors for the background to showcase the pale nude in an obviously domestic indoor scene.
Just as “The Venus of Urbino” was an homage to the “Sleeping Venus,” so too did Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” act as a tribute to the Titian work. In 1863, the stakes are raised even more, as the reclining nude figure gazes directly at the viewer. Many of the same Titian elements are present in Manet’s painting. Both Venus figures cover their pubic area, but in Manet’s painting, the act is aggressive, thus indicating sexual independence. Where Titian uses a dog to symbolize fidelity in marriage, Manet uses a black cat to indicate the nude here may be a prostitute and at the least, clearly in control of her own sexuality.
Controversy Surrounding the Venus
Nevertheless, what both paintings have in common (besides their subject matter and style) is the controversial nature of their subject matter. While critics of the time called Manet’s painting “vulgar” and “immoral,” of Titian, none other than Mark Twain declared in his work “A Tramp Abroad,” “The Venus of Urbino” is “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses…a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.” While adding his humor to the ever-present controversy surrounding the Titian painting, Twain expressed a sentiment that (for some) continues to modern day.
Whether Venus is seen as a demure goddess in Botticelli, as a sensual marriage partner in Titian, or as a woman in charge of her own destiny in Manet, she has been an important figure throughout art history. In “The Venus of Urbino,” Titian uses the tools of the artist (color and symbolism) to tell her story in the context of marriage and love.