Venus of Urbino
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Venus of Urbino (1538) is an oil painting by the Italian master Titian. It depicts a nude young woman, identified with the goddess Venus, reclining on a couch or bed in the sumptuous surroundings of a Renaissance palazzo. In his 1880 travelogue A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain called the Venus of Urbino "the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses". He proposed that "it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong', adding humorously that "in truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery". Venus of Urbino inspired the later painting Olympia by Édouard Manet, in which the figure of Venus was replaced with a prostitute.
The pose is based on Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (c. 1510), but Titian uses more sensuality in comparison to Giorgione's sublime remoteness. Devoid as it is of any classical or allegorical trappings ('Venus' displays none of the attributes of the goddess she is supposed to represent), the painting is unapologetically sexy.
The frankness of Venus' expression (see female gaze) is often noted; she stares straight at the viewer, unconcerned with her nudity. In her right hand she holds a posy of flowers whilst her left covers her pubic area, provocatively placed in the centre of the composition. In the near background a dog, symbolising fidelity, is asleep.
The painting was commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino. It would originally have decorated a cassone, a chest traditionally given in Italy as a wedding present. The maids in the background are shown rummaging through a similar chest, apparently in search of the Venus's clothes. Curiously, given its overtly erotic content, the painting was intended as an instructive 'model' for Giulia Varano, the Duke's extremely young bride. The argument for the painting's didacticism was made by the late art historian Rona Goffen in 1997's “Sex, Space, and Social History in Titian’s Venus of Urbino."
This work of art was an inspiration for the character Fiammetta Bianchini in the book In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. It is also referenced in Bernard Malamud's short story Naked Nude, where the main character is blackmailed into painting a forgery of it.
Titian made good use of the innovation, linear perspective in this painting.
- "As for Titian's Venus — Sappho and Anactoria in one — four lazy fingers buried dans les fleurs de son jardin — how any creature can be decently virtuous within thirty square miles of it passes my comprehension. --Algernon Swinburne, Swinburne's Letters.