The peak of the Renaissance happened in the mid-1500s with a generation of prolific artists that included Titian, the most acknowledged proponent of the Venetian school. The exceptional domains of this skillful Italian painter were quickly recognized mostly because of his versatility in delivering equal quality to different genres such as portraits, historical and religious paintings, and landscapes. The Sun Amidst Small Stars, as Titian was called by his contemporaries was appreciated for innovative use of color that has influenced an entire generation of artists to come.
Although Titian's style drastically shifted throughout his career, the royalty, as well as the wealthy bourgeoisie adorned the sensuousness typical for the painter, perhaps best expressed with the famous masterpiece Venus of Urbino, also known as Reclining Venus that was made between 1532 and 1534. This painting features a nude young woman recognized as an embodiment of the goddess Venus, sitting on a couch in the voluptuous palazzo; it is held in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and is considered as a perfect example of the Late Renaissance ideal of beauty.
The pose of the woman is apparently based on the Dresden Venus that is assigned to Giorgione but was finished by Titian. Now, this version features Venus in an interior instead of the exterior as is the case with earlier painting. However, the image of a young woman does not indicate her potential godliness, rather it focuses on her eroticism.
Namely, The Venus gazes proudly at the viewer, as if she sends a sex appeal. While holding a corsage of roses in her right hand, her left hand covers her genitals. In the near right corner lies a dog (an often symbol of fidelity), while in the background two maids occupied with errands are depicted.
The painting is interpreted either as a portrait of Zaffeta, a courtesan or as a celebration of the marriage of the first owner (who was not the one who commissioned it). Although Venus of Urbino was a subject of various debates regarding the meaning of the reclining female nude, various scholars have agreed that it definitely does not possess any particular classical or allegorical connotation.
According to the archives, Titian was commissioned to produce a painting by Ippolito de' Medici, who was made a cardinal by his renowned uncle Pope Clement VII. Namely, in 1532 the young cardinal spent the night with Angela del Moro, or Angela Zaffetta, who was a leading Venetian courtesan in Venice and sometimes a companion of Titian and Aretino. Initially, the painter made Ippolito's portrait, who asked him to paint a nude of Angela Zaffetta, or Titian decided to paint her hoping he would amaze Ippolito.
In 1534 Titian wrote to Ippolito's chamberlain in Rome stating he was working on a painting of a woman for the cardinal. Ippolito died the following year, and apparently never saw the painting, which remained located in Titian's studio when Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the son of the Duke of Urbino came in 1538 to pose for a portrait; he was fascinated by the Venus, and eventually bought it. Later that year, the young nobleman inherited the Duchy of Urbino after his father died, and the painting received the name by which it is usually known.
The other possible scenario suggests that Venus of Urbino was commissioned to Titian by Guidobaldo probably to celebrate his marriage in 1534 to Giulia Varano. Such a proposition was considered on the grounds of the two maids sorting clothes that are generally gifted to the bride by her husband's family. There is also an image of a little dog lying on the bed - the same was depicted in Titian's portrait of the duke's mother Eleonora Gonzaga indicating that the dog is a representation of della Rovere home; since the pet remains quit that alludes to the fact the viewer is the husband of the depicted woman.
In 1624, the Papacy fully annexed the Duchy to the Papal States, so the della Rovere court moved to Pesaro, and the painting was transferred to the Villa Imperiale; it became part of the Medici family collections in 1633 after the last descendant of della Rovere family, Vittoria, married Ferdinando II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1736, Venus of Urbino was moved to The Uffizi and has remained there ever since.
Here it is interesting to mention the late 19th-century account made by Mark Twain in his travelogue A Tramp Abroad. The famous American writer described Venus of Urbino as "the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses", observing that it was made for a brothel, and was probably rejected because it was too strong visually.
Regardless of the controversy it evoked during the time it was made, throughout the decades the painting earned recognition; it fascinated other artists not only for the bold interpretation of the theme but for its outstanding beauty and Titian’s refined technique. Therefore it is not strange that the Venus of Urbino was an inspiration for two other celebrated masterpieces such as La Grande Odalisque by Ingres and Manet's 1863 Olympia.
Editors’ Tip: Titian's 'Venus of Urbino' (Masterpieces of Western Painting)
Arguably the quintessential work of the High Renaissance in Venice, Titian's Venus of Urbino also represents one of the major themes of western art: the female nude. But how did Titian intend this work to be received? Is she Venus, as the popular title - a modern invention - implies; or is she merely a courtesan? This book tackles this and other questions in six essays by European and American art historians. Examining the work within the context of Renaissance art theory, as well as the psychology and society of sixteenth-century Italy, and even in relation to Manet's nineteenth-century 'translation' of the work, their observations begin and end with the painting itself, and with appreciation of Titian's great achievement in creating this archetypal image of feminine beauty.
Featured image: Titian - Venus of Urbino, 1538. Oil on canvas. Height: 119.2 cm (46.9 ″); Width: 165.5 cm (65.1 ″). Collection Uffizi Gallery.