Titian's ‘Venus of Urbino’ Introduction The Renaissance is widely recognized as being a significant artistic and cultural turn from previous medieval modes of expression. In addition to an increasing willingness to examine humanist concerns, Renaissance era productions oftentimes demonstrate an increasing willingness to push the boundaries on subject matter…
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Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sexual seduction, and fertility. The sexualized nature of Venus’ mythological roots made her a ripe subject for Renaissance artists seeking to embrace this new freedom of expression. While perhaps not the most seminal incorporation of Venus imagery, Titan’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ painting is highly sensational in its depiction of a nude woman on a couch; indeed, Mark Twain even once referred to the work as a form of pornography. This essay situates Titan’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ within the context of the gender situation in Renaissance Italy and compares it with other Renaissance versions of Venus imagery, ultimately arguing that the image indicative of progressive Renaissance values, and to an extent an early incarnation of female objectification. Analysis In gaining a thorough contextual understanding of Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (Fig. 1) it’s first necessary to situate the work in relation to the socio-cultural values, artistic trends, and gender perspectives of the time of the work’s creation. Fig. 1 Venus of Urbino One prominent such consideration is the nature of the work as framed in a window like format. There is a great many connotations within such Renaissance window imagery. One theorist notes that, “the window was often viewed as an erotically charged space for both prostitutes and -- at certain times – ‘proper’ women.”1 While for ‘Venus of Urbino’ this sexuality is in part indicative of Renaissance moral liberalization, in the context of Venus imagery this work is highly sexualized relative to other works. While the image’s highly sexualized nature is clear, the extent that this sexuality is indicative of progressive Renaissance values, or rather an early incarnation of female objectification is a debated subject. While individuals such as Joan Kelly has notably argued in favor of female objectification, Chojnacki instead contends that the Renaissance witnessed a shift in favor of women’s rights. He writes, “The spatial dimension of the state’s regulation of sexual behavior was more concretely present to Venetians in the case of prostitution.”2 In this mode of understanding one could potentially view the image as one empowerment. Still, it’s important to consider the nature of nude prostitutes and courtesans as being models for Venus. The image then can even be argued to take on a subversive quality, rebuking increased state regulation of sexual behavior. While a plethora of artists implemented Venus imagery during the Renaissance, this subject was a cyclical theme in Titian’s work. One of Titian’s prominent implementations of Venus occurs in his oil painting ‘Sacred and Profane Love’. Featured in Fig. 1 below, this work shares with Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ the nude depiction of Venus. While the central focus in ‘Venus of Urbino’ was on the Venus figure, in this image Venus seemingly plays a secondary role to the depiction of the bride. Still, scholars have also argued that the bride is actually a different representation of Venus. Tinagli notes, “the two women represent two aspects of the goddess of love, respectively the Celestial Venus (platonic love) and the Terrestrial Venus (sensual love). Nakedness stands here for the purity of spirituality.”3 Fig. 2 Sacred and Profane
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