Monday, March 26, 2018

"The Venus of Urbino," a different interpretation.

TIZIANO Vecellio (Titian) The Venus of Urbino 1538   Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italian Renaissance
In the background of Titian’s painting entitled "The Venus of Urbino" (1538) are two women looking inside or placing things inside a chest. This chest or cassone is most likely a dowry chest, in which case the women are then preparing the chest with gifts for the upcoming nuptials. Venus, the goddess of beauty, nude in the foreground, presides over the event, but there’s something wrong with this picture. Venus is really the Duke of Urbino’s courtesan (mistress) and the title of the painting is just a disguise to make a nearly pornographic portrait palatable. This kind of double meaning in a painting is common during the Renaissance especially in portrayals of women.

What is also interesting about this images is that the artist chose to juxtapose the eroticized female form with commodities or luxury items.  By playing the textures and body of the female against expensive fabrics, fur, fruit, and dowery chest containing the family jewels and porcelain, the artist is also making the human female form another commodity which can be bought and sold.  In this way, the wealth of the patron is also eroticized.  This device is played off again and again throughout the history of art.

The cassone is a familiar object in the upper class Renaissance home. Provided by the bride’s family and kept throughout her life the chest is symbol of her marriage. The decorations on the chest are designed to educate the woman who owns it. The images that adorn cassoni relate familiar classical and biblical narratives concerning the lives of great women. For example, San Francisco’s "Legion of Honor" has a panel from a cassone by Jacopo del Sellaio that depicts the "Legend of Brutus and Portia," circa 1485. Both Plutarch (AD 46-119), a Greek historian, and Shakespeare (1554-1616) in his play "Julius Caesar," depict Portia as a strong and loyal wife. In Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar," Portia exclaims, "Think you I am no stronger than my sex, Being so fathered and so husbanded?" (Act 2, i, 319-320) and stabs herself in the leg to prove to Brutus that she can bear any discomfort for him. After she learns of Brutus’ defeat, she kills herself by swallowing hot coals.

Another cassone from the Louvre depicts the Old Testament story of Queen Esther and her self-sacrificing patriotic acts that saved the Jewish people. The subtext of these tales is not just loyalty but self-sacrificing loyalty in the face of adversity.

Titian's painting has been the subject of much observation.  It's interesting that so much positive "press" has been associated with this image considering how much it has been vilified in the past.  Mark Twain, in his biography Tramp Abroad, recorded his response to his encounter with the Titian painting:
You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world --the Tribune-- and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses -- Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed --no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl --but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to --and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her --just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world...yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words....There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought -- I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.
Now that you know how Twain felt about this work.  This poem by Browning discusses a similar painting.   It is used by the narrator of the poem as a point of departure to discuss how he feels about his last wife and how he feels women should behave.  As you read it, try to relate the painting above to it. 
 
"My Last Duchess" - Robert Browning - 1842  1   That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
  2   Looking as if she were alive. I call
  3   That piece a wonder, now; Frà Pandolf's hands
  4   Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
  5   Will't please you sit and look at her? I said
  6   "Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
  7   Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
  8   The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
  9   But to myself they turned (since none puts by
10   The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
11   And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
12   How such a glance came there; so, not the first
13   Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not
14   Her husband's presence only, called that spot
15   Of joy into the Duchess' cheek; perhaps
16   Fra Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps
17   Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint
18   Must never hope to reproduce the faint
19   Half-flush that dies along her throat." Such stuff
20   Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
21   For calling up that spot of joy. She had
22   A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,
23   Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
24   She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
25   Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
26   The dropping of the daylight in the West,
27   The bough of cherries some officious fool

 
28   Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
29   She rode with round the terrace - all and each
30   Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
31   Or blush, at least. She thanked men, - good! but thanked
32   Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked
33   My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
34   With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame
35   This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
36   In speech - which I have not - to make your will
37   Quite clear to such an one, and say "Just this
38   Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
39   Or there exceed the mark" - and if she let
40   Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
41   Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse -
42   E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose
43   Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
44   Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
45   Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
46   Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
47   As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet
48   The company below, then. I repeat,
49   The Count your master's known munificence
50   Is ample warrant that no just pretense
51   Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
52   Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
53   At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
54   Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
55   Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
56   Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.

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