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Venus of Urbino (1534): The Story Behind Titian’s Controversial Painting

Titian’s 1534 artwork Venus of Urbino is thought to be a masterpiece of the high renaissance movement, depicting a young woman reclining on an opulent bed. It is also seen as one of history’s most controversial images, due to its frank depiction of female sexuality and Titian’s choice to display a nude in a domestic setting, rather than a mythical dreamscape, as was the norm with depictions of Venus at the time. In this article, Singulart explores the life of the renowned painter, his experiments with the mannerism style, and analyzes Venus of Urbino – including the thoughts of an outraged Mark Twain.

The Life of Titian 

Titian, Self-Portrait (1567)
Titian, Self-Portrait (1567)

Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore in the Alps, and although his exact date of birth is unknown, it is estimated to be between 1488 and 1490. Around the age of ten, he moved to Venice with his older brother Francesco to take an apprenticeship as an artist, studying mosaics at Sebastiano Zuccato’s studio. After completing apprenticeships with both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Titian began working with Giorgione, who would become hugely influential in his work. The two artists collaborated on the decoration for the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, with some historians suggesting a close friendship and others stating the two had a strong rivalry. 

In 1516, Titian was appointed the official painter of the Republic of Venice, a position he held for the next sixty years. The annual salary (and healthy tax cuts) were a great benefit to his artistic career, allowing him to purchase lavish, exotic colors to use in his pieces. In the same year, he was made Venice’s official painter and completed The Assumption of the Virgin, which displays his mastery of color. 

Titian, The Assumption of the Virgin (1518)
Titian, The Assumption of the Virgin (1518)

Later in his life, Titian would add another lauded title to his name: he became the principal painter to the Imperial Court, with his work being sought out by Italy’s royalty and nobility. He was also appointed as the official painter of King Philip II of Spain, and in 1532, he received the title of Count Palatine. 

It was shortly after this period that Titian began to focus on his reclining Venus pieces, which included Venus of Urbino, Venus and Love, and Venus with an Organist and a Dog. He was also introduced to the mannerism style by artists Jacopo Sansovino and Pietro Aretino, a style which would influence much of his work. Titian continued to enjoy success until the end of his life in 1576, when he succumbed to the plague. 

The Mannerism Movement

By the time the mannerism movement began, artists felt like they and their predecessors had achieved everything they could in the field of art, particularly after the levels of perfection achieved by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. It could also be due to recent scientific discoveries that no longer placed man at the center of the universe. Artists needed to find a new approach to art, and the direction was something that was less like the naturalism of their predecessors and a more radical way of viewing the world. 

While the high renaissance style emphasized the ideal of beauty, mannerism exaggerated it. One of the key elements of mannerism was the figurative serpentina, or serpentine figure, which portrayed human bodies with elongated forms and fluid curves. This gave the figures in these artworks an otherworldly, haunting beauty. An example of this figurative serpentina can be seen in Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino – as the name suggests, it depicts the Virgin Mary with an elegant, extended neck, delicate but overly long fingers, and a highly stylized pose.

Another characteristic of the mannerism movement is the distortion of perspective. Artists would use techniques such as foreshortening to create a unique perspective, and sometimes would use extreme distortion to the point where the perspective is not immediately apparent to the viewer. Parmigianino’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror is an example of this, with the artist’s arm distorted and enlarged to follow the curve of the mirror. 

Parmigianino, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524)
Parmigianino, Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524)

Although Titian’s name is well-known among the high renaissance movement, he was also well versed in the mannerism style of painting. One example of his incorporation of mannerist elements is The Crowning with Thorns, depicting exaggerated poses and body types in a biblical scene. 

Analysis of Venus of Urbino

Titian, Venus of Urbino (1534)
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1534)

Although it might be difficult to surmise from Venus’s suggestive, seductive pose, this painting was in fact a celebration of marriage, created for the Duke of Camerino Guidobaldo della Rovere to commemorate his wedding to Giulana Varano. There are a number of elements in the artwork that lead to the conclusion that the painting is a depiction of love and loyalty. The sleeping dog curled up at the woman’s feet is a symbol of fidelity, while the posy of roses in her hand represents love. Two maids in the background of the piece are looking through a cassone, a traditional chest for women to keep their trousseaux, and in this instance is believed to symbolize motherhood.

In Venus of Urbino, Titian displays his mastery of balancing the elements of composition. The gentle curves of the female’s body are beautifully balanced with the vertical lines of the tiles behind her and the architectural lines of the dividing wall. Titian’s use of chiaroscuro around the edges of the body also give the model a dreamy, sculptural appearance. 

While painting a reclining nude was not exactly taboo at the time- though this frank depiction did raise a few eyebrows- Titian’s choice to paint her in her boudoir, rather than in a fantastical setting, caused some controversy. It has been suggested that this has enhanced her accessibility and intensity; she is not a mythical, dreamlike figure, but simply a real woman reclining on a bed, a very normal setting. Indeed, it was so shocking to Mark Twain when he viewed the artwork that he was inspired to write the following passage: 

“You enter [the Uffizi]… 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 privilege.”

 Giorgione and Titian, Sleeping Venus (1510)
Giorgione and Titian, Sleeping Venus (1510)

Of course, it is almost impossible to view Venus of Urbino without recalling another famous Venus, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. Titian completed the landscape of Giorgione’s Venus after the artist’s death, and his muse is reclining in an almost identical pose. However, Giorgione’s depiction is more traditional in the sense that it shows his nude reclining in a mythical landscape, not in a domestic setting. It is in fact debated whether Titian intended for this to be a depiction of Venus at all, or whether the name was given as a sort of tongue-in-cheek allegory.

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