The Louvre Triumph of Venus Panel: A Satire of Misogynists

Article excerpt

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What early modern Europe males first challenged endemic misogyny and what was the means for doing so? Answers to these questions can make important contributions to the understanding of how endemic bigotry can best be supplanted. Some leading experts on Boccaccio propose that he was a trailblazer in ridiculing women haters as weak males compensating for their sexual limitations. (1) Building on this view, this study interprets an early modern painting in the Louvre (Fig. 1), which has several allusions to Boccaccio, as a satire of misogynists.

It is a great loss to the history of human consciousness that nothing is known about the painter of the twelve-sided panel in the Louvre. Tentative attributions have been based on circumstantial evidence, not on clearly identifiable parallels between the panel and other paintings of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. These attributions will be discussed at the end of this article. The anonymous painter was exceptional in his/her ability to stand outside societal conventions and critique them, and in his/her technical ability to suggest several stages of a sexual fantasy. By using imagery associated with the Assumption of the Virgin, by replacing the Virgin with a nude female, and by adding demonic references (black wings on the female, bird-like feet on her winged attendants), the painting invites the viewer into a highly imaginative reconstruction of a male fantasy involving dream-like fluid shifts from virginal to carnal to demonic females. The fluidity of the imagery is missed if the viewer tries to limit it to the rationally-circumscribed definitions suggested by the title in the most recent Louvre catalogue: The Triumph of Venus Venerated by Six Legendary Lovers (Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris, and Troilus). (2) This acknowledges the names inscribed sequentially, from left to right, on males who kneel in a venereal garden and look up at the nude female above.

The word triumph brings to mind Petrarch's Trionfi and Boccaccio's Amarosa Visione. Neither literary work provides sources for the imagery in the Louvre panel, which defies attempts to attach to it the moralistic messages of those works which record visions testing the moral fortitude of the authors. None of the numerous illustrations inspired by Petrarch's Trionfi cast any light on the Louvre panel. To tell viewers to see the nude female as Venus and only Venus is to obscure the way the figure combines a parody of the Virgin with a parody of the Devil in a fluid way. This study asserts that the six kneeling males, far from venerating the female figure, are projecting onto her their fantasies that confuse virginal, orgasmic, and frightening thoughts about females. The names inscribed on their costumes bear no relationship to these costumes and no texts about these literary figures cast light on the panel's intent.

Despite this, Jacqueline Musacchio, an expert on Italian Renaissance birth and marriage paintings, has assumed that texts related to these figures provide essential clues. Only a husband, she asserts, could decipher the "complex series of associations" that required familiarity with learned texts. She writes this in the 2008 catalogue for the "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy" exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Kimball Museum, Fort Worth, which included the Louvre panel. (3) Musacchio classifies the Louvre panel as a desco da parto, or ceremonial birth tray, but describes it as an anomaly and as "an inappropriate message for a husband to send to his young wife." She adds that "the lesson here was intended for the husband," who is warned about "the sexual power of the goddess, and her ability to control the six warriors by the force of that sexuality." Nothing is specified, however, about how learned texts might have informed this admonition.

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No texts about the six legendary lovers unlock the mysteries of the panel, but two visual artifacts help. …