Buying into Culture
Freund, Charles Paul, Reason
Undressed but unabashed, The Venus of Urbino has been staring slyly back at her admirers for almost 500 years. Completed by the Venetian master painter Titian in 1538, and frequently cited as one of his two or three greatest achievements, Venus was soon clothed by her contemporaries in the flimsiest of classical allusions; in fact, there's almost nothing in the portrait suggestive of the mythology that provides an excuse for its eroticism. Generations of critics and art lovers have, in their turn, covered Titian's goddess in a thick drapery of their own: opaque layers of interpretation and explanation of who she is and what she means. Today she hangs in the Uffizi, one of the great art temples of Florence, at once a symbol of fleshy Renaissance humanism and of the spirit of art that is not of this world. For a woman without clothes, Venus has worn a lot of guises.
Lately, however, much of this intellectual wrapping is falling away. Emerging from beneath is neither a goddess nor a symbol; nor does the meaning she has been keeping to herself have anything to do with Olympic allegory. Her secret is actually much more interesting, because it is about the forgotten foundations of contemporary culture.
Titian's mythological paintings have drawn a great deal of expert commentary, with people, as usual, seeing what they want to see. Some observers have seen the themes of Latin poetry symbolically expressed, and have turned Venus into a literary exercise. Some have placed this painting in the context of Titian's other nudes (he painted many, though this Venus is notably more relaxed than most); the modern aesthete Bernard Berenson pronounced these works to be "truly Dionysiac, Bacchanalian triumphs - the triumph of life over the ghosts that love the gloom and chill and hate the sun." Others have focused on such details as the clump of myrtle Venus clutches, and have interpreted the whole painting from that. In the symbolic language of flowers, myrtle indicates marital fidelity; thus, according to one 1963 interpretation, Titian's work is an expression of "harmonious, faithful love."
Maybe it is. But listen to the account of this painting and its contemporary reception offered by Lisa Jardine in her 1996 history of the Renaissance, Worldly Goods: "Titian's canvases of statuesque naked women in recumbent poses were regarded as learnedly symbolic by nineteenth century art historians....Only recently did contemporary correspondence come to light which showed that these works of art were painted to meet a vigorous demand for bedroom paintings depicting erotic nudes in salacious poses. When Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino, was negotiating to buy the painting now known as The Venus of Urbino from Titian in 1538, he referred to it simply as a painting of 'a naked woman'....In 1542, the churchman Cardinal Farnese saw the painting at Guidobaldo's summer residence and rushed off to commission a similarly erotic nude of his own from Titian in Venice. Reporting back on the progress of the painting some time later, the Papal Nuncio in Venice expressed the view that the Cardinal's nude...made The Venus of Urbino look like a frigid nun. In 1600, in response to a request from an admirer of The Venus of Urbino to acquire a copy, the then Duke agreed, on condition that the identity of the owner of the original be kept a secret - he did not wish it to be widely known that he was the owner of that kind of painting."
That kind of painting? What about the poetry, the symbolism, and the Dionysiac triumph? According to Jardine, a painter's reputation in Titian's time rested "not on some intrinsic criteria of intellectual worth," but rather "on his ability to arouse commercial interest" in his work.
It may not be immediately apparent how radical a judgment this is. After all, that Renaissance culture was deeply interested in the passions is well known. The many paintings of nude women, despite being labelled "Venus" or "Eve," were perceived erotically by their purchasers. …