The Venus of Urbino (1534) shows a young woman, completely nude, reclining on a bed or a couch. The room in which the subject poses and the furnishings in it suggests that the setting is a luxurious Renaissance palace. The painting is also known as the Reclining Venus and the subject is traditionally identified with the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, and desire.
An oil on canvas, the Venus of Urbino was painted by Titian, an Italian painter of the 16th-century Venetian school. Titian appears to have started the painting in 1532 and may not have completed it until 1534. The striking portrait is of the Renaissance style and is also often considered a mythological painting.
Today, tit hangs in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. The prominent art museum acquired the painting in 1736. It has been on permanent display at the Galleria since, except for several visits to exhibitions in places like Tokyo, Madrid, Urbino, Venice, and Brussels.
It is considered one of Titian’s most popular paintings and is definitely one of his most suggestive. The portrait is shrouded in mystery, with scholars still debating the true identity and social status of the naked woman and some suggesting that she has appeared in the works of other artists.
Venus of Urbino: Context and story
In the Venus of Urbino, the naked subject stares unabashedly at the viewer, not minding her nudity and seemingly beckoning to whoever is looking. She clutches a small bunch of roses in her right hand. Her left hand is tucked between her legs, with the fingers curled inward.
The painting is undoubtedly sensual and erotic. The subject’s body is in a seductive and languid pose, her gaze is confident and open, and the position of her hand leaves viewers wondering if she is attempting to be modest or touching herself deliberately.
In the background of the painting, a young girl and an older woman are looking through a cassone chest while a small dog sleeps close by. The view outside shows that the sky is transitioning from light to dark — or vice versa.
There are several symbols related to the goddess Venus in the painting. The sleeping dog represents fidelity, the roses in the subject’s hand symbolize the love between a couple, and the myrtle on the windowsill is one of Venus’ major symbols.
At the same time, Titian seems to domesticate the goddess by putting her in an indoor setting, showing her sexual side, and making her interact with the viewer. The domestic setting and the use of Venus as the subject seem to suggest that the painting is an allegory of sorts about marriage.
Art scholars say that Titian started painting the Venus of Urbino after spending a night in Venice with a courtesan called Angela Zaffetta. The artist may have been asked to paint a nude portrait of Zaffetta by Ippolito de’ Medici, a cardinal he knew.
Unfortunately, Ippolito died never seeing the portrait and it stayed in Titian’s studio until Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the young son of the Duke of Urbino, visited the artist to sit for a portrait. The young man took a liking to the painting and was keen to buy it.
In letters to his mother, della Rovere referred to the portrait simply as “the nude woman.” But it wasn’t long before his father died and he became the next Duke of Urbino, which is how the portrait acquired its name.
Alternatively, it is also said that della Rovere commissioned the painting for his wedding in 1534 to his young wife, the 10-year-old Giulia Varano. This theory is supported by the many hidden meanings related to marriage in the Venus of Urbino. It is said that the painting may have served to teach Varano about marriage, fidelity, eroticism, and motherhood.
Some art experts have pointed out, for instance, the cassone in the background. A cassone or large chest was traditionally given to a bride and was used to store the clothes given to her by the groom’s family. As in the painting, the cassone was usually placed in the bridal suite.
The small dog sleeping at the foot of the subject is often taken as a symbol of faithfulness and marital fidelity. The young girl rummaging through the chest and the woman standing beside her are taken as symbols of motherhood.
Meanwhile, the blatant sensuality of the subject seems to be a reminder of the marital obligations of the wife. The strong eroticism of the naked woman is emphasized by the warm light in which she is painted, in contrast to the darkness of her surroundings. Some art historians suspect that the painting may have been commissioned to remind Varano who, at the time of her marriage was barely an adolescent, not to forget the erotic aspect of her relationship with the Duke of Urbino.
The Venus of Urbino was inspired by the Dresden Venus or SleepingVenus (c.1510), which is traditionally attributed to Giorgione, an Italian Renaissance painter and Titian’s friend. Art scholars believe that Titian completed the Dresden Venus after Giorgione died, painting the landscape and the sky, and possibly even the nude figure of Venus.
The Venus of Urbino influenced many artists, including Édouard Manet. The French painter modelled Olympia (1863), one of his most famous paintings, after it. The subject in Olympia is a woman who is similarly naked and is reclining in the same pose.
One of the key differences between the Venus of Urbino and Olympia is that while both have a hand over her genitals, the position of the hand of Titian’s Venus seems to beckon while Olympia’s hand seems to block.
The painting also inspired Grande Odalisque (1814) by the Neoclassical artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. In this painting, the subject, another nude woman, is in a reclining position similar to Titian’s Venus. This one, however, has her back to the viewer.
VisitUffizi.org. (n.d.) Venus of Urbino by Titian. Retrieved from https://www.visituffizi.org/artworks/venus-of-urbino-by-titian/