The Venus of Urbino is one of Titian’s best known paintings, and probably his most provocative. Portraying a young female model, who according to some scholars appeared in other artist’s pieces, the work feeds the ambiguity regarding the protagonist’s social status by blurring generic boundaries. It is a pagan allegory, it is a private image that celebrates matrimony and, apparently, it is also a portrait.
The lush, naked Venus directs at the viewer a liquid gaze full of sweet surrender and yearning tenderness. She seems to be completely at ease with her inclined to corpulence form, displaying a confidence and openness that make her even more charming and desirable; her body, tilted slightly towards the viewer, throat exposed, lies in a pose of suggestion, or perhaps a demand.
Her seductive pose is made to appear even more tantalizing by the ambivalence of the left hand gesture: does she conceal herself, thereby rendering it a sign of modesty, or does she, in fact, touch herself in a more deliberate fashion, implying, as it would be, the opposite of modesty? As this wikipedia article on the painting proposes, the model, while covering her genital area with her left hand, appears to “toy with a strand of pubic hair” with her fingers.
The Venus of Urbino derives its inspiration from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which Titian himself completed (he painted the landscape after Giorgione’s death). Its influence spread beyond place and time, captivating such artists as Mark Twain, who thought it too lascivious, and Manet, who thought it insufficiently so, painting an even more shocking version, the Olympia.
Composition and Meaning
The painting presents a full-fledged composition that balances somewhat the languorous static character of the reclining protagonist with a consistent dynamic component.
The tiles, foreshortned by the perspective, rhytmically lead to the end of the hall, where one of the maids is hurrying to prepare her mistress’ dress; the red dress of the other echoes the cushion’s red corner in the foreground. Thick verticals relieve the eye from the nearly all-black piece of wall behind’s the figure’s back.
This wall helps to define the boundary between the private and the public (or semi-private): the sleeping chamber at the foreground is “for your eyes only,” the hall appears to offer more access to the help, and possibly visitors. The portico entrance and the trees confirm the more open character of the main room.
It is the enclosed room that allows Venus to open her eyes and accompany her nudity with such a soul-baring gaze; Giorgione’s goddess, placed outside, sleeps with her eyes closed. Titian’s model is thus so much bolder, and so much more revelatory. Her unconditional honesty translates into a kind of incorrupt innocence, no matter how erotic and suggestive the context is.
These intimations lead to the notion that Titian gives physical attraction and pleasure an approbation, or at least a well considered aknowledgement. The image overall can be viewed as one giving legitimacy to the idea of sexuality, and endorsing intercourse (between a husband and a wife) as positive and desirable. Catholic dogma of marital intimacy and procreative sex as inferior to celibacy, and as of being merely the lesser of two evils between itself and extramarital relations, dissolves in this image.
This extensive and eye-opening article on the Venus of Urbino claims that obscure interpretations of the painting aim to disavow Venus’ sexual appeal, sometimes to a ridiculous degree of obfuscation and denial; that these could be telling more about the authors rather than the work of art. “This woman seems far too sexy to be chaste.”
At the same time, the author insists on the marital interpretation, basing his claims on iconography: the two cassoni, probably containing the girl’s bridal garments, and the curled little dog, a very common symbol of marital fidelity (van Eyck’s famous Arnolfino portrait is a classic example).
Private, discreet ownership could be the most fitting bridge to the gap (one not altogether uncommon in contemporary Western society) between sexy and marital. Intended to be owned and seen in a private collection, the image becomes a personal message – similar to that sleeping chamber – “for your eyes only.”
And today still, while the curves of Venus’ naked body are there for the eyes of all to observe and admire, one person remains the singular addressee of the girl’s attention, and the sole recipient of the almost limitless fondness and affection exuding from her face. The rest of the audience will never be able to penetrate that room and gaze. It was not the artist’s intention.