From the canopy of
Heaven to a four-poster bed
Titian: Venus of Urbino, c. 1538
On 9th March 1538 Guidobaldo delk Rovcre, son of the Duke of
Urbino, wrote a letter to his father's ambassador in Venice.
He was sending a courier, he wrote, or rather dictated, to
"bring me two paintings currently in the hands of Titian".
The courier was, under no circumstances, to return without
the paintings, even if it meant waiting for two months.
The situation was complicated, for Guidobaldo ciid not have
enough money to pay for the works. The ambassador, so he
requested, was to use his good offices to elicit an advance,
or a guarantee for the required sum, from his mother, the
Duchess. In a later letter Guidobaldo wrote that "if the
worst comes to the worst" he should have to "pledge that
which is mine". He was determined to have the two Titians.
One was his own portrait, the other was "la donna nuda", the
"naked woman". Known today as the Venus of Urbino, this 119
x 165 cm Renaissance painting can now be seen in the Uffizi,
In the spring of 1538 Guidobaldo reached the age of 25
years. Titian (probably born between 1488 and 1490) was
twice Guidobaldo's age. By that time he was, in all
likelihood, the most highly-regarded artist in southern
Europe. He had worked for churches and monasteries, for rich
merchants and the Republic of Venice, for Italian princes
and the Emperor, Charles V. Titian enjoyed the highest
social and artistic esteem. Charles V had elevated him to
the rank of Count Palatine and Knight of the Golden Spur -
an extraordinary honour for a painter.
Guidobaldo may have become acquainted with Titian through
his father, Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino
since 1508. Francesco was known for his violent temper and
prowess as a military strategist. He had killed a cardinal
with his bare hands, fought for the papacy and led a
Venetian army into battle: in short, he was a typical
condottiere. He owned a palace in Venice and died in October
1538, presumably poisoned by his rivals.
This condottiere loved paintings and sophisticated company.
He was married to the much-admired Eleonora Gonzaga: "If
ever knowledge, grace, beauty, intellect, wit, humanity and
every other virtue were joined in one body, then in this",
enthused the writer Baldassare Castiglione. Francesco had
commissioned paintings by Titian since 1532: a Nativity, a
Hannibal, and a Christ for the Duchess. Later he
commissioned a Resurrection and purchased a Woman in a Blue
Dress. Portraits of the Duke and Duchess followed.
Guidobaldo continued the family tradition, commissioning new
paintings more or less regularly until his death in 1574.
Like his father, he served as a general in the Venetian
army, frequently staying at Venice. His financial problems
of spring 1538 were solved by the death of his father in the
autumn of that year. He was now Duke of Urbino. And his
mother had paid for her son's portrait, though not for the
The Venus of Urbino
Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Who was the "donna nuda"?
It was later claimed that the future Duke of Urbino
wished to possess the painting because it portrayed his
mistress. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Titian
painted his own mistress, for the woman appears in his
paintings no fewer than three times. A rumour during the
nineteenth century maintained that the painting showed
Guidobaldo's mother, Eleonora Gonzaga, for it was difficult
to ignore a certain resemblance between her portrait from
Titian's hand and the "naked woman". Moreover, both
paintings contained the same curled-up lapdog.
There is no evidence to support any of these theories. An
Italian "lady of quality" was unlikely to have herself
portrayed in the nude, for this would have been
irreconcilable with her role in society: she was expected to
bear children, hold house, put her husband's honour above
all else and stand by his side on public occasions. Though
the human body was increasingly exalted during the
Renaissance, the exhibition of a woman's body unclothed to
eyes other than those of her husband would have provoked
ugly scenes indeed, had the terrible facts been revealed in
public by a painting.
The ideal of uxorial respectability did not include the
expression of sexual and sensual pleasure, so evident in the
present painting. The church, with its repudiation of the
body and disdain for women, did whatever it could to ensure
that the respectable ideal became respectable practice. Men
were permitted to indulge their sexuality, women were not.
It is probable that the opportunities for such gratification
within marriage were limited, for marriage — both to the
aristocracy and to the bourgeoisie - had less to do with
personal inclination than with politics, or finance.
Families were expected to afford their members protection;
safety was more highly valued than love.
The constraints imposed by men on their wives and daughters
drove the former to seek their consolation in mistresses and
prostitutes. According to the diary entry of a man called
Pnuli, there were some 11,000 prostitutes in Venice c. 1500,
and, according to another source, there were 6800 in Rome c.
1490. If one relates these figures to the total population
of the towns at the time - Rome had 40,000 inhabitants,
Venice 120,000 - one arrives at the figure of almost 20
percent of the female population in one case, and over 30
percent in the other. Even if these figures seem too high to
sustain credibility, they nonethless suggest that
prostitution was anything but a marginal social phenomenon.
Countless anecdotes confirm this. Payment for sexual favours
was socially acceptable. Priests damned it, of course, but
Cardinal de' Medici, during his stay in Venice in 1532, made
no secret of living with a girl called Zeffetta.
Alfonso d'Este, who married Guidobaldo's sister Julia, was
even praised for it on one occasion: instead of simply
seducing young girls, he at least asked their parents'
permission before taking the girls to live with him. Later,
he married them off with an excellent dowry. For the poorer
strata of the population, giving away one's daughter as the
mistress of a wealthy man was practically considered a
normal means of securing her existence.
The prerequisite was, of course, that the girl was as
appealing as Titian's model. Titian himself lived for many
years with a barber's daughter, who bore him two children.
Titian then did something quite unusual: he married her.
Titian painted a bouquet of roses in the reclining nude's
hand. Roses were an attribute of Venus. Whether mythical
figure or "donna nuda", her body reflects the ideals of
beauty and erotic predilections of the High Renaissance.
Her high forehead, however, was untypical of the period.
Throughout the Middle Ages, women whose circumstances had
granted them leisure to indulge in fashion had plucked their
hair above the forehead in order to lengthen their faces.
Venus of Urbino (detail)
Oil on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Bodies change with fashions
The curve of the head between forehead and cranium was
considered attractive, and was emphasized for that reason.
High foreheads, however, were now a thing of the past. Even
married women no longer concealed their hair under bonnets,
and the locks of unmarried women fell loose about their
faces, softening their features.
Although the hair of most Italian women was black by nature,
the most fashionable colour at the time was blonde. Almost
all mythical figures painted during the Renaissance have
fair hair. It was said of the women of Venice in 1581 that
they used "spirits and other remedies to turn their hair,
not only golden, but snow-white".
In Gothic art, women generally appear slender and elongate,
an effect emphasized by their trains, tapering bonnets and
sloping shoulders. The ideal female figure of the
Renaissance was more solidly built. Broad shoulders,
enlarged and embellished by the ploys of dressmakers, were
an important characteristic of this type. Titian gives
special emphasis to the reclining nude's right shoulder,
while a servant in the background wears fashionably puffed
sleeves. Breasts were considered beautiful only if small,
round and firm, lacking the fullness of maturity. This was
the view expressed in an Italian text of 1554, a view
evidently shared by Titian. A narrow waist, the
distinguishing feature of 19th-century fashion, was
considered undesirable. The latest Spanish fashion was a
high corset that flattened the breasts, denied the waist and
enclosed the trunk of the body like a tube. However, this
puritanical garment, turning the female body into a kind of
geometrical figure, gained little acceptance in Italy.
Titian painted his nude with a gently rounded belly. In
Gothic art, the stomach tended to protrude further than the
breasts. Renaissance painters, on the other hand, hoping to
capture a more natural attitude, did away with exaggerated
curves. Nonetheless, the belly, the symbol of fertility and
procreation, remained the focal point of the female body.
Venus of Urbino (detail)
Oil on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
A chest was part of every dowry
Titian's "donna nuda" reflected the Renaissance ideal in
a number of details, and it was perhaps for this reason — as
much as for its quality as a work of art - that Guidobaldo
was so desperate to possess it. The artist emphasizes the
nuditv of the reclining woman bv showing two fully-clothed
servants in the background. The kneeling woman is seen from
behind, an unusual posture. Indeed, Titian may be the only
artist of his day to have painted a woman in this attitude.
The interior and furnishings are typical of the period. The
kneeling woman is rummaging in a clothes-chest, referred to
in Italian as a cassone. Clothes-hangers and wardrobes had
not yet come into use, and clothes were kept in chests. They
formed an integral part of every dowry and, depending on
whether their owners were wealthy enough, would often be
inlaid with marquetry, or painted. Titian, too, had painted
cassoni'm his youth. They tended to be low, since they
doubled as seats. Some were even fitted with backrests.
The bed was probably a four-poster, supporting a canopy and
with crossboards for hanging curtains; neither posts nor
crossboards are visible in the present painting, however.
With its curtains drawn, a bed was transformed to a room
within a room, a realm of privacy. Maids and servants often
slept in the master bedroom, or in front of the door, since
the majority of houses did not have servants' quarters.
Titian painted his beauty half-sitting; the pose reflects
contemporary sleeping habits.
Titian's interior contains little but a bed and chests; in
fact, these were the most important, and sometimes the only
pieces of furniture to be found in a house. There were few
proper tables; meals were generally eaten at boards which
were laid across trestles and later stowed away. It is
difficult to see whether the hangings in the background are
tapestry or leather.
Venice, with lively trading relations to the Near East, was
one of the main transshipping ports for oriental carpets,
and the best, or most famous, gold-printed leather was
imported from the Spanish town of Cordoba. Marble floors
were found in all the wealthier homes. Artists treasured
their regular square patterns, which provided a means of
lending mathematical precision to perspective; this had been
an important feature in painting since the development, in
Florence a century earlier, of artificial perspective.
The windows of domestic interiors were relatively small, and
were closed with wooden shutters. The open space shown in
Titian's painting may be part of a room used only in summer,
perhaps at a country villa. A view of pleasant, surrounding
countryside was an essential feature in every Renaissance
While Titian's work contains many details epitomizing life
at the time, it was not his intention to paint a realistic
picture. This is made abundantly clear by the dark plane
dividing the painting into two halves, whose right edge ends
just above the reclining nude's hand. Though evidently
intended to suggest the curtain of the bed, it is entirely
lacking in definition. The plane helps balance the two
halves of the picture, as well as providing a background
against which the upper half of her body stands out more
clearly. The vertical border also emphasizes her mons
veneris, which the nude covlv conceals.