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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, Florence.

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 "naked woman".


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 villa.
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.


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