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The goddess becomes a woman

In c. 1485, Sandro Botticelli painted his Birth of Venus, one of the loveliest Venus nudes to emerge from the Florentine Renaissance. She is shown standing upright, almost floating. It was the Venetian Giorgione who devised the first reclining Venus. Against a natural setting, we see her asleep with her head resting on one arm. Giorgione died in 1510, before he could finish the work. Titian, his collaborator, completed it. He returned to the theme more than a quarter of a century later, this time replacing the outdoor setting with a domestic interior.

The three paintings show a progression. Botticelli's Venus is a supernatural apparition in human form, untouchable, not of this world. Giorgione's Venus has a realer presence. She is shown reclining in an attitude of abandon - to sleep, rather than a man's gaze. She, too, retains something of the aura of a Nature goddess. Titian has removed her from natural surroundings, placing her in a man-made setting instead: a four-poster bed. The goddess is transformed: a young woman meets the spectator's gaze, conscious of her appeal, revealing her body and expecting, if not caresses, then admiration. It was Titian who liberated the nude from the constraints of the mythical stereotype, seeing a real woman in the female figure. To his contemporaries, this must have been an exciting development. It can hardly be put down to accident that Guidobaldo, who wanted the painting so badly, spoke only of the "donna nuda", the naked woman.

It was not until later, through the intervention in 1567 of the art historian Vasan, that the nude became known as Venus. Her identity was confirmed in a later inventary. Though the chief attribute of antique Venus, her son Cupid with his bow and arrows, seems to have deserted her in the present picture, Titian nonetheless paints her with her characteristic flowers: he shows her holding roses, the symbol of pleasure and fidelity in love, and places a pot of myrtle on the window ledge to indicate constancy in marriage. The lapdog is an unusual figure here. It symbolized carnal desire, but also devotion; on the gravestones of many married couples a dog was shown lying at the woman's feet. Perhaps it found its way into the painting quite by accident. Perhaps it belonged to the artist's workshop, and Titian simply enjoyed painting it.

Some scholars have suggested that Guidobaldo commissioned the work to mark the occasion of his wedding in 1534, which would explain his eagerness to possess the work. There is no evidence for this. At the same time, however, it is impossible to overlook the symbolic reference through roses and myrtle to conjugal fidelity. Titian may have wished to show more than Venus' conventional attributes. Perhaps he wanted to show an alternative to the widespread division of the female population into repectable housewives and paid paramours, demonstrating that sensual pleasure could be found in marriage too. Guidobaldo, as his letters testify, was very happily married.


The Worship of Venus
Oil on canvas, 172 x 175 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Rape of Europa
Oil on canvas, 185 x 205 cm
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Death of Actaeon
Oil on canvas, 179 x 189 cm
National Gallery, London

Perseus and Andromeda
Oil on canvas, 185 x 199 cm
Wallace Collection, London

Tarquin and Lucretia
Oil on canvas, 189 x 145 cm
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Tarquin and Lucretia
Oil on canvas
Musйe des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux

Tarquin and Lucretia
Oil on canvas, 114 x 100 cm
Akademie der bildenden Kьnste, Vienna


Venus with Organist and Cupid
Oil on canvas, 148 x 217 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Venus and Cupid with an Organist
Oil on canvas, 115 x 210 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Venus and an Organist and a Little Dog
c. 1550
Oil on canvas, 136 x 220 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Oil on canvas, 117 x 69 cm
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

c. 1553
Oil on canvas, 119 x 187 cm
Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Jupiter and Antiope (Pardo Venus)
1535-40, reworked c. 1560
Oil on canvas, 196 x 385 cm
Musйe du Louvre, Paris

Venus and Cupid
c. 1550
Oil on canvas, 139 x 195 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Venus with a Mirror
c. 1555
Oil on canvas, 125 x 106 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Venus with a Mirror
c. 1550
Oil on canvas, 115 x 84 cm
Galleria Franchetti, Ca' d'Oro, Venice

Venus and Adonis
Oil on canvas, 187 x 134 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Venus Blindfolding Cupid
c. 1565
Oil on canvas, 118 x 185 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

Shepherd and Nymph
Oil on canvas, 150 x 187 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna