Venus of Urbino, or Reclining Venus, is one of the most recognizable paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Painted by the Venetian master Titian in the 1530s, Venus of Urbino was brought to the city of Florence as part of the dowry of Vittoria della Rovere. Vittoria married Ferdinando II de Medici and the painting was hung in the Uffizi Gallery along with other priceless works of art owned by the Medicis, where it can still be seen today. Let’s take a gander at this sumptuous painting, charged with an intensity that revolutionized the art of its time.
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GIORGIONE The titular Venus of the painting is its central figure. Titian based the design of his Venus off a similar work by his colleague Giorgione, known as Sleeping Venus. Unlike Giorgione, however, Titian’s Venus is inside and awake. Venus stares at the viewer, holding a bunch of roses in her right hand. The roses both symbolize the god of love and the pleasures of love. The rich, green curtain behind her is an indication of the luxury in which the woman lives.
THE SERVANTS In the painting’s background two servants can be see preparing Venus for a Venetian ritual known as il toccamano. In this ritual, a young bride-to-be would touch the hand of her future groom to give her consent to the marriage. Édouard Manet would use a similar composition (a young, reclining nude attended by servants) in 1863’s Olympia.
THE PAINTED CHEST AND ITS CONTENTS One of the two servants is kneeling on the ground, withdrawing items from a painted chest. The other servant, standing, holds a gold and blue wedding dress over her shoulder.
THE POT OF MYRTLE Like many of his contemporaries, Titian employed numerous symbols in his paintings. A pot of myrtle can be seen on the windowsill above the painted chest. Myrtle is linked symbolically with Venus as well as the constancy of love. Titian places the pot of myrtle in the middle of a window looking out into the evening sky. The rich glow of the setting sun highlights the myrtle, drawing the viewer’s attention to it.
THE SPOTTED DOG In the symbolic shorthand of Renaissance paintings, dogs are also emblems of romantic fidelity. Titian uses this symbolism to perhaps balance the sexual attractiveness of his Venus, placing a slumbering white-and-brown spotted dog at her feet to highlight her faithfulness. Titian used the same dog to make the same point in his portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Titian was so influential as an artist that he even has a color named after him!
Venus of Urbino is a beautiful painting, but there’s more to Titian than this one work. Visit this website to explore over a hundred different Titian paintings.
Manet’s Olympia is modeled explicitly on Venus of Urbino, but the paintings each had very different receptions. Read more about it here.
The Uffizi Gallery contains Venus of Urbino, as well as many other priceless works of the Italian Renaissance. If a quick trip over to Italy isn’t within your budget, though, you can take a look at some of the finest pieces here!
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