The Goddess of Beauty or the Goddess of Desire?

Titian’s Venuses serve not only as the embodiments of the beauty of his painting,but as the embodiments of Renaissance views on beauty as well. His goddesses of love reference ideals of female beauty celebrated in the literature of the era. Italian poet Petrarch repeatedly admonished feminine beauty throughout his vast collection of sonnets. In Sonnet 219, he describes his love as “She of the snow-white face and golden hair”.[1] While Pietro Testa in his Notes on Painting also references an ideal woman as possessing long, blonde hair, white skin with rosy cheeks, blue or hazel eyes, and a soft mouth.[2] Titian’s Venuses incorporate all of these elements in slightly differing representations. His goddesses are fair skinned and golden haired with delicate red lips,and light, luminous eyes. He clearly is presenting images of beauty that he knows will be appealing to his Renaissance audience. It is in fact this presentation of the Venuses as objects of beauty that can often be problematic, especially for modern day viewers.

Due to the fact that the nude female figure will always carry with it some association with the erotic as well as raise questions of sexuality, it is impossible to deny the sensual aspects of Titian’s Venus images. Yet the classification of all of these women as courtesans, or as sexual objects whose sole purpose is for the viewing pleasure of Renaissance men, not only robs these works of their complexity and of their value, but is also taking the easy way out. When one considers “true” pornographic images of the Renaissance, it becomes clear that Titian’s female nudes do not fit comfortably into thecategory of these said images. An example of a Renaissance images that can be comfortably defined as pornography are the engravings made to accompany the highly eroticized text I Modi, or “The Ways” published in 1524. This text and its illustrations described in explicit detail sixteen sexual positions enacted by various couples of famous myths and texts. The engravings were originally done by Marcantonio Raimondi after thedrawings of Giuilo Romano. One work from the series, Mars and Venus features the mythic lovers engaging in explicit sexual acts. The pornographic nature of this image is undeniable and offers a distinct counterpoint to Titian’s nude Venuses. His goddesses are painted not merely to inspire sexual thought and fantasy. Instead, they become the visually pleasing embodiments of Classical and contemporary literary and artistic traditions as well as representations of ideal beauty and divine love.

Marcantonio Raimondi from drawings of Giulio Romano, Mars and Venus from I Modi, 1524.

While his Venuses can indubitably be viewed as sensual and sexual women, there is an added psychological depth and individuality inherent in each. No two Venuses are exactly alike. If their purpose was to serve as the contemporary equivalent of pornography, then it would have been far simpler to use a standard, unvarying image of the goddess, as opposed to depicting such a vast array of representations. It is also worth noting that not all of Titian’s Venuses are necessarily even depicted nude. The Venus in Venus Blindfolding Cupid is painted fully clothed in a gauzy gown that references antiquity. The faces of his goddesses are all individualized as well. Surely Titian did not see his creations as Renaissance pin-up girls, but as diverse, complex, and divinely beautiful women.

Titian, Venus Blindfolding Cupid, 1565. Oil on canvas, 116 x 184 cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

While they may be images of idealized beauty made almost universally for a male audience who no doubt derived pleasure from their viewing, but they are by no means pornographic. If Titian merely intended to paint pornographic images of women, why then would he go to the trouble of referencing the Classical past, of creating complex narrative, of referencing literary traditions, and of using the figure of Venus to embody the greatest elements of the art of painting? Far from being merely sexual objects, Titian gives great psychological depth and individuality to his many Venuses. In fact, Titian portrays a wide ranging spectrum of variations on Venus, proving that the goddess and more importantly women in general, are diverse, complex, and multifaceted.

[1] Petrarch, The Poetry of Petrarch. Translated by David Young. New York: Ferrar, Straaus and Giroux, 2004, 163.

[2] Cropper, Elizabeth. “On Beautiful Women, Parmigianino, Petrarchismo, and the Vernacular Style”. Art Bulletin 58, no. 3 (Sep. 1976): 374-394. (accessed October, 11, 2008), 274.

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