Excerpt from The Mirror of the Gods by Malcolm Bull (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 182-222.
Referencing Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus: “It is pointless to ask what Venus was doing, sleeping naked in the landscape, for it was the cultural neutrality of the landscape background that allowed the fantasy to take flight. Indoors, Venus was more likely to be taken for a courtesan. But is a landscape background enough to indicate that a reclining nude is the goddess? One answer might be that a nude woman is the goddess Venus when accompanied by Cupid. Whereas Cupid does not need Venus to identify him, Venus herself is frequently only saved from anonymity by the presence of her little boy. But Cupid comes and goes. The Cupid in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus was painted out; Titian’s Venus of Urbino is the same figure moved indoors without a Cupid, but some imitators put one in for good measure. In the various versions of Titian’s paintings of Venus with a musician, Cupid is sometimes there and sometimes not. In later inventories the terms ‘naked woman’ and ‘Venus’ are almost interchangeable. The obvious conclusion is not that all these women are the goddess, but rather that being Venus is a matter of degree, or perhaps of perspective.
If a naked woman is not Venus she is often a courtesan. But the two roles were not mutually exclusive, for the connection between the goddess and prostitution went back a long way. According to Lactantius, she had established the profession in Cyprus because she did not want to be the only woman who was going around chasing men. The slur never went away, although Polydore Vergil pointed out that even if Venus had led a shameful life (and there was not much doubt about that), she probably was not the first to take up the profession because prostitution is mentioned in the first book of the Old Testament. In any case, the accusation although morally damning was also an erotic endorsement, for prostitutes were a primary focus of male desire. And classical goddesses like Venus and Flora were useful in that they elevated that desire into culture.
Though they later spread throughout Europe, the reclining nude in a landscape, the toilet of Venus, and the iconography of Venus and Adonis were all initially Venetian products. …. There are at least three interconnected factors in the Venetian production of Venusian imagery: the sea, prostitution, and trade. The last two are of direct importance. Though she was a marine deity, with a name so close to that of the city that the poets could ask whether the goddess had given her name to the city, or the city to the goddess, Venus owes her prominence in Venetian iconography to the city’s legendary courtesans. They themselves identified with the goddess, and, over time, images of them became increasingly indistinguishable from those of their patroness. The relationship worked at the level of supply as well as demand. It was not just that prostitutes were dressed up as Venus. Even if you wanted to paint a Venus rather than a courtesan, you would still need a courtesan to pose for you. And Venice was one of the few places where female models were easy to find.
The importance of oil painting and the absence of a court meant that Venice was the first place in Italy where paintings were collected by large numbers of private citizens. This was important, because Venusian imagery spread largely without state support. Queens were Juno, Minerva, or Diana, and no prince wanted to be seen encouraging prostitution. Save at the time of marriage, Venus (and her imagery) belonged in the private sphere—hidden away in the bedroom, the bathroom, the garden grotto, and the jewellery box. So whereas the iconography of some gods developed through multiple images produced for a single patron, Venusian imagery spread through single images for multiple patrons.
That is doubtless one reason why the most important relationship in a painting of Venus is often that between the goddess and the viewer. The gods almost invariably appear with other protagonists, but Venus is frequently alone, accompanied only by her child. No woman except the Virgin received this kind of individual attention, and in Venus’s case it was not even mediated by the structures of religion. Sheer lust is what men were expected to feel, and also what they were expected not to feel—for however seductive she might appear, a painted Venus was a household ornament.