Titian’s Venetian Venuses Rough Draft

Titian’s Venetian Venuses



There is no other artist who more readily embodies the celebrated tradition of

Venetian Renaissance painting as does the gifted Titian. Due in part to his notably long

and prosperous career, his oeuvre stands as a diverse body of work that perfectly displays

the beauty, grandness, and brilliance of the Italian Renaissance. From his early Religious

works, to his mythological images, and his many portraits, Titian repeatedly returns to the

representation of the female form.  Whether he is depicting the Virgin Mary, an elite

Venetian lady, or Danae, Titian seems to best express his artistic merit in his depictions

of women. As Rona Goffen suggests, his “professional investment in paintings of women

is so striking that it may be related to his deepest creative impulses”. (Goffen Venus of

Urbino, 1) It is in the figure of Venus in particular that Titian’s creativity and artistic

mastery is fully realized.


As the goddess of love and beauty, Venus “personifies the equation of beautiful

art and the beautiful woman”. (Goffen Titian’s Women 126) As those in the business of

creating beautiful things, artists have often used the image of the beautiful woman in

order to present their artistic contributions to the world. In keeping with this tradition,

Titian uses Venus as a means of representing his greatest skills as a painter. On another

level, the goddess can even be said to symbolize  the contemporary views on painting.

The great artistic debate of the Renaissance involved the concepts of the Florentine

designo, or the focus on  careful, precise drawing  represented by the art of Michelangelo,

and the Venetian colorito, or the focus on the use of color, represented by the work of

Titian.  In the contemporary rhetoric, these aspects of the art of painting were gendered

masculine and feminine respectively. Perhaps by choosing to paint the female form of

Venus, Titian is embracing his feminine style. In painting Venus, Titian is able to show

his  mastery of the human form, his use of vivid color, his knowledge of the Classical

tradition, and his belief of painting as superior to sculpture.


In addition to their connection to painting itself, the Venusian imagery are directly

connected to the Cultural and Social ideals of Renaissance Italy. Whether embodying the

contemporary ideal of beauty, challenging the era’s norms of female sexuality, or

symbolizing the marriage state, Titian’s Venuses can be read through multiple cultural

lenses and interpretations to offer a wealth of insight into the position of women in

Renaissance society. It is precisely the figures’ ambiguity that sparks the most interest in

as well as the most debate over these works.


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. 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 the Venus figures, proving

that the goddess and more importantly women in general, are diverse, complex, and



Titian references the familiar, Classical form of Venus most explicitly in

his work Venus Anadyomene (1530). Here the goddess is clearly identified through the

attribute of the shell in the bottom left-hand corner, a reference to her birth. Titian paints

her as she emerges from the sea, wringing out her tousled hair as she becomes aware of

some unseen observer. The work is a modification of the classical Crouching Venus

composition which depicts the goddess, who has been surprised at her bath, in a

crouching position with one arm raised to cover her breasts. Titian’s figure, although

standing, has been cropped slightly above the knees alluding to the tradition of the

goddess in the crouched position with her knees close to the ground. This Venus returns

the gaze of her onlooker but makes no effort to conceal herself. She stands her ground

refusing to be intimated and perhaps is even inviting the viewer to gaze upon her natural

beauty in all its glory. So too is Titian inviting his viewer to gaze upon the beauty of his

painting as he proudly asserts his connection to the art of antiquity.


With the Venus Anadyomene, Titian is making a direct reference to the

renowned Classical Greek painter Apelles and his lost work of the same subject. As

recounted by Pliny in his Natural History, Apelles painted an image of Venus emerging

from the sea for his patron Alexander the Great which the later found to be so

naturalistic, so beautiful that he rewarded the painter with the gift of his mistress.

Throughout his career Titian actively encouraged comparisons between himself and the

great painter of antiquity, and by painting the very image for which Apelles was so well-

known he is asserting himself as his successor (or even as his superior).  As Luba

Freedman notes,  it is Titian’s “self-establishing as an excellent portraitist and as the

painter of Venus, which were the two categories of painting in which Apelles had

excelled” that suggest the Venetian artist’s desire to connect his career with the venerated

Classical tradition. (Freedman “Titian and the Classical Heritage”, 194)


In addition to asserting his own artistic skill in the painting Venus Anadyomene,

Titian is also asserting the primacy of painting over sculpture, of colorito over disegno.

The minimalist background allows for the volumetric figure of Venus to project in a

sculptural manner that is perhaps a reference to Michelangelo’s figures on the Sistine

ceiling. (Goffen, Women, 132) Venus is given a dimensional quality associated with

sculpture but is more naturally depicted in the painted medium as the introduction of

color endows her with flesh tones that bring her further to life. Titian also employs


Venetian colorito  to emphasis the  landscape of the sky and the sea, elements not

achievable through the medium of sculpture. Perhaps too, the figure of Venus can stand

in as a symbol for Venice, “for had not Venice risen from the sea, as alluring as the

goddess herself?” (Bull, Mirror of the Gods, 207)



Like the Venus Adonymede, the figure in Venus with a Mirror (1555) is

indubitably identified as the goddess herself, in this instance due to the presence of cupid.

She is at her toilette, admiring her beauty in the mirror, when her attention is suddenly 

claimed by the entrance of an observer. Her gaze is directed at the (presumably) male

viewer, as his gaze, as well as our own, is directed at her. With this in mind, Titian’s

painting can be read as symbolic of the sense of sight. As Goffen elaborates, “The Venus

with a Mirror is (partly) about vision, about being seen, about reality and its reflection,

and about the exaltation of beauty that is embodied in the goddess and knowable through

sight”. (Goffen, Women, 136)  For the men and women of the Renaissance, there existed

the concept of a hierarchy of the senses, of which sight was believed to be superior. Just

as the beauty of Venus is knowable only through this highest sense, Titian’s skill as a

painter is apparent through sight alone.


Along with sight, the sense of touch is explored in Venus with a Mirror through

the  luxurious deep red velvet and fur mantle draped around Venus’s body. It is the

juxtaposition of this textile element with the white, glowing flesh of the goddess that not

only highlights Titian’s unmatched painterly style, but also the sensual connotations

associated with the nude female figure. Through the application of paint, he is providing

the viewer with “a flesh and blood” (Prince of Painters, 302) version of the goddess, one

that would no doubt appeal to his contemporaries’ appetite for the sexualized image of

feminine beauty. Titian uses the medium of oil paint to the fullest advantage to combine

Venetian colorito and textural definition that rely on both the senses of sight and touch.

As Paola Tinagli recounts, “the erotic power of painting lies in the development of those

techniques that allow the viewer to experience the figure in has imagination also through

the sense of touch, which is evoked by the sense of sight”. (Paola Tinagli, Women in Ital

Renaissance Art, 141)


In addition to suggesting the sensual sense of touch, the mantle also contributes to

the erotic nature of the work by symbolizing the unseen male viewer who is taking in

Venus’s beauty.  As this garment is distinctively male, its presence in the work asserts the

missing male presence. X-radiography of the work has revealed that the canvas originally

presented a Venus figure closed in the feminine and classical garment of a white chemise

standing next to an elite male figure. Titian reworked the man’s velvet and fur trimmed

mantle so that it is now wrapped around the nude Venus. He may have erased the male

figure, but he left visual references to his presence. As Goffen acknowledges, “[t]he coat

is, in a sense, his inanimate surrogate, wrapped around Venus in a self-embrace that he

would wish to emulate”. (Women, 138) By possessing the male garment, using it as her

own, Venus is asserting her conquest over her male viewers. Titian’s goddess is not a

passive figure shyly and silently submitting to being admired, but one that is very much

in control of and confident in her own beauty and sexual appeal.


The motifs of the gaze, the senses, and the self-assured goddess are also key

elements of Titian’s variations on the theme of Venus with Musicians. By combining the

concepts of music and hearing with beauty and sight, these paintings connect the goddess

with  contemporary Renaissance cultural traditions.   In Venus with an Organist and

Cupid (1548), the presence of her winged son once again safely identifies the figure as

the Roman goddess. In his later composition Venus with an Organist and Dog (1550),

Titian replaces the identifying symbol with a small dog begging to be petted. In the

former work, Titian depicts a young, boyish musician while in the later he presents  a

more mature mustachioed man. Perhaps this is to suggest that all men regardless of age

are in danger of falling under the spell of a beautiful woman.


In spite of the addition of the male figures in these paintings, Venus remains the

focal point for the musicians as well as for the viewer. In both variations, the nude Venus

reclines on her side upon a bed covered in brocaded velvet while the male organist turns

his head to gaze unabashedly upon her naked form. While Venus may be aware of his

gaze, she cannot be bothered to acknowledge or return it. It is through this figural

exchange Laurie Schneider Adams asserts, that Titian “orchestrates met and unmet gazes

with displaced erotic subtexts”. (Adams, Cambridge Companion to Titian, 231) Unlike

many of his other Venusian works in which the goddess returns the gaze of her admirers,

in this thematic grouping Venus is more self-reflective.


The goddesses’ feminine beauty is enhanced through Titian’s depiction of her as a

calm, nurturing figure capable of psychological musings.  He “add[s]to the sensuousness

of her graces a sense of quiet and repose disturbed only by the playful instincts of the

little animal” or by her playful son. (Prince of Painters, 294) In spite of the lascivious

attentions of the male musicians, this Venus is not merely an objectified representation of

female sexuality. By giving her psychological depth, and associating her with the

pleasures of a cultured society,  Titian is reconfiguring the mythological figure in the

context of the Renaissance. His Venus therefore comes to embody an ideal Venetian

female figure who is cultured, maternal, reflective, and sexual (within the confines of

marriage), one who is meant to be worshiped and admired. As Goffen describes, “[t]he

goddess whom men worship with their music and adore with their eyes is, therefore, not a

bridal Venus; but neither is she a courtesan.  She is, instead, the epitome of all beauty and

the embodiment of all sensuous pleasure, including sexual pleasures of the flesh”.

(Women, 169)


In Venus and Adonis (1554), Titian uses the figural pairing of the goddess and her

lover the hunter Adonis to address the human nature of Venus.  Here the goddess is

depicted as the victim of  love as opposed to her normal role as the object of love.  The

work is among the  mythological poesie he created for Phiilp II of Spain and therefoe

denotes his reinterpretation of the classical literary tradition as he uses Ovid’s

Metamorphoses as a narrative source. The moment depicted is one created by Titian

himself. It marks the narrative point in which Adonis is embarking on the hunt that will

ultimately  bring about his death. Fearful of the dangers that might befall him, Venus

desperately tries to prevent him from leaving. She is no longer the dignified and

indifferent representation of the feminine ideal, but is instead a frantic woman who is

trying to exert every possible power and strength within to inhibit the man she loves from

abandoning her.


In a gender role reversal, the Venus of this work is more masculine than feminine.

Titian depicts her as aggressive, as almost violent in her physical attempts to restrain

Adonis, and as completely driven to destruction by love.  Once again, Titian has expertly

produced in his rendering of Venus a complex psychological depth that cannot fail in

inciting the sympathy of the viewer. His  goddess is more than a beautiful object she is a

feeling human being worthy of respect. As Goffen further expands:



Venus is conceived with a psychological complexity generally denied women in art and literature, that is,  she is allowed to express the kind of complex emotion normally experienced only by men, at least in painting and poetry. Expressing passions familiar to a Renaissance audience as masculine, Venus invite the (male) beholder’s empathy. (Women, 248)


Here Venus embodies the passion and torment often inflicted by love. The narrative

invented by Titian allowed for the artist to depict a very human goddess with dynamic

and powerful emotion that corresponds with the Renaissance notion of the masculine.

The narrative also allowed the Venetian painter to depict an alternative view of the

goddess as he changed the figural composition.


Titian’s Venus and Adonis is unique as it is the only Venus figure he depicts  from

the rear. Abandoning his usual composition of the frontal standing or reclining figure,

Titian turns Venus away from the viewer so that are back and bottom become visible as

she twists at the torso and presents her profile as she looks up at Adonis. She is half

perched on a cloth as representative of the precarious nature of love. The artist is

certainly advertising his ability to represent the human body from a multitude of

perspectives. Ludovico Dolce was in fact  greatly impressed by Titian’s naturalistic

depiction of Venus as viewed from behind as well as the painter’s ability to suggest her

intensely felt emotions. As he recounts in a letter to Alessandro Contarini describing the painting:


The Venus has her back turned, not for want of art—as in a certain painter’s performance—but to display art in double measure…she everywhere evinces certain feelings  which are sweet and vital and such that they are not seen except in her. With her too, there is a marvelous piece of dexterity on the part of this divine spirit, in that one recognizes in the hindmost parts here the distention of sitting. Yes indeed, one can truthfully say that every stroke of the brush belongs with those strokes that nature is in the habit of making with its hand. Similarly, her look corresponds to the way one must believe  that Venus would have looked if she ever existed… (qtd. in Roskill, Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian art theory, 215)


Dolce like many of his contemporaries recognizes the artistic merit in Titian’s innovated

work, and his expertise as a painter.


Yet again, the artist uses the medium of painting to reference sculpture and to

proclaim the former’s superiority over the latter (as well as his artistic superiority over his

competitor Michelangelo).  Titian in fact plays up the sculptural quality of Venus and

Adonis as their bodies take on a grand, three-dimensional quality. He also references the classical tradition of sculpture, bringing it to life through the means of his brush. One of his likely sources for the composition was the Renaissance copy of the ancient Roman relief of the Bed of Polyclitus. David Rosand suggests that:


The figural group, unusual in Titan’s art, is capable of being translated back into the medium of carved relief. The form of Venus especially maintains the planarity that intentionally betrays her sculptural origins, although stone has here been transformed into warm flesh. (Cambridge Companion, 45)


This use of the colorito to add tonality and life to the lifeless medium of stone, is another

way that Titian presents his work as representative of the value of painting over

sculpture. Venus remains the vehicle through which he best illustrates his painterly style,

his understanding of the Classical, and his interpretation of the cultural and social ideals

of the Renaissance.



Where the Paper is headed:


-Discussion of  the last two works, Sacred and Profane Love and Venus of Urbino:   


These works as the most problematic, controversial of Titian’s Venus theme

·      Connection to Cassoni wedding chest imageryà works as wedding images, depicting the ideal Renaissance bride (who has a sexual dimension within the context of marriage)

·      Focus on patrons, images as placed in bedroom

·      Focus on the significance of the gaze, Venus as in control or objectified?

·      Symbolic elements, references to other works (Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, Praxitles’ Aphrodite of Knidos)

·      Titian’s painterly style capturing the ideal beauty of Venus


-Flushing out of introduction of theme of the Venus figure, the issues of sexuality raised

-More contemporary (and Classical) literary examples where useful in expanding on research

·      Pietro Aretino writing sample?

·      More from Ludiovico Dolce’s Artistic Treaty

·      Pietro Testa’s notes on beauty

·      Giulio Mancini on the use of images of the nude female figure to assure the conception of beautiful offspring

·      Classical descriptions of Venus

·      Pliny’s account of Apelles?

-Greater explanation on the designo vs colorito debate

-Addition of specific Renaissance views on beauty, sexuality, and the role of women (from literary sources above perhaps)

-In-depth conclusion

-Information on Venus’s importance to the city of Venice? Did Venetians at all identify themselves in her?




4 Responses to “Titian’s Venetian Venuses Rough Draft”

  1. maoch says:


    A few thoughts came to me as I read through your draft. With regard to Titian’s Venus Anadyomene, it strikes me that his partial depiction of her body is similar to what survived of many ancient sculptures, and what might survive of this particular subject…thus making the connection to sculpture all the more strong, and the challenge and success of painting all the more evident (for him),

    And for his Venus with a mirror — regarding the male garment she wears — Giorgione has Laura wrapped in a male garment, too. Interesting to consider how Titian modifies the theme of Laura (Petrarch’s beloved) into Venus…

  2. It may help you to read my interpretation of the Sacred and Profane Love as the “Conversion of Mary Magdalen.” You can find it at http://www.giorgionetempesta.com.
    A condensed version of the paper was featured on Three Pipe Problem, a popular Art history blog.


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