Titian’s Venus of Urbino
As Praxiteles brought the motif of the feminine nude into ancient Greek art, so Giorgione and Titian re- create it for the art of the modern West. In 1538, at the height of his powers, Titian painted for the Duke of Urbino the Venus of Urbino which gives us the compositional essentials for the representation of a theme that will be popular for centuries. His version, based on an earlier and pioneering one painted by Giorgione, was to become official for paintings of the reclining nude, no matter how many variations would ensue. Venus reclines on a gentle slope made by her luxurious, pillowed couch, the linear play of the draperies contrasting with the sleek, continuous volume of her body. At her feet is a pendant (balancing) figure –in this case, a slumbering lapdog. Behind her, a simple drape serves both to place her figure emphatically in the foreground and to press a vista into the background at the right half of the picture…. All of the resources of pictorial representation are in Titian ‘s hands, and he uses them here to create original and exquisite effects.
Deep Venetian reds set off against the pale, neutral whites of the linen and the warm ivory – gold of the flesh are echoed in the red tones of the matron ‘s skirt, the muted reds of the tapestries, and the neutral whites of the matron ‘s sleeves and the gown of the kneeling girl. One must study the picture carefully to realize what subtlety of color planning is responsible, for example, for the placing of the two deep reds (in the foreground cushions and in the background skirt) that function so importantly in the composition as a gauge of distance and as terminals of an implied diagonal opposed to the real one of the reclining figure. Here, color is used not simply for the tinting of preexisting forms but as a means of organization that determines the placement of forms.
Titian could paint a Virgin Mary or a nude Venus with equal zeal. Neither he nor the connoisseurs of his time were aware of the contradiction. Yet it is significant that the female nude reappears in Western art as Venus, the great goddess of the ancient world, whom Medieval Christianity had especially feared and whom it damned in exalting virginity and chastity as virtues. Now Venus returns, and the great Venetian paintings of her almost constitute pagan altarpieces. The Venetian Renaissance resurrects a formidable competitor for the saints.