The Venus Of Urbino

The Venus of Urbino: An Architectural and Artistic Analysis into the Lives of Women in Renaissance Italy  

By Addison R. Richmond


Abstract

Titians’ Venus of Urbino has long been referenced as the standard for the Venus painting typology, praised for its classic composition, its representation of the female form and its elegant exhibition of the subject1. But beyond the artistic strategies and masteries present, deeper information can be collected about the society and culture that Titian is attempting to represent. In this essay, I will use the Venus of Urbino as a viewport into the world of women in Renaissance Italy. Rather than view this painting as an item to inform our artistic understanding, we will view this painting as the basis of research surrounding women and their role during the era. From an artistic perspective, we will discuss how the layout, from, and symbolism present represent the objectification of women and the hypocrisy surrounding the expectations of women during the time. From an architectural perspective, attention will be given to the space presented in Titians’ painting to better understand the domestic existence of the time. We will attempt to better understand the women’s role within the private space. And finally, from an analytical perspective, we will determine the context of the painting and how that may have influenced the way Titian presented his composition. With themes like, inequality, objectification, patriarchy, and hypocrisy, the Venus of Urbino can serve not only as a representation of the past, but also as a case study for the similar struggles we still face in the present.


Introduction to the Venus of Urbino

Before we are able to discuss the complex subject of women’s autonomy and role in renaissance Italy, we must layout the basic background information surrounding the Venus of Urbino. Born between 1487-1490, to a wealthy family in Pieve di Cadore, Tiziano Vecellio (better known to us as Titian) was sent to Venice at an early age to seek apprenticeships and further his education2. After working at several different painting workshops, he was placed under the guidance of renowned Venetian artis Giovanni Bellini. During this time, Titian became an expert in the Venetian style of art and became a master of color, light, and the use of oil paints3. This allowed him to form his own workshop by 1514 and become one of the most well-known artists in Italy by the age of 304. Thanks to this, he was able to receive higher and more exclusive commissions, eventually landing him several jobs for the della Rovere family of Urbino5. One of these paintings, was his famous Venus of Urbino, created in 15386.

The exact situation surrounding The Venus of Urbino’s original purpose, is not known7. Although we are fairly certain that it was commissioned by Guidobaldo II Della Rovere8, many theories have been provided concerning the reasons why he commissioned it9. Similarly, the layers of symbolism, meaning, and contextual information surrounding the painting are complex and contradictory. To better understand this, it is necessary to break the painting down into individual elements and examine them under closer scrutiny. 

Figure 1. The Venus of Urbino, 1538, Titian. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artwork/venus-urbino-titian

Symbolism

The symbolism within the Venus of Urbino is perhaps the most fascinating and revealing aspect of the art and give us the ability to unravel the complex history of women in the renaissance and how architectural elements add to this narrative. 

Throughout the space, multiple plants and floral motifs can be seen. Starting from the back of the composition, a myrtle plant, a symbol of the consistency of love, can be seen placed on the windowsill10 (Figure 2, B). Symbolic representation of love and affection are scattered throughout this composition. The rose grasped in Venuses hand (Figure 2, A) represents the passion and pleasures of love11, while the dog sitting at her feet (Figure 2, D) symbolizes the fidelity of marriage12. Even the white bedding on which she lay (Figure 2, C), can be seen as a representation of purity and cleanliness13

The common theme between these items is marriage, the most important event of a woman’s life during renaissance Italy.14 Due to social, cultural, and religious restrictions, women were largely unable to maintain their own anonymity15. Because of laws preventing them from receiving inheritances and owning land, one of the few ways for women to move up the social ladder and ensure a secure future, was through amiable marriages16. Through this system, women were never responsible for themselves, and instead passed from the guardianship of their fathers to the care of their husbands17. The result was extreme importance placed on the purity and virginity of the woman18. If a woman had become entangled in a premarital affair, the potential for a prestigious marriage (and the large dowery that came with it) would be difficult to secure19

But perhaps the most telling symbol of The Venus of Urbino, is Venus herself and the dichotomy between the pure symbolism that surrounds her and the lustful characteristics she embodies. Calmly reclined on a day bed, we are given a full view of Venus’ nude body. But instead of looking shamed or surprised, she looks directly at us, unblinking and unphased20. The only gesture to hint at some form of shame, is her left hand gently covering her pudenda21. But more than hiding her disgrace, this gesture draws our attention further, creating a stark contrast between the fully sexualized individual before us, and the purity symbolism around her. 

In many ways, this composition perfectly illustrates the double standard facing women during the renaissance era. Although women were raised to ignore their sexuality and passions, men often sexualized them through art22. In order to maintain their virtuous reputations, women were forced to give up their freedom, their educations, and their lawful rights23. On the other hand, men often engaged in extra-marital affairs, frequented prostitutes, and were even encouraged to maintain mistresses24

Figure 2. The Venus of Urbino, Symbolic details, 1538, Titian. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/venus-urbino-titian. Edited by Addison Richmond.

Interior Setting/Composition

The restrictions placed on women during the renaissance, can further be seen through the setting and composition of the Venus of Urbino. The composition can be split into two separate spaces25. In the foreground, is a daybed and nude figure of Venus, backed by a lush green curtain, and what appears to be a dark brown wall. This wall is most likely not a wall at all but is instead a sliding panel or screen26. It helps to visually separate the front of the composition from the back, but also helps in creating an atmosphere of privacy and seclusion. This is fitting for the era, as the domestic setting was seen as a women’s primary responsibility and place27. While the renaissance world, filled with enlightenment ideas of philosophy, art, religion, and politics was happening all around them, women were restricted to the confines of child rearing and overseeing the household28. This is reflected in the Architecture itself, which seems to insulate Venus, and protect her from outside eyes.

Figure 3. The Venus of Urbino, Foreground details, 1538, Titian. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/venus-urbino-titian. Edited by Addison Richmond

These domestic responsibilities can be seen in the second portion of the composition which shows two servants retrieving garments from two large chests. While this scenes placement in the background, makes it seem less crucial to the narrative of the art, there are many hidden clues present that can help us better understand the painting as a whole. First, it is important to observe what they are removing from the chests. The servant kneeling to the left seems to be moving a black garment, while the servant standing to the right has an intricate gown thrown over her shoulder. Based on their actions, combined with the nakedness of the figure in the foreground, we can assume that they are either replacing garments that she had just removed, or are retrieving clothing for her29. Because the kneeling servant looks as though she is searching for something, rather than replacing something, we can further narrow our assumption to the deduction that they are retrieving clothing for Venus to dress30. This might help us understand the calm attitude of the Venus better, if she is simply conducting the normal activity of getting dressed, she has little to be ashamed of. Her relaxed mood seems fitting for any elite individual waited on by servants, and confident in the competence of her handmaids.  

Figure 4. The Venus of Urbino, Background details, 1538, Titian. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/venus-urbino-titian. Edited by Addison Richmond

Purpose

Based on this perspective, we can finally attempt to uncover the purpose of this painting. Throughout the years, many theories have been presented31. These range from the theory that the painting is a dialog about the balance of life and death, to the theory that The Venus of Urbino is a type of early pinup featuring the mistress of Guidobaldo II Della Rovere’s, father32. However, based on the symbolism we have uncovered, combined with the extensive research of experts, many believe that Guidobaldo II Della Rovere commissioned the painting as a gift for his young wife Giulia da Varano33. Although Guidobaldo and Giulia were married in 1534 (four years before the painting was complete), some theorize that it was given to celebrate the consummation of their marriage, as she was only 10 years old at the time of their wedding, and therefore unable to physically be joined until a few (possibly four) years later34

This theory fits well with the themes of marriage and purity present through the symbolism we discussed previously. Through this perspective, the Venus of Urbino can be seen as an allegory of the virtuous and “good” wife. She should be pure and faithful, confident in her house making skills and her management of her servants, but also sexually attractive and enticing to her husband35

This style of art was not uncommon during the renaissance era, as the elite often purchased new furnishings and decor for their nuptial chamber36. Between the time of betrothal and the wedding (usually between three and six months), couples and their families would use this time to gather all the furniture necessary for creating a comfortable marriage chamber37. This theme can even be seen in the Venus of Urbino, as the chests the servants are leaning over most likely represent cassones (sarcophagi shaped trunks similar to the modern tradition of a “hope chest”)38. These chests were artfully crafted and often intricately decorated with mythical scenes or erotic figures39. In an example from 1440’s Florence, we can see the image of a Venus lounging on a pile of pillows, strikingly similar to the painting of the Venus of Urbino40. The reasons including erotic images in both cassone chests, and the Venus of Urbino, is most likely because of the renaissance belief that erotic images could help with the conception and birth of a male heir. Once again, we are able to see the hypocrisy faced by women during Renaissance Italy. Not only did social constructs pressure women to maintain virtuous purity, while it encouraged men to satisfy their sexual desires, but it also placed the responsibilities of producing of a male heir41 (and therefore the continuation of the patriarchal system), solely on women42.

Figure 5. Inner lid of a cassone with Venus reclining on pillows, Ca. 1440-1445, unknown artist. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/venus-urbino-titian. Edited by Addison Richmond

Conclusion

Through The symbolism in the Venus of Urbino, we can see the social pressures placed on women to maintain their virginity and purity. Through the architectural setting of The Venus of Urbino, we are able to see the domestic world in which renaissance women were confined to. And through the purpose of The Venus of Urbino, we are able to see the hypocrisy of a patriarchal system that insisted on complete subjugation from women, while allowing men to sexualize, abuse and take advantage of the very people they claimed to be responsible for. Although these issues are shown in the context of the past, they are still problems facing our society today. However, by carefully analyzing the past through works like the Venus of Urbino, we can attempt to learn from their mistakes, and break the patriarchal system that is still engrained in society today. 

Figure 6. Timeline of the Venus of Urbino, Addison Richmond


1 Sarah Dotson, “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes,” Artsy (last modified August 27, 2020) https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-
urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

2 Phil Grabsky, Ali Ray, Mehreen Saigol, Tim Marlow, Martina Cavicchioli, Seventh Art Productions, Films for the Humanities & Sciences, and Films Media Group. Titian. Films Media Group. https://fod-infobase-com.proxy-
um.researchport.umd.edu/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=59660.

3 Phil Grabsky, Ali Ray, Mehreen Saigol, Tim Marlow, Martina Cavicchioli, Seventh Art Productions, Films for the Humanities & Sciences, and Films Media Group. Titian. Films Media Group. https://fod-infobase-com.proxy-
um.researchport.umd.edu/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=59660.

4 Ibid.

5 Sarah Dotson, “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes,” Artsy (last modified August 27, 2020) https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-
urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

6 Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013),
doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.


7 Ibid.


8 Sarah Dotson, “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes,” Artsy (last modified August 27, 2020) https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-
urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

9 Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.

10 Phil Grabsky, Ali Ray, Mehreen Saigol, Tim Marlow, Martina Cavicchioli, Seventh Art Productions, Films for the Humanities & Sciences, and Films Media Group. Titian. Films Media Group. https://fod-infobase-com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=59660.

11 Ibid.

12 Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.
13 Ibid.
14 Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride, Women’s Roles in the Renaissance (Westport (Conn.): Greenwood
Press, 2005), 14.
15 Brown, 1.
16 Brown, 14.
17 Brown, 16.
18 Brown, 18-19.
19 Brown, 16. 

20 Sarah Dotson, “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes,” Artsy (last modified August 27, 2020) https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

 21 Arasse.

22  Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.

 23 Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride, Women’s Roles in the Renaissance (Westport Connecticut): Greenwood Press, 2005), 16.

 24 Samuel K. Cohn Jr., Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and power in Renaissance Italy (The John Hopkins University Press), 98-136.

25 Sarah Dotson, “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes,” Artsy (last modified August 27, 2020) https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

26 Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.

27 Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride, Women’s Roles in the Renaissance (Westport Connecticut): Greenwood Press, 2005), 15. 

28 Brown, 4-11.

29 Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.

30 Ibid.

31 Daniel Arasse and Alyson Waters, Take a Closer Look (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2010.00654.x.

32  Ibid.

33  Sarah Dotson, “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes,” Artsy (last modified August 27, 2020). https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

 34  Arasse.

 35  Józef Grabski. ‘Victoria Amoris’: Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino.’ A Commemorative Allegory of Marital Love. (Artibus et Historiae 20, no. 40, 1999) https://doi.org/10.2307/1483663. 9–33.

36  Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, Art, Marriage, & Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2008). 63-65.

 37  Ibid.

 38 Józef Grabski. ‘Victoria Amoris’: Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino.’ A Commemorative Allegory of Marital Love. (Artibus et Historiae 20, no. 40, 1999) https://doi.org/10.2307/1483663. 9–33.

 39 Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, Art, Marriage, & Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2008). 63-65.

40 Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, Art, Marriage, & Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2008). 66.

 41 Ibid.

 42 Meg Lota Brown and Kari Boyd McBride, Women’s Roles in the Renaissance (Westport Connecticut): Greenwood Press, 2005), 17.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arasse, Daniel, and Alyson Waters. Take a Closer Look. Translated by Alyson Waters. Princeton University Press. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/umdcp/reader.action?docID=1213973.

Dotson, Sarah. “Why Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ Is One of Art History’s Most Iconic Nudes.” Artsy. Last modified August 27, 2020. Accessed December 14, 2021. https://www.artsy.net/series/stories-10-art-historys-iconic-works/artsy-editorial-titians-venus-urbino-one-art-historys-iconic-nudes.

Grabsky, Phil, Ali Ray, Mehreen Saigol, Tim Marlow, Martina Cavicchioli, Seventh Art Productions, Channel Five (Great Britain), Electric Sky (Firm), Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), and Films Media Group. Titian. Films Media Group. https://fod-infobase-com.proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=59660.

Grabski, Józef. ‘Victoria Amoris’: Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino.’ A Commemorative Allegory of Marital Love. Artibus et Historiae 20, no. 40, 1999.  9–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/1483663.

Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. Art, Marriage, and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008.

Brown, Meg Lota and Kari Boyd McBride. Women’s Roles in the Renaissance. Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Cohn, Samuel K. Jr. Women in the Streets: Essay on the Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy. The John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

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