D20-22 The Venetian High Renaissance

D20 – El Greco

This room holds the Uffizi’s only work by Domenikos Theotokopoulous, better known as El Greco (“The Greek”). Although El Greco is primarily known for the works he produced while he lived in Spain, his style was in fact developed amid Venetian influences and therefore his work is properly placed here, among the rooms housing the Uffizi’s Venetian works. El Greco was born on the Greek island of Crete, which at the time of his brith, was under Venetian control. Moreover, he traveled to Venice during the early stages of his career, absorbing the loose brush techniques and the emphasis on color that characterized Venetian art at the time. The work that the Uffizi purchased in 1973 is known as Saint John the Evangelist and St. Francis (c. 1600).

As its name implies, the work depicts the two saints, St. John the Evangelist (on the left) and St. Francis of Assisi (on the right). St. John the Evangelist is recognizable via his traditional attribute of an eagle, pictured in the lower left hand corner of the work, as well as the chalice he holds in his left hand.

The chalice with the dragon (sometimes depicted as a serpent1) is a reference to the story of St. John in Jacopo Varagine’s Golden Legend wherein a priest from the temple of the Roman goddess Diana asks St. John to demonstrate Christ’s power by drinking from a poisoned chalice. The priest ordered two prisoners to drink from the chalice, both of whom died before John’s eyes. John agrees to drink from the chalice, and not only is he immune to the poison, but he raises the two prisoners from the dead. The legend of the poisoned chalice became a metaphor of the conflict between the Church (represented by St. John) and Satan (represented, as usual, as a dragon/serpent).

St. Francis is recognizable via the stigmata (Christ’s crucifixion wounds that miraculously appeared on St. Francis) on his hands as well as his Franciscan habit (the robes worn by members of the Franciscan order of monks). St. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan order, and therefore he is usually shown wearing the habit of that order. Wrapped around his waist is cord with three knots, which symbolize the three vows taken by Franciscans: obedience, poverty, and chastity.

El Greco produced multiple double portraits of saints, including a replica of this piece that is owned by the Prado in Madrid.

The Prado’s Version (left) and The Uffizi’s Version (right)

The St. Francis in this work is also strikingly similar to the St. Francis in El Greco’s Saint Andrew and Saint Francis, also located in the the Prado.

Whereas the St. John appears in a similar work, once again held at the Prado:

El Greco’s works are defined by a deep, yet tragic, spirituality expressed through his use of icy, metallic colors amid treacherous backgrounds. His elongated and elegant forms recall the icons of the Byzantine medieval period, of which he would have been deeply familiar with due to his childhood in Greece. Like those icons, the works of El Greco seek to emphasize the saints’ unworldly nature inspiring a sense of the divine.

El Greco is able to dispense with the figures’ halos, yet still suggest to the viewer that the figures are saints via their stretched and stylized forms, delicate fingers, and elegant lines. Although still of the mannerist school, El Greco’s work anticipates the coming movement later known as impressionism.

D21 – Antechamber of Venus

Introducing Titian’s more famous Venus of Urbino is his Venus and Cupid with a Lap Dog and a Partridge (c. 1550), which is located in the room directly next to its more famous sister piece.

Many critics believe that the majority of this piece was actually done by Titian’s workshop, leaving only the details to Titian’s hand, thus its sidelining when considered against Venus of Urbino. Unlike the figure depicted in the Venus of Urbino, the sitter here is clearly identifiable as Venus based on the presence of her son Cupid and the roses, which were an attribute of Venus. Venus was the patroness of martial love, and she was oftentimes invoked in what are known as epithalamia, poems written for a young bride as she progresses to her martial chamber. In these poems, Venus is typically described as asleep, only to be woken by her son Cupid, who leads her to a wedding to act as a pronuba (patroness) of the wedding. This interpretation of marital love is further confirmed by Venus’ jewels. Indeed, her pearl necklace indicates that she is not an allusion to carnal love as the sumptuary laws prohibited the wearing of pearls except for married aristocratic women. Additionally, the barking dog symbolizes fidelity while the partridge at which it is barking is the symbol of lust, but also fertility.

This Venus is just one of many that was produced by Titian’s workshop, including Venus with an Organist and a Dog (located at the Prado in Madrid), Venus with an Organist and a Cupid (also at the Prado), Venus and Cupid with a lute-player (Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge), Venus with an Organist, a Dog and a Cupid (Gemäldegalerie in Berlin), and Venus and the Lute Player (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).

Unlike these Venuses, the Uffizi Venus does not include a musician, instead focusing solely on the figure herself. The multiple copies of this piece indicate that it was an extremely popular subject among aristocratic classes, who would typically display these type of eroticized pictures in the marital bedrooms in hopes they would increase fertility and bring about a legitimate heir.

D22 – Titian’s Venus of Urbino

The star of this corridor is undoubtedly Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534), the first of Titian’s reclining nudes and the most written about and controversial of his paintings.

It was sold in 1538 to Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the grandson of Duke Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino, a portrait of whom is also located in the Uffizi. In a letter offering to buy the Venus, however, Guidobaldo calls the figure depicted “la donna nuda” (“the nude woman”), not Venus. So why is she known as the Venus of Urbino? One reason may be that she is based off of a figure in a work known as the Dresden Venus or the Sleeping Venus, which was painted about 20 years prior to the Venus of Urbino by Titian’s teacher Giorgione and which clearly depicted a Venus based on the inclusion of a (now painted over) Cupid.

Dresden Venus, Giorgione

The Dresden Venus is the first known large scale reclining nude painted during the Renaissance. Prior to the Dresden Venus, however, reclining nudes regularly decorated the lids of cassoni (dowry chests or marriage chests) in the hopes of increasing fertility in the marriage bed (See the cassone decorated by Paolo Uccello, to the left). It is likely that the patrons of these innovative large scale nudes kept the aspect of private viewing by placing them in their bedrooms in hopes of increasing fertility in the marriage bed.

Although we know that the figure in Giorgione’s work is indeed Venus because a Cupid once sat at her feet, no Cupid appears in Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The posy of roses and the myrtle plant on the window sill are both symbols of Venus, but no other explicit attribute of her is present. Her pose is reminiscent of the Venus Pudica (literally “shameful Venus”), but unlike the modest Venus getting out of the bath, the Venus of Urbino makes a somewhat feeble attempt at covering herself.

In fact, she shows no shame as she looks the viewer directly in the eyes in a rather promiscuous way, giving the viewer the impression that she may not be attempting to cover herself after all. A possibility further suggested via the placement of her hand at the direct center of the canvas, drawing explicit attention to it. Rather than a Cupid at her feet, Titian places a dog, the traditional symbol of fidelity, but the dog is depicted sound asleep. Some scholars believe that the sleeping dog indicates that fidelity is also sleeping. The same dog appears (awake) in another Titian work, Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino:

(Eleonora Gonzaga is the mother of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the eventual purchaser of the Venus of Urbino).

The tactility of objections, achieved through variations in brush work, is typical of Titian, as is the celebration of Venice. The setting of the work is what a typical Venetian palazzo would have looked like, and the maids in the background are going through what appears to be the bridal chest, the lid of which, as noted above, would typically be decorated with a reclining nude. Thus, Titian plays with the viewer, transferring the nude image from the bridal chest’s lid and placing it front and center without shame. Yet, he still pays tribute to the tradition’s roots by including the cassone in the background. The maids are likely going through the cassone to collect a beautiful gold and blue gown for the bride to wear during il toccamano, a ceremony in which the bride would touch the hand of the groom to express her consent to the marriage. Some scholars disagree with this interpretation, instead insisting that the maids in the background are simply a reference to the domestic atmosphere one would find in a rich courtesan’s house. Eroticism becomes mainstream where there was one prostitute per every ten people in Venice. In short, scholars are divided over whether the “Venus” in this work is indeed intended to depict a goddess, a bride, or simply a seductive woman with no other purpose than a pin up girl would have today.

The sitter of the painting is unknown, but one theory has been put forth that she was one of Venice’s most celebrated courtesans known as Zaffetta (Angela del Moro) due to her father’s profession as a policeman (a “zaffo”). Titian emphasizes the sensuous curves of Venus by placing her against rectilineal shapes, including the windows, bed, window, chest, wall paper. Indeed, she does encompass the ideals of 16th century beauty: blond hair (even though typical Italian women were brunettes), broad shoulders, small breasts, and a full waist (to emphasize a woman’s fertility). Whoever the sitter is, Titian used her likeness in his works several times.

Next to Venus hangs Titian’s Flora (c. 1515-1517), another of Titian’s works over which debate concerning the sitter’s identity rage.

Some scholars believe that the work is a portrait of young bride based on her wedding band, which is visible on her right hand, slightly hidden by the posy she holds. Others believe that the work is simply another picture of a prostitute, especially since Venetian prostitutes would commonly give their names as Flora as a play on the Roman goddess’s role as goddess of flowers (deflowering was a euphemism even back then). Still others believe that she really is intended to depict the goddess Flora. Regardless of who she is, she, like the sitter in Venus of Urbino, display the hallmarks of sixteenth century idealized beauty: pale, luminous skin, pink cheeks, and long loose copper-blond hair (today dubbed “Titian Red” due to his constant usage of such).

Flora is indebted to Giorgione’s Laura, one of the first “belle donne” pictures, half length depictions of idealized beautiful women, who may either be brides or courtesans, which seem to be the only two roles Renaissance Italy (like many other times and places) allowed women to fill. It is telling, however, how blurred the line between the two is, making it impossible for scholars and us causal viewers to differentiate one from the other. Just some food for thought.

The other work in this room is another donna bella, known as Portrait of a Lady (1512) by Sebastiano del Piombo, a contemporary of both Giorgione and Titian.

This portrait is of a wealthy young lady, as attested by her fur collar and drop pearl earrings. The collar of her chemise is embroidered with mythological scenes in gold thread, demonstrating the Roman influence on Sebastiano del Piombo’s style, but his colors are in keeping with his Venetian training. She is wearing a twig crown, which could be made of laurel, indicating that the sitter may a poet.


1 For a fascinating article on how serpents transformed into dragons over history, check out BBC History Extra’s article “Dragons: from mythological beasts of history to the fire breathers of fantasy.”

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