Italian Renaissance painter Tiziano Vecellio, also known as Titian, created one of his most well-known paintings in the year 1538. This work, Venus of Urbino (Figure 1), is an oil painting that depicts a nude young woman reclining on a couch or bed in the luxurious surroundings of a Renaissance palace. Created for the Duke of Urbino, Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, this work commemorated his wedding to Giuliana Varano that took place in 1534. Titian’s work, based on his master, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus — completed in 1510 (Figure 2) — places Venus in an indoor setting, which engages her with the viewer, making her sensuality explicit.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino is perhaps his most well-known painting because of its ambiguous meaning. Various interpretations of the woman in the painting include an allegory of marriage, an allegory of eroticism, and a symbol of marital fidelity and motherhood. The interpretation of the strongest validity is the allegory of marriage because the painting was a gift from a husband to a wife, there are elements consistent with marriage found in the painting and finally, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, is being depicted in the painting. In order to fully understand the painting, one must first be familiar with Titian’s background.
Titian was one of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. Born around 1488-1490, Titian grew up in Pieve di Cadore. Sent to Venice at the age of nine, Titian became an apprentice to a well-known master of mosaics by the name of Sebastiano Zuccati. Soon Titian passed on to the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, one of the leading painters of the time. Under the guidance of Bellini, Titian learned his trade according to the traditions of Renaissance workshops. He stayed for several years in Bellini’s workshop becoming best friends with Giorgione, also apprenticed under Giovanni Bellini.
Titian rapidly became the principal painter to the imperial court under the emperor, Charles V, which gave him many privileges, honors, and even titles. Titian became one of the most resourceful Italian painters by becoming a master with mythological and religious subjects, portraits and landscapes. One of Titian’s most famous and most controversial paintings that he created in his life was his Venus of Urbino. This work is very interesting because of its many hidden meanings behind it. The most likely meaning procured from Titian’s painting is the allegory of marriage.
Titian’s painting seems to be used as a model of domestic virtue. This painting can be described as a “teaching” model for Giulia Varano, who was to become a wife of eroticism, fidelity and motherhood. There is evident eroticism in this painting that served as a reminder that a woman has marital obligations that she needs to fulfill to her husband. There is a strong sensuality of this painting that was consistent with its private, domestic purpose, which was as a gift from husband to wife. Many things have changed between Titian’s time and our own, but two things have remained the same.
The first change is that men and women are still getting married today. The second change is that couples will celebrate their marriage with pictures. Within marriage, the clothes that women wore were important. The heroines of Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, finished in 1514 (Figure 3), and Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid, finished in the late 1520s (Figure 4), clearly depict brides because of their garments, including Venus brida¬l crown and veil. Today, what brides wear allows the people around to know that she is now becoming a married woman.
However, a modern woman’s marital status is not apparent from her everyday clothing. A Renaissance woman’s marriage, on the contrary, involves the acquisition of a wardrobe that reflects her change of status from a maiden to a matron and her transition from her father’s household to that of her husband’s. A woman’s clothing specifically associated themselves with matrimony in Renaissance Italy, from the beginning of her marriage to its end. In the background, two domestic servants, collect a gown from, or prepare to deposit it into a cassone.
A cassone is essentially another word for a great chest. The housemaid looking down at the young girl as she rummages in a chest is another example that symbolizes motherhood. Titian’s twin cassoni is equivalent to the bouquet of roses and the myrtle plant in that they are all bridal attributes that appear in other Renaissance paintings. These bridal attributes, also seen in Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love and in Lorenzo Lotto’s Marsilio Cassotti, and His Bride, Faustina, finished in 1523 (Figure 5), are just a few examples of the allegory of marriage found in this painting.
These various references to marriage, one may add the dog that dozes at Venus’s feet. This dog appears to sleep peacefully because “the viewer” enters is not an intruder, but the master of the household, which was Guidobaldo himself. This painting’s purpose was to be a domestic painting that only a select few would see. The dog himself suggests that the household in question was indeed that of the duchy of Urbino because the same spaniel dozes on the table next to Eleonora Gonzaga a Della Rovere, the duke’s mother, in Titian’s portrait of her (Figure 6).