Discussion of Joanna Woods-Marsden’s “Ritratto al Naturale”:
Questions of Realism and Idealism in Early Renaissance Portraits
“Find the painter who could be trusted to produce an acceptable image,” says Italian writer Matteo Bandello, however, the trick, according to Woods-Marsden, was to appease the commissioner. As portraiture became a norm within the spheres of the elite, artists were still pressured by their patrons to render these likenesses under an idealized guise. In rejecting mimesis, these representations were somewhat dishonestly embellished. Garish facial features were muted, distinguishing characteristics were accentuated, and depictions in profile harked back to ancient imperial images.
[Left] Andrea Mantegna, Portrait of Cardinal Lodovico Trevisano
c.1459-1469, Tempera on wood, 44 x 33 cm
Gemдldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany
[Right] Antonio Pisano (Pisanello), Portrait of Leonello d’Este
1441, Tempera on wood, 28 x 19 cm
Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy
Andrea Mantegna, in example, with his “relentless realism” was dismissed as a proper portraitist. His sitters did not earnestly receive his brutally accurate illustrations. Contrariwise, the contemporary Antonio Pisanello captured his upper class clients “in heroic and panegyric terms.” Although Italian noblemen praised Flemish naturalism for its verisimilitude, they most assuredly preferred the pretentious and glorified flair of the Italians.
Function must also be considered in the complete understanding of these works. Many portraits served as a means of propagandizing the reigns of these rulers. Adorning walls of palaces, castles and those of their allies, they also had a tendency to serve as surrogates in the absence of the sitter. Portraits worked to placate political ambitions and social magniloquence.
“There she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges.”
TITIAN, Venus of Urbino, 1538, Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm, Uffizi, Florence
We still know too little about the way in which paintings were actually discussed in the sixteenth century. As such, modern interpretation remains inherently ambiguous. Our modes of response and analysis create a critical debate over ways of perceiving and understanding the imagery of the past. Tantalizingly enigmatic is the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titian. In a work of overt sensuality, he masterfully flaunts his virtuosity of technique. In focus, Director of Warburg Institute in London, Charles Hope and Columbia University Art History Professor David Rosand take opposing stances in clarifying the meaning behind Titian’s natural nude. Regardless, Titian’s mysterious Venus of Urbino, 1537-1538, triumphantly hails his artistic genius.
A fair, polished, delicate young woman poses; her identity poses the entire interpretive challenge. “Is this ‘Venus’ in fact a Venus? Or is she one of the celebrated courtesans of Venice, or merely a common whore?” Her elusive identity makes it difficult to locate the picture within a certain genre. “How indeed, are we to read this picture? How should we respond to this image of the female body?” Critics do not readily agree on who or what is being depicted.
The factual history of the painting is simple and straightforward. Almost a quarter of a century later, Titian recalls his Giorgionesque intervention; he awakens and domesticates Giorgione’s dreaming pastoral deity. “Brought indoors, this nude stresses less her classical poetic degree than her contemporary social function. Her blatant address to the viewer, inviting by sight as well as touch,” complicates our analyses. Her elegant example of visual contrapposto alludes to the classic venus pudica, however, here, she does not cover her breasts, and the contraction of the fingers of the left hand suggest that, rather than covering her genitalia, she is masturbating. Nevertheless, the genre remains essentially aristocratic and courtly in taste, with somewhat erotic mythical decoration.
First mention of the work is found in a letter, written by its patron, sent from Mantua on March 9, 1538. The patron, Duke of Urbino Guidobaldo della Rovere, refers to her as “la donna nuda.” Considering her title, it is in fact odd that he neglects to call her a “Venere.” Although, apparently, at the time, an unidentified nude woman was oftentimes unthinkingly referred to as a Venus. Regardless, the Duke was eager to take possession of the painting when it was still in the artist’s studio. Short of funds, however, he feared sale of the piece to another client. Ironically, had the Venus been specifically commissioned for the duke, it appears unlikely that he would have doubted its eventual ownership. Guidobaldo’s marriage took place four years prior, so, assuming the piece is a marriage tribute seems unconvincing and improbable.
David Rosand’s “So-and-so reclining on her couch” approaches the work as a simple, relatively straightforward depiction of a “woman in her fairest aspect:” a model of domestic virtue. He legitimizes her identification as a protectress of marital love by reading the perpetually blooming myrtle plant in the background as an attribute of the goddess. He also considers the sleeping dog a symbol of marriage fidelity in its trusting nature. Still, addressing Venus as the utmost allegory of marriage love and domesticity, would be a blatant avoidance of her stark nakedness and the all too obvious focal point…
Charles Hope’s “Problems of Interpretation in Titian’s Erotic Paintings” sides with the analysis of the figure as an erotic portrait under a “rather unconvincing mythological guise.” He goes so far as to suggest that this painting may have acted as a ‘pin up,’ acting as little more than a sex object. As a seemingly epithalamic scene, the Venus has no obvious attributes which would associate her with the goddess of love. To him, she is simply an example of Venetian erotica, not a representation of Venus at all. Sanctioned by prestige and the classical tradition, the painting was able to acquire the status of high art, masquerading under the alibi of a classical subject.
A perfect distribution of space, a full and ringing harmony of tints, an atmosphere both warm and mellow, the Venus of Urbino is a quintessential example of Titian’s ability. In my opinion, Hope’s argument is more tenable in that it is less easy to accept that the woman is Venus. To me, she seems merely a woman on a bed with a little dog beside her. Perhaps she is a courtesan, perhaps the mistress of the patron, but it is the attitude of her hand that marks the piece as far too suggestive for any Renaissance standard. In any case, whatever the source of the pose, it is hard to escape the girl’s sexual invitation, which, to me, has nothing to do with matrimony or chastity. Just the same, “the Venus of Urbino is no Venus.”
 David Rosand, Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino,’ “So-and-so reclining on her couch,” in Art History 106C: Painting in Renaissance Venice Reader, ed. Daniel Maze (Cambridge, 1997), 38.
 Rosand, 39.
 Rosand, 39.
 Rosand, 43.
 Rosand, 43-44.
 Charles Hope, Tiziano e Venezia, Convegno Internazionale di Studi, Venezia, “Problems of Interpretation in Titian’s Erotic Paintings,” in Art History 106C: Painting in Renaissance Venice Reader, ed. Daniel Maze (1976), 119.
 Hope, 119.
 Rosand 39.
 Hope, 119.
 Hope, 118.
 Hope, 124.
 Rosand, 42.