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Venus of Urbino: A Controversial Piece That Charms Viewer

Venus of Urbino

Venus of Urbino | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Titian, a Renaissance painter who lived and painted in tremendous times, is not only a way to observe the competence of the High Renaissance but also an inspiration to the entire world through his extraordinary transformation of art style from radiant and minute masterpieces from his youth to more freely paintings of middle age to the dark and mystical like terrifying visions from his last years. In 1513, when Machiavelli published The Prince, which was the first modern work on political philosophy, he stated how Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel, Raphael stayed at work on the four Stanze in the Vatican, and Leonardo da Vinci was an old man living in the Rome city. Of the above fact, I tend to showcase a smooth connection between the greatest painters in art history with the mastermind Venetian painter Titian. The artist produced some 500 to 600 paintings till he died in 1576 (in the later eighties), of which half of them survived and are scattered throughout the globe from the public galleries from New York to California and Brazil and across Europe from St. Petersburg to Vienna, Berlin, Florence, London, and Madrid. Apart from Michelangelo, Titian has been the subject of more writing than any other Renaissance artist. Two biographies of Titian have been published in his lifetime: Lodovico Dolce wrote in 1557 L’Aretino, and Giorgio Vasari wrote 1568 ‘Life of Titian’. Two more were written by an anonymous writer who may have been a distant relative in the next century, and Carlo Ridolfi in his Marvels of Art, in addition to numerous letters about, to, and about him. They all give a brief account of all of his paintings, which are extraordinarily valued. In my first article, I wrote about the distinguished Assunta because of its divine and provoking meaning. This time, I am referring to a painting with a completely different context, depicting a crucial Western art theme, the feminine nude, a portrayal of Venus, one of the most popular Renaissance subjects. So, let us talk about Venus of Urbino.

General Information About Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

1. Artist’s Statement.

As for Titian’s Venus- Sappho and Anactoria in one- four lazy fingers buried dans les fleurs de son jardin- how any creature can be directly virtuous within thirty square miles of it passes my comprehension. I think with her Tannhauser need not have been bored- even till the end of the world: but who knows?”

Charles Algernon Swinburne, from a letter to Lord Houghton of 31 March 1864.

2. Subject Matter.

Titian painted the Venus of Urbino for princely, ecclesiastical, and aristocratic patrons throughout his subsequent career. Being the first nude of his career, it remains the most popular, written, and controversial painting of Titian’s life to date. The subject matter of the Venus of Urbino painting is more than about a pretty naked girl reclining over the bed. The painting possesses the reclining naked girl’s beauty with an innocently leisurely face, soft blushed cheeks, and open hair, hiding her pubis with her left hand and holding a bunch of roses. In the foreground, there are two maids, who might be either searching or unpacking the light blue wedding dress seen on the other maid’s shoulder. Furthermore, there is a large window with a pot of myrtle, a traditional plant linked by Venus. Now, many scholars have insisted that she might be Venus, whose principal attribute is her nudity, identified by the red roses she clutches in her left hand and the pot of myrtle on the windowsill. However, many have suggested that she is nothing more than a pin-up as in the background, two maids are unpacking the clothes from one of two chests, a proof of marriage painting. There is one more assumption that says that it might be just referring to the secular and domestic atmosphere of the house of an affluent courtesan. What Titian portrayed through this painting is beyond this brief section, so we will learn it all in upcoming sections.

Venus of Urbino by Titian | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

3. Artist.

Titian, who supposedly grew up in the violently controversial atmosphere, painted the Venus of Urbino. It is also known that due to this controversy, historians find it impossible to construct an ordered pattern of affiliations between master and pupil, of heritages handed down and quietly perpetuated. Young artists often emerged from polemics in the sixteenth century – about pupils whose success exceeded their teacher’s and the teacher’s dissatisfaction when the pupil took all the credit. It is believed that Titian’s origins lie in Giorgione’s personality, which is still a mystery, and specifically in the decoration painted on the building’s main facade overlooking the Grand Canal. Titian decorated the building’s sides in a subordinate capacity.

Born about 1488-90 in Pieve di Cadore in the hills of the Italian Alps, Titian moved to Venice, while he was in his teens. Giovanni Bellini, the greatest and most successful painter, taught the artist.

4. Date.

Venus of Urbino by Titian dates back to the year 1538.

5. Provenance.

A little history of the Venus of Urbino painting is that it was delivered to Guidbaldo della Rovere, Duke of Camerino, in the spring of 1538. And by the time this happened, the preeminence of Titian was not only bound to Venice but throughout Europe.

Hence, one can imagine that during this period, Titian never painted without a commission, but from the historical sources we know that maybe Aretino (a good friend of Ippolito de’ Medici) gave Titian advice to paint a sexy nude that could be a souvenir his night with Angela to appeal the young and libidinous cardinal as a gift, opening a way to the benefice for Pomponio. We will understand in later sections what girl Titian took as a model and why. Also, I will let you know the entire background of Aretino and any confusing names you are reading now.

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition in D23 Tiziano and Venere di Urbino, Uffizi, Florence.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting has a medium oil on canvas. As the first nude painting by Titian, it has a dimming and flattening figure. His expressive brushwork in the dynamic composition and brilliant colouring produce this naturalistic painting. Titian used the technique of oil on canvas by giving subtle gradations in tone and color overlaid with translucent glazes. Using the impasto technique, which is now lost in most parts of the painting, the brightly lit figure and bed project towards inviting the viewer into the foreshortened perspective picture plane.

The brushwork and the definition of the form in the works of the mid-1530s distinguish it from the earlier paintings of Titian. Hence, the Venus of Urbino is more precise and forms a more prismatic shape formed by light and shadow in the draperies of the Sacred and Profane Love. Also, the facial feature of the lady is more fluid. The coarse weave of the canvas of Venus of Urbino has a loaded brush to blur the contour of things.

Year Painted1538
GenreHistorical Art
PeriodHigh Renaissance
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions119 x 165 cm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?D23 Tiziano and Venere di Urbino, Uffizi, Florence

Venus of Urbino | Fast Knowledge

Venus of Urbino is a High-Renaissance painting (1538) by Titian portraying a naked female figure, possibly Venus, on a bed lying awake while she watches the viewer with roses in one of her hands. One must note the meaning of the painting varies, as Titian didn’t provide one, and Historians judge it with assumptive themes.

Now that you know quite a while about the artwork, let us move forward to learning it in detail.

In-Depth Description of Venus of Urbino.

Artist Synopsis: Titian.

Charles Ricketts said in 1910 about the artist,

“Titian may be said to have remodeled the language of painting, just as Dante established the language of Italy; there remains also the richness of emotion which expresses the man behind the work.”

Titian Vecellio was born into a large and prominent family of Pieve di Cadore, the place remote and sparsely populated, probably in the period between 1488 and 1490. He spent his early childhood in Piazza with his father, Gregorio Vecellio, and his mother, Lucia, along with her younger siblings, Dorothea, Francesco, and Orsa. It is significant to note the date of the artist’s birth has never been established, and even scholars searched for it for nearly two centuries. It might have happened as Titian exaggerated or perhaps forgot his age in his later years, and it was not common for people to keep records of the birth, as it was with Giovanni Bellini. Lodovico Dolce and Giorgio Vasari, two of Titian’s closest friends, indicated that he was born in the late 1480s, and the date between 1488 and the 90s is now widely accepted after much-heated controversy. In the early seventeenth century, his biographers- a distant relative of a Titian and Carlo Ridolfi- gave the date 1477, which, like so much misinformation about Titian’s life, persists to this day. One contemporary biographer described the charm of the artist as,

“He is extremely modest; he never assesses any painter critically and willingly discusses in respectful terms anyone who has merit. And then again, he is a very conversationalist, with powers of intellect and judgment that are quite perfect in all contingencies, and a pleasant and gentle nature. He is affable and copiously endowed with extreme courtesy of behavior. And the man who talks to him once is bound to fall in love with him forever and always.”

The long bony face, slightly hooked nose, and fierce gaze of Titian told nothing about how good-humored, thrifty to the point of stinginess, sweet-tempered but manipulative Titian was.

Self-Portrait Titian | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Two of his biographers tell us that he was educated under his father’s roof as he attended the local school. With the previous letters, he is known to have not been very literate. The grammar and syntax of the artist who handled the paintbrush like a god was more like that of a boy than a man. It was noted by a nineteenth-century scholar who examined one of the receipts of the artist for the payment. However, he was known to have a good knowledge of the Latin language, one which even Leonardo couldn’t learn despite best practices.

The earliest visual education of the artist began when he started looking at the churches and public buildings of Cadore, showcasing the fifteenth-century frescoes and crude Alpine altarpieces by the German artist Hans Klocker and Italian painter Gian Francesco da Tolmezzo. Titian further noticed the few surviving paintings by Antonio Rosso, and it was this masterminded Venetian artist, who nurtured the young Titian’s talent. So, the early paintings of Titian look like Rosso’s style. Now, that you know a brief about the early life of the artist, let us move to the next section.

Looking at the Venuses by Titian.

First of all, Titian’s close association with the female nude as a modern perception is the substantial answer to the question of why he painted the painting, and it’s not only due to his contemporaries’ enthusiasm for their so-called love poems or poesies, paintings that depict beautiful women. Certainly, Titian’s professional investment in women’s artworks was so striking that it might relate to his most creative impulses.

In the spring of 1538, when Titian’s Venus was delivered to Guidobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Camerino and later of Urbino, he was already famous not only in Venice but throughout Europe. He was the first man who had an international career.

Now, talking about the love poem painting, these visual poems almost always depict beautiful women and always deal with the theme of love, sometimes based on ancient literary sources, sometimes from the artist’s imagination. Between 1518 and 1523, Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara executed three canvases in his studio, which are visualizations of texts by Philostratus and Ovid (the Worship of Venus and Bacchanal of the Andrians, both in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, while Bacchus and Ariadne, at the National Gallery of Art in London). Venus of Urbino exemplifies the second category and appears to have been conceived without specific reference to contemporary or ancient literature.

Unlike Duke Alfonsos’ commissions, the Venus of Urbino does not contain an explanation. Before Titian, Girogione painted Venus in his artworks, which have relevance to the Venus of Urbino. Giorgione, Titian’s former colleague at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, painted the Sleeping Venus in about 1508-10; and the ancient Venus Pudica, or modest Venus. Giorgione’s Venus sleeps in a landscape, while the classical Venus stands naked before the viewer, attempting (in vain) to conceal her nudity. In Titian’s painting, however, the protagonist is awake and reclining on a bed in a sixteenth-century palace. In a contemporary interior, Giovanni Bellini had already portrayed a classic nude, but she is seated, attending to details of her toilette, and her setting is neutral.

Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Now, contrary to Titian’s painting, she reclines in her bed in the room decorated with marriage chests called cassoni. One thing, which makes the nude apart from every single work of other contemporary artists is that he classicized the nude in a domestic setting with a message to the viewer, rather than beholding the beholder directly. Similarly, in the Sacred and Profane Love painting of Titian, he anticipated the type of female beauty, similar to how he did in the Venus of Urbino. One of the similar things to note in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus and Titian’s painting is the colour combination.

Sacred and Profane Love by Titian | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Historical Provenance of Venus of Urbino by Titian.

Now, you already know that Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, first owned the painting. But he did not commission it. In fact, Titian was so famous that he never painted anything without any commission. I already hinted that it was due to the advise of Aretino. Please understand that it is not yet confirmed as the sources tell us that maybe Aretino advised or he simply guessed.

Now, the painting was probably set in the house of the most successful Venetian courtesans, known as coretgiane oneste, living in the grandest of the city. This Venetian courtesan, who you see laughing irresistibly in the picture plane is none other but the most attractive woman of Venice, Angela Zaffeta. Before I tell you more about her and the reason why Titian painted her, first let me tell you about Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici. He was the bastard son of Giuliano de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours, and a good friend of Aretino. Now, Ippolito has a choice of certain women, when it comes to paintings and artworks. The beauty of his greatest love, Giulia Gonzaga was often celebrated by the portraits by Sebastiano and Raphael. One secret is that she was so beautiful that Barbarossa tried capturing her to gift his sultan, Suleiman. One more thing to note here is that Ippolita had a casual and adventurous affair with many women, including Tullia d’Aragona of Rome, for whom he dedicated the Sonnet praising her golden hair and her attractive laugh. Now, as for Venice, the most beautiful woman and the obvious choice for Ippolito was Angela del Moro, known as Zaffetta, who was also the dining companion of Titian and Aretino. She is known for inspiring a poem, The Thirty-One of Angela Zaffetta, where the writer claimed that he punished her for jilting him by taking her to Chioggia, where he invited a gang of fishermen to rape her. Aretino wrote for her,

“You embrace virtue and honor men of virtue, which is alien to the habits and nature of those who sell themselves for the pleasure of others.”

Hence, now you know the lady behind the painting, Venus of Urbino, and why was she the perfect choice for the artwork.

Understanding the Meaning of the Painting.

Venus of Urbino by Titian shows completely naked Venus with her genitalia hidden, giving an intriguing look to the viewers. She might have a variety of meanings as I already explained the dilemma of what exactly Titian portrayed, whether the allegory of marriage through the domestic surroundings and a wedding dress on one of the maid’s shoulders, or Goddess Venus because of the sleeping dog on her bed, roses in her hand and pot of myrtle on the windowsill, or simply the rich and secular life of the affluent courtesan.

Please note that the overall sensuality of the painting showcases the exclusive role of the Goddess Venus bound to portray love, sexuality, fertility, and beauty. And because of this, she also served as the patroness of marriage.

Subject Matter Analysis.

Against the backdrop on a white-sheeted bed, a nude woman lies reclining and looking through the viewer. The servants are either removing or returning her garments to the cassone in the background. The nude’s pose is reminiscent of Venus Pudica. But, as opposed to the classical goddess, she uses her right arm to prop herself up from the two soft cushions rather than concealing her breasts. With her golden curly hair spread loosely, blushed cheeks, soft-smooth skin, braids atop her head fitted with a tiara, and innocent stare, Titian delicately painted the finest Venus from his artistic career. She wears expensive pearl earrings, a ring, and a bracelet as in to portray a subtle beauty.

The weight shift of the standing contrapposto of the ancient figure transforms into a fluid motion from side to side in the reclining female figure, beginning with the left leg and foot and ending at the forehead. Titian’s goddess beholds us directly, unlike classical Venus, who faces away from the viewer.

The figure of Venus is shown in Triangular form causing the viewer to get attracted towards her and the dog in the composition is evidence of the lady being Venus

In the painting’s corner, below the woman’s feet, the bed sheets are somewhat disorganized, revealing the red cushions beneath them: a large, brightly lit area beneath her torso and a much smaller triangle almost hidden by shadow. Also, at the end of her feet, a dog sleeps.

A floral pattern is printed on this red fabric, a motif that Titian varies throughout the composition. In her right hand, she holds roses, and some of these have fallen onto the foliate cushion- a seemingly casual juxtaposition of art and nature. Large foliate motifs decorate the cassoni and the wall hangings in the background, while a myrtle plant sits on the sill, and leaves can be seen through the window. With color and light, Titian unifies these different foliate patterns. Although scale relations are purposefully problematic, the picture space is constructed and unified using the traditional perceptions of mathematical or one-point perspective. To unite this composition, Titian exploits color and light even more than space and pattern.

Now, that you know quite a lot about the painting, let us move towards the next section.

Formal Analysis of Titian’s Venus of Urbino.

1. Line.

There is a perfectly smooth contour throughout the body figure of Venus, but a hazy and irregular brushstroke contours to the flowers in her hand. The Venus reclining has a diagonal line, which senses vigourness in the viewer’s eye. Also, it forms a movement, and together with the curvacious figure of the naked lady, it gives a feminine energy.

Line analysis of Venus of Urbino, Diagonal line (green),Curved lines (blue), and Vertical lines (white)

And of course, not to forget, it has vertical lines through pillars in the background, showcasing the extreme stability in the surroundings. It is the Venus stare, which produces a movement within the mind of the viewer, despite the tranquil surroundings in the background.

2. Light and Value.

Against the darker backdrop, Venus shines radiantly. Though the body colors of Venus shine, the background still does not convey the chiaroscuro technique. But, the backdrop in the painting provides a subtle contrast.

3. Colour Analysis.

As we learned in the previous section, how Titian used colour and light to unite this composition, we will know how he did that. Firstly, Titian managed to repeat the reds and whites of the foreground in the costumes of the maids, and he echoes the touch of gold nude hair in the wall hangings and gown slung over the maid’s shoulder. It fills the entire scene with light-filled air, softening the edgy things. Also, the space provides means of a palpable atmosphere, providing the beholder sense through the pleasure of vision itself.

Opinions and Conclusions.

Titian showed the portrayal of beauty, sensuality, feminity, and expressiveness through the Venus of Urbino. He not only showcased the eroticness of the subject but managed to involve affection, respect, and empathy for it. Hence, the painting, Venus of Urbino is proof that Titian never showed a mere body but also gave an individuality to it. Whatever the sixteenth-century viewer perceived while seeing the painting, he surely understood that it addressed him and it was a collaboration of a beautiful woman with beautiful art.


1. Titian: The Life and Work of the Artist by Alessandro Ballarin.

2. Titian: A Study of His Life and Work by Sir Claude Philips.

3. Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”, Edited by Rona Goffen.

4. Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale.

5. Vasari: The Life of Titian.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted Venus of Urbino?

Titian painted Venus of Urbino following the commission of the Duke of Urbino in 1938. The painting was the first nude work by the artist and gathered appreciation and controversy at the same time.

What is the meaning behind the Venus of Urbino?

Venus of Urbino has no specific reference to any religion or mythological belief. However, some consider it to depict the domestic household or marriage theme, or the most reliable one, Venus lying naked while she hides her genitalia and carries roses in one of her hands. Girogione’s Venuses share reference to the painting, but a specific meaning remains unknown.

Why is the Venus of Urbino important to the Renaissance?

The Venus of Urbino was the first female nude artwork painted by Titian. The painting became an inspiration for later artists to follow the theme. Additionally, the unspecified meaning of the artwork often intrigues Historians to learn more about it, further making it crucial for the Renaissance.

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