Renaissance masterpieces such as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus have been the object of several studies trying to assess their meaning and relation to Italian culture between the fifteenth and the sixteenth century. When I was in high school, I remember studying them and being taught that they represented the deep love of artists for Neoplatonic ideas. They were, in many ways, incredibly idealised. A few months in college have been sufficient to break this Arcadian dream, transforming it into a forest full of satyrs.
Flora – Titian
The revelation came gradually, but Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods had certainly a prominent role. The book is quite famous and has received prestigious endorsements, such as T.J. Clark’s. The main claim of Bull is that Renaissance culture did not resume ancient mythology because of a fresh faith in the ideas and tales of the past. As Rudolf Wittkower points out in Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, one should not idealise the fifteenth century, and think that all of a sudden the Christian heritage of the Middle Ages simply disappeared. In fact, Bull argues, the classical mythology was resurrected by a craze for artworks all’antica, and the vast production of relatively trivial objects such as cassoni, birthplates, maiolica earthenware and so on.
Venus and Cupid with an Organist – Titian
One might try to resist Bull’s attacks to the beautifully idealised world of Erwin Panofsky (Problems in Titian), where the erotic content is dismissed in favour of refined iconological conceits. On the other hand, when the scholar comes across a letter by Ludovico Dolce to one of Titian’s patrons, apologising for a delay of the great master who was too busy with prostitutes, he is definitely tempted to give up. Obviously, the fact that Titian enjoyed his models in more than one way does not constitute a valid reason to say that his mythological paintings had no symbolical meaning, but other elements favour this thesis.
Venus of Urbino – Titian
Carlo Ginzburg, for example, notices that it was customary for portraits of single female figures with a mythological name (for instance Flora) to be the effigy of a courtesan. In a similar way, in the series of Venus and Cupid, one might notice the abundance of references to music, which was commonly associated with sex. When it comes to the Venus of Urbino, the most famous mythological painting by Titian, Rona Goffen argues that it was probably a marriage painting, and therefore destined to adorn the bedroom of its patron to stimulate him and his wife and favour the birth of children. Goffen also mentions Leon Battista Alberti who, in De Re Aedificatoria, says that beautiful paintings in the bedroom will make the marriage fruitful. One wonders what sort of images Alberti meant. It would be incorrect to think of anything pornographic in the way we contemporary readers could mean it, but paintings such as the Venus of Urbino express a strong sensuality, which applied to the context of marriage leads smoothly to the purpose of procreation.
In this brief post, I have pointed out some points of view in the complex matter of mythological paintings in Renaissance art. My point is showing how easily some assumptions about certain art topics can be overturned, and how most of the time the truth is more complex than the reductions we are used to. As it would be wrong to think that all mythological paintings had a clear symbolical connotation, so it should not be believed that a depiction of Venus is necessarily related to eroticism or overtly simple sexual interpretations. Certainly, it is important not to mistake Titian and his fellow painters for humanists.