Beauty is a Woman:
Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian
Construct the Nude
In 1557, the great Venetian aggregator Ludovico Dolce published The Dialogue on Painting, Entitled Aretino, less than a year after the death of the volume’s eponymous interlocutor.1 A literary man more than a connoisseur of the visual arts,2 Dolce gathered his information from a variety of sources including the letters of Pietro Aretino, Part Two of which he had assisted in preparing in 1542.3
Positioning the Central Italian art proponent, Tuscan grammarian Giovan Francesco Fabrini (1516-1580) as the foil to the poet and reigning Venetian literary personality, transplanted Florentine Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), Dolce explored contemporary debates about the nature of art. In keeping with his own intellectual interests, he structured the conversation along the lines of a classical rhetorical device in which he “takes advantage of all the tricks and strategies of formal oratory,”4 including a few ad hominem swipes at Fabrini by Dolce’s favorite, Aretino.5
Viewed as the Venetian answer to Giorgio Vasari’s first edition (published in 1550) of Lives of the Artists, which elevated to godhood the Central Italian artistic giant Michelangelo Buonarroti, omitted Giorgione da Castelfranco completely and had little to say about Tiziano Vecellio di Gregorio (Titian) and his other cohorts, Dolce’s Dialogue covers a lot of theoretical territory before concluding with a partly mythological biography of Titian6 that establishes his superiority over Michelangelo and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael).7
Along the way, Dolce–through his mouthpiece Aretino–offers praise for Michelangelo’s draftsmanship and Raphael’s delicacy and restraint, intending to use the two artists as protagonists in his description of the elements of fine painting.8 When Fabrini rightfully challenges his adversary on his qualifications to judge beautiful art, he is told that such a skill is within the capacity of anyone with “both eyes and intellect.”9 Aretino draws an analogy between the ability to recognize beauty and the capacity to know good from evil; both are “implanted” by nature and cultivated by learning.10 Beauty, avers the poet, is epitomized by the “harmony of proportion [that] resides in the human body.”11Having established his bona fides, Dolce’s Aretino eventually uses them to hurl invectives at Michelangelo’s renderings of the nude by using the Last Judgment as primary evidence. “He is supreme…in only one mode…making a nude body muscular and elaborated, with foreshortenings and bold movements…[H]e either fails to recognize or else is unwilling to take into account those distinctions between the ages and the sexes.”12 In a change of heart probably motivated by his earlier unsuccessful attempts to pry some drawings from the object of his criticism, the real-life Aretino (in a letter to Michelangelo) turned against the artist he had previously venerated.13 Despite his pique and reasons for it, the poet scored some legitimate points in his observations about his former idol’s female nudes. The great sculptor Michelangelo, who carved a paean to homoeroticism with his monumental David (1504, marble, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) and composed a beautifully seductive drawing called The Dream (c. 1533, black chalk on laid paper, Courtauld Gallery, London) for a beloved young male friend,14 never displayed the delicacy needed for rendering lovely women. His female figures look suspiciously like men with strategically placed anatomical alterations, exuding masculine power rather than feminine grace. When Michelangelo borrowed the pose of his sculpture Night (1524-27, marble, Medici Chapel, Florence) for his painting of Leda and the Swan (c. 1529-31, known only from copies), he created an erotic composition whose impact comes from both the swan’s bill penetrating Leda’s lips and the bird’s feathers caressing the skin between her enveloping legs.15 Less compelling is the woman’s body, constructed of large masses of muscles (e.g., the left deltoid and adjacent biceps) reminiscent of a well-built man rather than an alluring woman. In contrast, Titian in his Danaë and the Shower of Gold (1544-46, oil on canvas, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) has covered the muscles and bones of his object of desire “smoothly with flesh” and “charge[d] the nude figure with grace,” painting “a tender and delicate nude…naturally more pleasing to the eye than a robust and muscular one.”16 Danaë reclines on a bed of rumpled sheets and fluffed pillows, looking contentedly at the cloud of gold that spits coins at her, in a position reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Night and Leda, either or both of which Titian could have seen on his stay in Rome (1545-46).17 Dolce’s Aretino rarely touches on Titian’s nudes, approaching the subject of the ideal depiction of the unclothed female via laudatory observations about the refined and delicate figures of Raphael in contrast to those of Michelangelo, who “painted porters.”18 He briefly mentions Raphael’s Galatea (1511, fresco, Villa Farnesina, Rome) but goes on at length about his cartoon for the Coronation of Roxana who, though “completely naked…maintain[s] decency [with] a rather soft little piece of drapery conceal[ing] those parts of her which should keep themselves hidden.”19 Indeed, Raphael’s marmoreal La Fornarina (c. 1520, oil on panel, Palazzo Barberini, Rome) looks a paragon of virtue despite the position of her right forefinger–invitingly close to her left nipple–and the suggestively isolated position of her left middle finger in the vicinity of her crotch. Perhaps it’s the mask-like, idealized facial features and the shrubbery behind her that interfere with the erotic potential of the image. While rightfully stressing Raphael’s “propriety and modesty,”20 the compiler of The Dialogue in a report to Alessandro Contarini on his experience of Titian’s Venus and Adonis (c. 1554, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid),21 goes on at length about the raison d’etre for its composition–the rear-view pose of the love goddess.22 Moved to “sweet and vital” feelings, Dolce “recognizes in the hindmost parts here the distension of the flesh caused by sitting,” likening Titian’s brushstrokes to those of nature.23 He ends the letter to Contarini with a reference to Pliny the Elder’s story of a young man who “left his stain” on a statue of Venus,23 mere marble compared to Titian’s Venus, “made of flesh, which is beauty itself, which seems to breathe.”25 Adonis’s Venus pales in comparison with a much earlier painting that by 1538 resided in the bedroom of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino,26 and which was Titian’s first depiction of a sexy nude woman without pretense of poetic narrative.27 Though plenty has been written attempting to dress her up in deeper meaning, usually as a blessing for a marriage,28 the Venus of Urbino (1538, oil on canvas, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) remains a tribute to its creator’s genius, not just in his ability to distribute oil colors strategically around a canvas but also in his imaginative composition that practically throws the viewer onto the bed with the young woman.29
When Dolce’s Aretino declared that “[p]ainting was invented primarily…to give pleasure,”30 neither poet nor author had in mind Titian’s Venus of Urbino, tucked away in a duke’s private bedchamber. For surely if either of them had encountered the seductive lady, she would have had a starring role in the Dialogue.Borrowing from Giorgione’s painting of a Sleeping Venus (1508-10, oil on canvas, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden) on which the surviving artist had worked after the untimely death of his colleague, Titian in the much later Venus of Urbino opened the eyes of the somnambulant goddess31 and trained them on the implied visitor entering the room. Dividing the canvas between a frontally lit foreground interior and a background bathed in daylight from a rear opening onto the sky, Titian contrasted the reclining nude’s warm, uncreased and otherwise flawless skin against a quadrant of cool green fabric hanging behind her on a dark, bluish vertical drape (or wall). Suggestive of the cloth of honor backdrop to many a Madonna, this visual trope reprises the artist’s previous use of it in his Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine, Dominic and a Donor (1513, oil on canvas, Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, Parma). In the earlier, religious work, a dark wall behind Mary, her baby and Catherine partitions the canvas into feminine/indoor and masculine/outdoor spheres, the latter consisting of Dominic and a male donor kneeling in front of a deeply receding landscape under a cloudy but brightly lit sky.
In the equally reverential Venus of Urbino, Titian’s squarish upper-right portion of the canvas could almost pass for a picture hanging on the wall or a mirror reflecting activity within the viewer’s space, so dramatic is the composition’s discontinuous perspective and aberrations of scale.32 Under these visual circumstances, the activity of the maidservants who rummage around in a cassone for an ensemble befitting a noblewoman (or, more likely, a courtesan) constitutes an entirely distinct realm from the one inhabited by the luscious beauty positioned so close to the picture plane.
Reclining on a white sheet that ineffectively covers the bed on which it is spread (perhaps ruffled by recent action or hastily laid down in anticipation of some), this lovely young woman tenderly holds in her right hand a corsage of pink flowers, a rose from which has escaped and fallen onto the exposed portion of the underlying red mattress. The beauty’s left arm gently snakes over her abdomen and ends in a hand that possesses her mons pubis where, with thumb and forefinger, it busily engages in self-pleasurable behavior.
Whatever socially acceptable function the Venus of Urbino was purportedly created to fulfill, first and foremost it is a tour de force of erotica performed by Venice’s premier artist of the time. The middle-aged Titian must have spent more than a few pleasurable hours vicariously caressing with his brush on canvas the sexy female model with the come-hither eyes.
The painting that emerged from that encounter conveys “the thoughts and feelings of [his] spirit,”33 epitomizing Dolce Aretino’s venustà (charm)–the non so che (literally, I don’t know what) that defines great works of art.34 Neither Michelangelo nor Raphael ever achieved in their art the beauty that Titian could in his paintings of female nudes.
1 Mark W. Roskill, Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 219.
2 Ibid., 7.
3 Ibid., 34.
4 D. R. Edward Wright, “Structure and Significance in Dolce’s L’Aretino,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 45, no. 3 (Spring 1987): 275.
5 For example, on p. 34 of Roskill’s translation of the Dialogue, when Fabrini admits ignorance about “painters who [fooled] birds and horses,” Aretino begins his explanation with, “Even young children know…” Roskill., 151. On p. 44, Aretino decides that Fabrini’s wrong-headed convictions stem from his letting his “affection” sway his opinions. Ibid., 171.
6 Roskill, 320-324.
7 Ibid., 185-195.
8 Ibid., 99.
9 Ibid., 101.
10 Ibid., 103.
11 Ibid., 101.
12 Ibid., 171.
13 Erica Tietze-Conrat, “Neglected Contemporary Sources Relating to Michelangelo and Titian,” The Art Bulletin 25, no. 2 (June 1943), 154-156.
14 For Michelangelo’s poems for, and letters to and from, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, see Stephanie Buck, ed., Michelangelo’s Dream (London: Courtauld Gallery, 2010), 76-97.
15 Fredrika H. Jacobs, “Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia,” The Art Bulletin 8, no. 1 (March 2000), 55.
16 Roskill, 143.
17 For other possible sources, see Paul F. Watson, “Titian and Michelangelo: The Danaë 1545-1546, Collaboration in Italian Renaissance Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 245-254.
18 Roskill, 173.
19 Ibid., 169.
21 Ibid., 215.
22 In a letter to his patron Philip II of Spain, Titian wrote, “Because the figure of the Danaë, which I have already sent to your Majesty, is seen entirely from the front, I have chosen…to…show the opposite side, so that the room in which they are to hang will seem more agreeable.” Quoted in Jacobs, 61.
23 Roskill, 215.
24 Ibid., 217 and 351.
25 Ibid., 217.
26 David Rosand, “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch,” Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” ed., Rona Geffen (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 42.
27 Daniel Arasse, “The Venus of Urbino, or the Archetype of a Glance,” in Geffen, 92.
28 Rona Geffen, “Sex, Space, and Social History in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, in Geffen, 63-90.
29 Arasse, 98.
30 Roskill, 149.
31 Arasse, 93.
32 Geffen, 83.
33 Roskill, 97.
34 Ibid., 175 and 176.