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The Great Titian

Neo-classical art, with its luscious nudes, was often no more than smutty bedroom material.


Anyone who has wandered through the National Gallery in London or the galleries of Florence must be familiar with the stunning work of the great Renaissance artist Titian. He was official painter to Venice for a while and until his death he commanded extravagant fees for paintings and portraits from nobles all over Europe. His work is a pillar of the Neoclassical movement, and we love each and every one of his beautiful, detailed and colorful paintings. He painted original works with religious and mythical themes -- all of them with stunning composition and breathtaking detail and color.

His Madonna with Saints and members of the Pesaro family, is landmark piece of art for the dynamic way in which it presented the classical images of the Virgin and the Saints (Peter and Paul in this case). Indeed these fresh reinterpretations of classical works were what gave the neoclassical movement its name. We've reproduced several of his paintings here. Danae is a depiction of the seduction of the mortal Danae by (who else?) Jupiter, who appears as a golden rain.[1]Venus and Adonis is another scene from classical mythology where Venus attempts to stop her new lover Adonis from embarking on a hunt with his dogs.

Seduction of the Mortal Danae
Seduction of the Mortal Danae

But after a while, one begins to notice a common theme. Names of some works include Sleeping Venus, Bacchus and Ariadne, Worship of Venus, The Judgment of Paris, The Rape of Europa, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto... Notice a familiar thread here? Yep. Nearly everyone 'cept the Virgin herself gets naked! Sure, sure, everyone talks about the 'wonderful soft lighting' and the 'luxurious flesh tones' and the 'classical ideals of beauty' and all such balderdash, but let's face it. This is a bunch of naked ladies! Should we get suspicious? Even the erudite National Gallery in London comments that The Judgment of Paris (where the mortal Paris must decide which of Aphrodite, Hera, or Athena is the most beautiful) was a popular theme among neoclassical artists because it "afforded the opportunity to paint three nudes from three angles." But it does not elaborate. Research revealed a few interesting tidbits... From Worldly Goods, A New History of the Renaissance by Lisa Jardine:

Venus and Adonis
Venus and Adonis
Titian's canvases of statuesque naked women in recumbent poses were regarded as learnedly symbolic by nineteenth century art historians -- it was claimed that they were visual explorations of allegories drawn from classical Latin literature. Only recently did contemporary correspondence come to light which showed that these works of art were painted to meet a vigorous demand for bedroom paintings depicting erotic nudes in salacious poses. When Guidobaldo, Duke of Urbino, was negotiating to buy the painting now known as The Venus of Urbino from Titian in 1538, he referred to it simply as a painting of 'a naked woman' (and tried to borrow money from his mother Eleonora Gonzaga to pay for it). In 1542, the churchman Cardinal Farnese saw the painting at Guidobaldo's summer residence and rushed off to commission a similarly erotic nude of his own from Titian in Venice. Reporting back of the progress of the painting some time later, the Papal Nuncio in Venice expressed the view that the Cardinal's nude, now completed and ready for shipment, made The Venus of Urbino look like a frigid nun. In 1600, in response to a request from an admirer of The Venus of Urbino to acquire a copy, the Duke agreed, on condition that the identity of the owner be kept a secret -- he did not wish it to be widely known that he was the owner of that kind of painting.
The Venus of Urbino
The Venus of Urbino

Here's the painting in question... Does she look like a frigid nun to you? Unfortunately, Titian's incredible artistry (which it was, no matter what he was painting) was certainly not derived from any wonderful personality, though. Much as we expect from purveyors of smut, he was rather shady. From The Web Museum's account of Titian:

His greatness as an artist, it appears, was not matched by his character, for he was notoriously avaricious. In spite of his wealth and status, he claimed he was impoverished, and his exaggerations about his age (by which he hoped to pull at the heartstrings of patrons) are one of the sources of confusion about his birthdate. Jacopo Bassano caricatured him as a moneylender in his Purification of the Temple (National Gallery, London). Titian, however, was lavish in his hospitality towards his friends, who included the poet Pietro Aretino and the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino. These three were so close that they were known in Venice as the triumvirate, and they used their influence with their respective patrons to further each other's careers.

People talk about pornography and the First Amendment... It shouldn't be a surprise that dirty old men have been around a lot longer than that.

A late addition... One of our visitors, a certain Gordon Lee Stubbe, was impressed enough by these stories that he submitted the following limerick. We think it's appropriate(ly irreverent). Thanks, Gordon.

While Titian was mixing rose madder,
His model was posed on a ladder.
Your position, said Titian,
inspires coition
so he nipped up the ladder and 'ad her


  1. Let's keep this PG-13, folks.


  1. Lisa Jardine. Worldly Goods, A New History of the Renaissance. Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1996.
  2. anonymous. Titian. (referenced online at The Web Museum, 1997.

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