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The nude human form of both male and female varieties featured commonly in the Greco-Roman artwork of the classical antiquity period. Figures of gods, goddesses, athletes, etc. were often shown in the nude in both paintings as well as sculptures. These were created using proper mathematical proportions and were meant to represent the idealized human form. With the coming of the values of chastity and modesty in Christianity the nude figures vanished from Western art. Art of the Byzantine period and the Middle Ages does not have any naked male or female figures barring a few with extremely Christian connotations. Nudity was mostly used to depict sin, weakness, shame or defencelessness. Hence Adam and Eve or the Crucified Christ was sometimes shown as naked in artwork. However nude art lost the idealized and popular status it enjoyed in the antiquity period.
With the revival of the Classics in the Renaissance, artists became interested in and inspired by all types of classical art. Different classical art techniques and themes were being revived, revered and duplicated by many talented artists. The trope of the idealized nude human form was also taken up by the Renaissance artists and interpreted, adapted and used by them in various works of art. Renaissance saw nude human art featuring in a non-Christian paradigm after a long time. Nudity did not carry a bad connotation, however, since a naked figure became a means of showing a positive quality, sometimes even personifying it. The movement, musculature and contortions of the human body started to be studied in great detail by artists like Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Human anatomy started getting studied and artists became interested in showing their knowledge of the human body.
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Battle of the Ten Naked Men
The nude male form was the first to arrive on the artistic scene with Donatello’s sculpture of David in the mid-15th century. In painting too it felt it made its presence felt with works like Tommaso di Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426) and Antonio Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Ten Naked Men (1470-75). The nude female form appeared later. The first full female nude of a non-Biblical character during this time was made by Sandro Botticelli in his painting called the Birth of Venus. In this painting the figure of Venus who has been born out of the sea is shown as completely naked and standing on a seashell. Giorgione also took the figure of the naked Venus and gave it his own interpretation with The Sleeping Venus. This painting was supposedly completely by Titian, his student. Titian himself went onto to recreate the figure of the naked, reclining Venus in several paintings, with the first such painting being The Venus of Arbino. Titian gave the figure of Venus his own connotations changing the setting and posture of his Venus. These paintings inspired many contemporary and later artists and the nude Venus or nude woman, especially in a reclining position became a popular trope in Western art.
Birth of Venus
Botticelli was one of the greatest mid-15th century Florentine artists. A student of Fra Filippo Lippi, he received patronage from the Medici family and became associated with a circle of intellectuals. Familiar with both Classical culture and the Neo-Platonic tradition he made a number of brilliant paintings on pagan or mythical themes before his nervous breakdown under the pressure of Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola. The painting, the Birth of Venus is tempera on canvas and measures roughly 6 feet by 9 feet. The painting now hangs at the Uffizi Gallery or Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. It is believed to have been painted in the mid-1480s.
The painting is undoubtedly one of the most famous and well-known works of both Botticelli as well as Renaissance paintings as a whole. The painting shows Venus standing on a seashell after having emerged from the sea. According to Greek myths and the Classical poet Hesoid Venus was born when the Titan Chronus or Kronos castrated his father Uranus or Ouranus, the sky god and Uranus’ organs fertilised the sea where they fell. Venus was born out of the sea foam. Botticelli depicts Venus as standing on a sea shell after her birth and she is about to land at Paphos in Cyprus. She is being blown towards shore by the god of the winds, Zephyrus. The figure that Zephyrus is holding has alternatively been identified either as an aura, a nymph of wind or as Chloris, a nymph of spring and flowers like the flowers flowing beneath the two floating figures. On the shore a Hora, a goddess of the seasons is waiting with a cape or gown of flowers in which the newly-born Venus will be clothed. Thus Botticelli depicts the pure naked Venus being carried towards civilization which is symbolised by clothes.
There has been much debate regarding who and what inspired Botticelli to make this painting. There have also been various interpretations of what exactly the painting is trying to depict. Some critics believe that besides the myth about the creation of Venus Botticelli may have been inspired by the lost painting Venus Anadyomene by ancient Greek artist Apelles about which the only knowledge available is through the description of it given by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author. Some theorists believe that the scene in the painting was lifted out of a Homeric hymn which was published in Florence around this time by Demetrios Chalkokondyles. The hymn reads,
“Of august gold-wreathed and beautiful
Aphrodite I shall sing to whose domain
Belong the battlements of all sea-loved
Cyrus where, blown by the moist breath
Of Zephyros, she was carried over the
Waves of the resounding sea on soft foam.
The gold-filleted Horae happily welcomed
Her and clothed her with heavenly raiment.”
Most art historians, however, believe that the most probable source of inspiration for Botticelli was a poem by Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), a Florentine poet, classical scholar and humanist. Poliziano wrote an epic poem called “Stanze per la Giostra” which narrates the journey of Venus to the shore on a shell on wind supplied by Zephyrus while the Horae stand on the shore in white, flowing garments. There is a general consensus that Botticelli borrowed the pose of his naked Venus from an ancient Greek style of sculpture called the Capitoline Venus.
There are many interpretations of the painting, ranging from the Neo-Platonic to the Christian where the figure of Venus stands for the Church. One of the most remarkable aspects of the painting, however, is how Botticelli manages to keep the figure of the naked woman non-sexual. The figure of Venus has a wistful gaze in her eyes under heavy eyelids. She seems immersed in thought, looking into space. There is a certain distant air about her. She is unconcerned about her own nudity and about the figures around her in the painting or those viewing her. The extremely sculpted face and white skin make her look like a statue. She is undoubtedly beautiful with smooth skin and golden curls, being the most beautiful of the goddesses, the goddess of beauty. And yet the viewer gets the sense that this Venus is not attainable even though she is naked. She is an ideal. She is not perverse, unethical or vulgar despite her nude status. The de-sexualisation of Venus was something that interested Botticelli greatly. For him, as for many Neo-Platonists of the time, Venus stood for knowledge. She stood for the Studia Humanitatis or the study of the humanities which would provide knowledge. The study of the humanities was based on two ideas, education as a civilizing force and philanthropia or kindness. In this painting the naked Venus seems to stand for this philanthropia or kindness. The clothes are a mark of civilization, of education. When Venus is clothed, when kindness is civilized through education, true knowledge can be attained. Thus although Botticelli takes a pagan goddess of love and fertility he never makes her seductive or sexual. He places the first female nude figure in Renaissance painting within the context of the Studia Humanitatis, the cornerstone of the Renaissance.
The Sleeping Venus
Venice during this time was a cosmopolitan center and was famous for the courtesans and prostitutes found here. Hence it is no surprise really that realistic depictions of the female body soon started making its way into the paintings of the Venetian painters. Perhaps this was the reason why Giorgione was able to re-imagine the classical idealized figure of the goddess Venus, made in the antiquity period using perfect mathematical proportions, as a more realistic curvaceous, voluptuous woman. Giorgione’s Venus in his The Sleeping Venus has an earthy quality about her. Giorgione could never have known how influential his depiction of Venus as a reclining naked sleeping woman would become in Western art.
Giorgione made the painting, also known as the Dresden Venus in the early 16th century. It is an oil painting on canvas and it hangs now in the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden. It is generally accepted by art historians that Giorgione made the figure of the reclining Venus but he died before he could complete it. It was his student Titian who made the sky and the landscape, thereby completing the painting in 1510, as noted by Vasari in his writings.
The painting depicts the goddess Venus lying on some sheets out in the open landscape. She appears to be sleeping, unaware of the eyes of the viewer gazing at her naked form. Her outstretched form spans the length of the canvas and her figure as well as the placement of her hand seems to depict how comfortable she is being naked out in the open. She is completely unfazed by her nudity, entirely unapologetic about it and extremely comfortable in her own skin. There are sheets below her but she does not use them to cover herself. Moreover Giorgione paints the sheets in a cold silver colour instead of the warmer colours which painters usually used for linen. This seems to suggest that the sheets are unnatural, cold and unnecessary in this scene of beauty and warmth. That the figure of Venus is extremely beautiful has no doubt. She has a peaceful expression on her face, a body full of curves and smooth skin. Giorgione does not used mathematical proportions like the idealized Greek and Roman artworks. He also does not depict his Venus as having a slender figure like Botticelli does. The Venus in The Sleeping Venus has the body of any common woman.
The landscape, with a lush hill jutting out near Venus’ head, seems to be enclosing her in an almost protective manner. The rolling hills follow the contours of her body. In this way Giorgione uses the painting to embody and depict a different kind of Humanist idea in Renaissance Venice- the idea of the woman as one with nature. The landscape seems to mimic the curves of Venus thereby hinting at how the body itself is a part of the landscape, a natural, organic object. Contemplation of nature can often be found in the works of Giorgione and this painting seems to suggest how the woman is a part of nature, perhaps the most beautiful part of nature which is pure and ideal in its essence, without the strapping of civilization. Thus despite being completely naked or perhaps because of it Giorgione’s Venus is idealized and unattainable, one who is so pure that she does not need clothes to add to her beauty, love and knowledge. In this way Botticelli and Giorgione explore completely different ideas though they both used a naked Venus in their paintings.
Venus of Urbino
Tiziano Vecelli, popularly known as Titian added a completely new paradigm to the figure of the naked Venus when he painted the Venus of Urbino in 1538. It hangs now in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and it is an oil painting on canvas. This painting was the first in a long line of paintings which Titian made, all featuring the naked Venus. There is no consensus as to exactly how many such paintings he made. They all follow the same basic pattern of a naked Venus reclining on a bed in an indoor setting. He also repeated this formula in his Danae paintings. The Venus of Urbino remains one of his most famous and enduring works. It is especially important not only because it was the first but also because it is the painting where Titian recreated Giorgione’s naked reclining Venus most faithfully. Titian however took the figure of Venus and placed her in a completely different setting which was very different from both Botticelli and Giorgione.
Titian made a very important innovation in his painting. He placed his Venus in a very indoor and domestic setting. Like Giorgione’s Venus this Venus too looks like a realistic depiction of a woman rather than an idealized one. Titian borrows not only the pose of the figure of Venus but also the general compositional plan of the painting from Giorgione. Hence the Venus in the painting spans the entire length of the painting. This Venus is a woman of the material, civilized human world instead of an idealized, pastoral, natural or romantic one. She is lying on a bed or a couch in a chamber in a wealthy palace or house. She is surrounded by obvious signs of wealth with maid servants and expensive draperies clearly shown in the painting. Moreover the maids are shown handling her gowns. Hence although she might be naked during the time of the painting she will obviously be clothed later and has been clothed before. She is obviously worldly and materialistic. She seems to be more like the wife or mistress of a wealthy man rather than the idealized classical goddess of love. She is located in a place created due to human effort, ingenuity and civilization and not in the lap of nature. This woman is already civilized.
Another important change which Titian made is in making his Venus look directly at the viewer. She too is unapologetic about her nudity but there is a sense in the painting that she knows she is being viewed naked and she is not opposed to it. There is an alluring quality to her gaze as she tilts her head slightly and looks directly at the viewer. She seems to be inviting rather than unattainable. The gesture of her hand and the geometry of the painting draw the eye to the goddess’ pubic area. Thus this Venus is very sexual and sensual in a way that the naked Venus had never been before in Renaissance paintings.
Titian makes the sexuality of Venus very explicit in the paintings. The question then arises as to why he did this. He does not seem to be trying to attach any allegorical or Christian meanings to the painting. He appears to be interested in only highlighting the sexual appeal of this classical goddess of love. The reason for this can perhaps be understood if the occasion for the creation of the painting is explored. The painting was commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino. It is generally believed that he ordered the painting to celebrate his marriage in 1534. Some even believe that the painting was meant to be a wedding gift to his wife and as was the custom in Venice at that time it would have been hung above the marital bed in the bedroom. For this painting Titian seems to be drawing inspiration from epithalamia, a form of marriage songs used in poetry and prose that was invented by the Greek and adopted by the Romans. Like most aspects of Classical literature epithalamia was also revived on a grand scale during the Renaissance period. Such songs often featured Venus as a patron of the married couple, decorating the wedding bed, leading the newly-weds to it and sometimes even inspiring them sexually. Martially sanctioned sexuality and fertility was perfectly permissible and even promoted during the Renaissance. It was believed that sensual paintings could inspire the couple and were kept in the bedroom often. Some new brides were also gifted such paintings as a kind of guide on how to take on the role of the wife properly. Hence Titian was combining classical and contemporary traditions and using the opportunity to create a masterpiece highlighting the sexuality of Venus.
The naked Venuses made by Botticelli, Giorgione and Titian were very different from each other and yet they can all be placed in the contemporary social, educational, humanistic traditions of Renaissance Italy. These three artists gave birth to an artistic tradition, the tradition of the naked Venus and the reclining naked woman. Their influence is evident since even lesser artists copied them. Cranach’s River Nymph at the Fountain (1518) is a great example of this. From Alessandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid (1570) to Tintoretto’s Venus, Mars and Vulcan, from Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid to Manet’s Olympia (1863), the tradition that these great artists founded with their depictions of the naked Venus inspired generation after generation of artists.
River Nymph at the Fountain
Venus and Cupid (Alessandro Allori)
Venus, Mars and Vulcan
Venus and Cupid (Lorenzo Lotto)