Ciao! Want to know what I’ve been up to these past two weeks? Writing essays! Booooo. But since this is all apart of the “study” abroad experience, I figured maybe if you read the final product you could feel like you’re here with me (and hey, maybe you’ll even learn something too). This is my final research essay for my Art History 2: High Renaissance to Present class. I LOVE this class. I’ve never taken art before and I have completely fallen in love with studying it, no doubt thanks to my amazing professor and the fact that I’m in the exact city where some of the world’s greatest art was created and is still available for my whimsical viewing.
Spoiler alert, it’s really long and mainly discusses female sexuality. I honestly won’t be offended if you don’t read it. I repeat, participation is NOT required. Go in with your eyes open my friends…
THE EVOLUTION OF VENUS: A Comparison of Four Masters
Art, like history, tends to repeat itself. Mythological figures have captured the fascination of the human imagination since ancient Greek times, so it comes as no surprise that some of the world’s greatest works of art share this common subject matter. The powerful, transcendent quality of a painting that tells the story of classical gods and goddesses can be illustrated effectively by delving into Venus, the Roman goddess of love and sexuality. By analyzing and comparing four Venus’—by Botticelli, Tiziano, Cabanel, and Manet—it is possible to glean a holistic view of how society’s depiction and perception of this mythological juggernaut has evolved over the course of history. Ultimately, an in depth exploration of these works will reveal a larger artistic theme within the context of sexuality and the female nude: truly, art is a necessary expression of the society it was created for.
But who is the Roman goddess Venus? Also known as the Greek goddess Aphrodite, she commands sexual love among deities, humans, and animals. She is synonymous with love, sexuality, and beauty. There are two anecdotes concerning her origin. Hesiod asserts that Ouranos (Sky) was having intercourse with his partner Gaia (Earth) when he was attacked and castrated by his son, Kronos. After throwing his father’s genitals into the sea, a foam frothed to form a maiden. When the genitals landed upon Cypress, Venus stepped ashore in all her immortal glory. Her name derives from the Greek word, aphrogenes, or “foam-born”, as a testament to this supposed origin. On the other hand, Homer claims that she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. In either case, Venus is one of the original twelve Olympians.
Throughout classical mythology, Venus is a forefront character in several myths. Typically, she entertained herself by forcing deities to mate with mortals, creating or destroying love and lust, or by utilizing her cestus, a garb that rendered her sexually irresistible, to stir up action. Considering Venus’ aesthetically pleasing nature and strong sexual themes, it is no wonder that she is a popular subject among classical, medieval, Renaissance, and modern art alike. 
With this sturdy foundation of Venus origin and mythological significance, it is time to proceed to one of the most important undertakings in art: The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Now located in the Uffizi Gallery, this early Renaissance work was painted from 1482 until 1486 for a member of the Medici family, and it was the first tempera on canvas created in Tuscany. The story potentially draws from a multitude of debated sources, most transparently Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Poliziano’s “Stanzas”, and references from Ficino’s interpretation of the birth. Botticelli captures the moment Venus just arose from the sea perched on her symbolic seashell while Zephyr and Aura gently blow her along towards the shore and the awaiting Grace, who will cover Venus with her cape. The fact that Venus is nude attests to Botticelli’s mythologies in a reflection of the slightly more liberal era that featured “a society intent on reviving antiquity on a new scale, but now less for the moral lessons… than for private delight”. Painting women nude was still not typical for the time, and only considered non-blasphemous in this case because of the higher meaning of the work. To Ficino, Venus’ birth in this fashion was “an allegory of the birth of beauty in the mind of humanity” in the typical Neoplatonic philosophy that attempted to connect classical thought with Christian themes. Due to the quasi-religious meaning associated with the work, endless symbolic and allegorical connections can be drawn between mythology and spiritual beatific themes. For example, the wind gods’ unseemly similarity to angels and her birth borne of water recalls a baptism, much like the Renaissance signifies a “rebirth”. Moreover, it is Botticelli’s presence in the work that allows it to be more than “merely decorative… the highly stylized treatment of the surface is what elevates the picture to allegory”. The Venus Pudica can definitely be credited for the iconography of Botticelli’s Venus, as she is covering her private parts shyly. Since we know that Botticelli studied the famous Medici Venus, it is speculated that he referenced this work in the creation of his own Venus as well. It is clear then that Botticelli’s Magnum Opus elevated the mythological subject of Venus to new allegorical and symbolic heights in the fashion of spiritual and aesthetic beauty that pervaded the society of the Early Renaissance era.
Venus now transforms to a nude woman veiled in the previously spirituality elevated nude goddess. In this manner, Tiziano begins to address the figure of the nude woman by utilizing the cloak of the nude Venus in his work, Venus of Urbino. Tiziano, hailing from the Venetian school of art, celebrates the richness of color that was so distinct from the Florentine school that focuses more intently on form and drawing lines. In fact, Tiziano found inspiration for this work in his master, Giorgione, with his Sleeping Venus (1510). Completed in 1538 for the Duke of Urbino Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, this oil on canvas is rife with hidden meanings. The scene simply shows a young nude woman reclining in a bedchamber in an opulent Renaissance palace, but further investigation shows the work to be an allegory of marriage and eroticism. As a wedding present, the Duke commissioned it for his future wife, which almost certainly points to a celebration of marital love and intimacy. Some sources even speculate that it was meant as a sort of “‘teaching’ model to Giulia Varano, the young wife of eroticism, fidelity and motherhood” and thus provided a reminder to the young bride, indicating the success of her marriage hinged partly on her ability and willingness to fulfill her marital obligations to her husband. Her beauty and sensuality point to the erotic allegory that Tiziano so masterfully creates by glazing up to fifteen thin, barely perceptible layers of oil paint. The resultant contrast of her light skin against the darkness of the curtain and background scene evokes a glowing softness that pervades the entire work. However, the young mortal’s erotic allegory is elevated to her present sensuous and erotic level significantly through her interpretation as Venus, the goddess of love and sexuality. Because (and only because) she is disguised as the goddess, she is able to stare and touch and remain so totally unfazed by her sensual display of nudity in front of the viewer. This veiled emergence of the female nude as a genre begins in the High Venetian Renaissance, and it was commonly masked by the title of “Venus” thereafter. Curiously, the dog at the foot of the bed, typically seen as a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness, is sleeping on the job. Whether Tiziano’s intention in having a ‘sleeping’ dog was to act as a precursor to the increasingly promiscuous depictions of the nude female disguised as Venus, there is no way to know. This new installation in the evolution of Venus is a monumental milestone that will pave the way for future advancements of the mortal nude woman’s persona, with the goddess Venus more and more becoming an illustrative means to an end.
Cabanel’s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus (1863), is one of the most famous works of art of the mid-nineteenth century. As an esteemed French academic painter and a determined opponent of the Impressionists, Cabanel and his respective colleague’s stubborn unwillingness to accept upcoming ideas and different sources of inspiration eventually led to the unraveling of the Academy’s Salons. The oil on canvas painted in the virtuoso technique shows an aesthetically idealized nude reclining Venus in a euphoric moment. She is one with her aquatic surroundings and cherubs playfully float around her. She asks nothing from the viewer with her peeking gaze. She makes no attempt to cover herself with her willowy arms, and instead she coyly bends one knee to shadow her sexuality. The implicit hypocrisy of the “mythological theme is indeed a pretext for the portrayal of a nude figure, which, though idealised, is nonetheless depicted in a lascivious pose” and ultimately allowed Cabanel to safely introduce eroticism without offending public morality. And since Cabanel was a celebrated French academic painter of the time, he took the smallest possible step outside of the sphere of public opinion with this work. His initial goal was to afford his audience pleasure, and to that end the “goddess’s idealized form… [and] unattainable aura” puts distance between her and the viewer, just because she is titled Venus. And Cabanel did indeed know his audience well, since this was exactly what the French aristocracy of the 1860s needed to match their shallow pretense of virtue and obsession with frivolity. The inaccessible qualities of the goddess allow the viewer to comfortably analyze the work without having to imagine the subject as a mortal nude woman. All in all, this was a mistake since Cabanel himself was quoted to have said, “usually the subject is merely a pretext to hint at or to express an underlying ideal, an ideal for which the public is more receptive on account of its familiarity with the subject.”  He knew that if he produced a work of surreal beauty featuring a woman of idealized aesthetics that the public wouldn’t want to look any farther into his real intentions… which of course was to present a nude woman who chose to be called Venus so that she could advertise her sexuality and command her volition. She sees the viewer, nonchalantly locks his gaze, and subsequently appears utterly apathetic about her state of nudity in his presence. She is tranquil, an ascended female being. And so Cabanel cunningly produced a portrait of a nude woman who is using Venus to her own benefit.
Cabanel’s Venus is a tame kitten when compared to Manet’s lioness, Olympia. Although it was created in the same year, Manet’s depiction of the nude female cannot be ignored in the progression of Venus. At this time, Impressionism was the name, and political indifference was the game. For example, the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 had almost no impact on Impressionist imagery and subject choice; they just continued to create genre subject paintings. Manet’s shock to the 1865 Salon depicts a young prostitute lounging on a bed. Her left hand clasping her female center shouts, “You can look, but first you must pay”. Behind her, a black female servant bestows a bouquet of flowers upon her—certainly a gift from a client. Most importantly, her gaze is simultaneously cool indifference and daring defiance: “Venus has become a prostitute, challenging the viewer with her calculating look”. Manet’s stylistic technique was an attempt to depart from the Academy even further. His “brush strokes are rougher and the shifts in tonality [are] more abrupt than those found in traditional academic painting”, such as Cabanel, who adopted the accepted canon of the period. To the Academy, this work was an ambush from all sides. However, Manet’s intention was purposeful, if ostentatious. He chose to debase the goddess of love and sexuality to the ‘un-idealized’ nude portrait of a mortal prostitute. Manet crafts a full reversal of the female nude and tenaciously extorts the virtues of Venus to prove a point: this is reality! Prostitutes exist! In this modern society, certain women control their own sexuality. See how this woman does not ask for your love, but simply takes her freedom. She alludes to her supposed Venus-ness solely to bring attention to the sharp contrast between their existences. This crucial step embodies the death of Venus and the birth of reality that society was not quite prepared for.
Naturally, each individual experiences a personal evolution when experiencing these works in succession. To me, it is the progression from eggshells to elephants, childhood to late adolescence, and fear to knowledge. It is important to keep in mind that the Venus perspective is also only a temporal slice in the ever-changing topic of female sexuality. It can be extended backwards from the Venus Pudica to cave drawings, barbarians, and the preceding unknown; and also forward to the invention of the pin-up, the modern art form of pornography, and whatever lies ahead unbeknownst to us all. As for the four works analyzed, each evokes a separate and distinct feeling for me. Botticelli seems necessary, formed, and as though Venus is metaphorically dipping her toe in the water to test its temperature. Here we are on eggshells, fearful of our own power. However, there is also grace and dignity in the imposed naivety. Tiziano begins to wade in by asking questions in a manner that can easily be interpreted as less prying than we truly intended. We are curious, but not yet confident. Cabanel is pure beauty. The optical pleasure of this work makes me melt, just as he desired. But my infatuation is also in part because of the sneaky teenager aura that surrounds it. By all outward appearances, we play by the rules… but really, our intelligence and furtiveness allows us to do exactly what we want despite the confines of our youth. We know what things are, we know how to get these things, and we know how to not get caught getting them. And then we have the final coup. Manet arrives like a crashing elephant, when in reality Olympia is already the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. The moment of realization: all that came before was child’s play, and we were too afraid to face the carnal knowledge that existed within us from the very beginning. I don’t love this work, but I do realize its necessity. Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.
If Venus stood at the top of a mountain, then artistic genius forced the nude female to climb the mountain and descend the opposite side. To begin the climb, the nude woman was unable to be a nude woman; instead, she had to be a mythological figure that possessed qualities of spiritual ascension in order to be depicted at all (Botticelli). As the uphill slope increases, the nude woman was portrayed, but she had to use the cloak of the goddess Venus in order to reach her full allegorical potential (Tiziano). The pinnacle of the mountain represents the transition phase. Venus stands atop it: all who climbed upwards toward her needed her validation in order to reach this height. However, all who come after her is purely woman, who instead is now exploiting Venus to achieve her own higher meaning. After a gentle descent, there is the idealized nude woman of perfect aesthetic beauty that is just out of reach because she insists to be called Venus (Cabanel). Last but not least arrives the base of the backside of the mountain, which ends in a sheer drop off. Here descends the prostitute, an ‘unidealized’ nude who brashly flaunts the ancient sexual prowess of woman. She calls herself Venus only for ironic effect, and to mock all those who came before her and touted the name with dignity (Manet). Those women depicted before her were not in control of their own sexuality, and hence were not fully free. The illusion is shattered, and society must begin to publicly face the reality that Venus couldn’t possibly survive when held in comparison to modern woman. And so we have a verifiable mythological martyr in the evolution of Venus: from literal birth to essential death, she always reflected the needs of the society for which she was created. And moreover, we have truth from art. Bellissima.
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