Mythology was often used as subject matter during the early Renaissance and Mannerist periods because of the ongoing reverence of the Romans and Greeks, and also as a way of escaping the relatively limiting ‘devozione’ (religious matters). As the Roman goddess of love and beauty, the Greek equivalent of Aphrodite, the figure of Venus is mostly depicted in masks to contemporary good looks, therefore making the commission of paintings depicting her worth it. This popularity with male patrons made Venus a common subject of art, and imbued these pieces with a ‘male gaze’ – a term coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to denote the complex ways in which women are presented in art. as an object of male pleasure, as can be seen most clearly in the figure of Edouard Manet at Olympia. Generally, the depiction of figures in the nude allows for more experimentalism with the human form by the artist, with Titian himself focusing on the ‘variare’ (variation) in form. Depictions in nudity, and the concept of ‘male gaze’ also hold associations with eroticism. Titian’s Venus and Adonis, or ‘Philip II paintings’ as they are often called to distinguish them from other similar works, show a focus on depicting forms, associations with eroticism, and other, more nuanced connotations.

Titian, Venus and Adonis, 1553-1554, Museo Nacionale del Prado

The scene depicts two characters, placed centrally in the composition, surrounded by a magical Arcadian garden, and in the distance a stretching landscape. We can identify these numbers as Venus and Adonis, from that moment in the Ovidian tale where the two split and Adonis went hunting. The catwalk depicts Venus sitting on a rock soft by her drapery, completely naked holding a piece of see-through silk draped across her front. This is invisible to viewers either, as Titian portrays him turning away from us, fully engaged in the intensity of the amorus when he separates from his girlfriend. Not to Venus’s knowledge that this was their last encounter, but her desperate body language, with arms tightly gripping her lover and pedaling legs pushing off the rough earth to embrace her more fully, magnificently predicted the ‘important tragic content’ of the story.
Adonis is depicted with an open attitude, her gaze remains with Venus’, but the body is forced away by her tied dogs. Her brute strength contrasts with the tiny ripples of Venus definition down her back, giving her dominance. Cupid languidly lying to the left of the composition, on the ‘grass that produces a bed’, his sleeping figure refers to love that does not exist, emphasizing the melancholy of the moment. Either we watch Venus continue in pursuit while Adonis shows relative indifference, or we see the beginnings of Adon’s eternal absence which Venus continues to pine once every year, or maybe both. However, the image here is very strong.

Walkway, Rape of Europa, 1560-62, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Having mentioned earlier about Titian’s power in making his own narrative choices (through the red beginning and ending motives), we must return to the importance of this decision. We can see that the Metamorphosis story does not always align in his paintings, with Titian choosing to show Adonis leaving first, rather than Venus in the story ‘warning [Adonis], and walking through the air, being pulled by the harness goose’. The two dog leashes cleverly reflect the goose harness in Ovid’s account, and we can see at the top right of the composition that the Venus figure has finally returned to the sky, but it is clear that Adonis was the first to set off in this scene. She dressed and stood up, while Venus – only raised from sleep – did not lull and sit. Cupid, in the background, is actually still sleeping, suddenly emphasizing that Adonis left. Again, the fact that Venus is left alone is emphasized.

Venus is depicted as too naked in this composition. The oil’s sheen gave her white skin a radiant glow, juxtaposed with the dark tones of the trees and foliage behind and the rich red velvet of her robes. Her body is twisted in a serpentinic figure pose, revealing not only her bare back, but also her face, to viewers. This ‘double pose’ allows the viewer to be exposed to parts of a woman that would not normally be seen, glancing into the privacy of a women’s bedroom or dressing room. In depicting the bottom in such fine detail, and subtly hinting at the attainment of the most private part of Venus with its legs slightly spread out, Titian allows viewers, especially laki men, eyes to linger in these areas for a long time, just as a man might.

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