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Members' Research Report Archive

Eros Visible: Sexuality, Art, and Antiquity in Italy, 1499–1540

James Grantham Turner, University of California, Berkeley
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, January 1–February 28, 2013

A partially nude woman with creamy, pale skin sits to our left looking into a mirror held up by a nearly nude child-sized, winged person to our right in this vertical painting. The woman’s body is angled to our left but she looks across her body to our right. She holds her left hand to her chest and her right hand grips the fur-lined edge of the scarlet velvet fabric that drapes over that upper arm and around her hips. Her blond hair is coiled up in rows of pearls and she has dark eyes, a straight nose, and her pale pink lips turn up in a subtle smile. A teardrop pearl earring hangs from the ear we can see and she wears rings and gold bracelets. The child-like figure to the right stands on a gold striped cushion facing away from us as he holds up the rectangular, black-framed mirror. He has small silver wings and a sash of golden yellow hangs from one shoulder around the opposite hip. A second childlike person, a putto, reaches from behind the mirror to hold up a ring of laurel leaves. A forest green curtain is gathered in the upper left corner and the beige wall beyond falls into shadow to our right.

Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.34

My book explores the relationship between art and love in Renaissance Italy, particularly the sensuous and physical rather than the chaste, “Platonic” form of Eros. Influenced by classical myths about Venus/Aphrodite and her worshipers, writers and artists in the circle of Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) interpreted arousal as an experience that yielded new ways of seeing and producing art of the highest quality. In their works, the most intimate details of artistic practice—the brush, the pen, the pose, the model, the stroke, the stain—took on an erotic meaning. Within this context, I ask: What properties of Eros prompted visual expression, and conversely, what properties of art prompted erotic responses and associations? What linked the new interest in sexuality (vividly expressed in Aretino’s writings about art and life) with the rediscovery of antique expressive forms? What viewing strategies does the erotic work of art imply, what audiences, spaces, kinds of scrutiny, movements, and feelings? What motivates each line or stroke?

My task for my short-term visit at CASVA was twofold: to organize my notes and drafts into a stricter chapter sequence and to complete the last stretch of new writing, a study of one important myth: the adultery of Venus with Mars and its exposure by her husband Vulcan. This work was both delayed and enriched by the seductions of CASVA and the National Gallery of Art. Curators and other fellows gave me valuable insights, and sections in progress became more complicated. For example, I had planned to comment briefly on Mars and Venus, engraved by Gian Giacopo Caraglio (c. 1500–1565), in which the goddess’ face mysteriously remains in the mirror after she turns away to embrace her lover. But I found myself also exploring one of the Gallery’s most compelling paintings, Venus with a Mirror by Titian (c. 1488–1576).

Caraglio’s conceit of the autonomous image suspended in the mirror, exempt from the rules of optics, here expands into a full-blown metapainting. Titian’s conspicuous virtuoso handling of paint draws attention to its material presence, to what in fact makes it unlike a mirror image. Including the reflection allows Titian to perform the standard paragone demonstration—we see the earring on the far side and so complete the image of Venus’ face in the round—and to practice an almost impressionist looseness of brushwork to convey the slight distortion of the image in the handblown silvered glass. Scholars have commented astutely on this reflection, on how it forms a seductive ritratto di spalla, or over-the-shoulder portrait, how it anticipates the “stains” or “splotches” of Titian’s late style, his pittura di macchia. In this sense, Venus looks straight into the future of painting.

Most strikingly, the mirror establishes eye contact with us. The left eye, partly hidden in the near-profile view of Venus’ head, looks directly at the viewer, which means of course that she can see the viewer looking directly at her—perhaps Mars approaching for the encounter for which she has adorned herself. A comma of brilliant white paint, distinctly sharper than the liquid strokes around it and further accentuated by a smaller bead of vermilion, compels “our” eye to fix upon “hers.” Reconstructing the studio situation in three dimensions with an actual mirror confirms that the effect was carefully observed and that to achieve this reflection the model needed to fix her gaze precisely, neither on the painter-viewer nor on her own reflected image, but on the place where the observer artist appears in the mirror. She could not see herself. Any implications of self-adoration, or a toilette scene, or complicity in her own objectification, have thus been broken off.

Many observers notice that the face in the mirror looks different from the one we contemplate in serene profile: for some she is older, for others more tense and agitated. The flesh is looser, the brow more arched, and the eye open wider (even allowing for some losses and inpainting along the left rim of the lower eyelid). A dark shadow running up from the left corner imparts a strain to the eye socket. The whole tonality is more hectic—the opposite of what we would expect, as the mercury coating would have chilled the colors. It is as if Venus has prepared her perfect face and body for presentation to her anticipated lover, Mars, but her reflected self starts in guilty surprise to see Vulcan.

Italian, 1490 - 1576
Venus with a Mirror
c. 1555