The representation of women in sixteenth-century Italian art with specific focus on Titian's Venus and Adonis
Mythology was frequently used as subject matter during the Renaissance and early Mannerist period due to the ongoing reverence of the Romans and Greeks, and also as a way of escaping from a relatively restrictive ‘devozione’ (religious matter). As the Roman goddess of love and beauty, equivalent to the Greek Aphrodite, the figure of Venus was predominantly depicted in the mask of contemporary good looks, therefore making a commission of a painting depicting her well worth it. This popularity with male patrons made Venus a common subject of artwork, and imbued these works with the outlook of the ‘male gaze’ — a term coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to indicate the complex way in which women are presented in the arts as objects of male pleasure, as can be seen most clearly in Edouard Manet’s figure of Olympia. Generally, a figure’s portrayal in the nude allows more experimentalism with the human form by artists, with Titian himself focusing on ‘variare’ (variety) in form. Portrayal in the nude, and the concept of the ‘male gaze’ also hold associations with eroticism. Titian’s Venus and Adonis, or ‘Philip II’s painting’ as it is often called to distinguish it from other similar works, shows a focus on the depiction of form, associations with eroticism, and other, more nuanced connotations. It was commissioned by Philip II of Spain, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, as part of a series of poesie (mythological paintings) for an unspecified location in Augsburg. With this commission, Titian assimilated the ideas of poets (hence poesie), particularly Ovid whose Metamorphoses gives the basis for the story, and had the freedom to do, to a certain extent, as he pleased. Now located in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, this work displays political, social, and artistic motives, all of which contribute to its interpretation as an image of Sixteenth-Century Italian art.