Titian: Mirrors, Courtesans and the Queen of Cyprus

March 1, 2011

There is currently an intriguing post by Monica Bowen at Alberti's Window discussing Titian's Venus with a Mirror.  Monica's post approaches the painting from a feminist film theory and psychoanalytical perspective - based on the work of Mulvey and Lacan respectively.

As someone who came to explore Renaissance art via a study of history, it has always been a bit jarring to read accounts which seem to omit historical context in their analyses. Nonetheless, reading Monica's post was thought provoking, and even though I do not subscribe to Lacanian theory to help unravel Renaissance works, it still set me thinking more about Titian and resulted in this post!

Researching the provenance of Titian's piece raises some interesting questions. This painting is currently housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and was a key piece of their highly successful 2006 exhibition Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Venetian of Renaissance Painting, which produced a superb catalogue that is an invaluable resource to both students and admirers of the Venetian Renaissance.

Reading the provenance details on the NGA site, you will discover that this painting was in Titian's home when he died. Hence, the question we must ask- was it painted for himself, or was it a rejected work for a patron? There have been no extant documents to prove this unequivocally. There are however some clues in this and other paintings by Titian that tell us more about the artist's life and era.

Iconography and the Mirror realm
Titian's Venus gazes into a mirror, which is tilted at an angle to allow her to see the observer of the painting. This is demonstrated by the eye in the mirror being visible to us.

The covering pose adopted by the Venus is in keeping with the tradition of Venus Pudica - or Modest Venus. Its earliest form was noted in Ancient Greek Sculpture and numerously copied by the Romans. We know that Titian had travelled to Rome, famously commenting he had seen many "marvelous ancient stones".

When artists chose the pudica motif, it would be to clearly portray modesty as a form of beauty in itself. Titian cleverly accentuates this by including a mirror - even Venus can display modesty when confronted by her own beauty, or by an observer.

The Capitoline Venus in modest pose, a Roman copy derived from Praxiteles Aphrodite of Cnidus

It is important to note that the observer, if physically present in the room would have been able to see Venus regardless of which part she is covering or where the mirror is placed. Hence, insinuating that the there is a seedy, voyeuristic element to this work blatantly ignores established iconographic traditions extending back to Ancient Greece.

There are (at least) two valid explanations for the mirror to be shown in the work - The Island of Murano in Venice, was and still is famous for its production of glass. At this particular point in time, the Murano glass works were the leading producers of mirrors, which were a high luxury item. It was not until the 19th Century that pressed glass mirrors were mass produced and became common household items.

Having a mirror in such lavish settings to a 16th Century observer denoted wealth. The subject of the painting was not only being idolised as the goddess of love, but shown to be flaunting her wealth - which was, and still is an remarkably typical of Venice. So much of Venetian painting, particularly Titian's work denotes a showy form of  wealth and opulence. This is exemplified by Venice itself, whose water facing building facades were a means of displaying grandeur, though the facade was often as far as the beauty of a building reached.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap. c.1516 in the Frick Collection

This flaunting of wealth filtered into Venetian portraiture. One of the the most delightful examples if this is Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, presently attributed to Titian. Some scholars argue that this was done earlier by Giorgione, though the evidence is not conclusive. Note the showy display of wealth and status in the depiction of the fur and sword. It is interesting to note, that among the few private citizens allowed to carry swords in Venice at this time were those affiliated with the Murano glass factory. If the subject of this work was a knight or mercenary, there would be some symbolic indication if this. That being said, the identity of the man in this stunning portrait has never been firmly established.

Much has been said about the depiction of the reflected eye in Titian's painting. Some see the woman in the reflection to be older, or in a state of distress. What must be noted is that mirrors of this time did not display crisp reflections as mirrors of today do. Add to this the fact that Titian himself was by this stage becoming increasingly liberal with his use of line and colour. Gone are the crisp controlled brushstrokes from the time when Young Titian was working with Bellini and Giorgione. As Titian got older, he increasingly abandoned meticulous under drawing and draftsmanship, something which was to earn him critique from Michelangelo, among others.

Considering these two factors alone, trying to argue about the relative position of the Venus' eye, or the nature of her reflection is fraught with the assumption that Titian's work is meant as an accurate capture of the details of the scene, rather than an idealised representation of it.

As with Titian's famous Venus of Urbino c.1538(above), there has been much speculation about the identity of the model depicted. It is known Titian used Venetian courtesans as models, and it interesting to note that some faces reoccur in different works. Titian was married to a woman named Cecilia, who died during childbirth in 1530.  It is not recorded that Titian remarried. Looking at some of Titian's female portraits after his wife's death - we notice a recurring face. Please note, the dates listed alongside the works are approximated in most cases, but the images are generally arranged in chronological order. Assuming the earlier images depict the subject as a teenager, she would be in her thirties by the time Venus in a Mirror was painted.

Was Titian re-using a particular model? Looking at the physical features of this woman's face it is not unfathomable to suggest he was. This is not entirely unusual in the art of any era, particularly the Renaissance. One documented case we have of this is Fra Filippo Lippi's perpetual Muse - Lucrezia Buti.

Looking at the images above, the theories of the Venus or Urbino, or Venus at a Mirror being a particular noblewoman is somewhat harder to accept. Of the images listed above, only one is identified as a portrait - the image of Catherine Cornaro as Catherine of Alexandria(labelled 1542 above). Cornaro was the exiled Queen of Cyprus,  relocated to the Veneto following its occupation by Venetian forces. She was known to be a great patron of the arts, and was immortalised in painting, verse and a 19th Century opera by Gaetano Donizetti.

It is important to remember this image was painted over thirty years after Cornaro's death in 1510. If Titian did paint Catherine during her lifetime, this work no longer exists. Examining another known portrait of Cornaro by Gentille Bellini (c.1500) - we are hard pressed to find a resemblance.

Derivative Works
Titian's depictions of women fired the imaginations of artists and writers down through the ages. Among the more obvious examples are the similarly mirrored Venuses by Rubens and Velazaquez. It is interesting to note neither of these have a pudica element - and the features of the woman in the Velazquez version are entirely obscured.

Velazquez' Rokeby Venus 1647-51

Among the more interesting variations is Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' 1814 piece La Grande Odalisque. Here, Ingres' idealised beauty has discarded the mirror onto her bed, and lounges amongst orientalist paraphernalia as was fashionable in French art at the time.  It is fascinating to note the parallels between this and Titian's piece, both using depictions of women to reflect their own slice of time, place and fashion.

We must be weary not to layer our modern perceptions onto artists and eras of the past. Their expression in line and colour speaks of their time, and it is in this respect that consideration of the historical context of an artist and their work, can give a rewarding, fuller appreciation of any given piece. 


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

As always, fascinating and eye-opening (excuse the pun given the eye-in-the-mirror!).

Sedef said...


Dr. F said...


Sylvia Ferino Pagden's essay "Pictures of Women--Pictures of Love" in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian catalog you mention (pp. 190-196) deals with many of the issues in your post. She is the Ren Art curator of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For example, she writes:

"Repeated decrees restricting the extravagance of courtesans clearly indicate that the clothing and jewelry of the meretrici were so magnificent as to make them indistinguishable from the gentildone. They, on the other hand,increasingly insisted on revealing their decolletages, so that they, too, provoked comments by foreign visitors."


Alberti's Window said...

Great post! Your historical research compliments my post well. (I love when we discuss related themes and topics!) I especially liked the image that you did with all of the models - I've never noticed a similarity before!

It is very important to analyze Titian's work within his own lifetime and context, particularly because it helps us to understand his original intent. I know that my own reaction (as explored in my post) is based on my own life and experiences, and not on historical research. Although I don't apologize for having a different reaction than what Titian probably intended, it is good to recognize the discrepancy between original intent and modern reactions. In fact, I tried to be quite careful when writing my own post, so as not to give the impression that Titian intended his painting to be unsettling.

You've brought up an interesting implication that this painting is an idealized representation with less (or perhaps no?) stress on accuracy. I wondered if you could explain this idea a little bit more. For me, Renaissance art is comprised of a balance between trying to make things look plausible (e.g. accurate, realistic, a "window on the world") and perfect (idealized). Although I think Titian's painting does stress idealization, his attempts at illusion/three-dimensionality indicate at least some interest in creating an accurate representation.

Benjamin (Ben) said...

Fascinating stuff. I particularly liked your observation about the "recurring face."

Unknown said...

Cheers for the lovely comments all!

@Vicky and @Sedef - I'm glad you enjoyed it!

@Frank - it is impossible to read a book about the history of Venice and not get a sense of their obsession with appearances. From contemporary accounts to the most recent volumes by Norwich and Ackroyd - it is a recurrent theme - and illustrated so wonderfully by Titian.

@M - I think it Titian walked a fine line between idealisation and abstraction. His lack of draftsmanship has oft been cited, but within all that apparent looseness of form there is method and precision. I took the liberty of tracing the perspective lines evidenced by the mirror and the quiver of arrows and found they indeed meet at a point off the left edge of the piece.

Even at this later stage in his career, Titian was still paying attention to the basic foundations of image composition. Even Giorgione was at times more lax with perspective, which you can quickly see by looking at the city in Tempest for example.

There is a great quote about Titian by Vasari,about how his paintings conceal the great effort he has put into them:

"Although Titian's works seem to many to have been created without much effort, this is far from the truth and those who think so are deceiving themselves. In fact, it is clear that Titian retouched his pictures, going over them with his colours several times, so that he must obviously have taken great pains. The method he used is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, for it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art, but it conceals the labour that has gone into them."

@Ben - There seem to be alot of recurring faces in the Renaissance and Baroque. From Lippi to Botticelli, to Rembrandt and Vermeer. I know you are fond of modern analogies, so the most obvious parallel would be Warhol's screen prints - taking out the artifice of mythology and historical context, reducing the entire composition to a recurring image.


Alberti's Window said...

Thanks for your response, H. I can see what you are saying about Titian's balance between idealization and abstraction. And I liked looking at the perspectival lines that you traced! That's fun.

P. M. Doolan said...

Fascinating. Thanks for adding the historical context.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments

@M - I thought the visual aid would enhance my point! It was fun to see the lines match up.

@PM Doolan - thank you for the kind words. The historical context is always the most interesting to me. It gives the work a greater depth than contemplation of the image alone.


Andrew D. Weiner said...

Looking at this painting both at the National Galley and when it was on loan to the Boston MFA, I have always thought that what Venus sees in the mirror is not her present beauty but her future aged self, skin puffy and blotched, so that it functions as a memento mori to the viewer of the painting. The idea that Venus (and Diana) might age is the subject of a poem in the "Fourth Eclogues" of Sir Philip Sidney's original version of "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" (written c. 1580) sung by the shepherd "Philisides," in which he relates how Venus and Diana, now old but still quarreling about which of them is the most beautiful, appeal to Philisides to judge which of them is the fairest; he judges Diana's maid Mira ("and Mira I admirde") the fairest of them all and is punished by Venus and Diana who make her unyielding and chaste, leaving him forever frustrated. Evidently, age can wither and custom can stale even the "infinite variety" of goddesses (if not Shakespeare's Cleopatra)!

Cecilia Frosinini said...

There will be a chapter on the theme of reflection and Venus and specifically on this painting in the forthcoming book of James Grantham (Berkeley). We were together at CASVA, this spring.

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