A female nude lays in recline atop a bed with rich fabrics. Enclosed within an intimate bed-chamber, the beholder is pulled into Venus’ personal space. Titan paints this female gazing directly at the beholder, aggressive and titillating, grasping his attention and seducing him into awe through Venus’ encapsulating, sexual beauty. The object of the goddesses’ desire is before her. Unlike the classical images of the female nude, where her face is turned away from the viewer, suggesting a secret moment where she knows not of the viewer watching her, The Venus of Urbino stares right into the beholder. Venus' function is that of beauty, the beauty that represents the erotic nature of the female figure has been equated to. In art, especially art during this time, there is a blatantly recognizable association between beautiful nude women and beautiful art. On the flip side, the female nude also tends to be cast as pornographic and was objectified directly by a male viewer: for his consumption and fantasization. These nudes mainly used prostitutes as their models, such as the images of lewd women made for the sake of misogyny, female objectification, and male orgasm, like the writings and drawings by artists similar to Pietro Aretino that use the voice of the “whore” to condemn and punish promiscuous females. These artists’ aim is to provide reasoning for the male viewer to view these artworks and to make right in the mind of that same viewer so that he can “have his cheesecake and eat it too.”
Unlike Aretino, there were many nude representations of females during the 16th century that had different intentions other than for vulgar, violent, pornographic appeal. These paintings did not feature prostitutes but instead portrayed a mythologized woman- Venus or an Aphrodite. This was mainly because, in 16th-century painting, one could not paint a wealthy woman nude without disguising her, mostly for the viewer's own erotic justification and for the woman to retain her purity. Moreover, at this time, these erotic images were seen as sinful or offensive and were largely condemned by the church. So, how do we discover whether a female nude is pornographic or beautiful art? Does the female nude inherently have to be seen as utterly erotic and pornographic? Titian's Venus of Urbino is seen by some historians as pornographic, however, I would disagree. One of the main points Art Historian Rona Goffen discusses in her essay “Sex, Space and Social History in Titian's Venus of Urbino” is how applying modern reflections on art from a different time, where there was a widely different set of cultural conventions, can be harmful to a work's verisimilitude. One of her contentions, with regard to the social history behind Titans Venus of Urbino, is how many people assume that sexual behavior has gone unchanged from centuries ago. Goffen brings up the anthropological comparison of how we publicize and commemorate weddings in modernity and how that tradition has changed over time. We recognize wedding pictures with key iconographical figures, the bride and groom, the big white dress, and the rings. These contemporary attitudes about marriage were not the same back in Titan’s time. Unlike Sixteenth century customs, we would find it unusual to publicize our modern-day marriages with images of a naked bride (maybe not so much with today's expressive social media culture).
What Titan and his counterparts recognized as natural for the image of marriage we find to be cultural: a similar example is Lorenzo Lotto's Venus and Cupid which symbolizes fertility and marriage with a humorous twist. Goffen declares that most modern scholars would recognize The Venus of Urbino as “pornography for the elite” and would classify her as a courtesan who is only an impersonator of Venus. These same modern scholars would elucidate how her potent and aggressive sexuality seems too overt for her to be chaste. Although it is true that The Venus of Urbino is aggressively sexy, her deep stare directed towards the viewer outside the picture plane is not dissimilar to ideas about matrimonial consent. Her gaze is characterized as an “unambiguous sexual invitation” that is pertinent to marital context, and therefore cannot be licentious. Goffen is arguing that The Venus of Urbino is in fact a harmonious display of consensual consummation between betrothed. She provides evidence for this through the images of the twin cassoni, wooden, Italian marriage chests, in the background of Venus' bed-chamber. These Cassoni are key symbols of matrimony for our Venus of Urbino and like the cassoni, the Venus is surrounded by clear indications of high social status- her pearls, servants, gowns, a loyal dog, and a well-furnished bed-chamber. Titan portrays Venus as an intelligent, alert, welcoming, wealthy, and confident woman and her anonymous beauty becomes mythical. In this process of becoming a metaphorical image of the goddess Venus, her historical identity becomes irrelevant. This mythological identity of Venus is confirmed through her pose, which was a pose adapted from Giorgione's Sleeping Venus.
Unlike the classical poses that represented many nude women in sculpture or painting, Titans Venus is not covering herself up modestly, as seen in artworks like Massimiliano Soldani’s 18th-century bronze Venus sculpture, but is caressing herself. More is implied within the image other than the beauty of a married nude woman, consummation and fertility are displayed through the image of the woman herself. Sixteenth-century society expected sexual consummation to seal the union and children to bless it. With her hand gesturing towards her pubic area and her fingers curling inwards, Titan is suggesting that Venus is channeling her own sexuality for the beholder. Under normal circumstances in the Medieval period and the Renaissance, this kind of self-caress was punished, however, in one circumstance was it deemed acceptable, during gestation. It was believed that the woman's orgasm was relevant to conception and the only theological justification for sexual intercourse was to produce a child. Thus, female masturbation was deemed allowable and sometimes necessary for female emission and subsequently for timely conception. The function of The Venus of Urbino can be seen through Goffens well-placed words as well as her title: Sex, Space, and Social History. Each of the three words within Goffens alliterated title provides the reasons behind the thesis that The Venus of Urbino is a marriage picture and is not intended for pornographic, or objectifying gazes. “Sex” relates to the customary ideas surrounding sex in the Sixteenth century. “Space” symbolically surrounds Venus; the Cassoni, images of wealth, fertility, and so on, that point to The Venus of Urbino's status as a wealthy married woman. And finally, “social history” reminds us of the historical context Goffen provides for the reader to understand the lens through which to view Titian's Venus of Urbino. This artwork is speculated to have been commissioned by Guidobaldo Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, for his wife Giulia da Varano. Titan was commissioned by the Duke to portray the much-anticipated act of procreation once Della reached the age of menarche, around age 14. Again, we are reminded that social context is important here: getting married before puberty was very common at this time (no matter how disgusting and traumatizing it was). Women were seen as vehicles for children, and wealthy women were often married to wealthier, powerful older men for the sole purpose of providing heirs and creating diplomatic, familial unions. Oftentimes they were married to cousins or family members as well. This painting by Titian captures the moments as her husband sees her ‘mature’ self-welcoming him into bed, hoping that the symbolic beauty of the goddess Venus will enhance their future children's beauty. Aggressive and sensual, her powerful stare indicates love and consent and her gesture signifies consummation and accomplishment. Even with the aggressive agency Venus holds - looking directly at the viewer- Venus’ mythological symbolism is being used as a scapegoat for the eroticization, regardless if she is given more control over her sexual expression. Art historians argue that the Venus of Urbino's image was a visual of fulfillment, beauty, and sensuality, and was not an image for pornographic objectification. However, the female nude is often portrayed as a young, white woman (or girl), playing right into the hands of the male viewer’s predilections for ephebophilia and pedophilia. Along with these predilections, I believe that the art of the female nude (made by white men for white men) is directed towards the male gaze and possession over the female. This possession is always multilayered and complex: The Venus of Urbino was made for The Venus’ husband (a white male), Titian was a white male painter, and the woman painted was most likely one of Titan’s models. I am not disputing the fact that this work is a marriage portrait, I just argue that this image could still serve as erotic material and most definitely elicits arousal in a male observer. The female nude is most certainly a multilayered cheesecake: a cheesecake that, in a white male-dominated art world (until at least the 20th century), was made for the patriarchy's consumption and possession to allow him to have his cheesecake and eat it in satisfaction.