Raichel' s Art History - Lectures and articles with the art historian Dr. Raichel Le Goff


Venetian Portraiture 1475-1575


A discussion of the erotic appeal of the so-called Belle Donne portraits concentrating on the works of Palma Vecchio and Titian

Raichel Le Goff

Presented at the Courtauld Institute London as a seminar 25/11/94

In his book on Titian, Charles Hope writes that in Venice, "pictures served two main functions, as decoration of public buildings and as images for private devotion." If so, where do the pictures of desirable young women, who are neither depicted as saints nor wives, fit in? I think they can be seen as "images for private devotion". The men who looked upon these images could worship an ideal of feminine beauty. A favourite mistress portrayed or a concocted image of the 'ultimate mistress' could be adored in a sense distinct to the way in which a representation of a Madonna was adored.

Having looked at a quantity of Venetian pictures that we could loosely term, 'portraits' of beautiful women, I began to wonder what gave rise to this enthusiasm for ladies of a very specific appearance; long blonde or auburn hair, dark eyes, alabaster skin, fine brows, red lips, their full rounded bodies often appearing half undressed? It could not simply be that Venice produced voluptuous temptresses in abundance and so the artists decided to paint them. I think rather, that it arises from and runs parallel to, one of the characteristic intellectual features of the age : Neo-Platonism.

Plato's philosophy has a distinctly 'other-worldly' character, emphasizing the spiritual and non-material aspects of reality. One feature common to most of the sensual Venetian portraits is that the women appear with very few material props and the influence is on simplicity.

In Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, (Borghese Gallery), it is the naked Venus which is actually symbolic of Sacred Love and not the clothed Venus. The picture, dated to about 1516, was commissioned by the Great Chancellor of the Republic, Niccolo Aurelio, a humanist and collector and Panofsky believed it to be based on neo-platonic writings. Most of these pictures were catering to very specific tastes representative of a circle of well educated and affluent men.

At the beginning of the 16th century the themes of Love and Beauty preoccupied philosophical discussion in Venice. This was largely a result of humanistic interest in Plato and other writers of antiquity which had originated among the Florentines. Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) founder of a Platonic Academy which met at the Villa Medici near Careggi, published his commentary on Plato's Symposium in 1469. In it, he explores the Platonic suggestion that a beautiful body equals a beautiful soul and he goes further to say that physical beauty is the embodiment of goodness. Later in Venice, the surreal beauty of the women in these pictures, becomes symbolic of Humanitas. 

Violante (La Bella Gatta),
 oil on canvas painting completed by Titian around1515,
 51 cm x 65.5 cm,
on display at Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History) in Vienna, Austria

Ficino was the friend of the Venetian Bernardo Bembo, father of Pietro, poet, literary theorist and cardinal who knew many Venetian artists and who corresponded with Pietro Aretino. It was Bernardo Bembo who brought Ficino's manuscript to Venice. The first Greek edition of Plato's works was published by Aldus in Venice in 1513.

Plato's text had inspired poets to compose treatises on love and in 1505 Pietro Bembo published his Gli Asolani that relates courtly conversations on the merits of love that take place in the gardens of Catherine Cornaro's villa at Asolo. Set within this narrative context, Bembo reflects on his neo-Platonic love for Maria Savorgnan and Lucrezia Borgia, to whom the work is dedicated. The fact that he felt himself in love with Lucrezia before he had even met her at the Este court circa 1502-03, means that he loved not the woman herself but what was actually a certain 'idea' of her.

I have a suspicion that it is much the same thing with these idealized images of blonde women painted by Palma Vecchio and Titian. Eversince Pliny wrote of Zeuxis trying to conjure up the ideal image of Helen, artists have been striving to reach an elusive exemplar of feminine beauty. Raphael wrote to Baldassare Castiglione describing how he wished to take the most perfect part of many models to create his Galatea for the Farnesina and I believe it is this ambition to render absolute beauty in paint, that is behind many of the Venetian pictures I will discuss in this essay.

Giorgione's Laura, painted in 1506, is one of the earliest examples of these sensuous half-length pictures. Originally, the figure was viewed to about the waist with both hands visible. Although not a classical beauty, the model is young and Giorgione has painted her with great tenderness. It is far more a portrait, than the later images by Titian, Palma Vecchio and Sebastiano del Piombo for which the Laura is a touchstone.

The sensitive sfumato rendering of soft flesh against the brown fur lining of her red robe, contrasts textures and makes it an image that evokes the sense of touch. If she were fully clothed, she would be less remarkable. It is the fact that this girl is holding open her robe to show us her small vulnerable breast that makes the painting erotic. This is a forbidden action, one that can only take place in the intimacy of the bedchamber or the artist's studio and we imagine, only with a woman of a certain ilk.

As a wife or a gentildonna, could hardly pose in this fashion, it is probable that Giorgione's mystery model was a member of the Cortigane class. Cortigana was a euphemism for a high-class prostitute and the aristocrats of the profession were to be found in Venice. These courtesans were distinguished not only by their beauty and their high price but also by their graceful manners and splendid clothes and jewels. Some, like Veronica Franco, who had intellectual pretensions, published poems and letters.

Giorgione Laura
Giorgione's Laura

In 1543 the Venetian Senate decreed that :

"no whore living in Venice may dress in, or wear on any part of her person, gold, silver or silk, except for her coif, which may be of pure silk; and such women may not wear necklaces, pearls, or rings with or without stones, either in their ears or in any other imaginable place."

The reason given for this decree is that the whores "are so well dressed and adorned that on many occasions our noble and citizen women have been confused with them" .

This means that prior to 1543, we can presume the courtesans of Venice were dressed, bejewelled and coiffured to the highest standard which makes identifying who is a gentildonna and who is a cortigana difficult, in certain Venetian portraits.

A very good example of this ambiguity is Titian's, La Bella, (Pitti). Painted in 1536, it presents an image of a beautiful young woman who gazes directly out of the picture. Her hair is dark blonde and her decollete is bare, but she wears a splendid rich gown and gold chains. There is nothing in the painting that gives clues to her identity, no coat of arms, no symbolic reference to the emblem of her family, no inscription and no domestic setting such as Titian employed for his portraits of Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere, (Uffizi) and Empress Isabella (Madrid).

La Bella Titian
La Bella
1536 Oil on canvas | 890 x 760 mm
Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Titian (Vecellio, Tiziano)  1485-1576

La Bella was commissioned by the Duke of Urbino, and he refers to her in his correspondence only as "il ritratto di quella donna che ha la veste azzurra".

This suggests that the name and the personality of the women who sat for these pictures was of less importance than the image they inspired.

La Bella is neither respectable nor unrespectable until we look at her near identical image in Titian's Girl in a Fur Coat (Vienna) where she appears partly naked. Once a model appears in a state of undress, we no longer view the picture as a standard portrait, but an erotic portrait and the imagined social status of the sitter changes too.

When we are confronted by Titian's Flora in the Uffizi or Palma Vecchio's Blonde Woman (sometimes also called Flora) in the National Gallery, we are no longer thinking 'wives and daughters' but 'mistresses and prostitutes'.

Only a woman groomed for love-making, for seduction of the opposite sex, could appear so calm and serene in a state of undress.

Vecchio Blonde
Palma Vecchio's Flora
Uffizi  Florence

It is erotic because the artist has deliberately aimed to arouse sexual feelings in the viewer. Everything about Palma's model exudes youth and femininity, you get the impression that she smells as sweet as she looks.

Her expression in the picture is not coy, it contains a certain worldliness as she does not appear uncomfortable to be naked in front of the artist. Her nipple is blatantly exposed, the chemise she wears has been deliberately loosened to reveal it. It is not until you come quite close to the painting that you appreciate the intense sensuality that emanates from the combination of pink nipple, white skin with the blue-veins barely discernible beneath and the lovely waves of ash blonde hair that almost blend into the skin.

Titian's Flora has also allowed her chemise to fall but the effect is not as explicitly erotic. The model's hand keeps the stole around her shoulders and prevents the exposure of her nipple. Furthermore, she does not make eye contact with the viewer which somewhat lessens the tease.

Palma Vecchio's model appears so many times in his paintings that she takes on a real identity to us and we begin to visualize her as a Venetian woman that the artist knew and obviously admired. She holds the jar of ointment as the Magdalene in his Madonna and Child with Saints in Genoa, (1520), she reclines naked in an arcadian landscape as Venus in the Fitzwilliam Museum painting (1522-24) and her brown eyes gaze out at us once more from the Blonde Woman in Berlin (1524-26). In the latter picture, she is virtually in the same pose as the National Gallery picture, in reverse and appears to have gained some weight with a fuller face and a heavier breast. I would argue that she reappears as an even fuller, more mature figure, a few years on in Judith and the Head of Holofernes.

Even if we accept her immaculate, somewhat bland image in the National Gallery picture as being an ideal portrait, it seems likely that the artist had someone to pose for him in all these pictures.

The status of the half-length erotic female figure is problematic. To be portraits, should they not have a certain believability of presence? It is confusing as the format is typical of early sixteenth-century portraits, as is the use of a darkened background. Seen one at a time, in a gallery space, they are more individual to us than seen repeatedly page after page in a catalogue. (Page 5)

For Wilde, these pictures belong to "that class of Venetian paintings the only objective of which was to render the beauty of the half-length female figure."

However looking at Titian's portrait of Isabella d'Este, (Vienna), she seems just as idealized as his La Bella. It is only her clothes and headdress that give her a more sobre and thus, more legitimate appearance. If anything, Titian's Isabella, appears less lifelike than his anonymous La Bella. Elizabeth Cropper argues that portraits of women in the Renaissance were surrounded by a special set of critical issues that involved the whole problem of portraying beauty. In the Renaissance, any depiction of a woman could be expected to have been enhanced in the direction of an ideal image of beauty.

The precepts of feminine beauty as set out in a list published by an early 16th century Brescian author, give us some idea of the aesthetics of the day:

- long; the hair, the hands and the legs

- tiny; the teeth, the ears and the breasts

- large; the forehead, the torso and the hips

- narrow; the waist, the knees and that which nature

has placed where it is all soft.

- big, but in good proportion; the buttocks, the arms and

the thighs

- fine; the eyebrows, the fingers and the lips

- round; the neck, the arms

- small; the mouth, the chin and the feet

- white; the teeth, the chest and the hands

- red; the cheeks, the lips and the nipples

- black; eyelashes, the eyes and that which you know.

This was written in 1536, around the same time as Titian was painting his Girl in a Fur Coat (Vienna) in which he shows off the naked beauty of his model as Giorgione did in his Laura, by contrasting flesh with fur. She is his La Bella undressed (Pitti). Wethey comments "La Bella has such an impersonal look and attitude that an ideal portrait is the most reasonable classification." Most of the requirements mentioned in the above list, are met in Titian's model who appears to be the same girl that appears in his Salome (Doria Pamphilji) and in the ultimate image of seduction, the Venus of Urbino, (Pitti). Again, we have another model that appears in a series of works by a Venetian artist but that appears too ethereally beautiful to be a 'real' woman. She is 'other-worldly', a neo-platonic beauty.

Freed from the Medieval costume of the previous century, these women luxuriate in their nudity. They appear either as if they were about to make love or have just finished love-making. (Page 6 )

I think it was significant that the figures are broad in proportion with generous arms and plump shoulders. This signals a new development in representation of the female figure from the quattrocento image that was generally slender and fine-boned.

Intensely intimate pictures, it is difficult to imagine them hanging anywhere but in an admirer's private bedroom. The connoisseur and collector Andrea Odoni, owned a series of this type of picture.

They become erotic images because the women offer themselves to the beholder in a natural state, especially Palma Vecchio's blondes who have let their hair tumble loose as well as their clothes. To be blonde seems to have been the cosmetic aspiration of most women in Venice as Cesare Vecellio wrote in 1590:

"On the roofs of Venice are wooden altanas where women dye their hair blonde. It is there, that with a lot of skill and assiduity, if not all, at least most of the Venetian women dye their hair blonde with diverse sorts of waters prepared for this effect. Not without ignorance, they choose the hottest moment of the day to expose themselves to the sun. (.....)

They wear a silk or light batiste garment, called a schiavonetto and on the head, a hat of fine straw called a solana, which protects them from the sun."

It is possibly the schiavonetto that is the white undergarment worn in many of these pictures and usually embellished by a sumptuous, richly coloured drape. Another component of the formula that makes these pictures erotic is the gesture where elegant hands hold this coloured drape up to the breast. The degree of modesty is controlled depending on how the drape is held. In Palma's Blonde Woman in Berlin, the red drape is held by two hands as if the sitter were attempting to cover her breasts. Combined with the sideways glance and the tilt of the head, an impression of timidity is conveyed which no doubt, would be highly erotic to certain viewers.

Palma played around with this gesture, obviously aware of the psychological messages a raised or lowered neckline could transmit. Sometimes he would merely expose just the top of the breasts and rarely, as in La Cortigana (Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, 1524-26), he could bare both breasts. Titian, who painted far fewer pictures of this genre, also understood the charm of an exposed breast as he exploited this in his popular Magdalene pictures.

Moving away from the naked image to the clothed image, and closer to what we recognize as a 'standard portrait' Palma and Titian still managed to create a sense of eroticism in their figures. Titian's Young Woman at the Mirror, in the Louvre is a very enticing image. Her clothes seem about to fall off her and Titian has emphasized her figure by molding the white chemise and black pinafore close to her body.

One of the most powerfully seductive images of a clothed figure is that of Palma's La Bella in the Thyssen collection. This woman looks like a precious object that any man would desire.

(Page 7)

She toys with a tress of thick, silky hair in one hand and holds a box of jewellry in the other. She wears a loose chemise, but has a sumptuous red and blue garment on top with intricate sleeving that amplifies the beauty's aura of physical luxury.

It is still informal dress and suitable only for a domestic setting and we still receive the impression that she is a courtesan or mistress, yet she appears more formal than the ladies who expose their breasts. Distanced behind a parapet, she becomes less attainable and closer to the Madonna image of private devotion, yet her steady gaze remains a warm inducement.

The decollete of her gown reveals the voluptuous line of her shoulder, and her hands are long and softly plump. La Bella glows against the gloomy background, as the luminosity of her skin and the colours of the taffeta are set off chromatically next to shades of black. Her skin appears flawless and her hair, seems to belong to a brunette who has lightened it artificially in tune with Venetian fashion. Both Palma and Titian were very adept at painting the fine wispy tendrils of hair that frame and soften the face. Titian's Salome and the Thyssen La Bella, feature this detail, which we can trace back to Giorgione's Laura.

There is really no equivalent in Titian's oeuvre to Palma's La Bella. Titian's models, however sensuous their appeal, are never so frank in their invitation as Palma's belle donne and are held at a more poetically elusive remove.

In fact, for an artist with such an expansive career, he painted relatively few portraits of women. According to Professor Wethey's catalogue of Titian's portraits, among 117 that he considers genuine, only fifteen are of women, and six of these are the wives of rulers outside Venice. Another four are said to be of the artist's daughter Lavinia.

To summarize, I would say that what constitutes the erotic appeal in these pictures is not only a number of formulaic characteristics such as the long blonde hair, the white chemise and the bright drapery, but the overall impression that these women are in a sense, 'flirting' with the viewer. The sidelong glance, the dishevelled state of dress and the gestures, invite lust.

They tempt, but they do so with their own natural charms, as opposed to the women in the street of Venice who relied on elaborate costumes, platform shoes (pianelle), fabulous jewels, wigs and heavy make-up to attract the opposite sex. The artless appearance of Palma Vecchio and Titian's models, seems in part, to be a reaction against the artificial beauty of the women on the street.

The Milanese canon Pietro Casola visited the city on his way to the Holy Land in 1494. He described Venetian women in his journal:

"The pianelle were so high indeed that when they wear them, some women appear giants...As to the adornment of their heads, they wear their hair so much curled over their eyes that, at first sight, they appear rather men than women. The greater part is false hair...They paint their faces a great deal, and also other parts they show, in order to appear more beautiful."

I think the main achievement of the artist in the type of paintings discussed, was to convince the viewer of an ideal of natural beauty. Titian's Flora is devoid of all jewellry, and artifice, save for the lovely pink stole that enhances the natural flesh tones. She appears "as nature intended her" and her erotic appeal lies in this very fact.

I don't believe they were ever intended as portraits, but that they do bear a resemblance to the sitter. Further, I would say that this type of erotic image did not greatly influence standard portraiture in Venice in the 16th century, but remained a genre of its own, influencing more the depiction of women in allegorical and mythological paintings.

These pictures could be seen as composing part of the 'Myth of Venice', an erotic advertisement that everything in the city was as perfect and surreally beautiful as the city itself could appear in its glamorous natural setting.

The Renaissance fascination with ideal feminine beauty was primarily a man's concern, a mostly closed dialogue between male writers, artists and connoisseurs. Pietro Bembo wrote to Cardinal Bibbiena asking to borrow a statuette of Venus, "that I may gaze at her ever more pleasurably day by day...and I have prepared and decorated that part, that corner of my bedroom where I can set up the Venus...". It is in this context, that I imagine the Venetian paintings of bellissime donne became "images of private devotion".


1 C. Hope, Titian, London 1980, p.9.

2 "For Humanity (Humanitas) herself is a nymph of excellent comeliness born of heaven and more than others beloved by God all highest....The whole then, is Temperance and Honesty, Charm and Splendour. Oh, what exquisite beauty! How beautiful to behold." Poliziano to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, from Ficino's Opera Omnia, (Basle 1576). See E.H. Gombrich, Gombrich on the Renaissance; Symbolic Images, London 1972, p.42.

3 In a letter to his friend Baldassare Castiglione from Rome, 1514, Raphael writes: "To paint a figure truly beautiful, I should see many beautiful forms, with the further provision that you should yourself be present to choose the most beautiful. But good judges and beautiful women being rare, I avail myself of certain ideas which come to my mind. If this idea has any excellence in art I know not, although I labour heartily to acquire it." from F. Lavery, Raphael, London 1922, p. 76.

4 Another interpretation is that the girl is pushing the robe toward her breast to cover herself.

6 Two paintings that appeared in The Genius Of Venice, R.A. exhibition of, 1983, fall into this category; the Portrait of a Woman, by Veronese, cat. no. 138 and Portrait of a Young Woman, attributed to Moretto, cat.no. 60. Paris Bordone, Cariani and Lorenzo Lotto also painted ambiguous portraits of women who could be seen as courtesans and mistresses. Bordone's Portrait of a Young Woman (c.1550) in the National Gallery has been variously described as "A Lady of the Brignole Family" and a "donna lascivissima", C. Gould, The Sixteenth Century Italian Schools, National Gallery catalogue, London 1975, cat.no. 674, pp.36-37.

7 see J. Wilde, Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian, Oxford 1974, (ed. 1991), p. 248.

8 Much the same as the 20th century photographic fashion model, who, (up till the present decade) was used to provide images of beauty, but whose identity was hardly ever revealed.

9 Ritratto di Donna Bionda dal Seno Scoperto, Berlin (Dahlem), Gemaldegalerie, see P. Rylands, Palma il Vecchio, L'opera completa, Milan, 1988, cat.no.80.

10 Palma Vecchio's model for the National Gallery picture appears in numerous earlier works; Woman in Green, and Woman in Blue (1512-14) both in Vienna, as St. Catherine in Holy Family with Saints, (1512-14) in Dresden, as St. Apollonia, in the altarpiece at Santissima Annunziata in Bergamo (1514-15), in several more religious paintings of this period and signifcantly, in a painting which appears to be closest to a portrait of the model, in the "Violante" (1516-18) in Vienna.

11 Although Philip Rylands in his catalogue raisonne, dates this picture to 1524-26, the same dating he gives the Berlin picture, I still think that the same model was used for both and that she appears older and more matronly as Judith.

12 The National Gallery describes the picture as "unlikely to be a likeness rather a type".

13 loc. cit. note 6, p.248. It is interesting to note that Wilde seems troubled by the ambiguous nature of these pictures for remarking on Titian's "La Bella", he asks the question, "Is this a portrait at all?" and answers, "I suggest that it is, for it is like some person". Later, on the same page, he concludes "One can hardly call this a portrait." (ibid).

14 translated from, El Costume de le donne, first published Venice 1536, ed. Morporgo, Florence, 1839.(I apologize, but I have lost the page reference.)

15 H.E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, II The Portraits, London 1971, cat. no. 14, p.82. La Bella, is still classified as a portrait, but an ideal portrait.

16 (my own translation) Cesare Vecellio, Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Tutto il Mondo, 1590. (edition Paris, 1862. Plate 119).

17 Titian's original Maddalena was painted c. 1535 and is now in the Pitti. Although this is the image of a saint, the representation is that of a young woman, dressed only with her luxuriant auburn hair. At least seven versions, clothed and unclothed of the original were commissioned from Titian in his lifetime.

18 Both this picture and Titian's Young Woman at the Mirror have been associated with the 'Vanitas' theme, however any symbolic connotations are secondary, as they are not meant to prevail over the image itself.

19 P. Casola, Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, trans. by M. Margaret Newett, Manchester 1907, p. 144-5.

20 We do not find, for example, this type of erotic portrait in the work of Veronese. However he did employ it for his history paintings, see figure of Herse in Hermes, Herse and Aglauros (Fitzwilliam Musuem).

21 Lettere di M. Pietro Bembo, Rome 1548, I, p.90 ff., see E.H. Gombrich, loc.cit. note 2., p.107. 


Recommended Reading plus :

P. Casola, Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, trans. by M. Margaret Newett, Manchester 1907

E.H. Gombrich On the Renaissance - Volume 1: Norm and Form">Gombrich, Gombrich on the Renaissance; Symbolic Images, London 1972.

C. Gould, The Sixteenth Century Italian Schools, National Gallery catalogue, London 1975.

C. Hope, Titian, London 1980.

F. Lavery, Raphael, London 1922.

Le Siecle de Titien, Grand Palais Exhibition Catalogue, Paris 1993.

G. Masson, Courtesans of the Renaissance, 1975.

El Costume de le donne, first published Venice 1536, ed. Morporgo, Florence, 1839.

Royal Academy, The Genius Of Venice, exhibition catalogue, London 1983.

E.N. Tigerstedt, The Decline and Fall of the Neoplatonic Interpretation of Plato, 1964.

Cesare Vecellio, Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Tutto il Mondo, 1590. (edition Paris, 1862).

Venice, A Documentary History 1450-1630, edited by D. Chambers, B. Pullan & J. Fletcher, Oxford, 1992.

H.E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, II The Portraits, London 1971.

J. Wilde, Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian, Oxford, 1974, (ed. 1991). 
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