The Secret of Venus
Seeing Mona Kuhn’s subtly erotic nudes in the slide show that accompanies our podcast with her this week (and especially the photo titled Morgane from 2010) made me think of a book proposal I worked on more than a decade ago. I had planned a history of the reclining nude, from Giorgione to John Curran, and had worked up a couple of splendid chapters, but alas there were no takers. In my essay on interpretations of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, his great masterpiece from 1538, I included the discovery of a dear friend and brilliant art historian, Rona Goffen, who died far too young in 2004. Rona combed through Renaissance medical treatises to arrive at a surprising conclusion about Venus’s come-hither gaze and sexy pose.
Earlier art historians had concluded that this was a painting meant to celebrate a marriage: the little spaniel sleeping at the model’s feet, the maids packing or unpacking a trousseau in the background, and the trimmed myrtle bush on the window ledge are all symbols of matrimony in Renaissance painting. And for years scholars assumed that Venus’s left hand was shielding her sex, attempting to hide it from view, as did the surprised goddesses in ancient statuary. But her fingers are curled, captured in an active gesture, not extended or splayed flat as a means of covering her pubic area. After examining the contemporary literature, Goffen came to the conclusion that the Urbino Venus is actively masturbating. “Under most circumstances, this kind of self-caress was unequivocally condemned by medieval and Renaissance theologians and physicians,” she noted. But in the context of marriage it may have been at times an absolute necessity, for it was believed that if a woman did not have an orgasm during intercourse she could not conceive, and the chances were even better for conception if both husband and wife climaxed simultaneously. To reach this blissful and fruitful end, female masturbation was considered acceptable. Indeed, as Goffen discovered, 14 out of 17 Renaissance theologians studied by Jean-Louis Flandrin, the French cultural historian, permitted women to reach orgasm through masturbation and thus, they believed, encourage gestation.
Conception was no small matter in Titian’s time. “Unproductive marriages in sixteenth-century Venice threatened the survival of her ruling class,” according to Margaret King, author of Women in the Renaissance. And conception, or its possibility, was the only justification for sexual congress, according to Church doctrine then and now. So this Venus, lying on her right side (considered at the time the most likely pose to maximize her chances of conceiving a male child during or immediately after sex), makes more than the standard pornographic appeal of similar images of women fondling themselves from our own times: Be with me, says this goddess of the nuptial chamber, and I will be fertile.