Mirrors and Venuses

My last story about Titian’s mirrors will about this work, his famous Venus, but it will also, and inevitably, about many other Venuses, too.

The official title of this painting is Venus and Cupid with a Mirror; at least, this is how it’s described by the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Others often skip the cupids, and simply call it Venus with a Mirror, or sometimes refer it as The Toilet of Venus (wrongly, as I will try to demonstrate.)

The painting was created around 1555; compared to the other ‘mirrors’ (Donna con due specchi and Vanity of the World), this is his late work. Titian does not yet look like this gray-bearded old man, as in his self-portrait of 1567 below, but perhaps not too far from it either.

Below is the description of the painting I found at the National Gallery website:

“At the core of Renaissance art is the revival of the classical past, and in his Venus with a Mirror, Titian revealed both his appreciation of antiquity and his remarkable modernity. During a sojourn in Rome he wrote that he was “learning from the marvelous ancient stones” that were being unearthed daily in the city. Indeed, he based the gesture of the goddess, her hands held to her breast and lap, on a famous Roman statue of Venus that later belonged to the Medici.

Yet Titian breathed a warmth and life into the remote source to conjure a startlingly immediate and sensual modern Venus. Her pliant flesh seems to melt at the touch of the cupid who strains to bestow on her the crown of love. While she pulls about her a wine–colored velvet wrap lined in fur, soft, opulent, and evoking the sense of touch, Venus reveals her body as much as she conceals it. The beautiful woman gazing at her reflection is a favorite theme of Renaissance love poetry in which the writer envies the fortunate mirror that enjoys his lady’s splendid image.”

The quote may leave an impression that Titian did not know much about the concept of “Venus”, then went to Rome and where he was struck by the beauty he saw among it ruins, and thus created this art work. In reality he made his to Rome in 1546, ten years before making this painting, and he was well aware of this ‘classical’ figure even earlier.

For example, already in 1525 he painted his first first Venus, the so-called Venus Anadyomene, or “Venus, emerging from the sea foam”:

In this context it also worth remembering that the Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, was painted already in 1486; this work was created (and kept since then) in Florence, but was widely known way beyond the city.

Basically, my point is that it’s difficult to call Titian a pioneer in the business of depicting the goddess of love, though he did made a significant contribution to the subject, of course.

But before taking about these issues, it’s worth to remind the story of (re)discovery of the ‘classical’, or ‘antique’ art in general during the Renaissance (and specifically in Europe/Italy).

This story is complex, and I’m not a historian to tell it properly, so below is an extremely simplified version (where I perhaps throw whole lot of kids together with water, but it’s still better to have some kind of foundation than nothing).

We need to begin, as often happens, with Plato and Aristotle, or broader, from the Ancient Greece. It was Greeks who invented the goddess called Aphrodite – of love, beauty, pleasure, and similarly nice amenities. (The gossips, of course, are saying that the Greeks’ design was not very original, and that they took a lot from the earlier concept of Astarte, the Assyrian goddess; but I have to park for a moment this  historical research, otherwise I will never get to the mirrors).

According to one legend, Aphrodite was born (= emerged) from the sea foam (that’s  why she’s often portrayed in conjunction with all sorts of sea creatures, like dolphins or seashells). The Greek island Cythera is often named as her birthplace.

[It is interesting, by the way, that the word cytherean, from the name of the island, is used by the astronomers to describe everything related to the planet Venus. They didn’t to use ‘veneral’ since it would be too close to the “sexually transmitted diseases”, and ‘aphrodite’ would resemble aphrodisiacs].

But why is this island? What was so “Venereal” at Cythera? According to some theories, the coast of the island was particularly rich with shiny beads, as if made of glass – perhaps of the volcanic origin? The beauty of these beads first attracted the local beauties, and then the fame of the place went much wider. Maybe these beads were well polished that you could even use them as tiny mirrors?

Or maybe these were not beads, but some particularly shiny seashells? See, for example, the painting by Andrea del Brescianino, from Siena (made around 1525), with Venus looking at the seashell as if in the mirror:

The concept of Aphrodite was later borrowed by the Romans, where she became known as Venus. But the whole sea entourage remained (albeit often supplemented by the flowers, too).

Here is a fragment of fresco from one of the villas in Pompei:

We don’t know exactly if this fresco (also from Pompei) displays Venus or “just a woman”, but it could well be a depiction of the goddess:

Woman with a mirror, fresco from Pompeii, c.50-75 AD

It looks like this bundle, of “Venus” and “mirror” is quite old; so not surprisingly it was re-enacted again during the Renaissance, although using different ‘technological’ props – see, for example, Venus with a Mirror (the convex one, for a record, and a very tiny one) by Giorgione, created aournd 1506.

Giorgione (born Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) – Venus in Landscape with Mirror and Flower Ring (1506)

Giorgione, by the way, was a native of Venice, and Titian was obviously familiar with his work. Moreover, there even exists the Venus that interconnects these two masters. Shortly before his death (very early one, unfortunately) in 1510 Giorgione began this painting, Sleeping Venus. But he did not finish in time, and it was Titian who finished  the commission.

The issue is that between the frescos from Pompeii and the Venuses by Giorgione (or any other Italian master) lies a gaping chasm of almost ten centuries. During which all these stories about Aphrodite/Venus were completely forgotten (at least in what we call now Western Europe). This time is called ‘Dark Age’ not without a reason – that’s when the majority of the knowledge of both Greece and Rome had been irretrievably lost.

During more than a thousand years in Europe Venus could even be thought by people – first because of the simple lack of knowledge, and then because of the taboo imposed by the Christian rulers; Rome’s mythes had been seen as heresy). Earlier I’ve tried to present this pre-Renassiance situation, its art topos (as well as logos) as a oscillating cycle of the sacred and secular meanings (see Cycles of the Mirrors’ Meanings). By the way, it’s not unimaginable that these oscillations would persist up until now – see the case of Islam, for example).

But in Europe, as we know, this didn’t happen, and the cycle was broken, or rather transcended – oddly enough, but through the re-cycling of the old narratives. It is this re-introduction, re-appropriation of the old memes (and themes) that allowed the artists to (re)gain some new, third space in the Imaginary, and leave the bipolar Paradise vs. Hell topos of Christianity. And it is from this ‘third’ position they would eventually start transforming the culture, using it as a lever (again, I do understand that it’s a very simplistic take, but it still can help us to clarify some fog traditionally surrounding these issues).

It is interesting that all these “old stories” squeezed to present through science, not through art; well, ‘science’, I need to add. For example, the same Venus (and, of course, an entire team of other gods and goddesses) first re-emerged in European discourse as a planet, not as the goddess of love and lust.

We can find the new look of Venus in the Book of Hours De Spaera of Modena (created about 1450). Here she is a planet – and a beautiful woman, too, of course (note that she holds a mirror – it’s a convex one, just embedded into a rectangular frame).


In this scientific, astronomic form Venus quickly spread throughout Europe – including  Northern Europe too. Here’s the page from the Book of Hours by the so-called Master of the Housebook (end of the 14th century, Southern Germany) dedicated to the (planet) Venus:

This sheet doesn’t have a mirror, but it appears on another page with a reference to  Venus (again, it’s a convex mirror, and compared to the previous example, we already see a reflection here):

Northerner master also quickly mastered the new meme, and soon brought the goddesses into their art works – already not as a planet, but as a beautiful naked lady – see, for example, the works by Cranach the Elder and Dürer (though their depictions are without mirrors).

But the mirrors are coming soon – for example, Venus by Jan Mabuse (painted in 1520!):

Venus holds a small, but wonderfully framed (convex) mirror:

However, despite all its beauty, this work doesn’t stand even close to paintings by Bellini, for example, or (and especially) by Titian in terms of on the ‘mirror’ complexity.

Why is the Titian’s Venus so brilliant?

One of reasons is because this is the first work in art history where the artist used (or created?) the so-called Venus effect. Which, in turn, was so named because of this very depiction of Venus.

At a first glance (our glance, that is) Venus here is looking in the mirror at herself. That the ‘meaning’ of the pose, and of the painting – or, that is what, we believe, the master wanted us to believe in.

But in reality – if we would re-enact this scene in our real world – the woman would be able to see herself, and instead she would see us, the viewers. We see the two faces on the painting – of real Venus, and of her reflection in the mirror, but exactly because you see this reflection, it means that she also sees you (but not herself!)

It seems that we see here depicted the usual Mirror Cocoon, a situation of intensive immersion into self-observation (we see it in the Venus by Jan Mabuse above).

But in fact we see much more complex game at play here: she is actually looking at you – looking at her! Imagine yourself looking very intently at, for example, a half-covered chest of Venus – and being caught at this very moment of your spying! What an embarrassment! The majority of people, however, don’t feel any of those feelings, being totally in this make-beliefe situation constructed by the artist.

Speaking about ‘cocoon’, it is a very different one, combining into one holistic system yourself, the viewer, and the woman – all mediated by the (depicted) mirror:

The sly look of the goddess is even better seen in the inverted version of the picture: among many other amorous skills of Venus, her ‘shooting eye’ had been mastered properly.

Whether such deceiving composition was done deliberately, or it’s happened accidentally? Basically, what did Titian really want to depict – Venus looking at the mirror, or her looking at us?

With all of my respect  to Titian, including this earlier treatment of mirrors, I tend to think that this whole ‘Effect of Venus’ occurred by accident.

There is an earlier (1550), very similar work, that is currently described as “Venus at the mirror”, despite there is no mirrors depicted here. It’s not even a ‘toilette’ of the goddess, we don’t see the usual attributes of such scenes here. However, Venus is in a similar pose here, including the direction of her gaze.

Even more interesting things can be learned from the infrared analysis of Venus (the one of 1555). It looks that originally Titian was planning to paint a completely different work here, a double portrait of man and woman, and even in landscape orientation.

This itself is not so strange, in fact, it was a fairly common practice in those days. In any case, we see today a very different picture – what’s important, the mirror initialyl didn’t have any reflection in it! Basically, if Titian wanted to depict Venis contemplating herself, he had to leave the mirror in this form, empty.

But he didn’t stop, and now we have this crazy lone eye of Venus in the painting too.

Apparently, he was very happy with this solution: there is at least one more Venus painted in the 1550s which is attributed to Titian with some certainty:

and another one of a later period (1555-1560), which is attributed to his studio, though the exact contribution of Titian himself is still debatable:

Another picture (1559) is considered to be very close copy of the Titian “Venus with a Mirror”, most likely made by his pupils:

The design become so popular that even fifty years later (1606/8) Peter-Paul Rubens in Antwerp will be copying this painting as an perfect composition with Venus:

Moreover, Titian himself will come back to this subject one more time, at the very end of his life; in 1575, just one year before his death he paints yet another Venus with a Mirror (and with the wildest single eye of all of them).

As I wrote already, an amazing work, and a whole new page in the business of depicting mirrors.

A few smaller items on this painting could also be of interest from the mirror point of view. First, is the ring: 

The ring is present in most work (but not in all), and I think that it does reflect “something” (but I can’t figure out, what, yet).

2. Few people know that this small figurine on the frame of the mirror has a purpose:

It’s designed to hold a blanket that was used to cover the mirror (we see it in the bottom part, the black cloth, held by a cupid. Mirrors in those days were often covered – partly to prevent their dying out under direct sunlight, but also because of various superstitions (e.g., they were covering mirror during the night, being afraid that evil forces could enter this world through the mirror. I plan to write more about these beliefs at some point later).

As I wrote earlier, Titian was first who depicted this famous ‘Venus Effect’; perhaps may find even earlier work by some other artist one day, but his Venus with Mirror will remain to be one of the most famous ‘mirror painting’ that has been impacting both artists and public alike for centuries.

In terms of mirror Venus was, of course, the most prominent classical heroine, but not the only one.  Titian himself introduced mirrors at least in two other works; I’ll add them to this story too, to complete the ‘classical’ theme here.

One mirror we find in his work called “Diana and Acteon“, made about the same time as the Venus (1556/9):

The story is rather sad, Ankteon will soon be transformed into a deer by the goddess of hunting, and eventually killed by his own friends. Mirror is not present in the original plot by Ovid (and such glass mirrors didn’t even exist back them). But for Titian is not a big deal, the scene of bathing seems be a good fit.

In principle, it should be destroying the whole aura of classicism, it is if today somebody would depict the gathering of nymphs and gave to one of them a smartphone – it would be as inappropriate as to give them a (flat) glass mirror.

Apparently, “classicism” was not shy to be ‘inappropriate’, even nearly indecent; all these subjects allowed to paint naked women galore.

But there was more ‘serious’ classicism too; together with highly erotic figure and scenes, it also supplied a lot of moralistic allegorical figures.

This is one of that the work, traditionally called Allegory of Wisdom (1560). I need to add that this is very approximate attribution, driven by rather latent features – such as the scroll, and the mirror. Where’s mirror, there’s ‘wisdom’. (I told already about the mirror in the hands of the Queen of Reason).  But in principle this lady could also be  the same Venus – in Rome she was also a patron of writers and poets.


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