Volcanic Reflections of Tintoretto

In the context of my previous postings about Tintoretto’s mirrors (in the Bathing of Bathsheba, and then in Susanna with her Elders) this painting may look like yet another example of a gender-related abuse.  The old guy’s approaching the young naked lady pretty intently, and if not violently. But we also feel a certain rightfulness of his action; the women, despite being seemingly unhappy with what’s happening, also expresses a  degree of obedience and surrender. The “intentness” is visibly here, but as for the”violence” … that depends, perhaps, on which side is asked.

So, what’s going on here?

The painting is officially called Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (although I would replace “surprised” on “taken aback”). It was created around  1545, by quite young  (Tintoretto was 27 years old then) but already quite a well-known artist ( in Venice, at least). Like many artists of the time and place, Tintoretto painted not only the artworks related to religions themes (although those were the majority, of course), but also the so-called ‘classical subjects’, depicting various mythological stories of old Rome. 

The main actors of the play:

Vulcan (Hephaestus in the Greek version), the god of fire and the patron of blacksmiths, who spends most of the time at his forge, where he crafts weapons and all sorts of gadgets. Usually he is portrayed an old man of unattractive appearance, also lame.

Venus (Aphrodite), the young and beautiful goddess of love, and also the wife of Vulcan. Usually depicted as attractive woman in various seductive posed (and often half- or completely naked); a mirror is one her common possessions.

Mars (Ares) is the god of war, a strong and brave warrior, a handsome alpha male. Usually depicted armed to the teeth, in the heart of the battle scene or something.

Cupid (Cupid): here we see only one of them, but more often they are displayed as a bevy of adorable little babies with wings, winding around Venus. In fact, these are the children of Venus and Vulcan, which is often forgotten, and the cupids are seen merely as the young companions of the goddess of love, who help her to seduce people, by  shooting them with the love arrows from, correspondingly, the bow of love.

Dog is usually interpreted as s symbol of so-called women’s devotion to their husbands (see for instance Arnolfini’s portrait, but also many other art works). In this painting the dog plays a very different role.

The play:

Actions from 1 to N-1 (not shown here, but you can read Homer): Once upon a time, Hephaestus and Aphrodite lived happily on Olympus, giving birth to the above mentioned Cupidos. Apparently, something didn’t quite work out between them, and Venus began meeting with Mars. One day Ares has learned that Vulcan is going on a business trip (to the island of Lemnos, to be precise). It was, in fact, a trap, because somebody leaked the information to Hephaestus, and he decided to play a canny trick with the lovers. He made a very thin, almost invisible, but very solid web, which install in his wife’s bedroom around the bed. In anticipation of the events, he also invited the rest of Olympus (including the Zeus) to pay a vist to his house at some point.

The young lovers didn’t detected a plot, come together and …

Action N: … Surprise! The trap has worked, the couple got entangled in the web, and in  the most indecent poses. At this moment all other gods waled in, had a good laugh over poor lovers.

Actions N +1: In general, no much happened after. The immortal gods, what can they do to each other? After good laugh, everybody forgot everything  and life got back to the normal.

Interestingly, but Tintoretto’s version of the Action N is very unconventional.  Below are a few more traditional examples of how these developments are depicted:

Joachim Wtewael – Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1601)

Joachim Wtewael – Mars and Venus Discovered by the Gods (1605)

Jacob van Heemskerk – Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaestus (1634)

Alexander Charles Guillemot – Mars and Venus Surpirsed by Vulcan (1827)

Guglielmo della Porta – Venus and Mars Trapped by Vulcan (1590)

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée – Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (1768)

On the majority of these paintings the Vulcan’s web is the main represented technology; the Mars’ shield is also depicted on the three last works, but it doesn’t play any significant play, besides being a signifier of the owner).

There is also a number of artworks that depict some of the previous steps of this play. Here, for example, is a fresco from Pompei that apparently shows the dating meeting of  Mars and Venus:

Mars and Venus, fresco from Casa delle Nozze di Ercole, Pompei

These are much later works, and again we see the shield.

Frans Wouters – Venus and Mars (1545)

Carlo Saraceni – Venus and Mars (1600)

In the latter work the shield starts getting some mirror qualities: its polished metallic surface reflects the hand and the knee of Cupid (who, however, is still pissing in the helmet of the God of War, probably anticipating how he would be ashamed soon):

In the painting by Padovanino the shield already looks like a mirror:

Il Padovanino – Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan (c.1631)

And Poussin’s Venus very explicitely uses the shield as a mirror:

Nicolas Poussin –  Mars and Venus (c.1640)

However, all three last works had been created much later that the paintings by Tintoretto, and may be just a reference or an allusion to the work of this Italian master.

We have a very early study for this painting, which shows that the mirror (or a shield?) was present at the earliest stages of design (even before Mars appeared in the work).

Compared to other high dramas shown by many masters, we see here a very soft, almost melodramatic scene: a jealous husband rushes into the bedroom of his young wife, looking for an alleged lover – and doesn’t see it (neither Mars nor Venus are caught in the web here).  Mars (not yet undressed? already dressed?) is hiding beneath the table, and has all the chances to escape the Vulcan’s anger – unless the Dog will bark.

The Cupid is half asleep (or just pretends to be?)

What is interesting in this work? besides its piquant plot? I think that it is not only about the fact of using the shield of Mars as a mirror (although this is certainly a very creative solution), but also the inclusion of a mirror in a complex psychological game (and game of perception, too).  We see what Vulcan can’t see – his back; but we also see Mars, also not seen by the God of Fire.

Showing a complex scene in the mirror is not an invention of Tintoretto (van Eyck already have done it with Arnolfini Portrait, and Petrus Christus was depicting a coupld of people in the mirror a hundred years ago. But I see here more complex drama at a play, a meta-drama of some sort.  This could be even stronger, for example, Mars could be also reflected in the mirror (or the dog); but it’s interesting and innovative even as it is.

PS: Tintoretto later made another work about Venus and Vulcan (this time without Mars) – read more about this story in Behind the Shield. At some point I became interested in this whole issue, of the interconnectedness of mirrors and shields, and wrote a small posting about it – Of Medusa and the (Mirror) Shields, and then one more, on the Shields, and the Dragons & Demons.


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