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Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538)

She rides her bed as if on a swan through generation after generation. The years roll off her back—they mean nothing to her. Her lovers come and go, but she will see them later wobbling on their canes, looking at her with longing instead of lust as she outlasts them all, easily gliding by, one of the immortals, while we are forced to die.

Before movies and photographs and cell phone images, you had two choices if you wanted an image of your loved one—sculpture or painting. If you were rich you could afford this, and when it came to ordering up a painting, it seems that most kings and dukes were interested in two things: immortality and or sex. Immortality could be had with a portrait of himself dressed to the nines and maybe even on a war like steed. Sex of course was usually a painting of a naked woman pretending to be a Greek or Roman goddess (the only ones allowed to be nude in public), playing with her nipples for the entertainment of Mars or running through the forest with Zeus in hot pursuit or a nice pastiche of rape like the Sabine Women.

The Duke of Urbino wanted both when he commissioned Titian to paint a nude portrait of his mistress. Others say he bought the painting to instruct his child-wife about sex because Venus’s pet dog symbolizes fidelity and because Venus herself is jerking off in such an obvious manner as to make Mark Twain grumble over the unfairness of a painter being allowed to show female self gratification which he was denied merely because words were his medium. Others say she was a prostitute Titian knew—who else would ever think of gratifying herself?. For the Duke as well as her other owners, the painting was certainly a necessary item on the bedroom wall while he tried to manufacture an heir with his unaccommodating wife, or in the courtroom where he could stare at it dreamily while his diplomats droned on about their petty squabbles. I think the Duke wanted an image of his mistress so that when she started to age, he could refer to it instead of the tired real thing. She lies in the painting, her hand on her pussy, playful, calm staring directly into your eyes, accepting and slightly coy as if she had a secret—which she does, because as the Duke himself ages she remains the same. Suddenly her eyes are slightly taunting as she remains the same while he sinks into old age and all it’s problems of sagging muscles, protruding stomach and a bleary complexion. She, the lover he tossed away, continues to enjoy sex, ageless and beautiful, as he sinks uselessly before her.

You may think her too fat, not able to do the latest rap dance, but as the years crumble she will smile immortally, while you stand before her with your cane supporting your shaking hand with only a fading memory of what it was like.

Artillery Magazine Vol 7 Issue 1 Sept-Oct 2012

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