Love, in all its manifestations, wove its way into the artistic cultural production of Renaissance Italy. Motifs and emblems of love and marriage, figures of mythological lovers and references to fidelity, union, heartbreak and fickleness were expressed on a diverse array of objects from majolica plates and cassone to grand painting cycles.
In celebration of today, the Feast of Saint Valentine, here is a round up of some of the greatest Renaissance depictions of love, both sensual and pure.
Titan and his workshop produced numerous versions of what he termed his “poesie” paintings, inspired by the tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In particular, the story of Venus and Adonis became a repeated subject, in which the goddess of love pleads with her mortal lover Adonis not to depart from her to a hunt. Adonis ignores her, and is gored to death by a wild boar.
Paolo Veronese’s Four allegories of Love follow the development of an amorous relationship through its various manifestations from ‘Unfaithfulness’, ‘Scorn’ and ‘Respect’, to finally, ‘Happy Union’. This series was likely made to decorate a ceiling.
Titian’s masterpiece Sacred and Profane Love is thought to have been commissioned for Nicolò Aurelio, grand chancellor of Venice, to commemorate his marriage to Laura Bagarotto of Padua. This work has sparked endless discussion amongst art historians as to the meaning of the figures and its iconography, and is thought to present two versions of Venus. To the right the figure of Venus as bride, dressed in pure white, while on the left an earthly Venus, almost completely nude, draped in sensual red.
Botticelli’s allegory of the pleasures of love, Venus and Mars, depicts the triumph of love over war. The goddess of love Venus watches over Mars, asleep and unarmed. This panel is also thought to have been painted to commemorate a wedding, intended as a piece of wainscoting or spalliera in a bedroom.
The supremely sensual Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi depicts one of the more bizarre stories of love from classical mythology to inspire Renaissance artists. Danaë’s father confined his daughter to a bedchamber to prevent her from becoming pregnant, in an attempt to avert a prophecy that she would bear a son who would kill her father. Zeus transformed himself into a shower of gold coins, and Danaë conceived and gave birth to Perseus.
Portraits of beautiful women abounded and were intended to provoke feelings of pure love in the viewer. Piero di Cosimo’s Simonetta Vespucci depicts the celebrated model and beloved of Giuliano de’ Medici, with her intricately dressed hair adorned with pearls and her nudity symbolising innocence.
Bayer, Andrea. “Art and Love in the Italian Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/arlo/hd_arlo.htm (November 2008)
Clark, T. J. “Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’.” London Review of Books36 no. 7 (2014): 7-12, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n07/tj-clark/veroneses-allegories-of-love.
Titian, Venus and Adonis, about 1555-1560, oil on canvas, 161.9 × 198.4 cm, Getty Museum.
Paolo Veronese, Four Allegories of Love: Happy Union, Respect, Scorn, Unfaithfulness, about 1575, oil on canvas, 187.4 x 186.7 cm, National Gallery, London.
Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514, oil on canvas, 118 x 279 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome.
Botticelli, Venus and Mars, 1485, tempera and oil on poplar, 69.2 x 173.4 cm, National Gallery, London.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Danaë, about 1512, oil on copper, 41.3 x 52.7 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum.
Piero di Cosimo, Simonetta Vespucci, about 1480, tempera on panel, 57 x 42 cm, Musée Condé, Chantilly.