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Sacred and Profane Love

Vecellio Titian

(Pieve di Cadore 1488-90 - Venice 1576)

This work was probably sold to Scipione Borghese in 1608 by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati. A veritable interpretative enigma, critics believe it was painted by Titian Vecellio around the middle of the second decade of the 16th century for the Venetian Niccolò Aurelio, whose coat-of-arms appears on the fountain with that of his wife Laura Bagarotto.

The canvas depicts two women, one on each side of an ancient historiated sarcophagus. Resting on this is a winged putto with his hand in the water inside. This figure, as well as the subject of the painting, is strongly connected to the theme of love – expressed here in its dual nature, sacred and passionate – allegorically represented by the two female figures who symbolise sacred Love and profane Love. This landscape also has this duality, expressed in the background on the left with a mountain view, and on the right with a lake village.

The wealth of symbols and iconographic elements has always inspired scholars to seek multiple interpretative keys, providing various interpretations over the centuries. We currently favour the painting’s matrimonial meaning, in other word, the exaltation of the qualities of the perfect bride. Here they are beautifully depicted, showing her public dignity and the many nuptial attributes befitting her social status, and at the same time, naked and ardent with the true love that her husband must see in their private life.


Object details

oil on canvas
118x278 cm

19th century frame decorated with an acanthus frieze and interwoven knots on a black field.


(?) Rome, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, ante 1608; (?) Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1608; (?) Rome, Scipione Borghese Collection, 1613 (Francucci, 1613); (?) Rome, Borghese Collection, 1644 (Wethey, 1975); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1648 (Ridolfi, 1648); Inv. 1693, room V, no. 2; Inv. 1700, room V, no. 2; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 12; purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

  • 1995 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1874 ("spianato il colore");
  • 1914 Tito Venturini Papari;
  • 1919 Tito Venturini Papari;
  • 1960-1961 Renato Massi (restauro della cornice);
  • 1978-1979 Ludovico Mucchi (radiografie);
  • 1990-1993 Anna Marcone con Rolando Dionisi (restauro), Paolo Spezzani, Lorenzo Lazzarini (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 1993 ENEA (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 1998 Anna Marcone (intervento manutentivo);
  • 2004 Laboratorio Soprintendenza (intervento manutentivo).


Owing to the absolute lack of documentation regarding its execution and inclusion in the Borghese Collection, this work has always been considered a true mystery. Having arrived in Rome at an unspecified time, it was apparently sold by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrato (or Sfrondati), nephew of Pope Gregory XIV, to Scipione Borghese on 20 July 1608 along with seventy-one other paintings, the list of which has not yet been found. This theory, advanced by Paola della Pergola in 1955 and today accepted by most critics, still presents some flaws, beginning with the purchase order, stipulated in Rome, that refers to the seventy-two paintings as works “by the main painters of this city” (see Orban, 1920), thus apparently ruling out any possible connection with the Venetian canvas.

The various theories on the provenance of the work and its presence in the Borghese collection have been duly explored by Sara Staccioli (1995), who does not refute its Ferrarese provenance, a consequence of the city’s devolution in 1598, nor that it might have been purchased after Scipione’s death in 1633. In fact, in Staccioli’s view it wasn’t until 1648, the year in which Carlo Ridolfi’s Le maraviglie dell’arte was published, that Sacred and Profane Love was unquestionably mentioned as belonging to the Borghese Collection, while Scipione Francucci’s poem (1613) and John Evelyn’s visit to the Borghese gardens and palace raise further questions. As explained by Staccioli (1995), if we read Francucci’s rhymes carefully, it becomes obvious that the comparison usually made between “Unadorned Beauty” and “Adorned Beauty” is here made between “Unadorned Beauty” and “Barbaric Pomp,” an expression most likely referred to Giovanni Baglione’s Judith (inv. 15) rather than Vecellio’s canvas. Similarly, in an account dated 28 November 1644, John Evelyn writes that in the “Chamber of Nudities” he admired two Venuses by Titian, identified by Wethey (1975) as the two female figures in Sacred and Profane Love.

Though the doubts and speculations on the arrival and presence of the painting in the Borghese family palace are many, on the other hand critics agree that the work was produced by Vecellio around the mid 1520s, towards the end of his juvenile phase. In fact, the painting was quite likely commissioned in 1515 – or, according to Lucco (2013), in 1516 – by the Venetian Niccolò Aurelio, the secretary of the Council of Ten, when he married Laura Bagarotto, their emblems visible on the front of the sarcophagus and on the bottom of the silver basin. Evoking this marriage are the clasp and the myrtle crown worn by the young woman on the left, both symbols of conjugal love.

The heart of the composition is clearly the juxtaposition of the two female figures who bear a clear resemblance to one another: one is clothed, her eyes turned to the viewer; the other is naked and looks at her companion with an exhorting expression. The latter is holding a lamp, a symbol of amorous ardour and one of Venus’s attributes. At the centre, Cupid, the god of love, is leaning against the edge of the sarcophagus decorated with a classical frieze, trailing his hand through the water. Behind them lies a typically Venetian landscape, inhabited by men and animals, with a towered town on the left and a lakeside village on the right.

Various interpretations of this work have been offered, proof of the complex and Hermetical cultural environment to which the painter belonged, deeply imbued with the Napoleonic influences popular in Venetian cultural circles, which Tiziano frequented thanks to his friendship with the poet Pietro Bembo. In this sense, the most authoritative approach is the one offered by Erwin Panofsky (1939), who saw Cupid as a symbol of the bond between earth and sky, and the two female figures as allegories of a “celestial” Venus and an “earthly” one. Conversely, in 1958 Edgar Wind identified the clothed woman as Pulchritudo (Beauty) and the naked one as Voluptas (Pleasure). According to other interpretations, the painting is a depiction of Polia and Venus, the protagonists of Poliphilo’s dream in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia (Hourticq, 1917), or Venus and Medea, whose story is told in the Argonautica by Valerio Flacco (Wickhoff, 1895). On the other hand, Italo Palmarini (1902) was the first to identify the two young women with the subject of Woman with a Mirror, which the scholar believed to be a portrait of Laura Dianti, lover of Alfonso I d’Este, portrayed in the Borghese version at the spring of love in the Ardenne forest sung by Matteo Maria Boiardo in Orlando in Love. At present, critics tend to prefer the moralising interpretation, that is to say the exaltation of the qualities of the perfect wife, here depicted both splendidly clothed in her public role and naked and consumed by true love for her groom.     

Antonio Iommelli     


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