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Venus

Sustris Lambert (?)

(Amsterdam c. 1515 - c. 1590)

Titian’s Venus of Urbino was the source of inspiration for this painting, a replica of a work of art by the Dutch artist. From the famous prototype comes the sensual figure of the recumbent goddess in the foreground, with the household scenes in the background, where we get a glimpse of a young woman playing the spinet and another one looking into a chest.  

Object details

Inventory
050
Location
Date
1565-1569 circa
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 118 x 180
Frame

Salvator Rosa 144 x 205 x 8 cm

Provenance

Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (?) (Corradini, inv. c. 1633); Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese (Manilli 1650); Inventario Borghese 1693, Room VI, no. 28 (Della Pergola 1964); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 22 (Mariotti 1892); purchased by the Italian state, 1902.

 

Exhibitions
  • 2000/2001 Roma, Palazzo Barberini
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • (?) 1937, Carlo Matteucci (cleaning)
  • 1958, Alvaro Esposti (rimozione varnish removal, cleaning)

Commentary

The painting is generally thought to be a variation of Titian’s more famous Venus of Urbino, a domestic version of the model represented by the Dresden Venus - the nude sleeping and stretched out en plain air, lying on a more or less precious drape or directly on the ground - already widely circulated and adopted by both Venetian and mainland painters.

The foreground is entirely taken up by a woman lying on a bed with white covers scattered with a few small roses. Her blond, curly hair is gathered and plaited, and she is covered only by a light drape, which is also white, her right hand resting on it; there is a small ring on her ring finger; her left arm is resting on a pillow embellished with a strip of golden fabric, and adorned with a bracelet studded with precious stones. Immediately behind her, forming a sort of curtain, is a green drape revealing the background. On the right, the room opens to the outside through an elegant tripartite loggia; two figures (a couple) look out of it against a red sunset sky, against which a vase with a small shrub stands out in the centre on the sill. Other small figures inhabit the painting’s space: close to the wall that seems to be decorated in red corami, a young girl dressed in white arranges the contents of the (wedding) chest assisted by a standing female figure. Right beside her, another young woman is playing a spinet, while a little girl watches her.

The painting is easily distinguishable by its significant details, and as with the more famous Venus of Urbino, it alludes to a wedding and the virtues of the young bride whom Venus, in the foreground, accompanies on her amorous and sensual journey, albeit within a domestic setting, enhanced here by the element of the young woman at the spinet, denoting a good private education.

This work, otherwise considered to be from Titian’s workshop or a 19th-century copy of a canvas already in the Borghese collection, must immediately be explained in terms of its close relationship with another almost identical work now in the Rijksmuseum and attributed to Lambert Sustris. Similar in composition and size, it differs from our example in the slight variations in the face and detail of the white drape over the woman’s nude body, here covering decidedly more of her, while only hinted at in the Dutch version. The latter, bought on the English market in the immediate post-war period, is said to have come from the Borghese palace, according to the oldest evidence of its presence in England and the most recent sales catalogue. It is not known when it left the family collections definitively, but almost certainly by the mid-19th century, when it is already documented in English collections.

Therefore, to fill the gap regarding this work, evidently considered difficult to support, a copy may have been commissioned. This thesis has been argued mainly by Wethey, according to whom the Amsterdam canvas is the original painting and the example currently in the Borghese collection, the 19th century copy. Della Pergola (1955), writing in the aftermath of the Rijksmuseum’s purchase of the painting, did not consider this possibility, and traced both paintings back to the same hand, namely, Lambert Sustris: curiously enough, one would say, but she was evidently not aware of the assumed Borghese provenance of the Amsterdam work.

Yet, at least one other hypothesis might be viable. The differences, albeit slight, between the two versions, the very non-19th-century technical execution, and the quality of the Borghese work do not comfortably suggest an ad hoc execution on the occasion of the sale, which would also represent a unicum, as far as we know. It is more likely, however, that a copy of the painting, which had been attributed to Titian for the entire century, was made during the 17th century, which was in any case documented in 1700 by Montelatici. It activated that mechanism recorded on very few occasions (Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, Albani’s tondi) but above all, and not by chance, for some of Titian’s most famous canvases. In fact, Montelatici remembers a copy of Venus Blindfolding Cupid (“taken from the original by Titian preserved in the prince’s palazzo in Rome”, p. 258), one of Sacred and Profane Love (“taken from the original that is preserved in the prince’s palazzo in Rome”, p. 288), and, in the same room, he recalls: “as from an original by the same Titian, which is preserved in the Galleria di S. Ecc. in Rome, another painting was obtained, of Venus, who can be seen here, lying on a bed” (p. 282). As if Titian, and his Venuses, could not be dispensed with in either of the two main sites of the family collection: neither in the villa, where the collection of ancient and modern sculptures was mostly kept; nor in the Palazzo di Ripetta, where the bulk of the collection, admired by curious viewers and art connoisseurs, was concentrated.

The earliest evidence of this reclining Venus further confirms the importance of the painting for the Borghese family.

As early as 1650, Manilli attests to the presence in the villa outside Porta Pinciana, in one of the first-floor dressing rooms, of “two large paintings of Venus”: and “the one where a young woman is playing a Spinet, is by Titian; which is believed to be the other, in the face, where a Dog sleeps at the feet of the Goddess”. These are clearly two replicas or versions of the so-called Venus of Urbino (Florence, Uffizi), attributed by Manilli with varying certainty to Titian. Certainly the first is not a copy: in fact, the element of the young woman playing the spinet stands out, absent from the original, where instead the small dog appears sleeping at the woman’s feet, mentioned by Manilli in the second painting of Venus and in all likelihood drawn by Antoon Van Dyck during his stay in Rome (c. 114r).

Between the 17th and 18th century in the Borghese collection, the two Venus paintings were conceived à pendant to each other, not only in terms of subject and artist, but perhaps also in terms of size. In 1650, they were placed in the same dressing room (the small gallery, today Room XI) of the villa outside Porta Pinciana, where they may have been since 1633 (Corradini). Once transferred to the Palazzo di Ripetta, the 1693 inventory records them as two “sopraporta” in the same room (the sixth), cited as “a large, oblong painting with a Naked Woman on a bed with flowers on it; five other figures, one plays the Harpsicord, another is looking into a Chest” (no. 333, pp. 458-459) and “a large painting of a naked Venus above the bed with a Small Dog sleeping with two other figures, and with her hand between her thighs, 5 palms high” (no. 322, p. 458).

As a detailed description is lacking in the inventory documents, it is not always easy to follow the traces of the two Venuses, which seem to be recorded together in the same room but with different attributions, as late as 1833 (inventario fidecommissario, nos. 29 and 30). The Venus with the little dog, the version closest to the Venus of Urbino, no longer seems to be remembered and has been lost, while a painting matching the description of the second Venus, with the young woman at the spinet and other figures in the background, is still in the collection.

Original, replica or copy? If, as it seems, the 19th-century copy must be ruled out, the first two possibilities remain: either it could be a replica with slight variations, but 17th-century, painted at an unspecified time, perhaps as part of the same “duplication” operation of the most important pieces in the picture gallery, by a painter who could easily imitate the original, interpreting Titian’s style and type of painting (in the broadest sense of the term) with ease; or it is the original, namely the painting that has been in the collection since at least 1650 (but perhaps even earlier), decisively attributed to Titian in the oldest documents, and then, by modern critics, first rejected as autograph, then attributed to Sustris.

For some time, and at least since the end of the 18th century, Titian’s authorship of the work had been questioned (catalogue 1790, De Rinaldis, 1937; inventory 1790; inventario fidecommissario 1833), dismissed by Venturi (1893) as a “copy with many variants” of the Venus of Urbino and generically attributed to the Venetian school. Commenting on the passage, in his manuscript notes, Giulio Cantalamessa (1907) acknowledged the derivation from the more famous example but said he was not certain about the execution technique being Venetian. The attribution of our example to Lambert Sustris, a Dutch painter who gravitated to Titian’s workshop in the 1550s, was first advanced by Wilde, followed by Peltzer who dated it to around 1550, and then by Della Pergola (1955).

As research currently stands, it is not easy to unravel this knot. However, the painting provides further evidence of the extraordinary importance that Titian (the models, variations and replicas from his workshop, which, especially in the last decades of the master’s activity, reworked types, repertories and models, offering them to an eager and perpetually vibrant market) had in the cultural scene of which the Borghese collection was a part. Even in the early 19th century, this reputation was still very much alive. Art lovers who followed Prunetti’s directions could find in the villa “a crouching Venus by Titian with an excellent complexion” (I, 1808, p. 242) and in the city palace, in the room of the Venuses among “the most singular ... that crouching one by Titian”. (II, 1811, p. 16).

Maria Giovanna Sarti




Bibliography
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