Lingering in a gallery of the Italian Renaissance, National Gallery, Washington, DC
One year not long after the ‘plane hijackings had begun in the world, I must have drunk a lot because, when we landed in Rome, all I saw on the way into the city was the word backwards: amoR. Venus had met our flight.
Venus, though, always with me.
Venus with a Mirror, oil on canvas, 1555, and detail. Titian, 1490-1576, Venetian. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The National Gallery, Washington DC has surrounded its Venus with four men and two women and the god Dionysos when he was a child. A third woman of the same period is in an adjoining gallery.
Venus, the goddess of sensuality, eroticism, desire, love, fertility.
Venus has pearls in her hair and her ears, a gold band inset with jewels around one wrist; and around the other, a gold chain wound round and round.
Her cape of silk velvet is trimmed with two kinds of fur, its huge jeweled clasp pressing invitingly against her lower belly.
A putto reaches to put a tiara of myrtle in her hair. The plant is sacred to her.
Your eye is drawn diagonally across the canvas from the pale gold of her hair in the top left corner down her magnificent nakedness to the loose gold of her bracelet and then to the gold organza sash on one of the putti to the stripes of the voided velvet of gold and brown under the putto’s feet in the bottom right hand corner.
The infant Bacchus is enchanted at the sight of the goddess. Transported. More things in heaven and earth! he thinks……..
The Infant Bacchus, c. 1505/10; oil on panel transferred to panel. Giovanni Bellini, 1430-1516, Venice. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The men, however, who surround Venus in this gallery are melancholic. Morose.
Portrait of Lorenzo di Credi, and detail, 1488, oil on panel transferred to canvas. Pietro Perugino, Umbrian, 1450-1523. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Portrait of a Man, and detail, on panel, 1527-1530. Attributed to Dosso Dossi, Ferrarese, active 1512-1542. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
He is offering the goddess a sprig of her sacred myrtle.
And the young man below ran in from the rain to catch a glimpse of Venus. Mesmerised.
Portrait of a Youth, oil on panel, c. 1485, and detail. Fillipino Lippi, Florentine, 1457-1504. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Cardinal Bandinello Sauli is watching Venus. He is paying no attention to his aides behind him. Nor the fly showing up the whiteness of his white gown. He himself is distracted by the presence of the goddess.
Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary and Two Geographers, and detail, oil on panel, 1516. Sebastiano del Piombo, 1485-1547, Venetian. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
And the Wise Virgin, in Marian blue, inclines her head towards the cardinal as if waiting to hear if he is going to say something about the cavorting of naked women.
Her only adornment are tiny jewel earrings.
She is alert, a little apprehensive. She is watching Venus. Everyone is watching Venus
Portrait of a Young Woman as a Wise Virgin, oil on panel c. 1510. Sebastiano del Piombo, Venetian, 1485-1547. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
And as to this fabulously fashionable woman who thought she would capture every gaze with her flaxen hair crowned with silver mesh netted with seed pearl, she saw Venus and turned away. Her expression is of faint dismay.
But not defeat because she thinks her time will come when the goddess has gone away….
It is she who has gone away and the goddess who is with us still.
Portrait of a Lady, tempera on panel, and detail, c. 1485. Neroccio De’Landi, 1447-1500, Italian, Sienna. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Only Ginevra de’ Benci is holding her own without undue emotion.
She is there, alert but calm and certainly not lowering her eyes. And, of course, her creator is Leonardo da Vinci. Nobody betters him.
A woman of formidable intellect, the reverse of the painting – the whole thought to be a commissioned portrait by a male acquaintance with whom she had a platonic relationship- links her beauty and her virtue.
But, it is hundreds of years later and it is Venus whom we remember and not Ginevra de’ Benci.
Front and reverse
Ginevra de’ Benci, oil on panel, and detail, c. 1474-78. Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519, Florentine. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
What is going on in this gallery?
Here it seems is a representation of our two great cultural legacies in tension with each other. The classical Greek/Roman and the Judeo/Christian.
The Olympians were overtaken by Christianity.
Their archetypes suppressed and their volcanic appetites, amoral cruelties, creative joy, and promiscuities brought into orderly proprieties and proper order.
These morose men lived under the Christian hegemony. No lavish naked Venus for them.
The woman is a good Christian girl. You can see the slight pinch of a judgement forming on her lips.
Detail of Portrait of a Young Woman as a Wise Virgin, oil on panel c. 1510.
And the cardinal, a learned man, has spent years of his life dealing with this tension. He is chagrined.
“We aren’t winning.” he thinks as he watches Venus.
Detail of Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary and Two Geographers, and detail, oil on panel, 1516
He knows that the link – which is in the DNA of Sapiens – between love and desire and eroticism can be arbitrarily suppressed, camouflaged, sacralized; deflected, intellectualized, suborned, subliminized.
But only for so long.
These verbs are not in Venus’ lexicon and she won’t be suppressed.
She has been erupting periodically since the Christian hegemony began. She erupted in the studio of Matisse not long before he died.
Venus, 1952, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on white paper, mounted on paper panel. Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Her last major eruption seems to have been in the mid-1960s during the resurgence of the French ‘May 1968’, and the Flower Power era of the mid-1960s and 1970s in north America.
Nor has she withdrawn yet.
Here she is in 1967 expressing her fondest, erotic affection for the many aromas of Sapiens.
Venere degli Stracci (Venus of the Rags), marble and rags, 1967. Michelangelo Pistalotti, Italian born 1933. Cittadelarte – Fondazione Pistoletto on loan to the Philadelphia Art Museum in 2011
And here with Robert Rauschenberg: we are always in her sight as she is on ours.
Persimmon, 1964, oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas. Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008, American.
Private collection on loan to MOMA, NY in 2017
And this 1823 statue of Venus was in 2000 the subject again of everyone’s attention in a work created for the rotunda of the Corcoran, Washington DC (now closed).
She was bathed in the sound and motion of yet another homage.
Loop, 2000, mixed media with sound. Jennifer Steinkamp (American born 1958) and Jimmy Johnson. The Corcoran (closed in 2014), Washington, DC.
Venus, a marble copy made by Thomas Hope (1769-1831, British) after Antonio Canova (1757-1822, Italian). The Corcoran, Washington DC, 2014.
‘Broken hallelujah‘ is Leondard Cohen’s phrase for the complications Sapiens brings to the experience and exercise of love, desire and eroticism.
In his song, Hallelujah, he is referring to two stories in the Biblical Old Testament: the story of David who coveted the wife of Uriah; and of Samson whose manliness and strength were destroyed by his wife, Delilah, when she cut off his hair.
Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
This tortured, heavy stuff has nothing to do with Venus.
Who is the idea and the ideal of the unbroken hallelujah! She is never going to leave our minds. The laurel – ever green – is a symbol of life everlasting.
Because we need to believe that this hallelujah is unbreakable even when we know, by sorry experience that it usually is. Broken again and again, that is, by us.
Hallelujah, 1984. Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016
Venus and Cupid, 1520’s, oil on canvas. Lorenzo Lotto, 1480-1556, Venice. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY