Lingering in a gallery of the Italian Renaissance, National Gallery, Washington, DC



One year, I must have drunk a lot because, when we landed in Rome, all I saw on the way into the city was the city’s name backwards:  amoR.


Venus had met our flight.  





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 silver and gold clasp pressing invitingly against the semicircle of her pubic hair. 


A putto reaches to put a tiara of myrtle in her hair. The plant is sacred to her.




As above


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





As above


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.

A breathtaking portrait.


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. 



DSC04674DSC04675Portrait of Lorenzo di Credi, and detail, 1488, oil on panel transferred to canvas. 

Pietro Perugino, Umbrian, 1450-1523. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC







DSC04700Portrait 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. 






DSC04679Portrait 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. 


Melancholic.  Pensive.






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.





DSC04702Portrait 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 Venus 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.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Venetian, 1485-1547.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC




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.

Sebastiano del Piombo, 1485-1547, Venetian.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC



He knows that the link – which is in the DNA of Sapiens – between love and desire and eroticism

can be arbitrarily suppressed,








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. 




DSC00037Venere degli Stracci (Venus of the Rags), marble and rags, 1967. 

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Italian born 1933.  Cittadelarte – Fondazione Pistoletto on loan to the Philadelphia Art Museum in 2011

This is a depiction of the mythological insight that eternity is in love with the forms of time. Otherwise put, the function of life – whether good or bad – is to experience eternity.




And here with Robert Rauschenberg: we are always in her sight as she is in 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.





DSC00084-1 - Copy


DSC00081 - Copy

Views of 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.



And, New York has this portrait of Venus with her son, Cupid. 

She and her son are holding up for all to see the laurels of her victory of survival and pre-eminence over her multi-century detractors.





Venus and Cupid, 1520’s, oil on canvas.

Lorenzo Lotto, 1480-1556, Venice.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY