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The tools of Venus

Author(s): Cathy Santore

Source: Renaissance Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 1997), pp. 179-207
Published by: Wiley
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Renaissance Studies Vol. 11 No. 3

The tools of Venus

Cathy Santore

Many of the women primping before mirrors in Titian's and othe

examples of the Lady at Her Toilet were in fact not ladies. Often t
are littered with combs, perfume, and cosmetic vases and jars, a
tools of Venus' as Lomazzo regards these objects.1 Lomazzo did
celestial Venus in mind when making his observation. Cartari me
ancient statue of Venus with a comb in her hand.2 While th
seldom carries one in Renaissance art, combs are indispensable to
disciples, the courtesans. Similarly, Valeriano cites combs, mirro
cymbals, and bells as 'le meuble amoureux de Venus'.3 Garzon
priates these articles as the paraphernalia of the courtesan.4 He en
the various kinds of perfumes and toilet water the courtesan used
to the list of 'cortigianalia' mirrors, earrings, scissors, curlers, hair or
boxes, and phials. Most of these items regularly aid the Lady at
The mirror is also featured in Renaissance literature on courtesans. Tani's
Madonna Thersifda carries her mirror about.5 Pona's Lucerna spends
entire hours in consultation with her mirror.6 Du Bellay's 'Courtisanne
Repentie' avows that she no longer has need of her mirror, cosmetics, and
scents, and his 'Vieille Courtisanne' who plies her trade in Rome, admits
that she embellishes her complexion with artifice and owns several mirrors,
and that her person and bedroom are fragrant with various perfumes.7 In
describing the furnishings of her apartment, Markham's 'Famous Whore'
mentions 'True christall mirrors and my picture right | In which I needes
must say I tooke delight.'8
The association of the mirror with courtesans and with Venus has antique
roots. The Dedicatory Epigrams, Book VI, indicates that the mirror was the
1 G. P. Lomazzo, Trattato dell'arte délia pittura scultura ed architettura (Milan, 1584; reprinted Rome,
1844), n, 218, recommends, Ίη questi composizioni [amori sforzati] per certo ornamento si richiede
che vi siano sempre vasi, specchi, panni, e simili istromenti di Venere, che rendono molto vaga l'istoria.'
2 Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini dei Dei degli Antichi (Venice, 1571; reprinted New York, 1976), 550.
3 Giovanni Piero Valeriano Bolzani, Les Hiéroglyphiques, trans. I. de Montlyard (Lyons, 1615;
reprinted New York, 1976), 721.
4 Tomaso Garzoni, La piazza universale di tutte le profession! del mondo (Venice, 1587), 259r. Cesare
Ripa, Iconologia, (Padua, 1611; reprinted New York, 1976), 308, advises that Lascivia be represented
by a richly dressed young woman primping before a mirror.
5 Niccolo Tani, La Cognata (Padua, 1583), 49v. This work has an internal date of 1524.
6 Francesco Pona, La Lucerna (1628), ed. Giorgio Fulco (Rome [1973]), 105-6.
7 Joachim Du Bellay (1558), in Poésies, ed. M. Hervier (Paris, 1954), 137, 147, and 153.
8 Garvis Markham, The Famous Whore, or Noble Curtizan, conteining the lamentable complaint of
Paulina, the famous Roman Curtizan, sometimes mistress unto the great cardinall Hypolite of Este (London,
1609), unpaginated.

© 1997 The Society for Renaissance Studies, Oxford University Press

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180 Cathy Santore

favoured gift of hetaerae to Aphrodit

the fane of Cypris her sandals, locks of
that lacketh not accuracy' (no. 210), an
true Cypris, the silver statuette of Lov
box wood comb that gathered in her
mirror to Venus. Three dedicatory epi
ascribed to Plato, Ί, Lai's, whose haught
once had a swarm of young lovers a
Aphrodite, since I wish not to look on
myself as I once was.' In nos 18 and 19J
epigrams concerning the elderly Lais' g
mirror], the companion of youth, since th
grantest beauty, Cytherea, but creeping t
since thy gift has passed me by and f
this mirror that bore witness to it.'

The gift offered by Lais was remembered in the Renaissance and Brantôm
mentions it.9 In antiquity, the mirror was offered by prostitutes to Ven
Meretrix. Tullia d'Aragona, a courtesan who plied her trade for some yea
in Venice, associates herself with Venus and alludes to the ancient practic
of prostitutes dedicating offerings in the temples of Venus when she write
'As was my right I had retrieved (Oh unlucky star!) my trophies from th
temple of the Cyprian and was bearing them away, fdled with pride in th
worth . . Λ10 Tullia wrote this in response to unrequited love.
The majority of dedications made by chaste girls in the Dedicatory Epigra
are to the virgin Athena who receives their spindles, distaffs, weaving com
thread, and work baskets. When such girls make offerings to Aphrodite, t
epigrams (nos 206 and 207) point out that it is to 'Aphrodite the Heavenly
who presideth over weddings', to whom the girls bring their sandals, hai
net, fan, face veil, and gold ankle snake. Mirrors are not included among
the gifts.
Titian equipped his Lady at Her Toilet with the tools of Venus. In his earliest
version (fig. 1), a young woman applies perfume to her waist-length tresses.
She observes her own reflection in a small rectangular mirror held by a young
man. He gazes attentively and intensely at the beauty while his left hand rests
on the rim of a large convex mirror behind the woman. He more than pays
court to her - the sentiment expressed here is akin to homage. Titian presents
a pair of lovers who are following Ovid's dictum (Art of Love, III, 235-6) that
women should extend to their lovers the privilege of seeing their hair being
dressed so that they can enjoy the sight of long, flowing tresses. Renaissance
men would also appreciate this luxuriant display, as respectable women wore
their hair bound up or confined in a net - a fashion that caused Firenzuola
to lament, 'You cover it [hair] till you are brides, and thenceforth I do not

Brantôme, The Lives of Gallant Ladies (1665), trans. A. Brown (London, 1961), 297-8.
Translated in Georgina Masson, Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance (New York, 1975), 118.

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The tools of Venus 181

see you spread it to the winds; and this is ill don

greatest adornment to beauty.'11
In his discussion on how to woo a woman Ovid {
directing his discourse to the gentleman, recomm
(though base, it will give pleasure) to hold a m
hand.'12 The Romans warned that amorous passio
behaviour.13 Amorous passion is what Titian's pa
ject of desire, her clothing in erotic disarray, wou
tive image in an age that appreciated the cha
Respectable women covered their arms to the w
poses the length of her hair and much of her cam
plus the use of perfume allude to her status as a
Of course, most women who could afford perfum
gentlewomen are never portrayed with bottles of s
is rife with references to the courtesan's use of
ferrarese speaks of her abundant, delicate, soft lin
fumo profumati; | Zibetto e muschio in copia ho t
signor mi son donati.'15 The courtesan awaiting g
servant, 'preparate la cazzuola del profumo'.16 Th
a full supply of expensive fragrances.17 The pimp
that perfume leads the way to a girl's heart.18 A visi

Agnolo Firenzuola, Of the Beauty of Women (1548), trans. Cla

12 Ovid's Art of Love was widely read in sixteenth-century Italy b
the advice on the art of seduction that Aretino's Nanna gives to
is very similar to that which Ovid offers the reader. Aretino appear
work and could have passed on some Ovidian anecdotes to his frie
not have needed any prompting from Aretino. In an age in which
taining works to read, the artist might have sought amusement in th
have appealed to his sensibilities.
13 Paul Veyne (éd.), A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome t
I (Cambridge and London, 1987), 204-5.
14 A different interpretation is offered by Elise Goodman-Soell
"Lady at Her Toilet" theme in sixteenth-century painting', Sixteenth-
who sees Titian's paintings as representations of Petrarchan love
ing the topos of the suitor holding up a mirror to the lady's face so
Goodman-Soellner cites Petrarch's poem Ί1 mio adversario' as th
later elaborated in a strambotto by Serafino dall'Aquila, 'Invidia
It is not stated or even implied in those poems that the lover is hold
cites the mirror as his adversary, and Serafino, expressing envy,
it receives the lady's attention. No scenario is established in eithe
and lover together in a temporal context. Neither poem evokes th
municated in Titian's and Ovid's works. Aretino's Nanna pointe
'want no romances in the Petrarchan manner' (I Ragionamenti [T
Rosenthal (New York, 1972), 200).
15 G. B. Verini, Il vanto e il lamento delta cortigiana ferrarese (Ven
Cinquecento (Turin, 1888), 357.
16 Agnolo Firenzuola, I lùcidi (1552), in Tesoretto delta lingua to

17 Du Bellay, Poésies, 153.

18 Lodovico Dolce, Fabritia (Venice, 1549), 14\

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182 Cathy Santore

the Roman courtesan's tempting cloth

that the courtesan scents her entire h
personal experience Coryat notes that
her whole body, the more to enamour
and generally all her bedding sweetly p
this practice Brantôme asks, 'Why ind
to be so beautiful and so desirable, if n
always finely attired and invariably p
hundred paces? This is why it is main
lovemaking.'22 Not everyone regarded
perfume can arouse 'il concupiscibil
(attributed to Lorenzo Veniero) attackin
Aretino circle with whom Titian share
is mentioned at least three times.24 In
author comments upon the fragrance u
The inventory of the possessions of J
who died in 1542, lists many perfume
camicie, presumably to scent them.26
Titian portrayed a courtesan perfumi
extant examples in Barcelona (fig. 2) an
prototype in Paris, but a comb is adde
version an adolescent boy wearing a tur
The youngster could be a reference to
of a page. To be seen with a boy in
enhancing display of aristocratic prete
The presence of the mirror in these
pretation of the scene, although nothin
Of all the many references to this them
tories I have perused, in only one instan
Vanity', and it is applied to an elabo
woman with mirror, three men, and a
Aachen.28 Traditionally, northern arti
Vanitas than did sixteenth-century Venetians.

19 Toseph Hall, Quo Vadis? A fust Censure of Travell as it is undertaken by the Gentlemen of our Nation
(London, 1617), 14.
Garzoni, La piazza universale, 259r.
21 Tomas Coryat, Crudities, 2nd edn (1611; reprinted New York, 1905), 404-5.
22 Brantôme, Gallant Ladies, 169.
23 Federigo Luigini, Libro delle bella donna (Venice, 1554), in Giuseppe Zonta, Trattati del cinquecento
sulla donna (Bari, 1913), 261.
24 L. Veniero(P), 'La Zaffetta' (c.1530s; reprinted Paris, 1861), 13, 25, 27.
25 L. Veniero(P), 'La puttana errante' (c. 1531; reprinted Paris, 1883), 104.
26 This inventory is published in Cathy Santore, 'Julia Lombardo, "Somtuosa Meretrize": a
Portrait by Property', Renaissance Quarterly, 41/1 (1988), 44-83.
27 For further discussion of this see Cathy Santore, 'The Fruits of Venus: Carpaccio's "Two
Courtesans" ', Arte Veneta, 42 (1988), 38.
28 Adolf Berger, 'Inventar der Kunstammlung des Erzherzogs Leopold Wilhelm von Osterreich',
Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhôchsten Kaiserhauses, 1 (1883), part u, cxlv, no. 632.

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The tools of Venus 183

Considering Venetian tastes, one questions the ext

bility in creating the Allegory of Vanity (fig. 4 and
woman in negligent décolletage stands behind a larg
reflects coins, jewellery, a money pouch, and in th
a distaff and spindle. Noting that in the Middle Ages s
vita activa and virtue, Verheyen argues for a Van
picture.29 It is thought that the objects reflected
addition. Verheyen believes that Titian added these
he finished the painting, since the jewelled pendan
one found in Titian's portrait of the Empress
reflected in the mirror in a spatially illogical mann
at a slight angle to the picture plane; therefore, sin
the mirror rests is approximately parallel to the pi
as reflected in the mirror, should recede at a sharp
problem must be considered: where does the wom
spindle stand? Is she in the room with the woman
does the mirror face a window and also reflect the street? A vertical wooden
board irrationally reflected at the left in the mirror could be meant as part
of a window frame. At right rear of the woman with the spindle is a series
of dark openings separated by colonettes, apparently meant to be bifurcated
windows and doors in a walk or corridor. Titian is not known for making
perspectival errors, for reviving medieval symbolism, or for having a taste
for moralizing.
A hand other than Titian's may have turned what was perhaps originally
intended as a Lady at Her Toilet into a Vanitas picture. X-rays reveal a pro
vocative image: the bodice of her dress reached only to beneath the breast,
exposing the camicia, and was cut open at the centre as in Titian's Lady at
Her Toilet. Her right hand was thrust into the hair tumbling over her shoulder
and breast. Perhaps the same hand that raised and closed the neckline of
the green dress covered her left arm and hand with red-brown drapery.
Several inches of camicia can be discerned slipping from her shoulder beneath
this cloth, indicating the covering is a later addition. The drapery folds cloak
ing the arm seem unlike Titian's; they are too rhythmic, patterned, and flat.
Also, it makes no sense to cover the hand. Pentimenti show the fingers curv
ing as if to hold an object. Perhaps the hand was resting on a perfume jar,
as it does in various versions of Titian's Lady at Her Toilet. Whether these
adjustments were made before or after the painting left Titian's shop can
not be determined without further technical analysis; however, the results
do not accord well with Venetian concerns. Verheyen states that the candle
is a seventeenth-century addition. Its inclusion removes any ambiguity of
interpretation and asserts the Vanitas message.

Egon Verheyen, 'Tizians Eitelkeit des Irdischen Prudentia et Vanitas', Pantheon, 24 (1966),

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184 Cathy Santore
To the Venetian, Woman + Mirror = Amore. Giacomo Franco30 asso
ciates the mirror with the courtesan in two instances: plate VII, Le Cortegia
si fanno conciar e adiversi Modi la testa, shows the woman seated, holding
mirror in which her face is reflected, while a maid arranges her hair. Th
courtesan's equipment, rings, cosmetic and perfume jars, are scattered on
a low table. The name 'Palma V' is inscribed at the bottom of the engravin
and in larger script, Jacobus franco forma'. If Palma Vecchio had anything
do with the image it was updated by the engraver. It appears that the woman
hair is being lifted so that it can be wound into corni, a style current in t
last decades of the sixteenth century. The following illustration, Una che
concia con due specchi, depicts a woman holding a mirror in each hand. In
another Venetian book of engravings, the Vita del Lascivo (c.1630), mirror
decorate the rooms of courtesans in plates 3, 7, and 9.
The mirror, with or without Vanitas connotations, appears in northern
depictions of prostitutes as well. Crispijn de Passe, in his book of engraving
of courtesans, includes two images in which the women groom themselve
before mirrors, and in one of them a colleague holds the mirror.31
So far removed from moralizing was the Venetian artist's intent that o
casionally the woman disrobes to perform her toilet. A painting in the roy
collection at Prague (1621) is described as Έϊη nackend weib in einem spiege
vom Tician (orig)'.32 The compiler of the tally was able to recognize Venu
with a mirror in another painting, so the 'nackend weib' designation should
not be attributed to iconographical ignorance. 'Une femme nue devant un
miroir, de Titian',33 which appears in Queen Christina's 1656 inventor
may be a second reference to the same painting; Christina received th
Prague collection as war booty. In light of these ascriptions, the nude Lad
at Her Toilet in Washington (fig. 6) might not be as unrelated to Titian as some
claim.34 The woman poses exactly like her counterparts in the versions by
Titian. The placement of her fingers on the perfume jar matches that of th
Barcelona painting most closely, as does the sheen and shape of the jar. Also
a ring adorns the middle joint of the ring finger of that hand in both pain
ings. The similarities of pose and gesture of the women are so strong tha
one could readily believe they derive from the same cartoon or oil sketch
In both works the hand that rests on the perfume jar has the same peculiar
broad flatness. The hand in the Washington painting, though similarl

30 Giacomo Franco, Habiti delle donne veneziane intagliate in rame (Venice, 1610; reprinted Venic
31 Crispijn de Passe, Le Miroir des plus belles courtisannes de ce temps (η.p., 1631), engravings nos 3
and 4, and that of Margery of Richmond, unpaginated.
32 Heinrich Zimmerman, 'Das Inventar der Prager Schatz- und Kunstkammer von 6. Dezember
162 Y,Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhochsten Kaiser hanses, 25 (1905), XLII, no. 1037.
33 Jean Denucé, Inventare von Kunstammlungen zu Antwerpen im 16. u. 17. Jahrhundert (Antwerp,
1932), 178.
34 For an opposing viewpoint see Harold E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian (London, 1971), hi,

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The tools of Venus 185

drawn, is more skilfully painted. In that work the w

while incongruously situated in a landscape. Here
across the width of the picture, allowing a glimp
Altogether, compositionally and stylistically, if
from Titian's shop it was produced by someone w
Titian's work and was so intent on copying that he la
to correct a poorly drawn hand. This would seem
relying on a painted rather than live model woul
for his assignment would be to copy, not to crea
Seventeenth-century inventories document the p
Her Toilet (although never so entitled), and indic
examples, including some attributed to Titian, are
also reveal that certain renderings of the theme had
to be seen as pictures of courtesans. Could the 'C
by Tytsyan',35 in the collection of Charles I be a
I also owned Ά Curtezan houlding a lookeing g
Parmigianino.36 Among the possessions of Antho
'Una Corteggiana con un specchio et un huomo
To replace the 'lady' in the Lady at Her Toilet w
great leap of imagination, especially if the lady w
Titian could have known that Cupid sometimes hel
in the Hellenistic group of the Crouching Aphrodite,
7), has nothing in common with the ancient sculptur
have been to produce a Lady at Her Toilet, as X-r
originally presented in camicia. The removal of th
closer to divinity. But it was a half-hearted attem
a total break from worldliness requires elimination o
which her torso emerges. Inappropriate for Venus, th
similar to the one worn by Titian's Girl in a Fur
Since antiquity the goddess of love had been reco
cipale delle meretrici',38 and even venerated as V
Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks, II), in his e
plains that the Athenians sacrifice to Aphrod
Hetaera (patron of courtesans) gradually develope
(Aphrodite the prostitute).39 Athenaeus (XIII, 559
more information on the subject, saying that there w
Hetaera everywhere, and that it was the money ea
paid for the first temple to Aphrodite Pandemos

Oliver Millar, Inventories and Valuations of the King's Goods, 1

(Glasgow, 1970-2), 320.
56 Ibid. 270.
Jenny Muller-Rostock, 'In Verzeichnis von Bildern aus dem Besitze des Van Dyck', Zeitschrift fur
bildende Kunst, NS 33 (1922), 22.
38 Cartari, Imagini, 548.
39 Hans Licht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, trans. J. H. Freese (London, 1932), 206.

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186 Cathy Santore

tells us that the statue of Aphrodite of Sa

prostitutes. Plautus, in the Poenulus (19
makes references to courtesans worshippi
the temples of Venus, some offering gift
plays were translated and performed re
dramatic festivals held in Mantua and Fer
of the fifteenth century. The Italian elite,
the humour of Plautus and, judging by the
were not offended by the references to th
of Venus. Garzoni, however, saw the temp
in which one could find the laws of pan
antiquity prostitutes cultivated a close asso
favoured were sometimes honoured with a
This was well known in the Renaissance. Valeriano mentions that the tomb
of the hetaera Lai's was attached to the temple of Aphrodite at Corinth.41
The reputation of Venus as courtesan or even as whore survived in the
Renaissance. Boccaccio believed her to have been a real woman mistakenly
worshipped as a goddess, one who, 'wallowed in the fdth of brothels'.4
Following Boccaccio's lead, Garzoni has not a favourable word to say about
the goddess. He agrees that 'L'inventione adunque di questa dissoluta, e
vituperosa, professione si attribuisce à Venere', and blames her for the cor
ruption of Cypriot girls.43 Conti repeats this story without Boccaccio's an
Garzoni's vituperative tone.44 Niccolo Franco, associate of Titian's clos
friend Pietro Aretino, has a character in a satiric dialogue discourse with
Venus about the places consecrated to her, that is, the bordellos.45 Giraldi
Conti, Cartari, and Equicola all agree that Venus was the first to practise
the art of the courtesan.46

Brantôme is not so sure of Venus' divinity, but his deprecations are stated
with a wink and a grin, as when he writes, 'Venus who was the loveliest of
women and biggest whores [sic] in the world'.47 He comments further, 'Thus
the Queen and Empress of whores, that is, Venus herself, was a Greek
woman.'48 Brantôme quotes La Greca, a Roman courtesan friend of his, as
having said: 'There is no trade in the world more insistent, nor more calling

40 Garzoni, La piazza universale, 256v, 260v.

41 Valeriano, Hiéroglyphiques, 12.
42 Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, trans. Guido A. Guarino (New Brunswick, NJ,
1963), 16-17.
43 Garzoni, La piazza universale, 256v.
44 Natale Conti, Mythologie, trans. J. Baudouin (Paris, 1627; reprinted New York, 1976), 361.
45 Niccolo Franco, Dialoghi piacevoli (Venice, 1542), p. xvii.
46 Lilio Gregorio Giraldi, De Deis gentium, (Basle, 1548; reprinted New York, 1976), 551; Conti,
Mythologie, 363; Cartari, Imagini, 547; M. Equicola, Libro di natura d'amore (Venice, 1536), 6Γ.
47 Brantôme, Gallant Ladies, 87. This sentence in Les Dames galantes (Paris, 1947), 82, reads: 'Venus,
qui fut la plus belle femme et putain du monde.'
48 Ibid. 126.

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The tools of Venus 187

for regular practice, than that of Venus.'49 La Gre

courtesan's desire to elevate her status through the
the goddess of love.
The other side of the coin of conflation of Venus and courtesan is the
courtesan as Venus. While Athenaeus (XIII, 590e) describes the renowned
Phryne, hetaera and artist's model, as the handmaid and ministrant of
Aphrodite, Plautus has the protagonist of the Poenulus (274-5) refer to the
girl he is infatuated with as Venus. The girl is not yet a practising profes
sional, but is being groomed for the trade. The Renaissance writer followed
suit. Coryat rather blurs the distinction between goddess and prostitute when
describing his experiences with Venetian courtesans: 'their Palaces . .. you
seem to enter the Paradise of Venus ... as for her selfe she comes to thee
decked like the Queene and Goddesse of love, in so much that thou wilt think
she made a late transmigration from Paphos, Cnidos, or Cythera, the aun
cient habitations of Dame Venus.'50 Du Bellay's courtesan refers to girls of
her ilk as 'le sainct trouppeau a venus dédié', and goes on to have them say
that Venus is the 'source de nostre sang'.51 Pona's Lucerna reveals that
feigned modesty was one of the ploys she resorted to in public, but when
with a lover she claims to have been 'più lasciva che le Veneri tutte' - a polite
reference to her colleagues.52 In a light-hearted study of prostitution writ
ten in 1681, Le Putanisme d'Amsterdam, the filles de joie are repeatedly referred
to as the 'filles de Venus' and as 'petites Venus'.53
The Venetian courtesan sought to capitalize on the Venus-courtesan
association. In a surprisingly sexually frank poem addressed to Marco Venier,
Veronica Franco attempts to seduce that gentleman with boast of her venereal
prowess tempered by allusions to the goddess of love and the courtesan
herself as her disciple. She reminds him of the bliss Venus afforded Apollo
in their lovemaking, declaring that she, too, is versed in those same arts, and
that her singing and writing are forgotten by those who have tried her in
the guise that Venus shares with her devotees.54 Signor Venier responds
poetically, calling Veronica 'Venere in letto'.55 In another poem Veronica
claims to be protected by the spirit of Venus.56
In light of this demotic rather than Neoplatonic understanding of the god
dess of love, one questions the traditional interpretation of some of Titian's
paintings featuring the goddess; are they straightforward mythologies, or are
they pictures of 'petites Venus'? If the artist depicts the Lady at Her Toilet
with the accoutrements of Venus, why not depict the 'lady' in the guise of
Venus? It would not have been the first time an artist deified a mortal. The

Ibid. 35.

Coryat, Crudities, 403.

Du Bellay, La Contre-Repentie, in Poësies, 140.
Pona, Lucerna, 105.
Le Putanisme d'Amsterdam (1681; reprinted Brussels, 1883), 78, 81, 134.
Abdelkedar Salza, Rime: Gaspara Stampa e Veronica Franco (Bari, 1913), 241.
Ibid. 235.
In Masson, Courtesans, 160.

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188 Cathy Santore

ancients started the practice. Enea Vico,

lists several wives and daughers of emper
in the guise of the respectable goddesses
forsaken. Valeriano remembers having
as Venus.58 The Vatican houses a semi-nu
with a cupid. The sixteenth-century cour
to imitate the behaviour of an empress,
counterpart. Pliny (XXXV, xxxvii, 119), d
Arellius, saying he had 'prostituted his ar
likeness of his mistresses; and so his pictu
of harlots'. The average man in the Rena
ity to copy or compete with the classical
wise. Tassoni, believing Arellius' examp
questi eminenti, nomina Plinio fra gli an
ritraeva le meretrici sue innamorate in s
da alcuni nostri modérai . . Λ59 He name
as having engaged in this practice. Even
mistresses as models. A seventeenth-centu
'Perino del Vago . . . was wont almost a
Mistress, when he had a Mind to describe
The Procuress in Aretino's Dialogues com
my head broken by that Sebastiano del P
. . . The other day I got him not just a b
young girl for him to paint. . . Now he's
it's not enough for him that he's had her
Procuress rented her out for more comm
should not take this gossip literally, yet the
which come from such varied sources. It
artist would employ those readily availab
a courtesan would happily display her ch
so I d'Este's agent cites the availability of
as the reason for Titian's reluctance to g
and Ariadne. Writing from Venice in 1522
Titian wished to change some figures in
Vostra Excellentia
vorà, che vengi li,
cosette ... et che
d'homo, che nudo
known anecdote ab
inspire the Renais
Enea Vico, Le imagini de
Valeriano, Hiéroglyphiq
A. Tassoni, De pensieri
Maximilian Misson, A N
Aretino, Dialogues, 339
Cited in Dana Goodgal,

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The tools of Venus 189

offered further encouragement, saying that Lai's was

came to her to copy her breasts and chest.
Giacomo Franco demonstrates an instance in whi
trayed in the guise of Diana. Displaying an uninte
chauvinism, the title of the engraving, Diana acco
tises it as the goddess in the guise of a Venetian
panying the engraving explains, 'Essendo stata da m
dipinta una famosissima Signora [his euphemi
metaforica trasmutatione di Diana Dea delle caccie.'63
Whether any of Titian's Venus at Her Toilet paintings actually represe
a 'famosissima' in the guise of her alter ego is difficult to assess. A mistr
or courtesan probably posed for the painting in Washington, which is c
sidered the first version. The classically regular features of this model a
so idealized that one assumes Titian did not intend that she be recognize
as a portrait. Yet she may have meant something special to the artist, as h
lavished so much care on the painting and never parted with it. In sever
other versions of this work, for example the one in Cologne, although t
body is unchanged the face is more individualized, but this could be due
to the imagination of the restorer rather than the brush of the artist. T
picture has endured much repainting, yet a factor to consider is that Tit
was not averse to painting the likeness of a real woman onto the body o
a mythological character. The artist himself offered to do this to the Dan
for Alessandro Farnese.64

As she attended to her toilet, the goddess sometimes went unrecognized

in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century inventories. Queen Christina's 1652
tally lists 'Un tableau de moyenne grandeur ou est peint une femme, une
robbe de nuit, et un Cupidon qui luy tient le miroir' (no. 91), and 'Dito [U
grand tableau], ou un Cupidon tient un miroir devant une femme nue' (no
154).65 No artists are named in this inventory, but since these items are
listed as having come from Prague they are thought to be by Titian or h
shop. Why was the compiler of Queen Christina's index unable to recognize
Venus in these paintings? He was capable of identifying her in other instances
even when Cupid was absent. Perhaps Venus' activity or her fur coat caused
the confusion, or perhaps he believed the goddess to be a portrait. In
Christina's inventory of the Palazzo Riario (Rome, 1662) Venus is 'Donn
che si specchia ignuda ... e un amorino che gli tiene lo specchio' (no. 21
but in her 1689 tally the figure is called 'Venere'. The 'Venere' identifica
tion did not last long. When Prince Livio Odescalchi purchased the collec
tion in 1692 she was again seen as 'Donna ignuda che si specchia'.

Franco, Habiti delle donne, pl. XVIII.

64 Charles Hope, Ά Neglected Document about Titian's "Danae" in Naples', Arte Veneta, 31
(1977), 189.
63 Auguste Geffroy, Notices et extraits des manuscrits concernant l'histoire ou la letterature de la France
(Paris, 1855), 167, 171.

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190 Cathy Santore

An image of Venus eluded recognition

Besançon in 1607 where she was seen as
un miroir de la main d'un Titian'.66 This
after the death of François Perrenot whose
uncle Nicholas (d.1550), had their portrait
Nicholas Perrenot, seigneur de Granvell
the recipient or purchaser of several paint
is probably correct. Was the compiler of
informed that he could recognize the wor
Cupid's companion? He was able to ident
even when she was not accompanied by her
by the courtesan's attribute, the mirror?
simply a woman draped in a fur coat? In
goddess and courtesan were so intertwined
Venus appeared in a role usually assigne
As the popularity of the Lady at Her Toil
tions abounded. Paris Bordone made at lea
his painting at Althorp Park (fig. 8) he vu
Looking a bit dishevelled, this bare-bre
jewellery box while a man holds a mirror
the tools of Venus, which, along with her
The two escutcheons probably refer to the
the patron who may be one and the same.
stemma is surmounted by a tiny Cardinal's
the audacity to have himself portrayed ou
a prostitute? Perhaps the hat alludes to the
concocted pedigrees and coats of arms f
claimed filiation to Cardinal Luigi d'Ara
of her career in the 1530s and 1540s, and
painting. However, this picture would have
reputation as a woman of elegance and r
A more fitting presentation of Tullia's pe
sumptuous Portrait of a Lady (fig. 9). Beje
velvet, she is, in her elegant attire, a model w
in the manner Paris favoured for court
distracted from her own reflection, she ap
ror from her gaze.
In another variation of the Lady at Her Toile
when auctioned at Christie's in 1929 (fig.
dress and coiffure holds a comb in one hand and with the other reaches
for the mirror held by her maid - or her bawd. The face of the older wom
is too full of character and expression, and the gaze she directs at the yo
woman is too intense, for her to be playing the minor and insignificant role o
Auguste Castan, 'Monographie du Palais Granvelle à Besançon', Mémoires de la Société d'Emu
tion de Doubs, 4th series, 2 (1867), 118, no. 91.

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The tools of Venus 191

maid: the figure is infused with too much impor

The old procuress, or ruffiana, was a stock chara

Palma Vecchio may also have delved into this subject. The 1555 in
tory of Alvise Odoni lists 'Un quadro de una donna zovene et una
chia',67 which formerly belonged to his father. Marcantonio Michiel saw
in 1532 in the house of Alvise's father Andrea, and described it more f
as Έ1 quadro delle due mezze figure d'una giovine e una vecchia da drie
a oglio, fu de man de Jacomo Palma'.68 The painting in the Odoni c
tion could possibly be related to the one attributed to a follower of P
Vecchio formerly in the San Diego Museum of Art (fig. II),69 which dep
a young woman with violets in her hair sitting in the foreground light, wh
an older woman, submerged in shadow, peers over the girl's shoulder at
object she holds. The truncated presentation of this object makes it diff
to decipher, but enough of it is rendered for the viewer to know that
the foreshortened edge of a frame of either a mirror or a very small p
ing. On those infrequent occasions when a painting appears within a pain
in Renaissance art it is legible to the viewer, and, considering the con
of this picture, it is reasonable to assume the girl is holding a mirror ag
her lap. Her hair streams untidily onto her left shoulder (the fat curls a
bottom of this swatch of hair appear to be repaint). This courtesan with
procuress is about to perform her toilet. Ladies are not portrayed with flow
in their hair or with their camicia untied and open to below the cleav
of the breasts. Her skirt is improperly fastened as well. Despite its er
elements, this is a Lady at Her Toilet moralisée. The old woman looks int
into the mirror. Is it her own reflection she studies or that of the girl?
girl has turned away from the mirror. The pensive, melancholic expres
on their faces perhaps reflects their thoughts after having glimpsed each ot
in the mirror. The image espied reminds one of her bygone youth, the o
of her future.
Bordone expands the cast of characters in his version of the theme in Edin
burgh (fig. 12). In addition to the semi-nude young woman attending to her
toilet assisted by the older woman holding the mirror, a second blonde beauty
glances out at the observer while she adjusts the shoulder of her dress.
Bordone's picture is replete with the courtesan's paraphernalia, but we would
guess the women's profession even without these accoutrements. Ridolfl
describes this painting without explaining the scene.70 His reticence could

Archivalische Beitràge zur Geschichte der venezianischen Kunst, in W. Bode, G. Gronau, and D. von
Hadeln (eds), Italienische Forschungen herausgegeben vom Kunsthistorischen Institut Florenz, iv (Berlin, 1911),

68 Marcantonio Michiel, Notizia d'opere di disegno, ed. Jacopo Morelli (Bassano, 1800), 61.
69 This painting was sold at auction at Christie's on 10 January 1990 and is now in England. It
shows some stylistic affinities with the work of Bonifazio de' Pitati, yet a strong Palmesque flavour
permeates the composition. If Bonifazio's hand is involved, it would not have been the only time
he borrowed a motif from Palma.
70 Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell'arte (Venice, 1648), ed. D. von Hadeln (Berlin, 1914-24), I, 234.

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192 Cathy Santore

possibly be due to naïveté, but more likely

the reputation of the artist or patron.
Sometimes the person holding the mirro
Dressing (fig. 13), and even the mirror, we
ment of voyeurism to the scheme. The vi
alone in her room, grooming herself. Alt
than the courtesans in Bordone's other ren
the elaborate arrangement and exposure o
alludes to her occupation. The perfume jar
and mirror only confirm our suspicions.
Oblivious to the viewer, the blondes in Pa
Her Hair (fig. 14), and Licinio's Portrait of
and camicia as they attend to their toilet.
does Titian's 'lady' (fig. 1), and the hand an
replicate in reverse the gesture made by t
Palma's most gorgeous and virtuoso treatm
(fig. 16). Although ensconced in a luxuriou
with her costly slashed, fringed, and puc
gentlewoman many believe her to be. Wh
pensive attire support such an interpretat
Her clothes billow about her with a studied
woman at her toilet rummages in a box of
for her dark red-gold hair. Or has she jus
background evokes a feeling of night. Perh
Barely visible in the upper right corner,
and rider trample a nude man. Citing the
horse as a symbol of unbridled lust and as
emblem engraved by Giulio Bonasone in
Prudentia depicts a young man subduing a
another unbridled horse rears and two more horses romp in the
background.72 The word 'horse' was used as a euphemism for phallus by
Aretino,73 and by the young lover in La Venexiana, a Renaissance play writ
ten in dialect.74 Perhaps Palma's message here is that in the passions incited
by La Bella, some are victors while others are vanquished. Or maybe nothing
more specific was intended than to identify the sitter as a courtesan.
The originator of the theme of the Lady at Her Toilet has not yet been con
clusively determined. Did Giovanni Bellini, in the eighty-fifth year of his life,
after fifty-seven years of sexually conservative painting, invent the subject?
Possibly - with paternal incentive. Prominently positioned, a nude woman

1 Valeriano, Hiéroglyphiques, 53.

72 Cited by Erwin Panofsky, Problems in Titian Mostly Iconographie (New York, 1969), 118 n. 22.
73 Aretino, Dialogues, 112.
74 Attributed to Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553) La Venexiana, trans, and introd. Matilde Valenti
Pfeiffer (New York, 1950), 67.

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The tools of Venus 193

whose hair tumbles alia cortigiana onto her should

seems to be held jointly by the gazer and her c
Women and Children in a Bathing Pavilion in J
drawing book, folio 31. It would be but a sma
woman with mirror and isolate her in a new
with the spirit of Lussuria, Bellini's Lady at Her T
despite her nudity and the courtesan's attribut
window sill, appears chaste. The ointment jar i
of the most famous prostitute of all time - Ma
appearance of the woman is due in part to the a
to the narrow-hipped model he chose, and to th
Her severely parted hair neatly hidden under
sion. This painting has been described as a G
because it is thought to reflect an innovation
its poetic mood. Although the Parisian collect
Giorgione with having delved into the subject
we find 'Portrait d'une femme, lA corps, tenant d
derrière elle un homme qui tient un miroir, g
Georgeon',75 no evidence points to Giorgione

Very different in sentiment is Licinio's Courtesan with Mirror (fig. 18). The
composition seems to derive from Titian's Allegory of Vanity, but no moraliz
ing message is intended. The nudity, the blonde hair rippling to the
shoulders, the oblique glance, and the coquettish tilt of the head common
to a number of courtesan pictures proclaim her profession. So does the
mirror. It reflects what we cannot otherwise see (fig. 19). Up front, so we
should not overlook them, are the comb and perfume vase. An elderly client
has come to visit. His gaze is fixed away from the beauty we see. The presence
of another woman is implied, for what else could distract him from the
blonde leaning on the mirror? The procuress stands behind him awaiting
his selection. We are in a brothel.
The mirror held by a girl whose hair is being fondled is one of the clues
that reveals Cariani's misnamed Seven Members of the Albani Family (fig. 20)
is, in fact, a brothel scene. The squirrel squatting on the table carries no
weighty symbolic significance; it is simply the courtesan's pet. Venetian
courtesans were known to have a penchant for pets. Animal and mirror, the
attributes of the courtesan, are placed where they cannot be overlooked. We
do not immediately notice that the thin fabric of the camicia worn by the
girl with the mirror allows her nipples to show through. The woman with
the fan has daringly forsaken the bib of her dress for this same purpose.
The older woman behind her left shoulder, whose face is half in shadow,
is probably the madam.

Vicomte De Grouchy, 'Everhard Jabach, collectioneur parisien', in Mémoires de la Société de

l'Histoire de Paris et de l'Ile-de-France, xxi (Paris, 1894), 254, no. 100.

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194 Cathy Santore

Equipped with this new understanding o

we can more accurately interpret those p
when transported into a context distance
Bonifazio de' Pitati's Lot and his Daughter
one of Lot's incestuous offspring holds a
explained as representing the 'conflict be
that author regards the mirror only as a
But nowhere is it implied in Genesis 19:
were reluctant to seduce their father, and the demeanour of the women in
the painting expresses no hint of distress. The tool of Venus, the mirror,
had come also to symbolize lasciviousness.

New York City, Technical College

Simonetta Simonetti, 'Bonifazio de' Pitati', in J. Martineau and C. Hope (eds), The Genius of
Venice 1500-1600 (New York, 1984), 153.

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The tools of Venus 195

Fig. 1 Titian, Lady at Her Toilet, Paris, Louvre

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196 Cathy Santore

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The tools of Venus 197

Fig. 5 Detail of igure 4.

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198 Cathy Santore


Fig.6 olwerofTitan,LdyatHerToilet,Washingto,DCNationlGaery

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The tools of Venus 199

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Fig.8Bordne,LadytHerToilet,Ahorp,EarlSpencr olection

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200 Cathy Santore

Fig. 10 Bordone, The Mirror, formerly Vis

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The tools of Venus 201


Fig. 11 Follower of Palma Vecchio (Bonfazio de' Pitati?), Courtesan and Assistant, formerly San Diego
Museum of Art, now England

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202 Cathy Santore


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Fig.12Bordne,GirlatMirowthOldWoman dYoungGirl,Ednburgh,NationlGeryofSctland

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The tools of Venus 203

formerlyChicago,ArtInsti ute

Fig.14Palm Vechio,WomanPerfumingHerHair,

Kunsthistorisches Museum

Fig.13Bordne,YoungWomanDresing,Vien a,

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204 Cathy Santore





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Fig.18Licno,CurtesanwithMro,Pavi Snt'Alesio,Salmoncletion


Fig.17GiovaniBelin,Lady tHerToilet,Viena,

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206 Cathy San tore

Fig. 19 Detail of figure 18

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The tools of Venus 207

Fig. 20 Cariani, Courtesans and Gentleman (Seven Members of the Albani Fam

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Minat Terkait