of this research is different representations of love in the Renaissance
painting. Whether it is requited, unrequited, platonic, passionate and ardent
or forbidden; love has always been an eternal drive for human creation.
Parallel with the development of human
thoughts and behaviors, the approach of artists portraying relationships among
people evolved as well. After the breakthrough at the dawn of Renaissance, with
artist detaching from the canonical religious images and opening towards secular
topics, and at the same time trying to give personality and emotion to every
figure – whether it is anger, concern or love and devotion – the representation
of affection became more apparent and explicit.
From the subtle and suggestive or sometimes even
stern Renaissance portraits of married couples, allegorical celebration of love
aimed at the intellectual elite, to the daring images of ravishment among
secret lovers, these pieces of art give us a powerful insight into the private
life of the people in this era and reflect the zeitgeist of the Renaissance.
Renaissance creations witness a spiritual
decline in the mindset of the people and a certain liberation of the dogmatic
views on art imposed by the Church. This social climate was sparked by the rich
patron families who injected a bit of secular freedom in the life dominated by
religion. This resulted in embracing new subjects and approaches in art both by
artists and by patrons. They were driven by new humanist ideals that placed the
center of attention on the individual and valued a person-centered view of the
world. Art gradually started to focus more on depicting the bourgeois city life
and its details and became a status symbol for the wealthy elite.
These secular priorities are especially
noticeable in the context of marriage, where art served an important function
of marking the matrimonial ritual. In this period, the act of marriage was
quite informal and ununiformed – it did not bare any legal consistency, it
based solely on mutual consent of the families, and it could take place in
virtually any location, from the public square, wood shop, to a garden or a stable.
The fluidity of the institution of marriage rendered public manifestations of
it and material objects (artwork) that followed very important as they provided
the physical demonstration of the legitimacy of the union. This was
exceptionally significant among the wealthy families, however, it was present
in all social levels.
When it comes to love, Renaissance marriage
had little to do with it. Love and marriage were considered as two important
parts of life, yet very different. The idea of romantic love was associated
with courtship, while marriage was a matter of practicality and politics, a
bond not just between two people, but their families and fortunes as well. Hence,
husbands and wives usually had relationships based more on companionship
instead of passion and emotional devotion. However, artistic representations of
pure and perfect unions secured public approval and represented affection even
if it was not present, or not yet developed, as was the case with arranged
marriages. In this context, as the quintessential piece of art, comes forth the
“marriage portrait” – visual symbol of a harmonious bond of two individuals,
usually facing each other in profile, in front of the lands their union
Many of these portraits are portraying the time of the
actual marriage ceremony. An example of this can be seen in Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of Mister Marsilio Cassotti and His
Wife Faustina. Lotto, a genius and inventive artist, was leading in the
Renaissance in his expression of feelings and state of marriage between the
couples. In his usage of double portraits, unusual at the time and for this
purpose, he was able to not only allude to the sitters’ sentiments, but also express
complex ideas by including symbolic elements. This painting is a classic
example. It shows Mister Cassotti gently taking his bride’s hand to place a
wedding ring on her finger, as a hovering Cupid joins them together by laying a
yoke on their shoulders, as a symbol of their newly created bond. Laid over
their shoulders, laurel leaves allude to chastity, virtue and fidelity, but
also the victory of marriage.
Lotto’s virtuosity in depicting his sitters’ sentiments and
relationship is also evident in his Portrait
of a Married Couple, identified as Antonio Agliardi and Apollonia Cassotti.
There has been plenty of academic debate regarding the symbolism of this piece,
particularly the interpretation of the crouching squirrel and the writing on
the paper held by the man. According to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia,
squirrel is an animal able to foresee storms; also, its voluminous tail serves
it as a shelter. Therefore, in this scene, intensified by the landscape in the
background showing cloudy skies and trees bending in the wind, the squirrel
could be interpreted as a vow that the man will protect his wife and family
whatever storms come1.
Diana Wronski Galis read the inscription on the paper as
“homo num quam”, meaning “man never”, as a part of the speech given by the
priest at the marriage ceremony. He interprets it as an allusion to the
fidelity in marriage, which is reinforced by the presence of the dog, a typical
symbol of loyalty.
Although the exact meaning of the symbols in this portrait
still remain uncertain, Lotto has nevertheless created a moving image
expressing marriage harmony, duty, faithfulness and support among the partners,
for whatever comes.
These two pieces by Lorenzo Lotto truly epitomize the
essence of marital love in two different stages. The first portrait he managed
to capture the optimism of a new, young couple, before putting their love to
test, while the pair in the second painting seems as if they have already
surpassed the difficulties of life and now they are approving their companionship.
Love in the Renaissance was in fact far more
raw and libidinous than the licit and chaste portrayals mentioned in the
previous paragraph. Even though the Church condemned sexual interactions
outside marriage and the purpose of procreation, or any form of carnal pleasure
for the sake of itself, Renaissance eroticism and the following art flourished.
In these “sex positive” moments, especially noticeable in the period before
Counter-Reformation and in High Renaissance, the profane love was interpreted
as a positive inspiration for new creations. In this stimulating environment, explicitly
salacious imagery formed a serious body of art. To modern eyes, they afford a
glimpse into the secret and secluded, less known side of art and life of the
Explicit representations of lovers stemmed
from an immersion in classical antiquity. Ancient romans were considered as
liberated from shame, celebrating nudity and its glory, taking licentious and
carnal desires as an endless source of inspiration. Renaissance intellectual
milieu submerged in the ancient erotic literature and mythology, admiring the
gods that had human feelings despite their power, raising thee feelings to the
divine and sublime level. Heterosexual or homosexual acts of lovemaking were
common in Roman wall paintings as well, and their remains were avidly studied
and offered a rich thematic repertoire. But above all, this veil of mythology
helped in creating excuses to show erotic scenes of nude men and women, an
appropriate pretext for images that would otherwise be condemned as outrageous.
Most of these paintings and drawings were
meant for private use – enjoyed by a single patron, or limited number of
privileged spectators, behind the closed doors of studiolos, loggias or villas.
The exception are the prints, pieces that were mass-produced, spreading these
images to wider audience.
Fruits, vegetables, birds and keys were the essential part
of the language that defined the profane culture in the Renaissance. This is
shown nowhere better than in the glorious villa of Augustino Chigi, known as
Villa Farnesina, and in particular in its garden loggia, frescoed by Raphael
and his scholars including Giulio Romano, Giovanni di Udine and Gianfranco
Penni. They depicted the legend of the illicit love of Cupid and the nymph
named Psyche with sensual nudes and vibrant images heaping with erotic subtext,
fruits and vegetables with an ‘erotic alter ego’2.
Allegories of sexual intercourse are present in details showing ripe figs and
peaches being split open by zucchini or suggestively shaped aubergines. Villa
Farnesina is a microcosm of lascivious love – courtesans, gods, satyrs, nature
– and it stands as a monument that defines the culture of Renaissance erotica.
Raphael’s students Giulio Romano and Marcantonio Raimondi
worked together on the Renaissance’s most famous yet notorious engravings of
erotic images known as I modi. The
sixteen prints depicted crude, vulgar copulation of couples. The most
controversial thing about these prints was their avoidance of coded symbols and
allegories with birds and fruit – I Modi were downright pornographic. This was
even more heightened with the absence of references to mythology, which would
justify the profanity of the images. The protagonists are ordinary mortals
instead of ancient deities, reality instead of fantasy. This made the prints
extremely offensive and scandalous, causing their suppression and destruction
of the molds as soon as they were first published. However, some of them
survived, and having the advantage of being prints, they easily found their way
to the broad audience, thusly making public what was meant to be private and
secluded behind the walls of Renaissance bedrooms.
Giulio Romano proceeded with creating dramatic lustful
scenes, as is evident in his painting called Two Lovers. The lascivious loving scene between the couple is
reinforced in the sexual metaphors carved in relief on the bed involving the
satyr – a typical symbol of carnal desire. Heightening the eroticism of the
scene, the lovers are being spied on by a disgraceful old woman hiding behind
the door. The unseen viewer also implies the illicit nature of the love affair.
The voyeur’s dog is drawing attention to the keys hanging from her garment –
another symbol of the profane culture. “Chiavare”, meaning “to turn the key”,
was used in the Renaissance as a slang term for copulation, making the keys
themselves an indisputable metaphor of the subject. 3
Just as I Modi, this piece is entirely
lacking any mythological background. Without the overlay of appropriateness
that a classical reference would provide, Two
Lovers is a free and uncensored study of profane love and the thrills of
In the rich and intellectually sophisticated
levels of society in the Renaissance, the newly discovered subject matters of
love and passion were taken a step further. Along with the publication of
encyclopedias containing explanations of symbols and allegories, the artists of
the time gave this new culture of metaphor a full form, resulting with
intricate pieces that represent the pinnacle of the art that glorified love,
above all. The artistic culture of allegory and symbol was built on the
classical heritage, but it expanded the symbolic resonance of traditional forms
– the nude gods became more complex characters in the creation of artwork and
When it comes to the idea of love,
philosophers of the time imposed a certain barrier between the ‘higher’-sacred,
and ‘lower’-profane love. The lower desire (Eros) belonged to the earthly world
of physical passion and reproduction, while the higher Eros arose to the divine
world of superior chase love. However, Renaissance artists begun to break this
barrier changing the theories of love and the body, thusly making it possible
to find sacred and higher love even in carnal desire and procreation.
A major role in these paintings has the female
body and its sensual appeal. The nude woman could represent a courtesan or a
goddess, i.e. the lowest level of love and animalistic passion, the highest
divine kind, or, however, the medium level of legitimate marital love. Whatever
the meaning, these images of the female nude are undoubtedly rooted in the
classical mythology. In the ancient Rome’s Pantheon, Venus was the goddess
embodying the idea of love and female beauty, and her body allowed artistic
representation of nudity. But regardless of the obvious erotic appeal of this
figure, it certainly carried a value that was socially positive – as the mean
of procreation, it represented fertility and therefore production of an heir.
The dichotomy of two kinds of love is epitomized in
Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. The
protagonists are two beautiful women, very similar in appearance that they
could be sisters or even twins. Representing two Venuses, one is clothed as the
typical Renaissance bride, while the other one is nude. An academic debate has
been revolving around the roles of two figures. Erwin Panofsky4
read the painting within a Neoplatonic language, where the clothed Venus
represents Earthly physical love and beauty, while the nude one stands for
divine love, a transcendental and intellectual kind. On the other hand,
according to Ficino and Pico4, the roles are reversed. The Earthly
Venus is the ‘vulgar’ one, representing carnal desire with her nudity, while
the celestial Venus is freed from all physical aspects, and stands for the
positive aspects of marital sex, which leads to procreation.
Both Venuses sit on a fountain shaped as an ancient
sarcophagus, decorated with a relief that also brings a narrative related to
the subject. On the left side the relief, a horse is being led by its mane by a
man, while the right shows the story of Venus’s lover Adonis, who was punished
by Mars in a moment of jealousy. Beverly Louise Brown5
reads the horse in first scene as a symbol of man’s lust, and how it must be
controlled, and the second scene as a message that carnal desires bring danger
The plethora of symbols and metaphors in Sacred and Profane Love makes it a powerful
piece that celebrates love in all its forms, the passionate love within a
marriage and the elevated intellectual state of love, and the balance of both of
them needed for a prosperous life.
A similar allegory of two kinds of love Titian has shown in
his Venus blindfolding Cupid. In this
piece, Venus is fully clothed and accompanied by two Graces as she covers the
eyes of one of the Cupids. Two cupids, like two Venuses, represent two concepts
of love – Eros and Anteros6.
The blind Cupid, shooting his arrows regardless of their victims’ age, status or
looks stands for the lower, physical love and passion. His seeing brother, on
the other hand represents love that is divine and virtuous. In Francucci’s 1613
poem, two nymphs accompanying Venus are identified as “two nymphs hostile to
love”, named Dora and Armilla7.
Representing virtues such as chastity and modesty, they are contributing to the
narrative of an equilibrium of love, as they stand next to Venus, the goddess