(Written on 27 Dec 2011)

Dear All,

In an earlier piece (originally written on 5 Sept 2010) and posted under the title Confidence breeds Civilization, I had written, “It is when people in a community have the sense ‘about themselves’ of a purpose (not necessarily religious), coupled with the notion that their purpose is achievable, then their confidence may ignite their collective imagination leading to a flourishing society.” Wherever there have been such societies we see expressions of the character of that confidence in their industry and their art. A favourite example of mine is the extraordinary engineering in England through the work of Brunel and others starting around the 1830s. Everything about England of that period is bold; an expression best captured, for me anyway, in the building of the Great Eastern. So it rang a bell when I came across a reference to what was suggested to be the one thing that more than any other embodied Venice in the 16th century.

The reference is in a fine BBC documentary titled Francesco’s Venice (2006), which is a 4-part series on the history of what the narrator describes as the world’s most beautiful city. Francesco leaves us in no doubt that central to the life of Venice is trade; and with it a propensity to exploit every possible money-making opportunity that may present itself. From the filching of what was believed to be the remains of St Mark from Alexandria (so that they could have their own saintly relic), to the plunder of Constantinople, the double-dealing with the crusaders, the monopolising of trade with the East, the maintenance of a pirate fleet, and even to the establishment of that extraordinary means for the exploitation of human capital, the Jewish quarter, we get the sense of the brassiness of the success of Venice.

So it seems quite appropriate that Francesco should suggest that the painting that represents Venice at that time, more than any other, is the Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538). As he points out, until then nudes had been painted either expressing some sense of shame, by covering up as best they could, or expressing demureness by shyly turning away, always with the eyes averted or closed. But the Venus of Urbino not only draws your attention to what would otherwise be private, she looks you straight in the eye as she does so. What in modern parlance we would, I think, describe as being “in your face”. Much has been written about this provocative painting, running the gamut of it being shameful pornography to it being some deep and intricate expression of femininity… all of which may be true. But for me, it reflects the beautiful brassiness of Venice as I experienced it; and I am glad to find I share that view with Francesco Da Mosto, who certainly knows a lot more about it than I do.

Titian's Venus of Urbino



PS: In South Africa we briefly held a sense of ourselves as a ‘Rainbow Nation’ in the mid-1990s, but sadly it turned out to be an infatuation rather than a love affair.