Tiziano Vecelli (ca. 1488-1576) – known in the English-speaking world as Titian – was arguably one of the greatest Venetian painters of all time. When he died of the plague in 1576 and was laid to rest in a simple grave in the church of the Frari in Venice, he was about 88 years old and had a long and distinguished career behind him. In this post, I will focus on two of his works which are closely connected to the Della Rovere family, a noble Italian family originally from Liguria. The first painting, a portrait of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), was almost certainly commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino from 1538 until his death in 1574. The other portrait is world-famous and is known to us as the Venus of Urbino. It was certainly purchased from Titian by the aforementioned Guidobaldo II della Rovere, but whether it was he who commissioned it is debated by some.
Portrait of Pope Sixtus IV
Pope Sixtus IV was born in 1414 as Francesco della Rovere. Like Guidobaldo, he was a member of the powerful and illustrious della Rovere family. Sixtus was the pope who had the Sistine Chapel built and who commissioned famous artists such as Perugino and Botticelli to decorate its walls with frescoes. But he was also known for his rampant nepotism and for his alleged involvement in the Pazzi Conspiracy in Florence, which has been discussed before on this website. Guidobaldo II della Rovere was born almost exactly 100 years after Francesco, on 2 April 1514. When his father Francesco Maria I della Rovere died in 1538, perhaps as a result of poisoning, young Guidobaldo became Duke of Urbino. As a scion of the della Rovere family, he was very much interested in portraits of famous ancestors. Two members of the extended family had managed to become popes, Sixtus IV and his nephew Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere; 1503-1513). It is assumed that in about 1545 Guidobaldo commissioned Titian to paint their portraits, even though by that time they were of course long dead.
In the case of Julius II, this assignment did not prove to be very hard, for Titian simply produced a faithful copy of Raphael’s famous portrait of this pope (or a copy of a copy). The job to paint Pope Sixtus IV’s portrait proved to be a lot tougher, as no portrait of this pope was extant and Sixtus had been dead for over sixty years. Titian probably based his portrait on an image of Sixtus on a medal. Alternatively, he may have used a fresco by the painter Melozzo da Forlì (ca. 1438-1494) as a model for the long-dead Sixtus. This fresco, which was later transferred to canvas, shows the Pope appointing the noted humanist Bartolomeo Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library. It was Sixtus IV who had formally established this library during his pontificate. The similarities between Titian’s portrait and the man in Melozzo’s fresco are quite striking.
Venus of Urbino
The most widely held theory regarding the painting that is known to us as the Venus of Urbino is that it was commissioned by the same Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, who has already been mentioned many times above. Guidobaldo was said to have bought the work in about 1538 for his young wife Giulia Varano (1523-1547), whom he had married in 1534 when she was just ten or eleven years old. The painting is often interpreted as an allegory on marriage. It is blatantly erotic, with a fully naked woman lying on her bed, her loose hair over her shoulders, her breasts uncovered and her left hand with a ring on the little finger over her private parts. The painting is often compared to the so-called Dresden Venus, executed in ca. 1510. This earlier Venus is usually attributed to the painter Giorgione (ca. 1477-1510), but Titian painted large parts of it and in fact he may have completed the work after Giorgione’s untimely death in his early thirties.
A second theory, advanced by Sheila Hale, links the painting to cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici (1511-1535). According to this theory, the woman in the painting is Angela Zaffetta, a famous Venetian courtesan. The cardinal had asked Titian to paint her, just as the master had painted his own portrait. Alternatively, Titian may have started the painting hoping that the cardinal would be pleased and buy it. In any case, Ippolito died at the tender age of 24 and the Venus of Urbino, perhaps completed around 1534, was never in his possession. It was then bought by Guidobaldo, probably as a gift for Giulia Varano. Guidobaldo was certainly familiar with Titian’s work. The painter was very famous in those days and had painted and would paint portraits of his father Francesco Maria I della Rovere, his mother Eleonora Gonzaga, his wife and himself.
The Venus of Urbino is full of symbolism, which is not always easy to interpret. The naked woman is holding a small bouquet of roses (symbols of Venus) and the cover of her two matrasses is also decorated with flowers, perhaps common myrtle, a flower commonly associated with Venus as well. If the painting was indeed intended as an allegory on marriage, then the nudity and the flowers surely refer to the more carnal parts of it: consummation and procreation. The little dog near the woman’s feet is said to represent loyalty and fidelity, while in the background we can see two maids browsing through a chest, probably looking for a set of clothes. In some interpretations, the older maid watching over the younger one is seen as a symbol of motherhood.
The Venus of Urbino remained in the possession of the della Roveres until Guidobaldo’s great-granddaughter Vittoria della Rovere (1622-1694) married Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1633. It was then moved to the de’ Medici household where it remained until it was moved again to the Uffizi Gallery. Although perhaps some might find the abundance of full frontal nudity shocking, the painting can surely be counted among the Gallery’s many highlights.
 The original by Raphael is in the National Gallery in London. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence owns a copy. The copy by Titian is in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. We do not know which version Titian used to create his own copy.
Updated 6 May 2023.