I suppose this could really have been the prequel to last week’s Mars by Velázquez. This is the God of War with his lover Venus, tentatively wondering whether he’s going to get away with touching her bum! This is for International Women’s Day – what am I thinking?!
Lavinia Fontana, Mars and Venus, c. 1595, Madrid, Fundación Casa de Alba
We have a similar concept to the Velázquez painting in that all the trappings of war are on the floor, Venus has shimmied out of her chemise and taken off her slippers ready to climb into bed and love, rather than war, certainly seems to be the order of the day. Once again we are invited to come to the conclusion that that love conquers all.
The vase that is so prevalent in the foreground could be a reference to the womb, most often used in reference to the Virgin Mary, or it could be part of anyone of a number of complex rebuses, the simplest of which takes the first letter of shield and vase – s and v (handily the same in Latin), which is an abbreviated form of sotto voce – as in ‘shhh! keep it quiet’ because Mars and Venus were in an illicit love affair. There are various other suggestions along these lines in a book called Lavinia Fontana’s Mythological Paintings: Art, Beauty, and Wisdom by Liana De Girolami Cheney.
Now we get to the point (finally) of this post. The reason that I’ve chosen this work is to celebrate International Women’s Day. Crap choice then, you might be thinking. But is it?!
You can and should read this as a gratuitous bum touching moment. It was created at a time in which the view of a bottom squished on a cushion was sending pulses racing all over Europe, but this is so much more than that. This was painted by a lady called Lavinia Fontana.
Fontana was from Bologna, born in 1552 and trained by her father – as pretty much all female artists of that time were, otherwise they didn’t have the opportunity to become artists. She became the main bread winner in her house and ran her own workshop whilst her husband acted as her agent and raised their eleven children. In later life she worked in Rome under the patronage of the Pope and was the first female painter to be elected into the Academy of St Luke in Rome. Some art historians credit her with being the first woman artist to paint female nudes.
So why has she painted this? It was almost certainly a commission, and it references the slightly out of control desire for the nude seated female bottom.
But look more closely. That hand isn’t quite right on her bottom; the bottom and the hand don’t have a relationship somehow, it’s almost as though the hand is on the canvas rather than in it – or it’s both? Does that make it a double grope?! That’s making a bit of a statement. Then we have phallic symbols, the spiky centre of the shield and the sword, both a bit useless on the floor and instead the sleeve of her chemise has found its way between Venus’s legs. A limp bit of white material. You might also notice that Mars is lower than Venus so she’s dominating him psychologically and physically. I feel that it’s all a bit subversive. If Venus can’t do anything about the arse grab she can certainly wither a man with her superiority! In which case is her look over her shoulder an invitation or is it a look of ‘see what I have to put up with!’?
The flower doesn’t offer much of a clue. It’s been identified as a daffodil or narcissus which could variously allude to the potency love, or rebirth which goes hand in hand with death, or to Mars himself – they bloom in late February and March and he does have some on his helmet too.
But in all this, I have to wonder why they think it’s okay to get jiggy with Cupid in the room? He looks as though he’s fallen asleep over his laptop! Of course he’s there to help us identify Venus, he’s her son, just as the pearls she wears (and sits on!) reference her birth from the sea.