Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2012
Anthony Colantuono Titian, Colonna and the Renaissance Science of Procreation: Equicola's Seasons of Desire Visual Culture in Early Modernity.. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 342 pp.; 8 color ills.; 79 b/w ills. Cloth $119.95 (9780754669623)
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In Titian, Colonna and the Renaissance Science of Procreation: Equicola’s Seasons of Desire, Anthony Colantuono examines erotic images of seminal importance to Renaissance iconography and sensibility. His investigations encompass a wide-ranging spectrum of literary and artistic sources concerned with mythology, medicine, witchcraft, and astrology, many of which have not been previously explored in this context. The book’s basic premise is that the theme of Mario Equicola’s program for the Camerino d’Alabastro, commissioned by Duke Alfonso d’Este in 1511, and of Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), Equicola’s source of inspiration according to Colantuono, is the neo-Aristotelian theory of the seasons for lovemaking. The Hypnerotomachia and its artistic offspring, including the Camerino and other Venereal images, were, Colantuono argues, designed to teach their intended audience about conjugal sex and procreation, and, in the case of the Camerino, the importance of perpetuating a legitimate dynasty.

After discussing his methodology and previous Camerino scholarship, Colantuono explains the Aristotelian libidinal philosophy that Equicola drew upon in conceiving its program and the seasonal affiliation of each painting. He then endeavors to reconstruct the original arrangement of the paintings in the room in which they were installed. The latter part of the book focuses on the Hypnerotomachia and the paintings of Venus it inspired.

In his detailed iconographic analysis of the Camerino paintings, Colantuono identifies the main text on which he thinks each of the canvases was based, as well as their subordinate sources and conceits. He argues that the sexual-seasonal pseudo-Aristotelian philosophy, espoused by Equicola in his Libro di natura d’amore (written 1494–96; published 1525), underpins the Camerino’s program. Equicola states in his manuscript: “we use it [Venus, i.e., coitus] less frequently in summer; in winter we use it [as much as we like], according to our pleasure; and in spring and autumn we use it in a moderate way” (Mario Equicola, La Redazione Manoscritta del Libro de natura de amore di Mario Equicola, ed., Laura Ricci, Rome: Bulzoni, 1999, 519; cited by Colantuono, 30). Comprehending Equicola’s statement through the filter of neo-Aristotelian precepts prevalent in contemporary medical tracts, Colantuono suggests that it means lovemaking is pleasing in all seasons, but that true love is attainable only in spring.

Colantuono’s neo-Aristotelian interpretation of the Camerino’s program can be summarized as follows: Giovanni Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (1514) represented the winter solstice when Priapus, like all males, is at the moment of his maximal sexual desire, and Lotis, like all females, is at the nadir of hers; this is the reverse of each gender’s situation at the summer solstice, the time at which Colantuono suggests Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (ca. 1523–25) takes place. Titian’s Feast of Venus (ca. 1518–20), he posits, was set at the autumnal equinox when women’s sexual desire starts to decline, and his Bacchus and Ariadne (ca. 1520–23), at the spring equinox when the male and female sex drives were moderate and equal. Thus, the Bacchus and Ariadne represents the optimal season for true love, whereas the other canvases exemplify seasons in which love is imperfect, because of men and women’s mismatched levels of libido and fertility. He does not consider how Dosso Dossi’s lost paintings fit into this seasonal cycle.

Colantuono’s reconstruction of the original arrangement of the paintings in the Camerino is accompanied by an innovative, annotated floor plan. In it, he places the Feast of the Gods (winter) on the west wall; the Bacchus and Ariadne (spring) on the left side of the north wall; the Andrians (summer) on the right side of the north wall; the Feast of Venus (autumn) on the east wall; and Dosso’s Mars, Venus, and Vulcan (probably commissioned in 1519) either on this same wall or the south wall. According to Colantuono, the Camerino’s libidinal, procreative, and nuptial message would have been salutary for its patron and educational for his son. In his chapter “The Libido in Winter: Bellini’s (and Titian’s) Feast of the Gods,” Colantuono maintains that the winter solstice is alluded to by the baby Bacchus, the halcyon, and a couple he identifies as Pluto and Proserpina. Lotis’s lack of desire, and her infertility, at this time of year are signaled by her abstinence from her full cup of wine, an aphrodisiac according to the pseudo-Aristotle (Problemata XXX.1, 953b 14–36; cited by Colantuono, 68), and by her white robe and the dormant tree beside her.

Colantuono contends, in the chapter “The Libido in Springtime: Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne,” that this painting’s theme is marital, based on Ovid’s story of Liber (Bacchus) and Libera (Ariadne) in the Fasti (459–516). He insightfully observes that the caper and dog symbolize the libido, appropriate to this couple’s libidinous reputation, and that the satyr girt with snakes refers to the constellation Ophiucus.

In the chapter “The Libido in Summer: Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians,” Colantuono cites a plethora of ancient texts in order to bolster his argument that the painting is set at the summer solstice. He does not, however, mention Pliny’s statement (NH, II.106.231) that the Andrians’ river was transformed from water to wine at the winter solstice. Colantuono’s argument is based upon his identification of Titian’s river of wine with the amber-toned Po/Eridanus (which typically floods at the rising of the Dog Star in mid-July), as well as the dog in the distance—soon be transformed into this star—and the inebriated sleeping nude whose state of abandon was caused by the increased potency of wine in the summer heat. Colantuono identifies her as the virginal nymph, Nicaea, raped by Dionysus. Alluding to the Po/Eridanus are the guinea fowl, a bird Duke Alfonso kept on his island retreat on the Po, and trees Colantuono identifies as a poplar, on which the guinea fowl is perched, and willows (in the same Linnaean family). Phaethon’s sisters, metamorphosed into poplars, shed amber tears into the Eridanus. But, the so-called poplar appears to be a European white elm and the tree on the left, a sessile oak, as Dorrie Rosen and Anita Finkle-Guerrero, plant information specialists at the New York Botanical Garden, kindly identified them for me in a letter.

In the chapter “The Libido in Autumn: Titian’s Feast of Venus,” Colantuono maintains that the autumn equinox is indicated by the goddess’s grief over Adonis’s death and by the autumnal apple harvest, which, according to the author, coincided with the Adonia festival. However, in the Hypnerotomachia, regarded by Colantuono as a textual source for the Camerino program, Venus’s commemoration of Adonis took place in May. The Adonia, as we learn from Aristophanes (Lys. 387–98) and Plutarch (Alcibiades, 18.2), was celebrated in spring in Athens, and summer in Rome. Venus’s month was generally regarded as April, as indicated by Equicola and as exemplified in Cossa’s Triumph of Venus (1469) illustrating that month in the d’Este family’s Palazzo Schifanoia.

Because the statue of Venus depicted by Titian is not mentioned by Philostratus, Colantuono suggests that it was inspired by Macrobius’s statue of the Melancholic Venus. An alternative explanation for Titian’s inclusion of the statue of the goddess is that he consulted Moschos’s Italian translation of Philostratus rather than the Greek original, which states, “There [in the grotto], the nymphs have placed the goddess Venus” (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS. Italien 1091, fol. 11r). Colantuono’s assertion is dependent upon the viewer’s comprehension of Venus and the frolicking putti as melancholic, and the tiny flowers in the foreground as anemone.

In part 2, Colantuono discusses what he considers to be the Aristotelian theme of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and its nuptial message. He suggests that the book was intended to instruct its dedicatee, the impotent Duke Guidubaldo da Montefeltro, on the topic of procreation, and that the duke’s dysfunction is paralleled by Poliphilus’s near bout with this condition in the text. The effects of witchcraft on sexual performance are expounded upon in an excursus.

The purpose of the Hypnerotomachia, Colantuono believes, was to exhort readers to restrain their sexual impulses until spring so as to achieve the rapture of wedded love. This is demonstrated, he argues, by the commencement of Poliphilus’s erotic dream-travelogue at the winter solstice, as he cleverly deduces from Colonna’s astrological allusions, and its conclusion in spring.

The marital theme is pursued in the chapter “A Venus in the Bedroom.” The slumbering nude fountain figure illustrated in the Hypnerotomachia, identified by Colantuono as Maia/Fauna/Venus, spawned various Northern Italian paintings of reclining nude females, including Titian’s Venus of Urbino (ca. 1538). Colantuono contends that the purpose of these paintings was to didactically promote sex and procreation within the confines of marriage. Although he is not alone in seeing such images in a matrimonial context (for example, Rona Goffen, “Sex, Space, and Social History in Titian’s Venus of Urbino,” in Rona Goffen, ed., Titian’s Venus of Urbino, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, esp., 81–82), Cathy Santore has persuasively argued in “La Nuda” that the Venus of Urbino has no marital significance and should be regarded as aristocratic erotica (Cathy Santore, “La Nuda,” in New Studies on Old Masters: Essays in Renaissance Art in Honour of Colin Eisler, John Garton and Diane Wolfthal, eds., Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2011, 383–97).

In “Coloring the Roses: Colonna, Titian and the ‘Third Venus,’” Colantuono proposes that Titian depicted three guises of Venus in his Sacred and Profane Love (ca. 1514–15). The terrestrial and celestial Venuses are perched on what he identifies as Jupiter’s Dodonian font. The Cupid stirring its waters personifies the “Mother of Love,” or “Third Venus,” who exemplifies the “middle path of love” (268–71). But, Venus is the mother of Cupid, so the question arises as to why he would represent his mother, rather than his usual persona, Love.

In sum, while Colantuono’s recognition of Equicola’s sexual-seasonal program for the Camerino is groundbreaking, neither the seasonal setting he proposes for two of the pictures, nor the supposedly connubial message he attaches to this medley of paintings can be embraced with full confidence, as their iconography admits multiple interpretations. In the Feast of the Gods, for example, the “quince” on which he partially pins his matrimonial argument bears no resemblance to a quince, which is larger and must be cooked before being eaten, and is, rather, a pear, as Rosen explained to me in a letter. Nevertheless, while Colantuono’s study is sometimes imperfectly argued, there are many intriguing iconographic nuggets to be mined from it.

Fern Luskin
Lecturer, Humanities Department, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)

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