Venus of Urbino

Venus of Urbino by Titian
Venus of Urbino by Titian (1538)
Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm — Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
I had known her for years, we had never meet though. About two years ago, I had hoped we would, at an exhibition dedicated to Tiziano Vecellio, aka Titian, held in the Palais du Luxembourg, the Museum of French Senate in Paris.

Titian — Portrait of a young woman
Portrait of a young woman (1536)
Oil on canvas, 96 x 75 cm
State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Yet, she stood me up. Well, as a matter of fact, she came, but she came on disguise, dressed as the young lady with an elegant feathered hat on the right side. I once wrote a blog about our quasi-meeting.

Because she was not allowed to travel to Paris, I had to go to Florence, the city where she has lived for about four centuries. I am just back from a five-day vacation trip there. As you can imagine, my eyes are still full of a lot of wonderful images: paintings, frescoes, statues, by Botticelli, Giotto, Lippi, Fra Angelico, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and so forth, displayed in many places in the city. I am going to blog about them soon, yet on my first day in Florence the main thing was: I went to the Uffizi Gallery and I have met her at last!
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." (Walter Benjamin)
In 'Little History of Photography' first, then in his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin used the word aura to describe the specificity of the work of art, which is unique, linked to a special place, and is part of history. According to him, and without going into details, mechanical reproduction of artworks by means of modern techniques such as photo and cinema frees them from place and ritual, and results in a loss of their aura. Although I don't agree with many developments of Benjamin's theories in terms of mass culture, I did feel Venus' aura in the Uffizi Gallery in a much deeper way than when I looked at her reproductions.

Thousands of pages have been written about this great painting. There have been endless commentaries and discussions about the meaning of Venus' open eyes that look directly at us, her left hand location, the bouquet in her right hand, the dog asleep at her feet, the two handmaidens in the background rummaging in what seems to be a wedding chest, the plant pot near a column on the window ledge, and many other details in the painting.

Sleeping Venus by Giorgione
Sleeping Venus by Giorgione & Titian (1510)
Oil on canvas, 108 x 175 cm — Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
I won't add to so many erudite works. To me, the Venus of Urbino is simply one among the most beautiful pieces of arts ever, as well as a big step towards modernity in painting. There is little doubt that Titian took the topic of the Venus of Urbino from a painting by Giorgione, the Sleeping Venus (also known as the Venus of Dresden), he himself finished after his friend and master died.
Venus by Palma Vecchio
Venus  by Palma Vecchio (ca 1520)
Oil on canvas, 113 x 186 cm — Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Perhaps he knew also of the Venus by Palma Vecchio, where the nude woman, who lies in the country like in the canvas by Giorgione, gets the Venus of Urbino's wide open eyes.

Titian's Venus of Urbino in turn inspired countless painters over the centuries in one of major topics of Western Art: the reclining female nude. It includes such huge painters as Francisco de Goya and, especially, Édouard Manet when he painted Olympia, more than three hundred years later.

Venus by Lambert Sustris
Venus by Lambert Sustris (1558)
Oil on canvas, 116 x 186 cm — Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Venus and Cupid by Johann Rottenhammer
Venus and Cupid by Johann Rottenhammer (ca 1610)
Oil on canvas — Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
La maja desnuda by Goya
La maja desnuda by Francisco Goya (1805)
Oil on canvas, 87 x 190 cm — Museo del Prado, Madrid
Olympia by Manet
Olympia by Edgard Manet (1863)
Oil on canvas, 130 x 190 cm — Musée d'Orsay, Paris


Persepolis by Marianne Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian/French graphic novelist. She was born in 1969 in Rasht, in the North of Iran, and now lives and works in Paris. She became famous because of her critically acclaimed autobiographical graphic novels Persepolis, which describe her childhood and adolescence in Iran and Europe.

Persepolis graphic novels were adapted by herself and Vincent Parronaud into an essentially black-and-white animated film bearing the same name. The movie was called 'islamophobe' and 'anti-iranian' by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, thus it is not allowed for broadcast in Iran. Yet it is not a political movie. It deals with life in the real world. It is a work of poetry for all of us to delight in.

When the movie starts, Marjane is a child. She lives in Tehran, in a progressive family involved with the socialist movements. She attends the Lycée Français in Tehran, and witnesses the growing oppression of civil liberties and the everyday-life consequences of Iranian politics. Then comes the Iranian revolution, the fall of the Shah, and the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. After days of elation, disillusion follows quickly. Political opponents are put in jail again, many are executed, and islamist rules are imposed. Then the Iran-Iraq war starts. At the age of 14, her parents send Marjane to Vienna, Austria, to flee the Iranian regime. She discovers Europe, boys, and loneliness. She comes back to Iran.

The movie relates with realism and humour Marjane's years of hardship, she shared with million young Iranians of the time: overnight obligation to wear a veil, search for forbidden pirated audio cassettes, secret parties with friends where you dance and drink alcohol despite police raids.

Persepolis was awarded the Special Jury Prize in Cannes Film Festival in May 2007. Last Year, it was given the Better First Movie Award in the Cesar Award, the National film award for France. It also competed in Hollywood for the Oscar, as a nominee for best animated film, but had no chance against Disney's blockbuster Ratatouille.

Persepolis Trailer

Persepolis is a simple story told by simple means. It consists essentially of a series of monochrome drawings, their bold black lines washed with nuances of gray. Its flat, stylized depiction of the world — the streets and buildings of Tehran and Vienna in particular — turns geography into poetry. Yet it is good to be reminded that animation is rooted not in any particular technique, but in the impulse to bring static images to life.

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the valleyAlthough it was pretty early when I left home this morning, there were people on the sidewalks already, at every street corner. You may find it strange to hear that Frenchmen were awake early on the morning of a national holiday, especially on May Day: it is also Labour Day in France and many countries, a day where most people don't work then. There was good reason for it though: these people were vendors of lilies of the valley.

Lily of the valley, “le muguet”, is not any flower for the French. Although it is native to Japan, it became acclimated to Western Europe many centuries ago. In medieval France, it was considered the symbol of spring and nature's revival, and the emblem of a joyous, more-or-less pagan holiday, celebrating the return of nice weather and promises of spring's planting, and seeking Heaven's favour for harvests to come.

On May first, 1561, after he was given a sprig of Lily of the valley as a lucky charm, French King Charles IX decided he would give a sprig to every lady in his court on May 1st, every year from then on. A tradition was born. In France, is not permitted to sell things in the streets without a licence, but this is an exception: thanks to the nice tradition, everyone, not only florists, is allowed to sell lily of the valley in French streets on May Day.

Everywhere today, you will see people clutching their lily of the valley, to be offered to their wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, parents, dinner host, boss, secretary, and so forth. As for me, I bought a couple of flowers this morning, and picked the sprig above on the internet for you. Happy May Day, and Good Luck!
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