As if standing before Julius

Nicholas Penny

  • Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance by John Shearman
    Princeton, 281 pp, £35.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 691 09972 3

What is Venus, or rather the nude woman, doing in Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery? Looking at her face in a mirror held for her by Cupid. Or so it seems to me; also to every visitor to the Gallery whose opinion I have sought, and to the mid-17th-century compiler of the inventory of paintings belonging to the picture’s first owner, Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro y Guzmán. But in recent decades art historians have considered another possibility: the woman is contemplating her own genitals in the mirror; her face is merely what we see reflected in it.

Before dismissing this, it is worth recalling that another celebrated painting in the National Gallery, that by Rembrandt showing a woman looking down and smiling as she stands in a stream with her smock raised, was described in a mid-18th-century sale catalogue as ‘a woman going into the Water holding her Coat pretty high, and laughing at what she sees reflected’. This interpretation would not occur to most viewers today, yet there was a streak of lewdness in Rembrandt which may make us hesitate to reject it. Velásquez’s woman may not be a goddess, but she is nude, not naked. Her pose is irreconcilable with the efficient performance of the act in question and her grace is hardly compatible with so low and ludicrous a subject.

In Only Connect John Shearman also objects to this theory, not for prudish reasons but on technical grounds: Velásquez ‘has not given us the geometrical information that would allow such a calculation to be made’. However, Shearman feels that he does have enough information to dismiss as a ‘common error’ the idea that the woman is looking at her own face, and offers in its place a proposal of his own: ‘It is a simple optical truth that if we can see her face, she can see ours.’ Acknowledgment of this truth will, he supposes, change our understanding of the picture: ‘just as we feel ourselves more engaged, so the Rokeby Venus seems more electric than it did before ... the viewer is not external to the plot.’

The beholder’s part in paintings of the Italian Renaissance is Shearman’s chief concern in Only Connect; it is exceptional for him to discuss 17th-century paintings. He explains how the saints gathered around the Virgin and Child in Renaissance altarpieces began not only to participate in collective reverence or animated discussion but to occupy the same space as those who viewed them and to acknowledge our presence and even to involve us – or at least the contemporary worshipper – as well. This tendency culminates in a painting such as Correggio’s altarpiece in Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie, in which the central figure is San Gimignano, ‘patron saint of Modena and so of the implied spectator’. Having left his model of the city in the care of a child angel, San Gimignano is ‘free to perform an unusually complex and dramatic role: he turns to point out to us, with one hand, the vision of salvation – the answer, perhaps, to our prayers – while with the other he recommends us to the Virgin’s mercy. To perform efficaciously his intercessory function the saint is moved so close that he seems to lean across into the liminal space.’

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