Two women, apparently drawn from the same model, are posed in a bucolic landscape by a trough, while its water is stirred by a winged Eros. The painting is rich in symbolism and iconography, although there is a lack of consensus amongst critics about its meaning. Even the title of the painting may not be original, as it was not recorded until 1693. The composition of the picture contains elements found in the work of Giorgione, whose style had a significant influence on Titian at the beginning of his career.
The woman to the left is dressed in wedding attire and may represent carnal love and beauty. In contrast, the nude is usually read as spiritual love, a symbol of simplicity and purity. The position of Eros, at the center of the two, therefore, may indicate the point of mediation between spiritual and sexual desires.
The coat of arms on the trough belongs to the family of Niccolò Aurelio, who later became Grand Chancellor of Venice. In May of 1514, he married Laura Bagarotto, daughter of the jurist Bertuccio Bagarotto who had been executed some months before the wedding on charges of betraying the Serenissima Republic. The painting was probably commissioned to celebrate the marriage. It has been suggested that the relief design on the front of the trough symbolizes life and death, inviting the newlywed Laura, to overcome the sorrow for the loss of her father and flourish in marital love, both spiritual and physical. Alternative readings for this design include symbolism for the taming of passions or hidden literary references.
Sacred and Profane Love (Italian: Amor Sacro e Amor Profano) is an oil painting by Titian, probably painted in 1515, early in his career. The painting is presumed to have been commissioned by Niccolò Aurelio, a secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten, whose coat of arms appears on the sarcophagus or fountain, to celebrate his marriage to a young widow, Laura Bagarotto. It perhaps depicts a figure representing the bride dressed in white, sitting beside Cupid and accompanied by the goddess Venus.
The title of the painting is first recorded in 1693, when it was listed in an inventory as Amor Divino e Amor Profano (Divine love and Profane love), and may not represent the original concept at all.
Although "much ink has been spilt by art historians attempting to decipher the iconography of the painting", and some measure of consensus has been achieved, basic aspects of the intended meaning of the painting, including the identity of the central figures, remain disputed.
Two women, who appear to be modelled on the same person, sit on a carved Ancient Roman sarcophagus that has been converted to a water-trough, or a trough made to look like a Roman sarcophagus; the broad ledges here are not found in actual sarcophagi. How the water enters is unclear, but it leaves through a phallic-looking brass spout between the two women, next to an anachronistic coat of arms in the carving. This belongs to Niccolò Aurelio, whose presence in the picture is probably also represented by the spout.
Between the two women is a small winged boy, who may be Cupid, son and companion of Venus, or merely a putto. He is looking intently into the water, and splashing a hand in it. The woman on the left is fully and richly dressed; her clothes are now usually recognized as those of a bride, though in the past they have been said to be typical of courtesan wear. In her hair she wears myrtle, both a flower sacred to Venus and one worn by brides.
In contrast, the woman on the right is nude except for a white cloth over her loins and a large red mantle worn over one shoulder. It was generally recognised by the 20th century that, somewhat contrary to a natural first impression, if the painting indeed represented figures along the lines of Sacred and Profane Love, the clothed figure was "profane love", and the nude one "sacred love". The nude figure sits comfortably on the ledge of the trough, with one hand resting on it and the other held high, holding a vessel with smoke coming out of it, probably an incense-burner. In contrast the pose of the clothed figure, apparently poised and relaxed, becomes rather strange in the lower part of her body when considered carefully, "the lower half of the bride's body is lost in her drapery and does not conform with her upper half". The ledge seems too high for her to sitting on it properly, and her knees are wide apart. Perhaps she is actually sitting on something else beside the trough, or this may just be one of a number of lapses in depicting anatomy found in Titian's early career.
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