(b. 1477, Castelfranco, d. 1510, Venezia)

Sleeping Venus

c. 1510
Oil on canvas, 108 x 175 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Giorgione exploited the new style evolved in Venice through sensual subject matter. The Sleeping Venus is a case in point. The reclining figure was originally accompanied by a small figure of Cupid, but this figure was painted over in 1843.

Giorgione placed the Venus across the whole width of the painting. She stretches one arm behind her head, making a long, continuous slope of body whose gentle curves echo the hills of the landscape behind and suggest some form of connection between the female depicted and nature. Painted at just the moment when Venice was defending its claims on the terra firma, it may, therefore, be possible to read Venus (Venere) as Venice (Venezia).

Venus's sensuality is heightened by her red lips and by the deep red velvet and white satin drapery upon which her creamy body lies. Significantly, she is asleep, so the issue of decorum is bypassed. Her sleep implies dreaming and transport of the figure to another world. Thus the painting may be interpreted as a poetic evocation of a classical idyll.

Several works of great beauty associated with Giorgione involve the collaboration of another distinctive master. In the Sleeping Venus a significant share has been assumed for Titian, especially in the landscape, where on the right a cupid has been painted out. The outstretched figure, stocky in proportions, is usually considered to be by Giorgione. The drawing is only approximative, with the outlines blurred to produce a gradual transition between the barely modeled flesh and the surrounding surface. But the edges are nonetheless legible, and they form a flattened lozenge-shaped, pale, collage-like form lying close to the picture plane, a device favoured over juxtapositions of darks and lights to conjure up an illusion of three-dimensionality. Giorgione fully exploited the sensuous potential of both the medium and the subject. There is a decidedly erotic air to the totally unselfconscious young woman whose pale flesh is contrasted to the silky cloth.

If compared with Titian's Venus of Urbino the differences between the two become clear since Titian has taken over the pose and the figural type almost verbatim from Giorgione; they are differences of temperament and personality more than of time passed. If the Sleeping Venus was actually completed by Titian, as is frequently assumed, the overall effect remains tightly connected with Giorgione's style, and one might also suppose that it falls chronologically near the end of his short career, for we should assume that it was left unfinished at his death.