Sacred and Profane Love

Sacred and Profane Love

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Venice, Tenochtitlan and the Quest for the New World: The importance of the Twin Venuses in Maritime Cartography.

This post is currently being edited 6/9/2017 
"Indeed, there had been, so to speak, a pre-Colombian Europe as well, which came to end on October 12, 1492, with the discovery of America. When we speak, however broadly, of a New World, we should bear in mind that Europe as well, from that moment on, became a new world."                                                                      
                                                        Christopher Columbus: The Dream and the Obsession
                                                                                                                             Gianni Granzotto

There is something quite different going on with the language of the Sacred and Profane Love; it is a very different system of codification, particularly when compared to the science of visual perspective (optics) or the geometrical mathematics of the religious types of the early Italian and the later Northern countries. Here, something else is being articulated. New narratives are being forged from the old; past wisdom is being re-discovered in order to possess brave visions of new possibilities. New clusters of visual arrangements; contexts and that peculiar form of visual syntax required to expand logical discourse is present. Through the increasing accessibility of print literacy increases and the thirst for knowledge is loosed (albeit often secretly) from the social and political yoke of dogmatic theology. 

This secretiveness forces new interpretive complexities and groupings of interrelated information demand interpretationConsisting of a multiplicity of distinct levels each level is a forms a type of contained information cluster; a conceptual entity which can only have complete expression when correlated with other deliberately interconnected levels and those clusters and the more levels the more critical the argument. The Sacred and Profane Love's  structure reveals a Renaissance consideration using ancient maps described through the contextualisation of symbol, cosmology and geometry. 

The original invenzione (programme) for the Sacred and Profane Love imposes its complex form of allegorical logic to veil its hidden arrangement - pictorially. At the same time, the painting without this information is merely a rare and attractive piece of antique wall furniture. Thus the Sacred and Profane Love's real agenda - its very raison d'être is to generate a sympathetic world of conceptual clusters of correlated natural 
truths which are then 'sealed up' by the world of immediate appearances.

In the final analysis the synchronising of these clusters will generate the meta-narrative and from this perspective now embark on a new reading which would not be possible if the levels journeyed through thus far were not self contained and so, self referential... could it be that we are sailing?


Recovering and printing classical texts fuelled a desire to seek an ancient, supposedly pure knowledge; the prisca theologia. Now, not only ancient authors, but the very gods of the ancient world are being sourced and their theogonies scrutinised for clues to the pure truths of natural science. Sachiko Kusukawa (actually writing on 'medical humanism') notes an interesting observation in the prefaces of books printed during the Renaissance:

'Above all, in preface after preface to the newly printed editions of classical authors, humanists enthusiastically extolled the virtues of recovering pristine knowledge by returning to the original source (they used the Latin phrase ad fontem, meaning literally 'to the source or spring')'.  [1.]

Mercury's hand within the waters of the fountain  draws attention to the motif at the centre of the Sacred and Profane Love's graphic construction. This unusual fountain is known as the famous Fountain Cyane which was the infamous site of the abduction of Proserpina (the daughter of Ceres) by the Pluto. Known geographically as the Spring of Cyane it is located in Sicily near the city of Syracuse and referred to by Ovid in the Fasti (Fastorum libri sex  c. 43 bce - 17-18 ad):
"The spring called Cyane or the Blue spring... The source of the Cyane is a circular basin where the pellucid blue water wells up with great force, forming at once a considerable river, which flows with a deep and tranquil current for about a mile and a half to join the Anopus." (Fastorum libri sex. By Ovid.) Ovid; James George Frazer. p. 89 
In typical Roman fashion the spring has been capped with a spigot which in this instance has been decorated and embellished with the form of a sarcophagus - which means to refer to that abduction by Pluto (god of the underworld (Hades). This form also suggests a scene from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili where the novels hero (Poliphilus) stares into a grave while he considers the mysteries of Pluto. 

Crucially it is the spigot which geometrically announces the axis of a circle which will indicate the South Celestial Pole at the centre of a map of the southern constellations (see fig. 1.). This indicates the paintings possibility as a deliberately coded celestial map capable of the maritime navigation of the southern hemisphere: 

"In the 10th century both Venice and Genoa began to prosper through trade in the Levant. Over the centuries a bitter rivalry developed between the two that culminated in the naval war of Chioggia (1378–81), in which Venice defeated Genoa and secured a monopoly of trade in the Middle East for the next century. Venice made exorbitant profits by trading spices with buyer-distributors from northern and western Europe."
But for whom? Who was this visionary person confidently though surreptitiously engaged in a search for new lands and what were the goals they might hope to secure? What exactly was at stake here that the plan underlying the Sacred and Profane Love should be encoded in this extraordinary form? Columbus had returned to acclaim and adulation and the gateway to  the possibility of new lands as yet undiscovered had been breached.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed under the flag of Spain, and in 1497 John Cabot sailed on behalf of England, but both failed to find the storied spice lands (though Columbus returned from his journey with many new fruits and vegetables, including chile peppers). Under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a Portuguese expedition was the first to bring spices from India to Europe by way of the Cape of Good Hope in 1501. Portugal went on to dominate the naval trading routes through much of the 16th century.

 10/30/ be continued...

The cosmographical blueprint for the Twin Venuses.

While the perimeter of the newly scribed circle's expanding radial line is halted at the constellation of Taurus (the rider on horseback racing toward the fortress in the painting) the circle  upper & lower perimeters extend beyond the dimensions of the picture plane and strongly suggests that the work was meant to be site specific. In the circle's interior the entire South Celestial Hemisphere is encompassed - the zodiac as well as other celestial abodes in terms of specific constellations - and so indicates and refers to the occult identities and abstract serpentine (see constellational) forms of the two women. This is to say that the women are represented in a map of the southern constellations as a combination of two specific constellation groups, whose names refer directly to the serpent/snake. These two constellations are the only constellations represented in the southern sky and in the Sacred and Profane Love which do not refer to a zodiacal sign.

Fig 1. The circle scribed between the rider on horseback [a] and the fountains spigot [c].

Taurus at the upper left quarter of both painting and star map - was the original key that indicated the boundary of a circle, the centre of which corresponds to the mouth of the fountains spigot in the Sacred and Profane Love. Looking to the celestial map of the Southern hemisphere [fig 2], this same centre marks the position of the south celestial pole.

Fig 2. Constellation map of the southern hemisphere [+]  at the centre of the star map refers to the south celestial pole. There are four constellations in blue highlight.

By overlaying the circular southern star map [fig 2] to fit within the parameters of the circle scribed in fig 1, the constellation map is now sited within the rectangular format of the painting. Note the four constellations in blue highlight; Hydra & Corvus; Serpens Cauda & Serpens Caput. Correspondences between the constellation map of the southern sky and the figurative iconology of the Sacred and Profane Love should now be apparent.

Fig 3.The four constellations in original positions abstracted from the same constellation map. 

By setting the constellation map within the Sacred and Profane Love's rectangular format [fig 3], four constellations Hydra & Corvus; Serpens Cauda & Serpens Caput., (highlighted blue in fig 2) articulate a new narrative relating to the twin Venuses (Proserpine & Ceres) the relationship between the celestial cosmography and the paintings format is becoming apparent.

Fig 4. The four constellations shifted to accommodate the rectangular format of the Sacred and Profane Love, are set against the composite sarcophagus/fountain sourced from the Hynerotomachia Poliphili woodcuts.

Moving these four constellations slightly upward from their original positions to approximate position, dimension, and relation to the 'marble' sarcophagus/fountain of the Sacred and Profane Love. It is visually convenient to use the composite image of the fountain/sarcophagus [see fig 4] to show the design connection between the constellations and the two women of the Sacred and Profane Love.

Fig 5. Hydra, Corvus and the folds of Proserpine's dress

Referring to fig 5, the constellation of Hydra sinuates along the folds of Proserpine's dress. Beginning at the viewers left, the constellation has a distinct curve - as does the form of the dress. A little further to the right and directly below Hydra's most expansive angle (the dresses largest fold) a red slip is exposed indicating the constellation of Corvus (The Crow).

This positive identification is rewarded by looking to Serpens Cauda and Serpens Caput in fig 6.

Fig6. The raised arm of Ceres and the exposed left 
leg - the Giorgionesque motif of Venus.
In fig 6, there are two constellations represented. Serpens Cauda translates as serpents tail, and Serpens Caput as serpents head. Tellingly, these constellations are 'upside down'  from the upright position seen in the northern sky. As can be seen Serpens Cauda has become the arm of Ceres, while Serpens Caput the  left leg. 

When we see this as a motif in an individuals body of work, (as distinct from the pudica pose) it may be best to enquire where and why this motif began. Was it the Sleeping Nymph woodcut from the Hypnerotomachia  - or perhaps the scrutinising of this programme that inspired the artist to believe that this truth should become an almost righteous motif? After all, the vocation of the artist - as opposed to the profession of the painter - is commitment to truth.

Contextually the odd one out is that seemingly inconsequential slip at the base of Proserpine's dress with its flash of red which is designed to  indicate the constellation of Corvus - for  Corvus (the Crow) has nothing to do with serpents. The thread that unites Hydra & Serpens Cauda & Serpens Caput is that each of those constellations are related because they reference serpents; the water serpent (Hydra) or the head and tail of the snake (Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda respectively) but fundamentally, serpents.

Fig 7. Synchronising the four constellations with the two figures.

These serpentine constellations highlight the relationship between the women as a feminine power; the Kundalini force. Corvus appears the odd one out, however Corvus 'the crow' relates alchemically to the 'nigredo', the early black stage of alchemical transformation

In fig 7 part II of the programme for the Sacred and Profane Love is almost complete, but there is still a deal of work to be done before harmonising the proposition at all levels. By now though it is plain to see (unless one is determinedly biased) that there is no reference to any biblical narrative that can account for those celestial abstractions. 

Where religious or philosophic in nature, only those systems that might be construed as Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Alchemic, or Hermetic, should be considered as contributing to the paintings conceptual structure.

The two women the most likely area of the painting developed by Giorgione c.1506 - 1510.

"Aurelio's tastes were originally formed by Giorgione's large nudes on the fondaco..."

                                                  Jaynie Anderson,
                                                                   Giorgione: The painter of poetic brevity.

In the Sacred and Profane Love, Ceres has one arm raised and one leg exposed - the left leg. Return to any work by Giorgione and find this motif in all works where the goddess Venus is referred. Giorgione's Venuses now refer to printed media - woodcuts - as shown by the inclusion of the attitude of the sleeping nymph of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, produced in Venice by the Aldine press in 1499, and he continues that theme to portray his new 'Renaissance' Venuses. This also suggests that the author of the Hypnerotomachia was critically aware of the celestial implications of the one legged attitude and deliberately influenced the design of the woodcut.

Just as the Venus pudica attitude (the modesty) referred to the classicism of ancient Praxiteles (Greek c.350BCE) this motif of the leg has been adopted during the Renaissance, the essential difference here is that the pudica pose pays homage to classicism, whereas the exposed leg refers to learning and education; the rise of the artist as intellectual. 

Giorgione is most likely responsible for the two women of the Sacred and Profane Love (Proserpine and Ceres), though there is no doubt that Titian has reworked the entire piece. But as shall be discussed in the next post, the zodiacal iconology was developed by two quite different mindsets, and so indicates a collaboration that would have begun in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini.

Even though the programme was offered to Bellini by Isabella's merchant, it could be argued that it was actually done through her at the request of her younger brother Alfonso II. Not just because the political machinations seem to suit, but the painting also reworks a familial theme. The only problem there is it is difficult to understand why Isabella didn't get it? Which is to say that in all of Isabella's earlier attempts in negotiation she seems mild, or slightly frustrated. It is only after Giorgione's death that things appear to become possessive and urgent, when she is willing to settle at an undisclosed price for a painting a 'notte' (night) which she had never seen.

Further considerations on the pudica pose.

The pudica pose has long association with the classical ideal of Venus, but it also a received history which declares an older social and moral order (modesty) which is a cipher closed to meaning anything other than the obvious identification of Venus and a homage to the classical ideal. Therefore the language of the pose pudica is now somewhat incompatible with the advance of a visual language that must be in step with a culture delighting in the printing press - see the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; the Matheseos Libri etc.; patronage (the Estense library; the courts of Ferrara and Mantua) and the access to historical sources enabling the humanist advisor (the polymath that developed this invenzione) and the collaboration of the three artists in the pictorial development of the Sacred and Profane Love (Bellini, Giorgione, and Titian) in representing that new surge of information in this complex visual form. 

The attitudes of Botticelli's Venuses (Primavera and the Birth of Venus) bear the stamp of a Praxitelean classicism of the middle ages, but Giorgione delivers his Venuses directly from the cosmos as the Nymph in the Nymph and Satyr woodcut as presented in the Hypnerotomachia appears to have been sourced from a constellational form. Giorgione's consistency with the left leg seems to be confirmed by the final arrival of the prominent left leg motif of the Twin Venuses of the Sacred and Profane Love and the constellation Serpens CaputThis very potent attitude (the dominant left leg) arguably influenced Giorgione's Sleeping Venus c.1510. Also, Giorgione's interests are themes such as the 12 Labours of Hercules (see this sites post on the Fondaco dei Tedischi murals) and the clarification of the distinction between Venus Urania and Venus Marina (which was referred to in the post on The Widener Orpheus).

[In the Widener Orpheus the pudica attitude is used to identify the modest Venus, but the introduction of the conch to Venus pudica alters the visual narrative: Pan is empowering the modest Venus with the secret of her fecundity; self-birth, birth, and rebirth. As Venus marina she will understand her power; she is the life giver, the great mother; the beginning of life who is and resides in moisture; the eternal font; the goddess of the fountain and Pan explains to the young goddess the natural form of the gift; i.e the conch/vulva]

Giorgione engages sign and metaphor as conceptual entities; there is no theory of everything or theory of anything and so passes from similitude to apprehension through groups of 'natural' correspondences which in itself is a conceptual/spiritual path. Giorgione's works are steeped in the investigation of an Italian religiosity antecedent to the rise of the Holy Roman Church. In contrast the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili's unusual Italian mysticism would seem beyond the young Titian's personal interests or intellectual predilections, but this is not to challenge Titian's obvious intelligence which has been made clear by his marvellous gift for plastic representation.

Fig 10. Lucas Cranach the Elder. Nymph of Spring, c.1518 Museum der Bildenden Kunste

As art history well knows, one can be an uninformed though competent painter at the same time. Lucas Cranach examples not a stupid painter, but a painter unaware of the finer points of the image of the reclined Venus [see fig 11]. Alternatively Cranach may have chosen to deliberately ignore the refined points surrounding the Italian Venus, after all the subtleties of Italian culture do not belong to his world; Historically Cranach would become a friend of Martin Luther and so sympathetic with the Protestant Reformation. The Nymph of Spring [fig 11] participates in the manner of Giorgione's reclined or Sleeping Venus, but the mechanics forming the outcome stem from distinct agendas. Still, it cannot be doubted that Cranach paints beautifully.

The author of the Hypnerotomachia, Fra Colonna seems to have developed, discovered, found, or resurrected an historical path as native to the indigenous Italian region as it is likely to get - and which has its own alchemical peculiarities. Polia the novels heroine, should be seen as Colonna's answer to Dante's Beatrice in a story which could be described as an allegorical and alchemical fantasy which appears to have influenced the later 'Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz' a novella steeped in alchemical implications. Alchemic propositions provide a thread which can be decorated with many religious deities through their theogonies, narratives, myths and allegories. It is interesting to note that the psychologist Carl Jung admired the Hypnerotomachia and thought the dream images to be an affirmation of his theory of archetypes, which brings to mind the work of Erich Neumann again in his publication: The Great Mother. Are we dealing with Jungian archetypes or something more concrete? These things need to be articulated even if only to be certain of dismissing them as fanciful. The next three sub-headings will consider 1. Concrete influence. 2. Archetypal associations and the curious relationship between Venice and Tenochtitlan. 3. Religious sources; Symbolism of the Cult of Mithras; the Tauroctony etc.

No. 1: The New World in Europe and Venice:  The southern stars and Ptolemy.

With the recovery of the manuscript of Horapollo in 1419, hieroglyphs were seen by the humanists as an original, primal language. This interest in the strange, primal and exotic is telling in the pseudo hieroglyphs and unusual imagery of the Hypnerotomachia woodcuts. The Renaissance was a world forever changed by talk of unusual discoveries and even the Hypnerotomachia's popularity might be seen as a participation in this excitement by offering an escape into the exotic.

Fig 12. Image of the Basel edition of 1493 reproducing the letter of Columbus
 announcing the discovery of the New World.

Most historians will agree on the influence of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on the mindset of the Renaissance audience. Through themes of the unusual and exotic, that imaginative novel participates in the atmosphere of discovery which had caught much attention prior to the Hypnerotomachia's publication in 1499; the triumphant return to Spain of Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the new world. By 1497 Columbus's letter outlining the lands visited and the promises of natural abundance of minerals and 'gold, cotton, spices, slaves etc. had been printed 17 times from Portugal to Basel and all the countries in between: The Renaissance appetite for marvels had been whetted. Gianni Granzotto's well researched and passionate biography retracing the voyage of Columbus and the zeitgeist of the age is insightful: 

"What was even more surprising was the readiness with which the minds and imaginations of his contemporaries embraced the event. They immediately realised the world had become larger, and that this in turn would change human society and the world of the individual. There weren't any reactions of incredulity, of the sort that almost always  greet a new discovery... Columbus lived at the same time as men such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The human mind was reaching ever higher; it was a time of prodigies. Columbus's own mind thrived in this atmosphere, drawing stimulation and inspiration from the prevailing mood." Granzotto, p.192 

Physically then, as a maritime port, it would be in Venice's interest (or the interest of one who might subjugate Venice) to establish a footing to exploit the merchandising potential of the new world through the port of Venice. For what reason does a constellation map of the south celestial hemisphere become a design structure within painting, in the midst of a maritime trading culture?  Could it be that we are sailing? From the information that was arriving into the maritime port of Venice from the first Spanish led journey into the Americas in 1492, merchant maritime communities might believe the potential of fiscal rewards never before seen.

"Recently, news had beencoming from all over that the King of Portugal was certain that directly across the ocean from Africa, to the south of all the lands thus far discovered, lay a large continent [South America]. Columbus himself had repeatedly heard the Indians speak of a large land mass south of the islands... This was the purpose of the third voyage, [1498] which came to be called the rumbo austral, the southern voyage, as it ventured south of the equator."

In fig xxx, the constellations of Serpens Cauda and Serpens Caput are reversed (Caput - head & Cauda - tail are simply turned upside down to accommodate the point of view of the southern perspective - by the person drawing the celestial map. There is a possible meaning behind this shift apart from righting these constellations or simply fitting these into the rectangular format, which may indicate that the celestial map underlying the Sacred and Profane Love is intended to reference the New World, and therefore, loosely, a mariners map. These are the constellations that lie below the equator in the southern hemisphere. The elevation of these constellations can be accounted for by considering the celestial observations of Christopher Columbus, as noted by the late Gianni Granzotto in his book on the life and voyages of Columbus:

"...judging from the manner in which the North Star moved, he [Columbus] believed himself to be in a different hemisphere, a judgement consistent with the cosmographical notions of the time, according to which the earth's two hemispheres were not exactly the same" p. 234

The subtlety here is that Columbus is basing his observation of the North Star (Polaris), which implies that the celestial movements would endorse his confirmation of a common Ptolemaic misconception. Granzotto explained quoting from the diary of Columbus:

He [Columbus] likened the northern hemisphere to a half ball, and the southern one to a woman's breast, nipple and all, with the nipple being "the part that is highest and closest to the heavens, and is found below the equinoctial line in the ocean sea...". p. 234
Fig xxx. Columbus's concept of the 'half-ball'  hemisphere North (half ball) and domed hemisphere (South).

According to Claudius Ptolemy (90–168 CE) - the lower physical sphere was domed rather than a complete half circle. Columbus believed this cosmographic concept to apply to 'land and water', and Columbus believed he had been able to confirm this through the observation of the North Star (Polaris). This observable information should apply to the outer boundaries of a two dimensional sphere (such as an armillary sphere).  So when the four visible constellations are raised well above their natural positions, it may be concluded that the Ptolemaic curiosity also applies to a calculation of the celestial sphere.

Fig xxx. The serpentine constellations elevated to accommodate Ptolemy's 'domed' southern region.
There seems to be no other reason for this adherence to structure other than an attempt to accurately assimilate that Ptolemaic reference. Here again it must be noted that not only are the stars of the southern hemisphere cross cut at the celestial equator - is significant in this reading of the Sacred and Profane Love, and this painting, the Sacred and Profane Love, is now a product of a new order, throwing allegiance behind the cruciform of the compass as much as the crucifix of Rome.

No 2. Curious Archetypal associations.


Fig xxx. Coatlique; 'She of the serpent skirt' and 'Mother of the southern stars'


In light of Proserpine's dress being partly designed/structured according to the form of the constellation of Hydra; the water snake - is the Aztec goddess Coatlique - 'She of the Serpent Skirt'' and 'Mother of the Southern Stars'. This statue [fig 16] stood majestically at Tenochtitlan, now Mexico city.

She was a dualistic 'great Mother' deity, and not only was her dress composed of serpents (see Proserpine and the constellation Hydra), but from her decapitated neck two serpents faced each other. These may represent Ida and Pingala, the two serpents of the caduceus of Mercury. The front [fig 16] represents death, the reverse, life (there is a head around the belt which is believed to represent Tonantzin and so, life).

Fig 17. Benedetto Bordone (1460-1531) Cortez's map of Tenochtitlan from Isolario (Book of Islands) Printed in Venice, 1528. Both Venice and Tenochtitlan were island cities.
The Aztecs had made many enemies from surrounding territories due to their expansion and the the taking of sacrificial victims to appease their god. The siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521 was the final stage of the Spanish conquest of the New World. From their forays into Mexico from Cuba, it would be hard to believe that knowledge of the city of Technotitlan - with the enormous statue of Coatlique guarding the city, that any potential invader had no intelligence of the city and the goddess.

Fig 18. Benedetto Bordone (1460-1531) Vinegia (Venice), from Isolario (Book of Islands) Printed in Venice, 1528, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York Photography: Graham S. Haber, 2012.

Parallels between the city of Tenochtitlan [fig 17] and the city of Venice [fig 18] entered the imagination of the Venetians after the publication of Isolario (Book of Islands) printed in Venice by Benedetto Bordone, 1528.



Isabella d'Este programme was first offered to Giovanni Bellini in 1506, fourteen years after the news of Columbus's landing in the Americas. Again, it might be prudent to ask just what gleanings of information were filtering through one of the most active ports in Europe?


No 3. Religious sources

Fig 19. Mithras.Fresco from the Shrine of Mithras, Marino, Rome, third century

There are parallels between the Tauroctony and the iconography of the Sacred and Profane Love, this however shall be attended to after the next post.

[1.] The healing arts: health, disease and society in Europe, 1500-1800. Edited by Peter Elmer. Manchester University Press, 2004.

Have a break from the written word and check out my new tumblr blog: POURQUOI   

This page is a work in progress and will be tweaked as time permits, please be patient in your silence... hummpff!

All works and artwork copyright 1997 - 2012. Part 1 of this programme (The Zodiacal References)was submittted as a final year paper at the VCA (Melbourne University) 1997. A revised version will be presented in its entirety as the next post in September.