Sacred and Profane Love

Sacred and Profane Love

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Sacred and Profane Love: Presepio, Nativity, Night (Una Nocte) & Alchemic Night.

Night the voluptuous, Night the chaste,
Spreads Her dark limbs, a vaulted splendour
Above the intolerable waste.

Night the August one: Night the tender,
Queens it and Brides it unto me.

One way to read the Sacred and Profane Love is as a rigidly constructed Alchemic Night, which is an Alchemic narrative based upon the Nigredo and the ancient notion of Night as the engenderer. Historically this will involve that great female art patron of the Renaissance, Isabella d’Este and her quest to acquire a painting from the studio of Giorgione; a 'Night' (una nocte) immediately after hearing of Giorgione's untimely death from the plague in 1510. Being mindful of the complexity of the Alchemic tradition and the Alchemic implications that contribute to the Sacred and Profane Love, an imaginative historical environment is required to populate all possible relationships  surrounding Isabella and the Sacred and Profane Love, and in particular those references that might refer to the Sacred and Profane Love as a presepio, una nocte, Night, and/or nativity.

To set the wheels of inquiry in motion, a series of events were taking shape late in the Quattrocentro which would produce revelatory documented communication between Isabella d'Este and Giovanni Bellini some seven or so years preceding those agitated tribunals involving Titian, Bellini and the Council of Ten in 1512.

The search for a 'night' and/or a 'presepio' by Isabella d'Este.                                                   
Around 1497 a merchant, armed with a programme (invenzione) was employed by Isabella d’Este to procure the services of the aging Giovanni Bellini and acquire a painting for Isabella's studiolo. In 1501 and again in 1502 the clavichord maker Lorenzo da Pavia became involved in further attempts to secure the painting from the seemingly reluctant Bellini. It appears that Bellini did not wish to follow the design which had been given to him. That Bellini was struggling with the design of the painting was outlined by Pietro Bembo in a letter from January of 1506. That letter from Bembo to Isabella is well known to historians and is as follows:
[‘The subject which your Excellency writes to me that I should devise for the design must be suited to the fancy of the person who has to execute it;] whose pleasure is that sharply defined limits should not be set to his style, being wont, as he says to wander at will in paintings..." Bourke. pp119-120

All alchemical works had been outlawed by the Council of Ten in 1488, which would have created a conflict of interest for Bellini when considering his highly coveted position as the Official Painter to the Venetian State,  a prestige which had been awarded to him only five years earlier in 1483. Could the reason behind Bellini's reluctance to provide Isabella with her painting be because that request - or the programme outlining her request - was of an Alchemical nature. Was this why the work was so distasteful for Bellini to execute? We know that a programme had been left with Bellini:
'the artist then expressed a reluctance to follow the program which had been drawn up for his use.'
Through a letter from Bembo to Isabella, Bembo writes that he has almost secured Bellini’s interest in producing Isabella’s commission if only she could write directly to Bellini. On the 19th of October Isabella did so, and curiously, for the second time, refers to the painting as a ‘presepio’.


The Sacred and Profane Love as the 'presepio'.

Fig 1. Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Adoration of the Shepherds,1485. 
A Presepio is an enclosure** such as a group formed around the manger though not necessarily requiring the architecture of a stall, while the manger is actually the feedbox: 
 “Manger in strict usage — though today also used for the Nativity scene —actually refers to the trough or open box used for livestock feed in which the Infant Jesus rests."
In fig 1, Ghirlandaio's group forms a presepio using the manger as a central focus in the Adoration of the Shepherds. Presepio and manger are the core motifs of a nativity. Etymologically the word 'presepio' also reveals the form:

'…In the ancient word, a combination of prae, "in front," and saepire, "to enclose,"...  Ibid.

Though differing in source, the words manger and presepio are comparably thematic in that the former occupies the focus while the latter forms the stage of a nativity setting; without a manger there can be no presepio. On perhaps less linguistic grounds Isabella's presepio has been postulated to be a type of 'Night' or 'nativity', and there appears to be a variety of words available to describe this particular piece. Peter Bourke, referring to the Night (una nocte) in Giorgione's studio, had this to say:
“…at Giorgione’s death there was a picture in his studio which Isabella’s agent called ‘a night’ (una nocte)…It may equally well have been a ‘holy night’, that is, a Nativity. Corregio’s Nativity of 1530 has often been called a ‘Night’ can also refer to a pagan night; to a ‘holy night’ or nativity." P.B. p.190

The design of the Sacred and Profane Love mimics the structure of a presepio because the centrally placed sarcophagus alludes to the motif of an enclosed manger and subsequently, a nativity or a 'night'. 

Fig. 2. The Sacred and Profane Love.

Visually the Sacred and Profane Love participates in the category of a pagan nativity. There is no sun or direct shadow in the painting and the streaked cloud indicates that the time is either pre-dawn or twilight. The painting is clearly a nocturne and there is nothing here that might indicate otherwise. A nocturne then could also be referred to as a 'night'. 

Isabella's programme not pursued by Bellini.

Isabella never received the original painting that was asked of Bellini from the programme that she supplied to him and instead settled for a nativity of a rather standard Christian theme. This is known from a letter of reply sent to her agents by Isabella. The agents had suggested that Isabella give Bellini 'liberty' to create his own unfettered painting:

"If Giovanni Bellini is as reluctant to paint his history as you say, we are content to leave the subject to him, provided that he paints some history or ancient fable." P.B. p.120

The author peter Bourke concludes the above entry with this comment:

"In fact, Bellini was able to beat her down even further; she ended by accepting a Nativity."

It appears that this final, work accepted by Isabella was not a pagan nativity but rather, a standard Christian Nativity and therefore this work is gracefully eliminated from relevance and further pursuit by this inquiry. ***

The disappearance of the una nocte, Isabella's haste, Bellini and Alfonso.

Alternatively, the Night in Giorgione's studio may have been derived from the original programme, the importance of which Isabella was not aware, though this seems unlikely as Bellini was approached by Alfonso  while Isabella was still in negotiation with Bellini. Obviously Bellini had prioritised Alfonso.

Giorgione pursued the Sacred and Profane Love as an uncommissioned piece for two reasons: Firstly, had Giorgione chosen to pursue the commission it would not compromise Bellini's position as Painter to the Republic of Venice. Secondly, Giorgione had an interest in esoteria. This will be discussed in the Fondaco post. 

On hearing of Giorgione's death Isabella wrote to her agent:

"...we are informed that among the stuff and effects of the painter Zorzo of Castelfranco there exists a picture of a night (una nocte) very beautiful and singular; if so it might be, we desire to possess it and we therefore ask you, in company with Lorenzo da Pavia and any other who has judgement and understanding, to see whether it is a really fine thing and if you find it such, go to work ... to obtain this picture for me, settling the price and giving me notice of it. P. B. p.134

Isabella seemed to have been unaware of this painting in Giorgione's studio prior to being informed after Giorgione's death, so it seems that the information of the Night's existence came from another source. If Isabella were unaware of this almost resolved painting that was 'very beautiful and singular' and it was not designed from her original programme. Where did it come from and whose word was it that so inflamed Isabella that she would act with such expedience to secure a work that she had no prior awareness of? It seems she was acting in good faith for someone whom she must have absolutely trusted. Only Alfonso could fit this description. And how did Alfonso become aware? Bellini...

Upon arriving at Giorgione's studio, Isabella's agent was informed that there were two paintings that fitted the description, one owned by Taddeo Contarini, and the other by a Victor Beccaro, but added that they were 'not for sale at any price'. Was this a simple deception organised to 'throw the dogs of the scent' as it were?


Alfonso d'Este, The Council of Ten & Nicolo Aurelio.

Turning back the clock again, it seems that during the time of Isabella's initial negotiations with Bellini, Alfonso d'Este, duke of Ferrara had also requested a painting from Bellini. As the programme for the Sacred and Profane Love seems to have its roots in Ferrara - and due to the duke's involvement in the Venetian wars, it is not clear whether this request was ever delivered, and every chance it would not have been especially if The Council of Ten - or perhaps even Nicolo Aurelio himself - were made aware of Alfonso's request. As Anderson recalled:

'Aurelio's taste was initially formed by Giorgione's large nudes on the Fondaco...'

To add to Aurelio's advantage, Alfonso was probably the most despised man in Venice:

"Among the confederate powers, no one had exited the resentment of the Venetians in so great a degree as Alfonso, duke of Ferrara..." W. Roscoe. p.241

Of the several reasons behind the resentment toward Alfonso was that he had joined the League of Cambrai in the war against Venice and in 1510, assisted by the French, crushed the army of Venice in an ambush along the Po river, causing a loss to the Venetians of upward of 'three thousand men'. Life of Leo X. W. Roscoe p.241.

If the Council of Ten had been informed of the existence of a painting for Alfonso, they would certainly not have allowed him that prize. Here would be the perfect leverage for Aurelio to negotiate and claim the painting for himself. This would be effected with Titian's complicity of course, for it would be he who would be required to authenticate the painting for Aurelio in the form of the coat~of~arms. 

As everything about this painting is pervaded by and has its source in Ferrara, the painting which became known to Isabella after Giorgione's death as the Night, may well have been the same painting requested by Alfonso and which is now come to be known as the Sacred and Profane Love. 


The Sacred and Profane Love is a Collaborative work.

When (in hindsight) Lorenzo da Pavia criticised the figures in Giovanni’s ‘presepio’ [The Letters] as being too small, he may well have unwittingly provided a service to Bellini, iconology, and art history:

'...he thought that the artist should have been required to have submitted several sketches before having begun the painting. This would have allowed Isabella to have chosen from among them thereby correcting a certain imbalance by having the figures relatively small with regard to the overall pictorial field.' P.B. p.

If this were the Sacred and Profane Love at an earlier stage of resolution, Bellini would have been quietly pleased that his artifice had hidden the programme that had become so distasteful for himself to execute. Secondly, the balance of figures to landscape that was considered by da Pavia 'disproportionate' suggests an earlier working stage of the Sacred and Profane Love - because the Sacred and Profane Love does not participate in the popular use of ‘perspective’ or ‘optics’ as the method was then called. From this criticism da Pavia has possibly indicated a stage of the paintings resolution at the time of his recording that observation.

There is every reason to consider the Sacred and Profane Love as a collaborative work.
  • Bellini may have been responsible for the painting at an earlier stage of completion and this would account for the diminutive figures noticed by da Pavia. He would not have wished to continue because the painting embraced alchemic philosophy - which had been outlawed by the Venetian state.

  • Giorgione was most likely to have been responsible for the larger figures of the women and child - the child being the key to that consideration.

  • Titian had the third and final hand in the paintings construction, harmonising the paintings overall design, as though it were a poesie, and being far less critical and less challenged by an intellectual adherence to any programme.

This collaborative proposition may best suggest the reason behind the enigma that is the Sacred and Profane Love, because Titian, by treating the work as being intellectually irrelevant - a mere poesie - the original intent was made all the more obscure. 

Finally, the una nocte/presepio/Sacred and Profane Love was removed from the workshop of Giorgione of which Titian had complete access. Although the Night was not directly removed by Titian who was in Mantua at the time of Giorgione's death, taking this tack implies a political involvement because anything to do with Aurelio and this aquisition should be seen as political.

If, as is being proposed here, the Sacred and Profane Love and the presepio/una nocte are one and the same painting, it may not be too difficult to find Giorgione’s hand, after all, the Sacred and Profane Love has been considered to be Titian at his most Giorgionesque.

There is a curious footnote to this. In 1516 Titian stayed at the Duke's castle in Ferrara with two assistants, and in a letter to the Duke, Titian wrote:

"[that he had gone] ...without delay to the well of which your excellency had written and made a sketch of it... including another with it, of a well after the fashion of this country" J. Williams. p.83

While Alfonso's well no longer exists the idea of the Night also being the presepio adds to the allegoric levels of content of the Sacred and Profane Love because of the unusual stone sarcophagus/well/manger motif. Why, of all things, would Alfonso ask Titian to sketch a well, unless of course, Alfonso was hoping to detect a certain level of discomfort... It would be below a man of Alfonso's standing to engage a paid worker - Titian - in an accusative manner, or even show an agitation toward him, and yet by sending Titian to this well, to have him sketch it sends direct a message to the seat of any possible guilt. It would be the aristocratic manner befitting Alfonso to rise above the engagement of direct accusation yet still having expressed his attitude.

The Sacred and Profane Love as an allegory with several levels now encompasses three more metaphors: Presepio, Nativity and Night. To reiterate a point from an earlier post; the Sacred and Profane Love is dedicated to Venus and the time of day represented by the sun-streaked sky is twilight, the time of day when the planet Venus first appears to the naked eye. Therefore the Sacred and Profane Love qualifies in its own right as a nocturne which is also and quite literally a Night; but it is most definitely a Pagan Night.

Night belongs to the Goddess lineage of the Egyptian Nut, whereas Nox is the etymological source of equinox, meaning (day) of equal night. As Nox was one of the oldest of the Roman gods, there is a sense of Egypto/Hermetic recovery here, which is the essence of the Renaissance zeitgeist.


On several levels, the Sacred and Profane Love was intended for Alfonso d'Este, but without documented evidence, we can never be certain - because we weren't there. This area of conjecture, this construction of a history, while interesting - makes absolutely no difference to the content of the Sacred and Profane Love, but to be sure, all considerations presented here are presented with an understanding of the meta-narrative and all associated implications.

From where did the Sacred and Profane Love originate? Again, we weren't there, nor is any evidence thus far, although there is an argument forthcoming that will confirm Ferrara, and so, Alfonso d'Este. 

*['Night the voluptuous, Night the chaste' are nineteenth century poetic references to the Twin Venuses (here, Proserpine and Ceres) though in the guise of a pseudo Egyptian mythology. Those stanzas formed a part of a nineteenth century poem intended for an initiate entering the Order of the Golden Dawn, and were written by Aleister Crowley. Of the elite social groups bonded by this interest in esoteria, perhaps the most interesting was the groups arms-length association to the philosopher Henri Bergson. (Intuition as Method).]
** An acknowledgement is due here to Dr Frank over at Giorgione et al for his thoughts on the presepio as a manger. Thank you Dr Frank, I hope you feel this revision better articulates the difference.
*** At the recent suggestion of Dr Frank this section has been revised to include Isabella's letter accepting a standard Nativity. Thanks again to Frank for his helpful observations.


Bourke, P. 1974. Tradition and Innovation in Renaissance Italy. Fontana/Collins, London.

Williams, J. 1968. The World of Titian. Time-Life, Amsterdam.

Roscoe, William.1853. The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth. Henry G. Bohn, London.



No comments:

Post a Comment