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.

"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

Fig 1. Image of the Basel edition of 1493 reproducing the letter of Columbus
 announcing the discovery of the New World.

There is something quite different going on with the language of the Sacred and Profane Love. It contains within its borders 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 clandestinely) from the social and political yoke of dogmatic theology. This secretiveness forces new interpretive complexities and groupings of interrelated information demand interpretation

The Sacred and Profane Love's structure consists of various distinct levels where each level forms a type of self-contained information cluster; a conceptual entity which can only have complete expression when correlated with other deliberately interconnected conceptual levels. The more levels the more critical the argument. 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 agenda is to generate a sympathetic world of conceptual clusters of correlated natural 

truths which are then 'sealed up' by the world of immediate appearances as figurative 
imagery. In the final analysis the synchronising of these clusters will generate the meta-narrative and from this perspective one may now embark on a new reading which would not be possible if the levels journeyed through thus far were not self contained and self referential.


Recovering classical texts and printing them fuelled a desire to seek an ancient, supposedly pure knowledge; the prisca theologia. Now, not only the 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. Professor Sachiko Kusukawa (actually writing on 'medical humanism') noted 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 - the fountain. This unusual fountain is known as the Fountain Cyane classically known as the site of the infamous abduction of Proserpina (the daughter of Ceres) by the Fire god Pluto. Geographically known 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 (see the Lacus Juturnaethe spring of the Sacred and Profane Love has been capped with a spigot and decorated and embellished with the form of a sarcophagus - a form which means to refer to that abduction by Pluto, god of Hades (the underworld). This form might also suggest a scene from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili where the novels hero (Poliphilus) stares into a grave while he considers the mysteries of Pluto. 

But crucially now, 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."
So, if the Sacred and Profane Love were a map, for whom was it made? Who was this visionary person confidently yet 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 finding 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.

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, the primal and exotic is also telling in the pseudo hieroglyphs and unusual imagery of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The Renaissance was a world forever changed by talk of unusual discoveries and the Hypnerotomachia's popularity may in part be seen as a participation in the excitement of discovery by offering an escape into the exotic. The influence of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on the mindset of the Renaissance audience 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 whet. Gianni Granzotto's well researched and passionate biography by retracing the voyage of Columbus to 'tap' 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 other reason does a constellation map of the South Celestial Hemisphere become a design structure within a 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 compass needle and horizon 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?


This was/is a work in progress from 2012 which slipped through the cracks due to severe illness.
I will be returning to focus here soon. (September 2019) )


[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:

All works and artwork copyright 1997 - 2019. Part 1 of this programme (The Zodiacal References) was submitted as a final year paper at the VCA (Melbourne University) 1997. 


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