Venice. Two naked seductresses separated by three centuries of history went face to face for the first time in Venice on Wednesday in an exhibition devoted to French painter Edouard Manet with his “Olympia” alongside Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.”
Manet completed his painting of a prostitute being waited on by a black maid in 1863 — a controversial masterpiece which caused a stir at the time but was largely inspired by old master Titian’s own ground-breaking work from 1538.
“Olympia” usually hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the painting has never left France. It was driven to Italy for the show and then ferried across the Venice lagoon to St. Mark’s Square on a barge to be exhibited in the Ducal Palace.
The works were “scandalous” in their times, said Guy Cogeval, head of the Musee d’Orsay.
And they still have the capacity to shock.
“Olympia” was not used in publicity posters because of local sensitivities in Venice.
“I didn’t want to put ‘Olympia’ next to St. Mark’s Basilica, out of respect,” said Gabriella Belli, director of Venice’s museums and a co-curator of the show together with the Musee d’Orsay.
The exhibition entitled: “Manet: The Return to Venice” is organized by the city in conjunction with the Musee d’Orsay and features 23 paintings and 20 sketches by the French painter (1832-1883).
They are hung alongside 80 works by Italian Old Masters including Carpaccio, Guardi and Lotto — a way of underlining Manet’s Italian inspiration, which is only now being fully appreciated.
“Italy was a fertile, stable and permanent inspiration for Manet’s genius,” said Stephane Guegan, a consultant for the show.
“It was impossible to say this for a long time since his influence by Spain is always put forward,” Guegan said.
The exhibition lasts until Aug. 18.
During a trip to Florence in 1857, Manet painted a reproduction of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” — which still hangs today in the Uffizi Gallery.
Bringing the Titian to Venice “required the help of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius,” Belli said.
She said the loans of “Olympia” and the “Venus of Urbino” from their respective museums were linked.
“One would not have come without the other.”
Cogeval said that to avoid controversy on the departure of “Olympia” from France for the first time he “got permission from French President Francois Hollande” — even though an authorization from the culture ministry would have sufficed.
The moment the painting was lifted with a crane from a barge moored at St. Mark’s Square was particularly stressful, said Jean Naudin, in charge of international exhibitions at the Musee d’Orsay.
Belli said she appreciated “Olympia” — “a modern woman, petite but full of energy and character”.
But Cogeval said he had been “overcome” by Titian’s work.
“It is one of the most beautiful paintings in the world,” he said.
Guegan said the “Venus of Urbino,” which was commissioned by the duke of Urbino following his marriage, had more than a purely aesthetic intent.
“The painting was meant for the bedroom and was intended as a stimulation for the couple,” he said.