The Inevitably Acquiescent Volcano – Tiepolo’s Venus and Vulcan

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Vulcan thought his ex-wife was out of the picture. Then one day while he was at work, she suddenly appeared in his forge floating haughtily on a cloud and offered her body to him. It wasn’t love, she expected something in return. What would Vulcan do? 

Mt. Etna
Mt. Etna, Sicily

What else could he do? He was the god of fire and volcanoes. He erupted.

Under a stable government and economy, a group of over 100 islands prospered over the centuries and became the wealthy and powerful maritime trading empire, the Venetian Republic. Ceramists, glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers, sculptors, stone carvers, architects, and painters found work and fair pay under a system tightly controlled by a guild. The arts flourished, and by the 1500s, a style of painting developed that was uniquely Venetian.

Tintoretto; Self-Portrait, 1546-48; oil on canvas
Tintoretto; Self-Portrait, 1546-48; oil on canvas. Wood panels warped easily in the Venetian climate, so painters turned to sail cloth, or canvas, which was readily available. Paintings on large canvases could be rolled up once dry and transported more easily than those on wood.

In the 1500s, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and other masters of the Venetian Renaissance used a technique called colorito, an influence that resulted from the republic’s familiarity with the glittering marbles and mosaics of the Byzantine Empire and the brilliant effects of light on the shimmering canals. Artists made a light, rough sketch on the canvas with charcoal and then, by blending layers and layers of wet brushstrokes, worked out their compositions in luminous colors that brought life to their works. The face at left both forms and disintegrates into light and color.

Bronzino; Portrait of Cosmio I de'Medici as Orpheus 1537-39
Bronzino; Portrait of Cosmio I de’Medici as Orpheus, 1537-39; made in Florence; Philadelphia Museum of Art. This painting was created on a specially prepared wood panel. Compared to canvas, paint glides easily over wood and is less likely to crack with age. Strong reinforcements were attached to the back of the panel to prevent the wood from warping; the final product could be quite heavy.




In contrast, artists in Florence (Michelangelo, Raphael, Bronzino) focused on the mastery of drawing and design, or disegno, as the foundation for painting, sculpture, and architecture. Compositions were first drawn and redrawn on parchment until every minute detail was perfected. The drawing was then transferred to a prepared surface and painting began. A figure composed using extensive underlying drawings has defined line and form, a sculptural quality in which colors, although beautiful, are secondary to clarity of form and flowing lines.




When Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was born in Venice in 1696, the glorious days of the Venetian Renaissance had passed. Due to the changing political current, Venice’s thousand-year history as an independent state would end one-hundred years later with the unconditional surrender to Napoleon. Wealthy Venetians, looking for art that was an escape to their glorious past, turned to Tiepolo, the maker of myths.

Tiepolo, ceiling fresco at Residenz Würzburg, Germany; 1750-53
Tiepolo, 1750-53; Ceiling Fresco at Residenz Würzburg, Germany. Fresco is a technique of mural painting executed upon fresh plaster. When the plaster sets, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall or ceiling.

Tiepolo specialized in oil painting and fresco that were a perfect fusion of Venetian sparkling colorito and Florentine disegno. In enchanted worlds of sherbet oranges, sky blues, and sensuous pinks, the sun-drenched beautiful bodies of gods and goddess floated on clouds in a grandiose, theatrical splendor that was made convincing because of his extraordinary drawing skills.

Mythological subjects offered a wide range of subject matter for Tiepolo to choose from – love, lust, marriage, battles, nudity, sex, orgies, erotica. Great if you’re a god with the body of Adonis. But what if you were the only Olympian that was unattractive, had one leg shorter than the other, and your wife cheated on you constantly?

To the Greeks, he was Hephaestus; to the Romans, he was Vulcan. To his mother, Juno, Roman queen of the gods, he was the ugliest baby she’d ever seen.

Tiepolo; Juno and Luna (detail), c.1735-45; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Horrified, Juno hurled her newborn son off the top of Mount Olympus. After falling for a day and night, he crashed into the sea, which severely damaged one of his legs. Thetis, a water goddess, rescued Vulcan and lovingly cared for him as he grew.

As an adult, Vulcan built a smithy under Mount Etna and with his work crew of single-eyed Cyclopes, forged arms, armor, and chariots for the inhabitants of Mount Olympus. Whenever smoke hissed from the volcano’s crater, mortals knew he was hard at work. Sometimes he gathered pearls and coral to create beautiful jewelry for Thetis.

Jealous, Juno demanded that Vulcan make something for her. He sent a chair made from silver and gold that was inlaid with mother-of-pearl. As Juno eased into the chair, hidden straps and metal bands sprung forth. Trapped, she shrieked and struggled for three days until a compromise was reached: if Vulcan released Juno, he could marry Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Vulcan agreed.

Tiepolo; Venus with a Mirror, 1725; Gerli Collection, Milan
Tiepolo; Venus with a Mirror, 1725; Gerli Collection, Milan

Venus had no interest in Vulcan and took many lovers. Each time she was unfaithful, Vulcan beat the red-hot metal with such an angry force that the mountain erupted.


Tiepolo; Mars, Venus and Cupid, 1757; Fresco; Villa Valmarana, Venice
Tiepolo; Mars, Venus and Cupid, 1757; Fresco; Villa Valmarana, Venice





The marriage hit a new low when Venus took Vulcan’s step-brother, Mars, the god of war, as her lover.

Vulcan could no longer endure the humiliation.

Venus left.


Vulcan thought his ex-wife was out of the picture. Then, one day while he was at work, she suddenly appeared in his forge floating haughtily on a cloud and offered her body to him. It wasn’t love, she expected something in return. What would Vulcan do? What else could he do? 

Tiepolo, Venus and Vulcan, 1765; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Tiepolo, Venus and Vulcan, 1765; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Vulcan - Tiepolo - Venus and Vulcan

She was the irresistible goddess of beauty and erotic love.

Tiepolo; Venus and Vulcan (detail)



He was the god of fire and volcanoes and had a burning desire for her. He erupted.


And straight her arms, of snowy hue,
About her unresolving husband threw.

Her soft embraces soon infuse desire;
His bones and marrow sudden warmth inspire;
Not half so swift the rattling thunder flies,
Or forky lightnings flash along the skies.
The goddess, proud of her successful wiles,
And conscious of her form, in secret smiles.
– Virgil, Aeneid

Venus had a difficult favor to ask of her estranged husband. Her son, Aeneas, whose father was a mortal from Troy, survived the siege of the city, but now needed special armor in order to seek revenge. Vulcan agreed; he and the Cyclopes created an extraordinary set of armor. The shield was decorated with scenes of Aeneas’s future, which led to the founding of Rome.

The painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was once thought to be a sketch for a section of the ceiling fresco in the guard room in the Palacio Real, Madrid:


Tiepolo; Venus and Vulcan, 1762-66; Ceiling Fresco; Halberdier’s Room, Palacio Real, Madrid, Spain. Tiepolo excelled at manipulating perspective and color to create dramatic compositions in which space recedes toward infinity. Here, he combines two events from Virgil’s Aeneid. The first is the promised deification of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who is depicted in red rising to the Temple of Immortality, accompanied by winged personifications of Victory and Justice. The second is the appearance of his mother, Venus, who is clad in white at the upper right of the painting. Along with the Graces, she presents Aeneas with arms forged by Vulcan, who supervises their making below.

More recently, scholars identified it as the pendant to a painting of Apollo Pursuing Daphne in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC:

Tiepolo; Apollo Pursuing Daphne, 1755-60; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Tiepolo; Apollo Pursuing Daphne, 1755-60; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Pendant paintings, or two paintings intended as a pair, were placed side-by-side, usually over a set of doors. Here, Daphne, a beautiful and chaste nymph, was pursued by the sun god Apollo, who had been struck by Cupid’s golden arrow of love. Fleeing Apollo, Daphne asked her father, the river god Peneus, for help. To avoid Apollo’s unwanted advances, she was turned into a laurel tree. In the process of transformation, her left leg has turned into a tree trunk and her arms sprout branches.

Overdoor Painting


Sometimes romantic, sometimes bawdy, sometimes confusing by modern standards, pendant paintings were considered to be appropriate, even auspicious, wedding gifts to decorate the bedrooms of newlyweds. The purpose was to remind women of their expected gender role, that a “good wife” was both a goddess of lust and a chaste model of virtue.



– Meighan Maley



Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, Volcano:|1


  1. Fascinating! Wedding gifts certainly have changed over the years. Liked the comparison between colorito style from Venice and the desegno style from Florence. I always learn a lot from your blog.


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