One of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance, Sleeping Venus is an unusual, not to say mysterious work, even for an out of the ordinary painter like Giorgione. The work was unfinished on his death at 34 of plague to be completed by Titian who then went on to paint similar Venuses of his own. Many of Giorgione’s paintings are full of arcane symbolism carried out for unknown patrons deeply immersed in Hermeticism – the Sleeping Venus is no exception with its leaden sky, and its veiled references to foreseeing the future.
This was one of the paintings that I absolutely had to do, but where was I to find my own Venus? None of the women who had come forward for the original casting remotely fitted the bill until one evening quite by chance I met Arianna, a lawyer from the tiny republic of San Marino. What is more, not only did she have the right face and the right figure, but she was also a keen cyclist providing her own red Cannondale racing bike (so expensive she was unwilling to tell me how much it cost!) to lean against the rock in the photo.
So Arianna was perfect, but what about the landscape? In the original painting the landscape was very important , in fact Giorgione was one of the first painters to place figures in a genuine rather than a stylised landscape. In Sleeping Venus the sky is oppressive, the atmosphere threatening, the effect is mysterious. The slightly sinister outline of San Marino high on an escarpment reminded me of the painting. The miniscule republic, famous as a fiscal paradise, has massive banks and is currently under seige from the European Union. I drove around the valley below until I happened upon a rock, just like the original, surrounded by the rubble of a demolished farm building.
San Marino with its distinctive fairy tale trio of castles is perched on the mountain in the distance – but on the ridge below can be seen silhouetted against a livid sky, the concrete buildings, cranes and pylons of a monstrous modernity laying siege to the enchanted city above.
Camera: I used both the Mamiya RB67 and Noblex Pan 120 Pro. Fuji NPS160 film. This is the only time I used the clumsy, old fashioned, but charming Noblex Panoramic camera on the Belle series. It was the panoramic Noblex shot that I used in the end. The day was chilly and rather overcast in early May in the tiny Republic of San Marino so we had to work fast. As with all the Belle we set the date and come rain or shine, we shoot. I felt the distant skyline would be best slightly out of focus, but that had to be done later in Photoshop – the Noblex has no focus control!
The site had certain similarities with the landscape in Giorgione’s painting, however, the afternoon was overcast – no threatening tempest and there was a horrid shrub right in the middle. However, getting the camera down as low as possible meant most of the foliage was against the sky and I removed it in Photoshop. I deliberately left in the pylons and the cables.
However, I felt the landscape needed something more Mediterranean so I went out and snapped an umbrella pine and inserted it later. The threatening sky can be seen in one of my panoramic landscapes, it’s a thunder cloud gathering over Florence.
I flipped it so as no one would make the connection – so now you know. I agonised endlessly over the colours, doing version after version, re-scanning the negatives, trying again. An art director at The Sunday Times magazine even rang me up to ask me if I was happy with the version I had given them, he thought it a bit over vivid. I still do not know if I have got it quite right.
Vanity Fair – Italy also published this photograph but with an article so awful (provocative was their term) that I was moved to complain. The headline reads “Italian Women are better than their Men” – that was the only female friendly thing that the journalist Nicholas Farrell found to say.
Here is a behind the scenes documentary about the Giorgione shoot followed by an interview of Arianna by Nicholas Farrell – in Italian. Arianna was none too pleased when she read the Vanity Fair piece.
The model. Arianna and I met quite by chance in Rimini. I had gone up there from Rome to meet a new model who stood me up (I was cheesed off to say the least) but as I had my portfolio with me I cheekily went up to a pretty woman who was at a table nearby in the café – that’s how we met. I took this snap that evening.
Make-up: Simonetta Baletti of Art and Make-up