Munich is not only about beer. The Alte Pinakothek deserves a visit too.


When we think about Munich, the capital of Bavaria, we pretty often link the city to its food and beer tradition, which is definitely one of the most popular attactions of the city. However, Munich offers a lot more, including one of the largest painting galleries in Germany called Alte Pinakothek, displaying French, Italian, German and Flemish Painting. I asked my friend Luca Simoncello (aka Luca Boerio), art expert, to pick a masterpiece and give us a reason to visit this beautiful Museum.

Here below is Luca’s interpretation of Tintoretto’s “Venus, Vulcan and Mars”

Among the great masterpieces preserved at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (Germany) we pretty often forget about a work by Tintoretto, a Venetian painter active throughout the 1500s. Hi real name was Jacopo Robusti, nicknamed “Tintoretto” because his father was a textile dyer (“tintore”, in Italian), however, this wasn’t the only nickname of his: he was also called “the Furious” or “Terrible” (as Vasari called him) due to his strong and decisive personality, perhaps even a little surly.

Today’s painting deals with a classic topic: betrayal, it portrays a surreal situation, as if we were watching a French comedy of the 1800s. The title is “Venus, Vulcan and Mars“, although it is also known as “Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan“. It portrays the common circumstance of a wife hiding her lover in a closet because her husband unexpectedly arrived early.

Venus, Vulcan and Mars – Tintoretto. Alte Pinakothek, Munich – Germany

We need to clarify a couple of things: Aphrodite (Venus) was born from the foamy waves of the sea, fertilized by the genitalia of Uranus, Jupiter’s grandfather. Vulcan and Mars are brothers: the first is ugly, with a strong and decisive personality, the second is brave and masculine. Aphrodite (Venus) is beautiful. She is that kind of beautiful that leaves a man speechless. Jupiter married her to Vulcan but Aphrodite was not a faithful wife. In a family that lives on Mount Olympus, loyalty was a myth rather that a fact, so trust me when I tell you that the screenplay of a soap-opera looks pretty simple when compared to the life of the Greek Gods.  

In a nutshell: Aphrodite betrays her husband with her handsome brother-in-law; legend has it that Cupid is the son of Mars rather than Vulcan, who turns very jealous. Wouldn’t you be? He tried several times to catch her in the act, but he hardly ever succeeded, because she, being a woman, is much smarter than him. (we should all be honest enough to admit women are smarter than men).

Mars hiding under a table, hushing the dog. Detail from Tintoretto’s Venus, Vulcan and Mars. Alte Pinakothek – Munich, Germany

One could hear the voice of Aphrodite screaming out loud: “Oh heaven! My husband!”, typical of the French vaudeville comedies; we all know the lover is hidden either in the closet or under the bed.

In the 1500s, when Tintoretto lived, such betrayal were happening too, (human nature never changes), so he decided to turn such mythological episode into an everyday event by taking the epic pathos out of it. He brought it to daily life instead, by adapting the scene to his times; in fact, the scene invites us to scrutiny a rich and sumptuous Renaissance Venetian bedroom to discover hidden clues.

A jealous Vulcan bumps into the room, hoping to catch his wife in the act, but Aphrodite gets his attention by exposing her breast, making him believe she is a devoted wife, acting as is she was waking up from a nap as she was exhausted after Cupid, their son, fell asleep in the cradle. Despite his jealous rage, Vulcan surrenders before the sensual flesh of Aphrodite and trust her.

However we, the spectators, see Mars under the table, hidden by a red Venetian cloth, looking around trying to hush the little dog, who unlike Vulcan, immediately noticed him.

There is some kind of comedy in the painting rather than tragedy:  a comedy of misunderstandings, in which the players act lightly.

The hidden scene in the mirror. Detail from Tintoretto’s Venus, Vulcan and Mars. Alte Pinakothek – Munich, Germany

Tintoretto enjoys playing with the spectators a bit more: when you look at the mirror on the wall, the scene that you see is different. Tintoretto shows us what will happen next: Vulcan lays his knees on the bed, terribly close to Aphrodite, who will make love with him allowing Mars to escape silently; With such a hidden and hardly visible detail in a mirror, Tintoretto shows us his brilliance.

Preparatory drawing. Tintoretto’s Venus, Vulcan and Mars. Alte Pinakothek – Munich, Germany

Tintoretto sketched a preparatory drawing in which you don’t see Cupid sleeping in the cradle neither Mars hidden under the table, but a statuesque drama, as if it was a Greek tragedy. The painter abandoned this initial concept opting for a conjugal scene as old as the time and, as such, forever current.

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