How many condoms did Zoffany paint?
I went, earlier in the week, to get a glimpse of the new Zoffany exhibition at Royal Academy: Johan Zofanny RA: Society Observed. I 've always liked his stuff without knowing very much about him. But the big draw on this occasion was the chance to get a close look at his painting of the "Tribuna of the Uffizi" (1772-1777) -- detail above -- picturing the famous gallery in Florence, packed full of antique aculpture and modern painting. I'd written about this years ago (in particular about the group of men leering at the flesh of the Venus de Medici), but I'd never actually seen the original.
As always there were some surprises in store. It wasn't as big as I had imagined it, but much more detailed, full of jokes, stories and cheeky collocations. And Titian's "Venus of Urbino" was a lot more prominent in the original than it ever seemed in the reproductions -- and much more obviously in dialogue with the Venus de Medici statue. The same was true of the Uffizi Wrestlers just behind, and the characters admiring it. The guy with his hand on the edge of the Titian, and pointing back to the Wrestlers, was apparently an instantly recognisable Thomas Patch, who had been banished from Rome for homosexuality. Originally -- according to the catalogue -- Zoffany had painted a black 'patch' onto the bum of one of the Wrestler's, just to make the point.
Anyway we then explored some of the paintings we didn't know. One (from the Gallery at Parma) was a curious self-portrait of Zoffany apparently putting on a friar's outfit, actually getting ready to go out to party in fancy dress. And he's looking forward to a good time, for on the wall were hanging up, the label said, two condoms.
"But" asked the husband, "why do they say "two"? There's three of them hanging up -- a pair, and one a bit further to the right."
And that's certainly what it looked like. In fact it looked as if the condom on the right was neatly hanging over yet another version of the Venus of Urbino...just to rub in what the painting was all about. We didn't linger long, but decided to check it out when we got home.
That's where the story took a curious turn. Every single image I could get of this painting, including the one in the catalogue (above), crops off a good few centimetres on the right hand side, so you can't actually see what's going on there, and whether there's a third condom or not. In fact, in a major article on Zoffany self portraits (in the Art Bulletin 1987), William Pressly explains that even he hasn't seen the original painting and has only had access to a photo slightly cropped on the right. On the basis of that, he concludes that Zoffany had painted a strange tear in his image of the Venus of Urbino -- a significantly condom-shape tear (and that's the line repeated in the new catalogue).
So did we just misread the 'tear'? Or did we see exactly what we thought we did, ie condom number three? And, if so, then the necessary gloomy conclusion is that none of those writing about this picture, even the exhibition caption writer, has actually looked at more than a cropped photo of it. (OK a bit like me and the "Tribuna", fair cop . . .but, all the same . . . )
If anyone knows the painting (even more curious than I have indicated, as it's on the back of a "Flight into Egypt" -- just how weird?) can you enlighten on the condom question? Or if you go to the show, will you check it out?