Karl’s Chronicles Article 45 Titian: Love, Desire, Death.
Centring around Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, Titian, under commission from Prince Philip of Spain, created a set of paintings based on classical myths, developed between 1551 to 1562. In more than 400 years the entire series have been brought and displayed together across a single gallery.
Titian referred to this series as his poesie, viewing them as painted embodiments of poetry, adding his signatory style to embolden the ensuing drama through colour, expressions and richly crafted detail. Bringing together the dynamite shock of lust with the pale fragility of exposed skin and vulnerability, explored through clothes to clouds, eyes to out-reaching hands.
The poesie presents Danaë, Diana & Actaeon, Diana & Callisto, Perseus & Andromeda, Venus & Adonis, The Rape of Europa and The Death of Actaeon.
Who was Titian?
He became the greatest painter of the Venetian school, maintaining a long and robust career, dominating the golden age of Venetian art during the Renaissance. He accepted a long list of commissions from a variety of important patrons, both in and out of Venice. His astounding portfolio, attributed by his unique methods, especially in the rendering and appliance of colour, left a long-lasting influence on his contemporaries as well as European Art in general. Alongside Giorgione (1477-1510), Titian is viewed as a founder of the Venetian school of Italian Renaissance painting. On par to Rembrandt and Velázquez for his portrait paintings, rightly admired for their clarity and candour. Few artists could measure the skill of likeness from subject to canvas, whether a priest or a prince, a writer or monk, the mannerisms and traits so thoroughly represented.
Titian’s exact date of birth is open to debate but its generally believed to fall somewhere between 1488-90. Tiziano Vecelli (Titian in English) was born in Pieve di Cadore near Belluno, Venice. Son of Gregorio and Lucia Vecellio.
Around the age of ten, accompanied by his brother Francesco, the pair were sent to Venice to find apprenticeships with a painter. Eventually, the brothers obtained a place with Giovanni Bellini, one of the cities pre-eminent artists. Here Titian met a group of similar-aged artists, Lorenzo Lotto, Luciani and Giorgione, later becoming the latter’s assistant.
Though some considered Titian to be the better of the two, little appeared to differentiate their works. Titian’s Christ Carrying The Cross was long thought to be Giorgione.
Giorgione died early (1510), and for a while, Titian continued to paint Giorgionesque subjects. However, the development of Titian’s intrinsic style began to form a stronger definition, projected in bold and expressive brushwork.
From 1516 onwards, coveted with a broker’s patent and signing off Bellini’s unfinished works at Venice’s Ducal Palace, he entered his mastery years. Turning away from Giorgionesque sensibilities to embrace an improved technique by accepting more complicated subjects. The Assumption of The Virgin introduced the Venetian public to a style so adept in colour; it had hardly been seen before. Unsurprising to say, it caused a sensation.
Around 1538, Titian started work on the Battle of Cadore, creating a life-size d’Alviano, a Venetian General launching a fierce attack on the enemy. For Titian, its theme and scope were set to rival Ralphael’s Battle of Constantine and the unfinished canvases of Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina and da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari. By cruel fate, Titian’s battle scene was lost by a fire that ravaged through the chambers of Doge’s Palace.
Titian’s artistic genius earned him a considerable sum. A pension from the Marquis del Vasto in 1540, an annuity (later doubled) of 200 crowns from Charles V who had eight years prior made Titian a Count Palatine and Knight of The Golden Spur. In 1546, like Michelangelo in 1537, Titian received Rome’s Freedom of The City. He even played a hand in King Philip II suit for Queen Mary, despatching to England a completed portrait
of the King.
In the later stages of his life, Titian worked mainly for King Philip II, pushing for ever higher standards which lead to deeper self-criticism. Some projects remained a decade in his studio, revisited for improvements with a focus turned towards new expressions.
The poesie series made for King Philip II is agreed to be his finest work. Scholars praise the integral brilliance of each painting and when combined as an intended set, collaborate and beautify each other to an infallible standard. Ironically the pictures were distributed as gifts, their subject matter to risqué for the King’s prissy successors.
On 27th August 1576, succumbing to fever, Titian passed away. For the era, he lived a long prosperous life, with some experts believing he was a few years short of 100.
Titian painted a prolific volume of works though out his career. Estimates suggest four hundred of which a quarter have been lost.
Who was Ovid?
Born on 20th March, 43BC in Sulmo, Italy into an affluent family, Publius Ovidius Naso grew up to be one of the Western literary’s most accomplished poets. Though the works of Heroines and The Art of Love proved popular, it was Metamorphoses that became his masterpiece, celebrated alongside the great works of Homer and Virgil.
After studying the art of language in Rome, Ovid moved to Athens for a further year learning philosophy. On his return to Sulmo he undertook a position as a public official, but one year on at the age of twenty, with mounting interest over poetry, he began to construct his debut piece Amores.
Heroines, Ovid’s second work concerned a series of letters from mythical women to their distant lovers. It took six years to finish Metamorphoses and from Amores to Metamorphoses Ovid had burned through three marriages and become a father. In the same year 8CE that witnessed the completion of Metamorphoses, Emperor Augustus had him personally tried and banished to Tomi. The reasons for Ovid’s exile have remained unexplained, and endless pleas to Augustus went unanswered. One explanation is the content of The Art Of Love undermined the Emperors moral reforms.
Ovid passed away in 17CE aged 61, still in Tomi on the Black Sea Coast, today’s Constanta in southeastern Romania.
… and the Metamorphoses?
An epic, composed of 250 stories set across 15 books in Latin hexameter, starting with the earth’s creation and ending in modern times albeit 8AD when Ovid finished it. The underpinning theme is transformation, hence the title, moving from ugly chaos to earth’s violent beginning. Nature takes hold as oceans, wind, atmosphere and valleys take shape. At some distant point, human-beings come of age, sliding down a morality pole along with the Gods.
Ovid referred back to Greek mythology, transplanting the myths into Metamorphoses as a wide cast of men, heroes, gods, warriors, and goddesses, spun through a transformative journey. Enjoying victory, suffering defeat, with sin, joy, desire, lust, manifesting emotional themes, pulling the characters far from their original form.
The Renaissance threw open the doors for artists, bringing to an end a long repressive era under the nailed coffin of religious doctrine. Out of the grey, like breaking sunlight came bright, creative expressionism, appealing to rationality and intellect.
Charles V, father of King Philip II honoured Titian with total freedom in his art, allowing him complete reign in what to paint and how to present it. His trust and respect long fulfilled by Titian’s earlier commissions.
King Philip II’s reign went far beyond Spanish boundaries, as ruler over the American colonies, Netherlands, Genoa, Milan and Naples. By marriage to Mary of Tudor, Philip received a title of King Consort of England and later became King of Portugal.
In line with Renaissance thinking and philosophy saw a revitalised analysis into Ancient Greek cultures. The morals and under-laying meanings of these myths and legends excited artists to present their own interpretations. However, in today’s world where sexism, racism, perversion, rape, incest, and deceit are seen with abject disgust, some of the themes from Metamorphoses are controversial. There is an overlap between myth and reality where human behaviour is concerned. But there is also commonality, where innocent people are rendered helpless victims, punished by the powerful who go unchallenged. Where on-lookers turn a blind eye, or worse, revel in the victim’s despair.
Painting I – Danaë (1551 – 1553)
Danaë is the daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos who has her imprisoned when informed by an oracle that her son will kill him. Jupiter -King of the Olympian gods enters her chamber disguised as a golden shower. He impregnates her to which she later gives birth to a son -Perseus. The King has both mother and baby locked in a chest and thrown into the sea. Rescued by King Serifos, Perseus grows up to fulfil the oracle’s prophecy, killing Acrisius at a sports contest.
In the painting, we see Jupiter as a golden shower, raining over Danaë. Her attendant, an elderly lady, leans forward to catch some of the drops—Symbolic of advanced age, of infertility wishing to reclaim youth and vitality.
Painting II – Diana & Actaeon (1556 – 1559)
Aceteon side-steps from the successful hunt to wander through a quiet valley. On entering a low-lit forest, he stumbles across a group of nymphs and Diana, Goddess of the Hunt taking respite at a small spring. Diana, angered from being seen naked changes Actaeon into a stag. He flees, only realising the change when reflected from a spring.
The nymphs pander to stereotype here, but the black woman in the bottom right corner is a model hired by Titian. The story of Actaeon inadvertently coming across the group and glimpsing Diana confront the sexual advantage that voyeurism gives the watcher. Positioned on the pillar is a deer’s skull, a suggestion to the following punishment.
Painting III – Diana & Callisto (1556 – 1559)
Jupiter impassioned by glimpsing Callisto, a servant nymph of Diana, changes his appearance into Diana. As he approaches Callisto, Jupiter reverts back and rapes her. Callisto keeps her pregnancy a secret in fear of Diana’s strict rules regarding chastity. On discovery of the pregnancy, Callisto is banished.
A son Arcas is born. Juno, the jealous wife of Jupiter, has him turned into a bear. Callisto, moving despondently through the forest is finally reunited with Arcas. As an act of mercy, Jupiter transforms mother and son into The Great Bear & The Herdsman.
The painting shows the unveiling of pregnant Callisto, banished with a nonchalant finger from Diana. A hound is lapping the water while the bow and arrow cast back to Actaeon. The wind pushing through the trees in the background suggests violation and the water spouting from a fountain could refer to impregnation. There is a lack of female empathy by Diana, regardless of the severe reason that broke her unbending rules. The theme from painting II is carried over in the landscape, the draperies and spring. The two scenes initially intended to hang on a long wall with windows either-side.
Painting IV – Venus & Adonis (1553 – 1554)
Adonis is a result of an incestuous liaison between Myrrha and King Cinyras of Cyprus. Ashamed of her actions, Myrrha becomes a torchwood tree from where Adonis had been conceived from her bark. Proserpine -Queen of the Underworld, raises him and like his name, he grows into a handsome man. His beauty enraptures Venus -Goddess of Love.
While the pair are out hunting, Venus warns Adonis not to give chase to dangerous beasts. Her advice goes unfollowed, resulting in the death of Adonis by a boar. Venus discovers her lover close to death, and her tears grow as red anemones from his blood.
Titian has made several subdued references to lovemaking, the emergence of dawn and light piercing through the cloud, the nudity of Venus, the knocked flask in the lower-left corner, and Cupid, son of Venus asleep under the trees.
Painting V – Perseus & Andromeda (1554 – 1556)
Andromeda’s mother annoys Neptune -God of the Sea by bragging to the Nereids (sea nymphs) about the beauty of her daughter and herself. To appease Neptune for her mother’s arrogance, Andromeda agrees to be sacrificed to the sea monster Ceto.
Perseus fresh from slaying the snake-haired Medusa falls for Andromeda and decides to intervene. Not before securing her parent’s agreement for marriage does Perseus kill the monster.
The painting has changed hands fifteen times, giving a reason for its altered condition. Much of the blue sea pigment turned to a muddy brown.
Painting VI – The Rape of Europa (1559 – 1562)
Jupiter lusts for the Phoenician princess Europa. He summons the Messenger God -Mercury to drive her father’s cattle down to the beach where Europa and her friends are relaxing. Transformed into a white bull, Jupiter becomes the centre of the parties attention. Europa climbs onto the bull’s back from where Jupiter swiftly takes her across the sea to rape her.
The bull’s eyes display a feigned indifference before the crime, suggesting our version of the offence doesn’t exist. Down in the sea, Cupid is riding a dolphin, some experts have commented this could refer to Jupiter’s up-coming plan and the red scarf, could be indicative of passion or danger?
Painting VII – The Death of Actaeon (1559 – 1575)
Titian’s final painting continues the story of Actaeon’s punishment into a stag. The hunter now becomes the hunted as Acteon escapes through the forest from his own hounds. Shortly the hounds catch up and proceed to tare him apart. Calling to his companions remains ineffective for only the sounds of a bleating deer are heard. Near to his end, Actaeon dreams of leading this hunt to kill the trophy he has become.
Diana aims but her bow is void of string. Is she part of the hunt? Is she completing a double punishment? Endeared by the prize of a stag, why don’t his friends come? In the painting’s centre, one of Actaeon’s companions is seen fleeing in the forest. Regarding Diana, do we witness the corruption of morals from the powerful and supposedly righteous?
The second gallery concludes with paintings such as Michelangelo’s The Entombment, The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Pionmbo, Titian’s Bacchus & Ariadne, and An Allegory of Prudence. However, it is the female in the Portrait of a Lady whose frank gaze aimed directly at the viewer, demands our attention—wishing to know our thoughts on Love, Desire, Death. She seems to know, but does she agree?
Titian’s commission for The Vendramin Family presents the father and his sons kneeling on the altar steps of the True Cross. An assistant painted three of his grand-sons, composed in a huddle behind Adrea and his brother Gabriel. Surveying the overall painting very few people could probably discern the difference, but I wondered how the assistant felt. I’m sure he was honoured but equally terrified in messing up his master’s work!
The National Gallery purchased Diana & Actaeon in 2009 for £50 million. Diana & Callisto, set at the same price came from monies submitted by the Scottish Government, National Heritage Memorial Fund, The National Gallery and further private donations.
Titian – Love, Desire, Death runs until 17th January 2021.
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You can choose to add a gallery visit on top of the exhibition (You’ll see the option when booking your ticket). There are three one-way routes. A- commences in the Sainsbury Wing, combining with route B or route C. Both terminate in the Impressionist Galleries.
Route A – offers a chance to view some of the early pieces from Botticelli, Van Eyck, Raphael and Michelangelo +.
Route B – Soft lit subjects and interior compositions painted by Caravaggio, Rubens, Monet, & Van Gogh +.
Route C – Gainsborough, Hogarth, Turner, Holbein +, and many more take you on a vibrant journey from Italy to rural English landscapes.
Coronavirus – Commitment to Safety
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Plan Your Journey.
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