by Roderick Conway Morris

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Prado, Madrid
'Entombment', 1559.

Titian the Monumental, From A to Z

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 30 May 2013


The young Titian was invited to the Vatican in 1513, five years before his first great public triumph in Venice with the unveiling of his spectacular 'Assumption of the Virgin' in the Frari Church. That work was later described by his near contemporary Ludovico Dolce as combining 'the greatness and awesomeness of Michelangelo, the delightfulness and grace of Raphael and the very colors of Nature herself.' But Titian did not visit Rome until 1545, by which time his fame had spread far and wide.

The Scuderie del Quirinale has staged a series of splendid monograph shows over the past decade of Venetian Renaissance artists - Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto and Tintoretto - and of visiting artists who made vital contributions to the development of Venetian art: Antonello da Messina and Albrecht Dürer. This ambitious enterprise culminates with 'Titian,' curated by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa, devoted to the artist whom many regard as the greatest of all these masters and the one who indubitably had the most influence on the course of Western art.

Of the 40 works on display here, 20 appeared in the show of nearly 80 pictures in the 'Titian' exhibition at the Doge's Palace in Venice in 1990, which traveled on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The Venice show had the advantage that visitors could also see close at hand many of Titian's greatest paintings still in situ, including key works like 'The Assumption of the Virgin.'

The National Gallery in London's 'Titian' show of 2003 - which featured eight of the works in this exhibition - pulled off a considerable coup by bringing together the artist's landmark mythological canvases from Alfonso d'Este's study in Ferrara, now divided between Madrid, London and Washington, not to mention other one-of-a-kind pieces, notably 'Sacred and Profane Love.'

The works on display here are for the most part of high quality and represent all the phases of the artist's career. But the presentation lacks the narrative clarity of the Scuderie's previous exhibitions on Venetian painting.

An obvious reason is that monumental pictures could only be accommodated in the loftier spaces downstairs, resulting in chronological confusions that make it difficult to follow changes in Titian's style during his exceptionally long career. (The catalog is more logically arranged.)

The exhibition opens impressively with a late masterpiece, 'The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence,' from the Gesuiti church in Venice. Nearly five meters high and three meters wide, about 16 feet by 10, this was Titian's first recorded night picture, and one of the most brilliant exercises in chiaroscuro in history. It was executed between the late 1540s and 1550s, when the artist was in his 50s or 60s. (His birthdate is unknown but is reckoned to have been around 1485 to 1490.)

To one side of this huge canvas is a restrained self-portrait in profile of the artist in black, a single brush in hand, dated to 1565-66. Despite the austere, almost monochrome nature of the image, the artist has not failed to include - glinting with masterly subtlety - a double gold chain around his neck, emblematic of the noble title of the Order of the Golden Spur conferred on him by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V in 1533.

The second room catapults us back to Titian's early days. He had trained in the first decade of the 16th century in the studios of Gentile Bellini, then those of Gentile's brother Giovanni, and he had worked alongside Giorgione. His 'Bishop Jacopo Pesaro Presented to St. Peter by Pope Alexander VI' of around 1512-13 (one of his earliest known canvases) and 'Madonna and Child With Saints Catherine and Dominic,' both here, are much in the Giovanni Bellini style. A 'Baptism of Christ' (from around 1512), from the Capitoline Museums, bears witness, especially in its landscape, to his association with Giorgione, as does 'The Concert,' but the latter has been placed several sections along, among the portraits and figure studies upstairs. Also dated around 1512 is an 'Orpheus and Eurdyce' that reveals a familiarity with Bosch and Flemish painters.

The last two rooms on the lower floor contain a series of important religious pieces, but these all date from decades later. Among them are a 'Crucifixion' (1555-1557) and 'Entombment' (1559) from the Prado in Madrid; an unfinished 'Christ Crucified With the Good Thief' from Bologna (1560-70); and an 'Annunciation' from the San Salvador church in Venice (1563-65). These are superb examples of Titian's freer later style, yet all would have been better placed at the end of the exhibition.

The first four rooms upstairs are substantially given over to portraits and the chronological sequence of Titian's career is more or less resumed.

As Vasari recorded in his chapter on Titian in his 'Lives of the Artists': 'There is hardly a nobleman of repute, nor prince, nor great lady, who has not been portrayed by Titian.' And his celebrity sitters provided the royal road to riches and fame during his lifetime and new paradigms for future generations of portrait painters.

Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara's employment of Titian as a painter of ancient myths also led to his first commission for an aristocratic portrait in 1524-25. The picture of Alfonso is now lost, but a painting of one of the Duke's courtiers, Tommaso Mosti (or possibly of one of his brothers), is on show here. An even more striking image from the same period is 'Young Man With a Glove,' which may be of Ferrante, younger brother of the Gonzaga Marquis of Mantua, Federico II.

These connections led to commissions from the Della Rovere dukes and duchesses of Urbino - all these families being intermarried in various ways, and women playing an increasingly important role as both sitters and patrons. Among the classic portraits here that resulted from Titian's tireless court-hopping are ones of Francesco Maria I, Duke of Urbino and of his wife Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere.

The artist painted 30 pictures for the Gonzagas, his most enthusiastic patrons from 1529 to 1540. He also took the opportunity to record the magnificent and psychologically penetrating portrait, also here, of Mantua's court architect and artist, Giulio Romano.

Meanwhile Titian was setting his sights even higher. The Gonzagas were able to recommend him to the Habsburg Charles V, but the emperor proved a harder nut to crack. Again it was a woman, Charles's sister Maria, Empress of Hungary, who was first in the family to commission Titian. On loan here from the Prado is one of the artist's best-known likenesses of the emperor, 'Charles V With a Dog.'

Turning his attention to the papal court in Rome as a source of prestigious patronage, in 1542 Titian painted one of his most engaging images, of Pope Paul III Farnese's grandson, Ranuccio. This bore fruit a decade later when he painted Paul himself, one of the most famous of all his portraits (both pictures are here, from Washington and Naples respectively).

Among his aristocratic clientele Titian was in demand almost as much for his pictures of beautiful women and nudes as he was for his portraits. An intriguing canvas here, generally known simply as 'La Bella,' is of a sumptuously dressed figure whose facial features are almost identical to those of the Venus of Urbino (now on loan from the Uffizi to the 'Manet: The Return to Venice' exhibition at the Doge's Palace). Various suggestions have been advanced as to her identity, among them that she was a mistress of Francesco Maria della Rovere.

Two classic Titian nudes are here: the semi-clad 'Flora' (around 1517) and 'Danae.' The papal nuncio in Venice saw the latter in the artist's studio in 1544 while it was being painted - and hastened to inform Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who had commissioned it, that compared with this latest nude, the Venus of Urbino 'was a Theatine nun.'

Titian. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. Through June 16.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024