Titian at the National Gallery.
The catalogue of the exhibition is a welcome token that the National Gallery is gradually returning to the scholarly standards set by the catalogues of Cecil Gould, although provenances are not given in full, and its editing is so far from punctilious that Gould would at least have inserted an errata slip. The painting known as Sacred and Profane Love is catalogued in detail as Item 10, but is not in the exhibition. To balance one mistake against another, Apollo and Marsyas, from Kromeriz, is present in the exhibition but absent, except as an illustration, in the catalogue. The three pictures of episodes from Virgil's Aeneid by Dosso Dossi have been confused in a way which shows an ignorance of both Virgil and Dosso. In particular, the one picture of unquestioned authenticity, once in Kenneth, Lord Clark's collection and now at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, is mistitled The Trojans on the Libyan Coast instead of The Sicilian Games. Since Dosso's pictures are barely visible, hung near the ceiling in the comic reconstruction of Alfonso d'Este's study, it would hardly matter, except in making the catalogue unreliable for future reference.
One opportunity the curators of the exhibition did not miss. It was an admirable notion to bring together, for the first time in four centuries, the Bellini and the three Titians from Alfonso's study in Ferrara; although it is surprising that nobody before thought of the simple plan of bringing together two paintings from Madrid, one from Washington and one from London.
Alfonso I presided over a sinister court at Ferrara. Alfonso's uncle Ugo had been executed for an improper association with his step-mother. Alfonso s cousin Nicolo was also beheaded, but buried with the dignity befitting his rank, for contesting the duchy with Alfonso's father. Alfonso himself, worryingly married to Lucrezia Borgia, imprisoned his brother (already blinded for abducting Lucrezia's sister from a third brother, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este) for twenty-seven years for sedition. A minor Ferrarese poet was stabbed to death for an attempted adulterous liaison with Lucrezia. In spite of such atrocities the d' Estes were munificent patrons of artists, poets and scholars. Alfonso's poet laureate was Ariosto and his court-painter Dosso Dossi. He commissioned Giovanni Bellini to paint The Feast of the Gods (Washington National Gallery) in 1514 to commemorate his marriage to Lucrezia twelve years previously. Over the years he added four more pictures: a Bacchanal, now lost, by Dosso and three renowned mythol ogical works by Titian. Although the d' Estes were avid in their search for the best painters, and rewarded them well, what sometimes deterred the artists of their choice was that these absolute rulers insisted on deciding the content of the pictures they asked for. Alfonso's sister Isabella, Marchioness of Mantua, wrote invenzioni, or programmes, for the paintings she ordered. She sent Perugino a sketch for his Battle between Love and Chastity (Louvre) and told him not to deviate from it.
Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods is loosely based on a conflation, perhaps at second hand, of two passages in Ovid: at a feast of the gods (here represented as the marriage feast of Alfonso as Neptune and Lucrezia as the mother-goddess Cybele) the garden-god Priapus was interrupted in his attempt on a nymph by the braying of Silenus's donkey. After that Priapus hated donkeys, which were sacrificed to him on his feast-day. The programme may have been devised by Cardinal Bembo, tutor to Affonso's son. Edgar Wind, the eminent iconologist, identified the figures in his monograph on the picture. Alfonso grips Lucrezia's entrejambes with a hand like a chastity-belt, as well he might. Ippolito d' Este, who negotiated the marriage-contract, is Mercury. Alfonso's son is the youthful Bacchus. Bellini himself is the wood god Silvanus. Bembo with great good humour takes on the role of Silenus.
A satyr and a nymph serve the gods fruit from blue-and-white Chinese bowls, probably imported through Venice. Half-distinct satyrs sport in the wood behind the gods. Titian later altered the background, painting out Dosso's intrusive architectural additions, which were doubtlessly prompted by Alfonso but then repented of. The primitive accoutrements of the gods suggest that Alfonso had improvised an open-air masque. Neptune's trident is an adapted pitchfork. Mercury's caduceus is a wrought-iron trim on a herald's wand, his helmet wingless a metal bowl. Fuddled Jove's eagle is a pet raven from the castle heights. Apollo holds a lute. The colours, like delicately tinted porcelain, of the gods, figurines rather than figures, accord with the unemphatic grace of the composition.
Titian's two 'Bacchanals' and his Worship of Venus were commisioned to match his master Bellini's Feast of the Gods. From 1519 to 1525 Titian added The Worship of Venus, Bacchus and Ariadne and The Adrians, in that order, to Bellini's initiatory work. A picture of Bacchus and Ariadne had been descnbed in Catullus's epyllion, or mini-epic, The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. 1500 years later Titian painted it: adding a few details, about Ariadne's distress at Theseus's desertion and bewilderment at Bacchus's arrival, from Ovid's Art of Love. Forlorn underneath an eight-starred circlet of stars in the crystalline fair-weather sky, Ariadne raises her arm in alarm and gathers up her heavy skirts as she prepares to flee from the whirl, the cymbals and alarm of Bacchus and his troupe. The hitherto silent island of Naxos has startlingly become populated with fauns and maenads and sileni and old Silenus himself swaying inebriate on his donkey. Plunging from his cheetah-drawn chariot, Bacchus looses arrows of longing f rom his eyes at Ariadne, and transfixes her in mid-flight. From the misery Theseus left her in, Bacchus will raise her even to the heavens. She shall become a constellation, the Corona Cressa, in the pellucid sky.
Three centuries later still, John Keats saw Titian's painting at the British Institute, the predecessor of the National Gallery. Daunted by bereavement and ill-health, and sustained only by his aspirations as a poet, he had lapsed briefly but heavily into drunkenness, though achieved in a gentlemanly enough fashion by his favourite French wine. (One could have a merry evening celebrating the poets in their best-loved wines: Goethe's Steinwein, Keats's claret and Baudelaire's Nuits St Georges, necessarily followed, the next morning by Byron's drastic remedy, hock and soda-water.) In Titian's picture he found a magical image for his farewell to excess:
Away! Away! Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy.
That one word, 'Away!' conveys so much about the picture: the departure of Theseus's ship, Ariadne's half-flight, the speed of the chariot now halted, and Bacchus's leap from it, the avid stream of Bacchantes through the forest, the carrying-off of Ariadne by the precipitate god. It is altogether more startling than most versions of the subject, such as Sebastiano Ricci's (Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg) in which Bacchus woos Ariadne, with solicitude in his face and child-like hope in hers.
Titian's foreground is marred by parts of sacrificed animals (a goat's haunch, presumably for roasting at an open-air feast, and the head of one of the donkeys detested by Bacchus's son Priapus) perhaps a literal following of Catullus's text insisted upon by Alfonso d' Este. In contrast, the sky and distant seascape are faultless. The sky, a glory of seven shades of blue streaked with white, reminds one of the famous letter from Pietro Aretino in which he congratulates Titian on the vista from his house in Venice, not impaired even when sea-fogged, but enhanced by a diffusion of sun-shot clouds and luminous hazes.
Catullus defined Bacchus and Ariadne in the first century B.C. The Andrians (Prado) was derived from the gabbling works of Philostratus, a Greek who wrote 400 years later, during the reign of the degenerate and almost insane Emperor Heliogabalus. Philostratus's dreary imagines, unreadable except by Renaissance humanists, such as the d' Este siblings and modern students of Iconology, were translated by command of Beatrice d' Este. She had lent the translation to her brother Alfonso who, to judge from her repeated requests for its return, studied it at length. He commissioned Titian to paint the Adrians in close accord with Philostratus's account. Andros was an island sacred to Dionysus (the Greek Bacchus), the god of all vegetation and in particular of vineyards. According to the gullible Elder Pliny's Natural History, when each January Dionysus visited the island the springs ran with wine instead of water. Philostratus in turn described Andros as a land of Cockaigne for inebriates. In Titian's picture, tippli ng has led to licentiousness. Only four figures are fully dressed. Four men and a pale, hillocky woman reclining in a stupor are quite naked. As Fritz Saxl noticed in his lifelong study of Titian, the artist borrowed, here as elsewhere, from figures on Roman sarcophagi, altars and friezes: the bearer and the server of the wine-tub, the dancing Maenad and the tipsy piddling putto. The course of the rivulet of wine, from which a Bacchante is scooping a jugful, is confused, perhaps through the deterioration of the paint or through inept restoration. It seems to run down the hill from the flat-out river god, to turn left towards the Venetians in their shirts and shifts, then revert towards the women garbed in the style of sixteenth-century Venice.
Titian's own era is conflated with a vision of classical antiquity, as in Giorgione's Fete Champetre, sometimes attributed to Titian. The women in the costume of Titian's Venice have just stopped playing the tune of a contemporary French drinking song on Renaissance flutes. The flying draperies of the half-clad figures behind them are of silk, unknown in the time of Heliogabalus. Giorgione's Fete Champetre has been transformed into a drunken spree on Andros, independently of myth famous for its wine, and in Titian's age a Venetian colony.
The Worship of Venus is again suggested by Philostratus's glib Greek Imagines; possibly also by Virgil's account of Aeneas's encounter in the Underworld with the generations clamouring to be born, an episode in the Aeneid in turn prompted by Plato's doctrine of pre-existence in Phaedrus and The Symposium. The services of Venus in her mundane form would clearly be necessary for that, and therefore these winged infant souls would throng to worship her, seeking fruition like the apples they gather. A scholar with the advantage of a patrician education in his native Cadore, Titian would have known, directly or at second hand, the story of the Sixth Book of the Aeneid, where the unborn souls are aspiring to an earthly existence. It has been absurdly suggested that Titian did not come from Florence and so could not be aware of Florentine Neo-Platonism; yet he knew Cardinal Bembo well and painted his portrait -- Bembo, who kept a candle burning before a bust of Plato. Titian may well have twisted Philostratus's scen ario around into something more meaningful. Rank on turbulent rank the infants balance themselves, their midriffs pushed out, on tottering legs, or creep along the ground, or support themselves on their male or female comrades; even, in anticipation of their lives to come, clinging to each other. Below Venus Cupid distributes his arrows. Some heavily test their wings as they fly about the wooded landscape, only to plunge heavily into the apple-trees, or the long files of cherubic flesh. Titian used the same winged putti in his Ascension of the Virgin (Santa Maria Gloriosa, Venice; not exhibited in London). The figure of Venus herself looks strangely animated for a statue, and seems tempted to glance into the mirror held up to her. Her two female attendants are in the costume of Titian's own time, perhaps to suggest that the future progeny is that of his contemporaries, such as the prolific d' Estes.
The Three Ages of Man (from the Duke of Sutherland's Collection, without which the Edinburgh National Gallery would be impoverished) of c. 1515 may prefigure the theme of regeneration. The painting is perhaps an incomplete canvas by Giorgione - one of his many orphans - finished by the young Titian. That is suggested by the soft Giorgionesque aureole around the white hair and beard of the old man brooding over two skulls in the distance and his close resemblance to St Joseph in Giorgione's Nativities in London and Washington; by the tawny face (as in Giorgione's male portraits in general and his own self-portrait in Brunswick) of the youth; and by the rawer and sharper coloration of the maiden playing music with the youth and of the two inert putti later to awake in The Worship of Venus. The subject may be The Three Ages of Man in the sense of decline and revival. Cupid clambers over the roots of a dead tree and the unroused putti, towards the two lovers. He advances like the newborn children who revive manki nd at the end of Holbein's Dance of Death. A future generation seeks birth, and the lovers leave their music: the maiden wears a myrtle marriage-wreath.
In the so-called Sacred and Profane Love (Borghese Gallery, Rome; not exhibited in London), Venus flings aside a flame-coloured robe and holds a flaring lamp aloft as she advises a bride; a subject not uncommon in Greek sculpture and vase-ornament. They are watched by two rabbits, experts in the subject of Venus's tuition. The bride draws roses from a pot of ashes, whilst Cupid dips his hand into a spring which wells inside a sarcophagus. The allegory is not about the Platonists' Venus Urania and Venus Pandemos (intellectual and carnal love) but still relates to Plato's doctrine of regeneration. All around flowers burgeon from fertile pastures under a dawn-marbled sky.
The intensity of Titian's sky adds an eclat, otherwise lacking, to the pageantlike gatherings of the Holy Family in two pictures in the exhibition from the London National Gallery: The Holy Family with a Shepherd, in which Mary with conventionally lowered eyes and Joseph with proprietorial pride allow their child to receive the young peasant's homage; and The Aldobrandini Madonna, in which St Catherine devotedly watches the antics of the infant Jesus, whom she holds in her arms, whilst Mary warily holds up His head. The Madonna with a Rabbit (Louvre) is livelier. With amusement mingled with concern, Mary steadies her child as He slips from St Catherine's inexpert arms in His eagerness to play with the spruce white rabbit that Mary soothes with her other hand.
St Catherine's pearl headband and Venetian silks and satins offer a clue: almost to the last, but not quite, Titian imported myths and biblical episodes into his own age, although more lightly than Titian's artistic son, as Veronese styled himself. In the picture at the Civic Museum in Ancona, St Francis in the twelfth century adores the appearance of the Madonna and Child in the clouds above the Doge's palace in Venice, built 300 years later. St Christopher trudges across the Grand Canal, oppressed by Jesus's weight, in the picture in the Ducal Palace, Venice. Thus in his Urbino Venus in the Uffizi Gallery Titian brings Giorgione's Sleeping Venus indoors, with some change of posture, into a luxurious chamber as a patrician lady in a reverie, naked on a bed with a lapdog as she waits for her maids to unpack her clothes from a wedding chest. Titian, a citizen of mercantile Venice, exalted in the materially sumptuous, including rare pigments (lapis lazuli from central Asia, transalpine azurite, orpiment, dyers' red lake which he sent for when in Augsburg by the half-pound, and the local vermilion and unsurpassed lead white) which trade brought to the wharves on the 'precious strand' of the Republic that 'once did hold the gorgeous East in fee'. Even in an imaginative composition Titian painted the world as he perceived, not envisaged it.
Did Titian, in his Urbino Venus, record naputal preparations in the ducal household of the Roveres at Urbino? His Venus has a marked facial resemblance to Eleonora Gonzaga, who married into the Rovere family in 1509, about thirty years before he painted the Urbino Venus. Is the face that of a member of the family? One naturally assumes that the nude figure was that of a professional model, or derived from his enhanced memory of the Dresden Venus, which it resembles in many respects. This was not the era when Napoleon and his sister Pauline Borghese posed naked for Canova. He painted his portrait of Eleonora at about the same time as the Urbino Venus. Bonnard depicted his wife as a bathing sylph when she was past sixty, but Eleonora was forty-two years old (regarded as youngish nowadays) in a period when frequent child-bearing and an unhealthy way of life wrought havoc with women, especially sedentary aristocrats. She was well past her Venus days, although time had added to her face only a sterner look. Titian may have attempted an audacious recall of past time and, by deduction, recreated Eleanora's s marriage in retrospect. That would explain the eagerness of her family to remove it in haste from Titian's studio.
Sane and even, Titian aspired neither to the wild poetry of Tintoretto nor to the festooned amplitude of his other artistic legatee Veronese. As J.A. Symonds (an art-lover more acute as a critic than exact as an historian) lamented, Titian was so unsurprising, at least in his early work, that it is hard to say anything more startling about him than that he was admirable and without excess. He could be trite, as when he added a cupid and a dove, fortunately now expunged, to Giorgione's Dresden Venus. That so-called Venus is, in fact, not Venus but a frugal Sleeping Nymph (based on an antique statue also used by Cranach the Elder in his series, Nymph beside a Fountain) in a glowing landscape characteristic of Giorgione. Titian admired that landscape so much that he replicated part of it loosely in Sacred and Profane Love and exactly in Noli Me Tan gere (London National Gallery). Mary Magdalene genuflects, curved and catlike, to the risen Christ in front of the Giorgionesque dark-gold village on a low hill, whil st dawn floods the distant woods with a swell-tide of blue. That Giorgione himself painted the village landscape in the Dresden Venus is confirmed by his repetition of it in his Sunset with Saints (London National Gallery) and, with some variation and dispersal, in his Hermitage Madonna and his Adoration of the Shepherds in the Washington National Gallery. Evidence of Titian's additions to the Dresden Venus after Giorgione's death (apart from the officious Cupid and dove) is too uncertain, and has been too boldly interpreted for Giorgione to be denied his exquisite village.
Titian painted from observation, but with a selective exactness. He had little regard for verisimilitude. A portrait should not be a counterfeit of someone's exterior. His portrait of Franqois I, whom Titian had never met, is a sharply dexterous design based on previous images (notably a medal by Cellini) and reports of the king; but, more than that, it is an icon of swaggering jovial intelligence. Nine years after the death of Isabella of Portugal her husband the Emperor Charles V commissioned Titian, who had never seen her in person, to paint her portrait. Deploying his amazing deductive powers on crude earlier representations he elicited a likeness which the Emperor sharply recognised. The pale fragrance that Titian distilled from an ill-rendered past may be seen in the Prado. So moved was the Emperor that he asked Titian to paint a strange double portrait: of the arthritic ageing Emperor with his young wife as she was in her prime some twenty years previously. The picture, now lost, survives only in a cop y by Rubens. However free the copy, the poignant imagery survives. The Emperor holds a faltering conversation with his much loved, now departed, wife over a gap in time represented by the clock between them, which both divides them and brings them together in the Emperor's memory, where they still commune. He painted them for the last time in his Trinity in Glory, ushered by angels into the divine presence.
Titian hovered between deliberate and spontaneous delineation for many years. In his Flora (Uffizi), painted as early as 1518, the nails of the jointless fingers are indicated only where they catch flecks of light: something like the smile of the vanished Cheshire cat. Eighteen years later he followed it with La Bella (Palazzo Pitti; not exhibited in London), precise in every detail. The 1543 portrait of the Famese Pope Paul Ill (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples) neglects not a shrewd wrinkle in the small purposive face which shapes the contours of the flossy beard, every hair of it seemingly traced from its porous origin to the final outflow, which is tinted scarlet by the reflection of his cope. The velvet cope, observably stitched to its thin fur lining, is rutted with light in its seams and creases. Its bagginess on the scrawny Pope's shoulders contrasts with the taut, nailed-down stretch of the upholstered velvet of his chair. From the loose sleeves of his surplice (white once more tinged with rubious shadow s), emerge long hands whorled with loose-skinned knuckles.
Two or three years later Titian painted Paul 111 with two of the sons of his bastards, in slacker outline but more revealing guise (Museo di Capodimonte: not exhibited in London). The Pope has become, as in a fable, an android fox, sitting in a predatory crouch, his nose a long twitch, his large blotched hand a forepaw with a papal ring on one claw, his eyes acute and approving as he fixes them upon his grandson Ottavio Farnese. The roughly drawn lizard-like Ottavio, half-genuflecting, has brought news that pleases the pontiff. The other grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, reflects, receding into the murk, on his brother's information. In such councils Paul III decided to excommunicate Henry VIII of England, and empowered the Counter Revolution. In this ambience the Pope, versed in classical epic, devised the programme for Michelangelo's Last Judgement, in which a warrior Christ thunderbolts the stunted damned.
For a while the Farnese vied with the Habsburgs as Titian's patrons. His prices were too high for the Venetian grandees, who were as careful as himself with money, whilst the religious orders vexed him with quibbles and indecision. The first version of Danae in the Shower of Gold (Museo di Capodimonte) was painted for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who looks such a mild innocent in Titian's portrait of him in 1545. Danae watches reverently Jove descending in a cloud of gold, whilst Eros looks up in admiration at the dexterity with which the god has penetrated the tower of brass in which Danae is confined. Had Titian been able to think of gold otherwise than as minted coins, the painting could have been seen as the earth fertilised with enriching rain under the auspices of Eros, the first cause of generation.
The increasing cynicism, perhaps fostered by his friend, the humorist Aretino, with which Titian treated the story of Danae was prompted by the suggestion that gold can pierce even walls of brass. The Prado Danae, painted to order for Philip II of Spain, reduces myth to scurrility by the introduction of a swarthy and ill-clad procuress, who anxiously catches the coins in her apron. A lapdog lies beside Danae on the bed. Although her limbs remain as tanned as a hamadryad's, and the gold falls in a fiery rain swirl from rolling indigo clouds, the earth-goddess has become a small-time call-girl. At least Jove does not ride as a raddled clapped-out rake on the cloud of gold, as in Tiepolo's version in Stockholm.
The more impulsive approach which Titian chose for Paul III and his Grandsons stemmed not from weak draughtsmanship but from his renunciation of an exact linearity. His style had always varied. In his later pictures he began to paint exuberantly on linen canvas, primed only with gesso (a glue which prevented the canvas from soaking up the oil), loosely woven by a local sail maker. Fine detail was impossible on such a surface, wholly unlike the tightly woven and thickly primed canvas of his early paintings. For the early paintings he made careful under-drawings, then sometimes ignored them. He drew St Joseph's head meticulously in the Holy Family with a Shepherd, then obliterated it with a streak of blue sky before redrawing it at a lower level.
Shakespeare, having observed dramatic plausibility in some thirty dramas, wearied of the tricks of stagecraft in his last plays. 'This fierce abridgement/ Hath to it circumstantial branches which/ Distinction should be rich in', says the eponymous king at the end of Cymbeline: this curt summary lacks circumstantial detail. In other words, Shakespeare has tired of aping the causations and connections of life outside the stage. In the same way Titian dismisses the notion that his pictures were surrogates for reality; particularly in the 'poesies' he painted for Philip II, such as The Pursuit of Actaeon (London National Gallery). Driven into a coppice embrowned with deeply opulent autumnal dusk, by a shallow-busted nymph with heavy muscular legs, Actaeon and the hounds ravening him are amalgamated in one precipitate upsweep of pigments.
In the Madonna and Child (London National Gallery) of about 1570 the oil paints are rubbed and thumbed in like pastels. The inchoate figures of the late Rape of Lucretia (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), with its lumbering ogreish Tarquin and its Lucretia like a blonde bear, explain why Philip H started to refuse Titian's 'poesies' on the grounds that Titian was so old that his eyesight had failed. Yet the change in Titian's style was not due to infirmity. With his signature on the sole of Lucretia's pantoffle he affirmed that the picture was a fantasy; also that he had finished the picture to his own satisfaction: that some of his other late pictures are unfinished is beyond doubt. Tarquin's riding boots, tabard and disordered velvet trunkhose press the story forward from the genesis of the Ancient Roman republic to the heyday of the Venetian republic. As in Shakespeare's early poem on the subject, The Rape of Lucrece, the anachronisms move the story forward from the particular to the universal.
With these hardly cheerful 'poesies' Titian sent Philip some of his last religious scenes, no longer sparkling like his early images of the Holy Family, but scenes of Christ's Passion beneath turbulent skies, gloomy but still tremulous with the light of Titian's near-island; transiently multicoloured by a shifting nacreous empyrean and the ever-changing sea, its vast level horizon tipped with flaring sunrises and sunsets.
Titian continues at the National Gallery until 18 May For the latest recorded information please telephone 020 7747 5898. (www.nationalgallery.org.uk)
RELATED ARTICE: Art Notes: Five Sacraments by Poussin
Munificently, the Earl of Rutland has made over to the National Gallery, on long-term loan, five of Poussin's first series of The Sacraments: two short of the full seven, since Penance was lost in a fire and Baptism was regrettably sold many years ago. As in the Duke of Sutherland's revised second series at the Edinburgh National Gallery, the milieu is that of a province of Imperial Rome, which suited the antiquarian Poussin. The Eucharist records Christ's breaking of the bread at the Last Supper. As Christ splits the bread against his red cloak, a simulmacrum of blood runs through it. The frugal meal is served at triclinia below hanging oil-lamps in the high-ceilinged murk. In Ordination an awed St Peter receives the keys in cupped hands as a Pharisee creeps past, reading a scroll, and Judas mutters into his fuzzy red beard. Confirmation takes place in a Byzantine basilica to signify the spread of Christianity. Children are cajoled towards the welcoming priest by mothers as shy as they. As in the four other pictures, one glimpses a passing figure, perhaps the wraith of paganism. Marriage is the marriage of Mary and Joseph. Poussin's long-nosed women, in a harmony of colours, display the neck-craning interest usual at wedding ceremonies. A relay of deacons passes the sanctified cruse of oil to the exhausted man on his strait Roman bed in Extreme Unction. That the vision of paganism did not disappear from Poussin's mind is evident from his harmless pictures of nymphs and satyrs on the opposite wall of the room. One hopes that Poussin's early Sacraments will remain on loan in London as benignly long as the later Sacraments have remained in Edinburgh.