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The Poetics of Titian's Religious Paintings.

Una Roman D'Elia. The Poetics of Titian's Religious Paintings.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi + 266 pp. + 8 color pls. index. append. illus. bibl. $88. ISBN: 0-521-82735-3.

Studies on the relationship between painting and Renaissance literary theory have elucidated Titian's poesie and secular works. Here D'Elia takes on the challenging task of interpreting the impact of Renaissance poetics on his sacred subjects, revealing Titian's mediation of pagan models in the volatile religious climate of the Cinquecento. D'Elia examines the structural accord between literary genres and Titian's production, following an organic development from small, intimate works in the pastoral mode at the early stages of his career, through the large-scale, public, epic subjects of his old age. Derived from D'Elia's dissertation, the book studies decorum as a governing principle and the literary discourses that illuminate the reception of Titian's religious works.

D'Elia first addresses the adoption of the pastoral mode. Unexpected idyllic elements, foreign to Christian narratives, appear in appropriately small-scale, intimate paintings such as the Noli me tangere, works that articulate the relationships between theological meaning and lyric facture. The lack of visual hyperbole and the artificial humbleness of these works parallel Titian's Virgilian models, which were the basis of a longstanding tradition of Christian pastoral poetry. The eroticism inherent in the genre posed a problem for Titian's writer-friends, who circumvented it by resorting to pathetic fallacies. Titian advantageously combined the erotic and the elegiac elements of the pastoral to fitting subjects, such as the Noli me tangere, relying on the mimetic capability of painting: ornamental attention to detail contrasts the grandeur of tragic and epic works. Such differentiation reflects patronage and audience, as in his secular works.

Complementarily, chapter 4, "Christian Petrarchism," examines the paradoxical correspondence of eroticism to spiritual desire. Representations of Mary Magdalene were the locus of heated debates concerning Christian decorum, which provide a rich context for discussion. D'Elia's dialectic is particularly effective in this chapter, as it mimics Renaissance sentiments toward this difficult subject. The satire of Aretino's Saint Nafissa colorfully demonstrates the potential dangers of sensual Petrarchan imagery. However, the author notes, works such as the Pitti Mary Magdalene are hardly satirical. Titian relies, instead, on "virtuoso brushwork and inventive variety of forms and textures [that] are like the rhetorical colors of a Petrarchan poem" (102) and the current ambiguity of literary works to communicate both the tempting eroticism and the uplifting sacred love of the subject.

Titian relies on the lyric mode in approaching religious epic subjects. The Aristotelian contrast of lyric versus epic does not hinder the argument. Chapter 5, "Christian Epic," approaches the divergent fortunes of representations of the Annunciation. D'Elia contrasts Aretino's spurned literary rendering, from the I Quattro Libri de la humanita di Christo (1535) to Titian's celebrated versions, in Aretino's mimetic Annunciation the simulated representation of the opening of the heavens transforms the essentially spiritual subject into theatrical corporeality. Titian, however, adopts the lyric mode, in which a diegesis of colore terribile and pittura de macchia promotes the dissolution of a materiality apprehended as unorthodox, or even heretical, for the subject. The reversal of painting and writing modes further Titian's successful mediation of Counter-Reformatory decorum.

The tragic mode fulfills the requirements of the representation of Christian martyrdom. Chapter 2 treats the depiction of exemplary suffering. Concerned with ekphrasis rather than with literary genre, this exploration of the discourses surrounding the Laocoon as a model for depictions of martyr saints is highly informative, but perhaps would be more effective as part of the next chapter, "Christian Tragedy." There, the Martyrdom of St. Peter Martyr provides a point of departure for a discussion of the uses of violence in Titian's religious large-scale works. The chapter also provides an engaging view on the ambiguous taste for violence throughout the sixteenth century.

Paralleling Renaissance theories of literary discourse to Titian's paintings, D'Elia promotes new understandings of his changing styles, as well as of Counter-Reformation and Baroque representations. Although D'Elia does not linger on specific elements of poetic form, such as the transference of Petrarchan volta to the visual image, her well-informed discussions inevitably lead the reader to pursue such connections. The text encourages scholarly debate and contributes to a holistic understanding of the relationship between Titian's secular and sacred works. The appendix will greatly serve scholars of Titian and Italian Renaissance literature.


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Author:Gimenez-Berger, Alejandra
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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