Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 15, 2008
Sylvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Sciré Late Titian and the Sensuality of Painting Exh. cat. Venice: Marsilio, 2008. 336 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9788831794121)
Exhibition schedule: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, October 18, 2007–January 6, 2008; Accademia, Venice, January 26–May 4, 2008
Titian, St. Margaret with the Dragon (ca. 1552). Oil on canvas. 211 x 182 cm. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Curated by Silvia Ferino-Pagden and Giovanna Nepi Sciré, the exhibition of late paintings by Titian initiated at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and continued with variations at the Accademia was rich in materials from which to learn more about the great Venetian artist. While the Venetian venue showed only twenty-eight paintings, these offered much upon which to meditate.

Occupying a space that was once the church of the Carità, and typically used at the Accademia for temporary shows, the paintings were displayed with artificial lighting. At first one wished for daylight, but with time one found that this arrangement worked. The rectangular venue was shaped by partitions that created three interconnected, irregularly shaped sections. Designed for the exhibition and painted a mottled, warm gray-brown, the partition surface was evidently inspired by the backgrounds of many of the paintings shown. The curved entrance wall and the technical wall were distinguished by their matte-red surfaces.

In the first and largest area, portraits filled the right wall while the perpendicular and opposite walls displayed mythological and allegorical paintings. Among the former, the Portrait of Paul III (1543) from Capodimonte; the Girl with Fan (1561; called “Lavinia” ), belonging to the Dresden Gemaldegalerie; and Titian’s famous late Self-Portrait of ca. 1562 from the Prado were outstanding in their quality. (In Vienna, Titian’s powerful Self-Portrait, possibly a version of one sold in 1549, from the Berlin Gemaldegalerie was included.) These examples were also, based upon the X-rays and infrared reflectographs on view and published in the catalogue, those least modified by Titian himself or by later hands. Each has a consistency in execution and a wholeness of vision that delighted the eye. When Titian reused a canvas or reworked his composition considerably, as in the more complex portrait of Jacopo Strada in his Studio (1566), the effect is, not surprisingly, less consistent. On a quiet early morning in the show, the wall of portraits showed Titian’s powers as a portraitist, each of his sitters a compelling presence.

The mythological and allegorical works that occupied the other walls of the first section again provided useful confrontations. The recently cleaned Danae (usually assigned to the 1550s but dated 1560–65 in the show) from Vienna, shown in the Vienna venue together with the Madrid version, was stunning. In Venice she was shown beside Venus Blinding Love (ca. 1565) and two versions of Tarquin and Lucretia (probably 1568–75) on the adjacent, perpendicular wall. The Danae has a sunny palette throughout, composed of lead white, red lake, gold to pale yellows, and light blue (seemingly ultramarine with lead white). The nude is modeled with care and in considerable detail. Although the old woman’s position was changed, the surface does not appear darkened. This is different from the adjacent Venus Blinding Love from the Borghese Gallery. Here a central figure (shown in the X-ray) was completely painted over and the area behind Venus’s head is rather flat and dark; while the faces of the women are beautiful, draperies of figures to the right partake of the same flatness. The sunny palette of Danae bathed in the light and love of Jupiter is contrasted with the dark palette of two versions of Tarquin overcoming Lucretia. The large version from Bordeaux may be additionally darkened by varnishes, since the red bed curtain is barely visible, but in both paintings black and red dominate. Tarquin’s britches in the Bordeaux version are red, as are his boots. Lucretia’s flesh is modeled with larger strokes than Danae’s and is grayer in tone. In the close-up version from Vienna’s painting academy, considered very late for its bold brushwork, the story is told with greater power and economy of means. Lucretia, still dressed, actively pushes Tarquin back, while his face, now in profile, is fiercely determined. In Vienna the exhibition included the equally dark Tarquin (before 1571) from Cambridge. The contrasting themes of welcomed and forced love are conveyed also by format: the Danae (in all the known versions) is horizontal, while the Tarquin and Lucretia paintings are vertical.

The following section of religious works included images of Christ of modest scale; the outstanding example is the Ecce Homo of ca. 1570–75 from the St. Louis Art Museum, which was paired with the half-length Ecce Homo (ca. 1560) from Dublin. The Madonna and Child (ca. 1560) from the Accademia (painted over a different image) is shown beside the later, rapidly depicted Madonna and Child of ca. 1565–70 from the National Gallery, London. Nearby was a fragment of a large unfinished Crucifixion (ca. 1565) from the Pinacoteca of Bologna showing the figures of Christ and the Good Thief. This is essentially a beautiful drawing in oil, thinly painted and almost monochrome, with grays, ochres, and browns of varying hues. In Venice the boldly painted St. Margaret with the Dragon (ca. 1552) from the Prado in dark tones was shown near a rarely exhibited Annunciation, after 1558, from San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, with a warm palette of white-gold, blue, rose, soft browns, and Gabriel depicted as a tender intruder. Of the many half-length images of Mary Magdalen by Titian and his shop, the Venice show included the lovely example from Capodimonte as well as a good version from a private collection, both dated to the 1560s. The signed Magdalen (early to mid 1560s) that was in Titian’s house at the time of his death and now belongs to the Hermitage appeared in Vienna.

The final three display walls grouped last paintings of various subjects: the Marsyas (for which S.J. Freedberg suggested a date ca. 1571) from the Archbishop’s palace in Kromeriz; the Nymph and Shepherd of ca. 1570–75, from Vienna; and Titian’s final Pietà, painted ca. 1576. The consistency of this group of very late works was evident in the especially loose brushwork and overlaying of multiple strata of pigments and glazes. Titian’s profoundly meditative last Pietà (usually in Room 10 of the Accademia) filled the central partition. The catalogue entry by Sciré details its history and earlier and recent findings about its materials and techniques. Composed of seven pieces of canvas, the picture had suffered paint losses by 1984 due to the varied weaves and preparation layers. Because of Titian’s abundant layering it has been difficult to assess the degree of work added by Palma Giovane after Titian’s death in the plague of 1576. It is clearly identifiable in the figure of the angel, which covers a sketched putto shown in X-rays and in the inscription by Palma. Infrared analysis by Paolo Spezzani and recent X-rays by Davide Bussolari reveal pentimenti in the little votive panel within the painting and in the statues of the Sybil and Moses.

Many paintings in the exhibition show the freedom and variations of method in which Titian worked. His reuse of canvases and his surprising supplementation of canvases (not just seaming, which was necessary since at the time looms were only about one meter wide) is unusual. Applying pigments with linseed or walnut oil as binder allowed this freedom because opaque pigment layers can cover, yet Titian also used numerous transparent glazes of oil with lakes so that layers affect each other and are seen together. Cross-sections of pigment illustrated in the catalogue supplement those previously published; for example, complex pigment layers in Marsyas and Nymph and Shepherd relate to examples from the Pietà published in 1990 (Tiziano/Titian, Venice: Doge’s Palace and Washington, National Gallery). Many compositional changes are documented in X-rays and infrareds (which reveal some brushed under-drawings) shown on the technical wall and published in the catalogue. One example is Religion Rescues Spain from the Prado; sent by Titian to Philip II in 1575, the picture as delivered that year had been modified from an earlier allegorical commission for the Duke of Ferrara, which is recorded in an engraving and revealed in X-ray. The exhibition illustrated repeatedly Titian’s remarkable investigations of how to employ oil on canvas to make powerful images. Clearly the event inspired great interest. There were long lines for tickets, and the Venetian show, scheduled to end April 20, was extended through May 4.

Awareness of Titian’s reuse of canvases and modifications of earlier compositions, in addition to the frequent replication of previous compositions by Titian and his shop, makes it easy to understand the varied opinions concerning the dating of works in the exhibition. Based on the careful modeling (evident also in the infrared), the splendid Danae from Vienna seems a decade earlier than the date of 1560–65 given by Robert Wald in his catalogue entry; yet Wald’s essay on the Danae replications is instructive, literally outlining the contours of Danae in eight versions.

In addition to the entries and technical sections already mentioned, the exhibition catalogue includes essays by numerous scholars. Introductory presentations by Sciré and Ferino-Pagden are followed by short essays by Charles Hope, Augusto Gentili, Fernando Checa, Giorgio Tagliaferro, Stefania Mason, and Bernard Aikema. Matters of process are addressed by Martina Griesser and Natalia Gustavson, Elke Oberthale, and Wald. The catalogue entries include the works shown in both venues and are grouped by category with essays preceding each: Miguel Falomir on portraits, Fernando Checa and Irina Artemieva on poesie, and Gentili on sacred themes. Entries are by these and other authors, depending on the source of the loan. First published in German in 2007 as Der späte Tizian und die Sinnlichkeit der Malerei (Wein: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), the catalogue is also available from Marsilio in Italian as L’ultimo Tiziano e la sensualità della pittura. The catalogue provides significant new data concerning Titian’s process, adding to data published in the Titian exhibition catalogues of 1990 and 2003 (Tiziano, Miguel Falomir, ed., Madrid: Museo del Prado).

Diana Gisolfi
Professor, Department of Art History, Pratt Institute