Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 9, 2004
Paul Joannides Titian to 1518: The Assumption of Genius New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 352 pp.; 146 color ills.; 128 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0300087217)
Charles Hope Titian Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2003. 192 pp.; 146 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (1857099044)
The National Gallery, London, February 19–May 18, 2003
Paul Joannides’ elegantly written and superbly illustrated book constitutes a significant addition to the study of Renaissance art history. With substantial attention given to the vast body of earlier opinion—both recent and remote—he embraces the challenge of early cinquecento Venetian painting, an arena of far-reaching innovation but one that is exceptionally vexed with unresolved questions of authorship and date. The subject is therein vulnerable to speculation and subjectivity concerning directions of influence among the major protagonists and their responses and contributions to humanist culture and to Central Italian and Northern European art. Always keeping in sight the complexity of this context and the partial character of our knowledge of it (a list of key pictures unknown prior to the seventeenth century or later is provided on p. 1), Joannides sets out to clarify our perception of what the young Titian took from his artistic environment. He also strives to track the artist’s achievements and motivations throughout the decade signaled at one end by the Fondaco dei Tedeschi frescos and at the other by the Frari Assunta, the latter being in Titian’s oeuvre “the equivalent of the Sistine ceiling in Michelangelo’s or the Stanza della Segnatura in Raphael’s” (285), the work that “elevated him not merely to primus inter pares but to a stellar level from which he never declined” (285).

Joannides articulates his aims—which importantly include asking “what messages are [Titian’s] images constructed to communicate?” (5)—in an introduction that also offers a detailed historiographic review supplemented by a table (300–11) of opinions, found in Bernard Berenson’s lists and in monographs on Titian from Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s of 1877 to Filippo Pedrocco’s of 2000, on the attribution and dating of works discussed in the text. The first of the book’s fifteen chapters is devoted to “Origins,” the second to Giorgione. Accepting Titian’s birth date as ca. 1488 or “perhaps as late as 1490” (9), Joannides examines Lodovico Dolce’s construction of Titian’s successive phases of training with Sebastiano Zuccato, Gentile Bellini, Giovanni Bellini, and Giorgione. Joannides suggests that association with members of the Zuccato family, who are best known as mosaicists, may have encouraged Titian’s facility in conceiving large-scale figures and attuned him to coloristic surface design. Evidence of a connection with Gentile, to whom the author notes Titian would have been drawn by his ambition to execute prestigious historical narratives, is offered in a now missing work signed by Gentile (fig. 5) and reworked after Titian’s Madonna fresco in the Ducal Palace. That Titian not only sought out Giovanni Bellini for his mastery of oil technique and its potential to evoke mood through light, but also adopted him as his role model, is aptly observed vis-à-vis parallels in their careers as acclaimed “aristocrat[s] of the brush” (13) who also efficiently maintained workshops for the solid business of producing copies.

Joannides accepts the currently strongly favored attribution of the Allendale Nativity (Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art) to Giorgione and assigns to him as well, rather than to Titian, the strongly contested Christ Carrying the Cross of ca. 1509 (Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco), cited by the author with regard to a revival of interest in Venice in the art of Andrea Mantegna following his death in 1506, an interest adduced for Titian’s military frieze from the Fondaco (Venice, Ca d’Oro, Galleria Giorgio Franchetti). Joannides embraces instead the Bellinesque Flight into Egypt (Saint Petersburg, Hermitage), placing it at ca. 1507–8 with retouching ca. 1510, as his reference point for Titian’s earliest extant works. Dating the Allendale Nativity to ca. 1505–6, the author sets aside the backdating of Giorgione’s career that has been widely accepted during the past quarter century. He also queries Leonardo da Vinci’s climactic impact in 1500 on Venetian painting, a hypothesis vigorously promoted a decade ago. Noting that the lighting of Giorgione’s Self Portrait as David anticipates Caravaggio’s and that Caravaggio apparently eschewed preparatory drawing, he tantalizingly proposes that Vasari’s claim that Giorgione did likewise is aimed precisely to this type of composition in Giorgione’s oeuvre. Downplaying the influence on Titian of Giorgione’s idiosyncratic subject matter, Joannides emphasizes that of Giorgione’s technique. Attention is here warranted, however, to Jill Dunkerton’s indication, rather, of the priority of Sebastiano Luciani (later called “del Piombo”) and Titian in Venice in the use of oil colors applied with openly visible brushwork and its anticipation in Giovanni Bellini’s London (National Gallery) Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan.1

The chapters that follow are mainly devoted to close observation of an often small group of works assembled according to obvious or newly argued common aims. Chapter 8 provides excursus on Sebastiano, chapter 12 assembles a sizable number of portraits, and the final two deal respectively with Titian and printmaking and with the great Frari Assunta installed 19 May 1518. These chapters typically begin with extensive commentary on germane social, political, and “art-political” (139) circumstances. Archival and literary documentation is thoughtfully analyzed, with frequent reference to Charles Hope’s ongoing investigations. Joannides’ treatment of the Fondaco and Scuola del Santo frescos in Padua (chapters 4 and 7) is indeed outstanding for detailed discussion of the sites and assembly of illustrations that document and explicate each commission.

Anchored to analysis of continuities and advances in compositional, coloristic, anatomical, and narrative structure, Joannides’ definition of Titian’s early oeuvre is also argued throughout the book within a rich context of concerns to which the author brings particular expertise. Incorporating information from recent technical studies, including some as yet unpublished by host institutions (such as the Nativity composition detected by x-radiography beneath the Hermitage Flight), he pays close attention to condition, execution, and choice of support. Joannides postulates site-specificity for certain works of unknown provenance. In support of attribution and relative dating, he advances determinations of individuals who repeatedly posed for Titian. For example, the author assumes a particular model for Titian’s Lochis Madonna (Bergamo, Accademia Carrara) and the female protagonist in Christ and the Adulteress (Glasgow, Art Gallery), dating both paintings to probably 1510; he further suggests that she posed for both female figures in the Louvre Concert Champêtre, which he assigns to Titian and dates—after Giorgione’s death—to probably 1511. In order to flesh out our picture of what the young artist did and saw, Joannides draws on a remarkable fund of information on painted or graphic copies and variants of Titian’s work and of the invenzioni of his contemporaries, including instructive text illustrations and compilations of data sometimes otherwise accessible only in museum files.

The author’s conversance with Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s works lends particular authority to generally balanced observations on Titian’s borrowings and underlies insights on the timing and possible mechanisms of transmission of motifs. However, despite his compelling comparison of the Christ Child in the Yale University Art Gallery’s Circumcision with that in Raphael’s Virgin and Child drawing in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, it may be noted that the animated pose of the former cannot itself be labeled extra-Venetian, given the splayed leg and turned head of the infant in Giovanni Bellini’s Vienna Presentation in the Temple (Kunsthistorisches Museum) or the similarly complexly movemented Child in Bellini’s early Lochis Madonna in Bergamo (Accademia Carrara). Joannides brings iconographic analysis rooted in familiarity with ancient and Renaissance literature to bear on many specific pictures and further provides methodological commentary of potentially broad application for the interpretation of secular narrative and allegory. Especially noteworthy are chapters 5 (“Small Panels,” in which the photo captions for the two Adonis panels in Padua and those for illustrations of the corresponding stories in the 1497 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on pp. 78 and 79, are transposed) and 13 (“Ferrara and the Half-lengths”). Often describing works by analogy to the structures of grammar, poetry, and music, the author makes exceptionally skillful use of language to focus the reader’s eye. Although uneven, the endnotes abound in quotation of literary passages and remarks by other scholars and include significant further commentary.

Joannides offers reassessments of authorship and date for numerous works in addition to those already so mentioned. The votive portrait of Jacopo Pesaro (Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts), often dated as early as 1506, is placed at 1513 and is meaningfully viewed as representing a phase of Titian’s restudying principles of Bellini’s art rather than as reflecting Bellini’s immediate tutelage. Joannides’ revised dating indeed presages conclusions drawn since the picture’s recent cleaning, as reported by Caroline Campbell in the exhibition catalogue reviewed below (cat. no. 3). Other proposals are likely to prove more controversial: that for dating the Tobias (Venice, Accademia) to probably 1514 and acknowledging its debt to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam; claim of the Dresden Sleeping Woman entirely for Titian ca. 1514; attribution to Titian, rather than Giorgione, of the Berlin Young Man and the Hampton Court Young Shepherd; and insistence on 1517 as the date of first issue of the Triumph of Christ woodcut.

Perhaps the least felicitous grouping of pictures is that presented in chapter 3 (“Titian’s Marian Cycle”): the Saint Petersburg Flight into Egypt, generally identified as the work Vasari records in Andrea Loredan’s residence in Venice; the Visitation (Venice, Accademia, often alternatively attributed to Sebastiano), convincingly argued by Joannides to have entered the Accademia’s collection from the church of Sant’Andrea, Venice; and the Nativity with Shepherds (Houston, Museum of Fine Arts), documented as the high altarpiece of San Giuseppe, Belluno (founded in 1507 as a reward from the Republic for Bellunese resistance to Maximilian’s passage through the Veneto2) and usually assigned to Francesco Vecellio, who, as Joannides reports (44), received a payment for it in 1524. Noting their common height, light source, and indications of reworking, Joannides speculates that the three large pictures were originally designed for a projected Marian cycle and later adapted to other purposes. Even if readers were to accept his attribution to Titian of the Visitation and Nativity (and his dating of the latter), the disparity in the scale of figures to landscape would remain problematic to this hypothesis. I would propose, however, that the law of Occam’s razor, with which Joannides claims to have edited his book (5), may now be better applied to the origins of these three works.

The simplest explanation for the origin of the Houston Nativity with Shepherds, the prime subject for Saint Joseph altarpieces in the Veneto during the early cinquecento,3 is surely as a commission for the high altar of San Giuseppe, Belluno. (The figural composition it shares with the Allendale Nativity—with Joseph at the center—is likely to depend from a common prototype specifically designed as a Saint Joseph altarpiece in response to his rapidly growing cult.) The Visitation appears to have been conceived as an altarpiece and would most likely have been intended for an altar dedicated to the devotion of the Visitation, manifest in Venice in the fifteenth-century foundation of the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione and the establishment in 1501 of a Visitation confraternity at a chapel of the Visitation in the church of San Cassiano. That the Hermitage Flight into Egypt was initially intended—along with Sebastiano’s same-sized Judgment of Solomon (Wimborne Minster, Dorset Bankes Collection, The National Trust), a politically charged theme in Venice—for the Palazzo Loredan-Vendramin-Calergi is construed by Joannides (43, 49) and others as inexplicable. It may in fact be understood with regard to the political tenor of Joseph’s contemporary cult in Venice.4 Dedications to Joseph proliferated in the Veneto at the time of Turkish conflict at the end of the quattrocento and during the Cambrai Wars, the period when Andrea Loredan—hero of a naval confrontation with the Turks in 1499—rose to fame in the service of the state. In the same year, a chapel honoring Saint Joseph was erected in Udine’s cathedral to commemorate the expulsion of the Turks from Friuli, and a confraternity of devotion to the saint was founded at the church of San Silvestro in Venice. It was the Venetian Senate, rather than a religious body, that established San Giuseppe di Castello on 25 June 1512, two months after the Battle of Ravenna, to honor Saint Joseph as protector and defender of the Venetian State and all its people. The Flight into Egypt cannot but be emblematic of Joseph’s perceived power to protect Venice and the Church (both symbolized by Mary) in troubled times. Surely Loredan’s request for Titian’s Flight may further be seen as precedent for Marino Grimani’s request to Jacopo Bassano, a few years after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, for a picture of the same subject for his residence.

Controversy about Titian’s early work “seems destined to continue,” as Hope remarks (15) in the exhibition catalogue reviewed below, and as is there apparent. The importance of Titian to 1518: The Assumption of Genius lies not in Joannides’ having discovered the “truth,” but rather in its function as a masterful synthesis of the results of many approaches to his subject in recent scholarship and its capacity, even when prompting variant conclusions, to compel fresh perceptions of individual pictures and their relationship one to another.

The National Gallery’s impressive assembly in the spring of 2003 of forty-two paintings by Titian well represented the span of his career and importantly reunited, for the first time since their dispersal in the early seventeenth century, the four great extant Bacchanals commissioned for Alfonso d’Este’s camerino in the ducal residential complex in Ferrara. The exhibition was subsequently mounted in Madrid at the Prado in a greatly expanded variant version accompanied by a separate catalogue. As David Jaffé observes in his introduction to the London catalogue, the eleven paintings by Titian in the National Gallery’s collection were the driving force behind the London exhibition, conceived in 1999 by then Clore Curator Nicholas Penny, and account for the selection of loans that served to provide context for them. The strength of the publication lies in the four expert essays that precede the catalogue proper and in Penny’s carefully considered entries for the London pictures, such as those for Bacchus and Ariadne and the Vendramin family portrait (cat. nos. 13, 29).

In marked contrast to the huge volumes published in conjunction with major exhibitions of Venetian cinquecento painting held during the 1990s,5 Titian is portably slim and accessibly priced. It nonetheless contains a sumptuous array of color plates, including details of works exhibited, technical photographs, and comparative illustrations. The catalogue entries are usually brief, with skeletal bibliographic data. They are divided into sections (“Foundations,” “Alfonso d’Este’s Camerino,” “The 1530s: Landscapes,” “Titian in the 1540s,” and “Late Titian”) introduced by general remarks written by the editor. Jaffé’s texts and catalogue entries are written to appeal to a broad audience. The reader is advised that various states of the publication were produced during the run of the show. They served to correct factual and editorial errors that had appeared in the first (including the directional indication on the plan of the camerino on p. 101), but new problems (for example, migration of the photo caption from p. 74 to p. 84) were introduced. An entry on “Sacred and Profane Love” (ca. 1514, Rome, Galleria Borghese, cat. no. 10) was amended to record that the picture, originally expected, was not exhibited. Included in the exhibition but lacking entries in the publication were three sections of Dosso Dossi’s Aeneas frieze from the camerino in Ferrara and Titian’s Crucifixion (Ancona, San Domenico) and Flaying of Marsyas (Kromerìz, Palace of the Archbishop).

The first of the four essays is Charles Hope’s “Titian’s Life and Times.” The reader has the benefit of the author’s matchless familiarity with documentation relevant to Titian’s biography and career. Through fast-paced discussion of the artist’s commissions and relationships with family and friends, he provides a succinct view of sixteenth-century European politics, society, learning, and patronage. Placing Titian in his times, Hope fosters appreciation of the extent to which Titian was socially extraordinary in his successful promotion of erotic paintings among the elite and in his friendships with diverse men of prominence. On the painter’s early work, the author maintains attribution to Titian of the disputed Christ Carrying the Cross of ca. 1509 and early dating of the Accademia Tobias and the Antwerp votive portrait of Jacopo Pesaro—and possibly of the Triumph woodcut—as well as his argument for considering attribution to Domenico Mancini (a painter known from a signed and dated work of 1512 in the Catherdal of Lendinara [near Rovigo]) of the Concert Champêtre. The author concludes by challenging the precept of a “late style,” with attention to relative states of finish observed in Titian’s works from his final years.

The question of variety of finish among Titian’s paintings and that of contemporary reception of his technique are also addressed in Jennifer Fletcher’s “Titian as a Painter of Portraits.” Fletcher presents her topic with insight, precision, and wit. Smoothly incorporating into her initial overview of Titian’s portraits a quantity of precise documentary and literary details relevant to his practice as a portraitist, she leads the reader to an appreciation of the extent to which each portrait was “tailor-made for each sitter” (37), with no compositional formula repeated (except in workshop replicas). Particular attention is paid thereafter to the several key portraits included in the exhibition and to the historic impact of Titian’s portraiture on reception of his work in England.

“Titian at Work” combines Jill Dunkerton’s “Titian’s Painting Technique” and Miguel Falomir’s “Titian’s Replicas and Variants.” Dunkerton’s experience as a conservator of Venetian Renaissance pictures and her meticulous and inspired care to synthesize the observations of modern technical analysis with scrutiny of the sixteenth-century written record are brought to bear in a brief summary of what is now known of Titian’s support, glazing, ground application, choice of pigments, and paint layering. She importantly observes that detectable revisions, such as those of the Tribute Money (cat. no. 32), reflect Titian’s preoccupation with “the moment of engagement between two figures” (46). Detailed discussion and illustration of laboratory finds for the Nativity with a Shepherd, Noli me tangere, Vendramin portrait, Fitzwilliam Museum Tarquin and Lucretia, and Death of Actaeon (cat. nos. 2, 7, 29, 36, 37) follow. With particular reference to cognate compositions included in the exhibition, Falomir broadly outlines Titian’s practice of borrowing from other artists, repeating his own compositions, and producing copies and replicas. The author examines what can be learned about Titian’s replicative methods from x-radiography and infrared reflectography by comparing the Prado’s two versions of the Entombment and of the Venus with an Organist. Illustrations that superimpose tracings of the contours of each pair are included (figs. 31, 36).

The two publications here reviewed thus indicate the importance in current Titian studies of ongoing technical analysis of individual pictures, its responsible and prompt reporting, and the considered review of the fast-accumulating data, so gleaned, as a whole. Clear too is the benefit not only of pursuing archival documentation but also of the complementary effort to reconsider known facts afresh and apart from historiographic prejudice. The benefits of plumbing the deepening resources of information available on the historical, intellectual, and sociological context of Titian’s life and works is also manifest. Even though consensus on the identification, dating, attribution, and motivation of the master’s early pictures and related works by his Venetian contemporaries during the first two decades of the cinquecento may be destined to elude us, the experience of looking at Titian’s paintings, which Joannides offers through his vivid written analyses and which the National Gallery’s exhibition provided directly, greatly encourages us to pursue the search.

Carolyn C. Wilson
independent scholar

1 Jill Dunkerton, Susan Foister, and Nicholas Penny, Dürer to Veronese (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 251–52, 255, 278–79.

2 Carolyn C. Wilson, “Francesco Vecellio’s Presepio for San Giuseppe, Belluno: Aspects and Overview of the Cult and Iconography of St. Joseph in Pre-Tridentine Art,” Venezia Cinquecento 6: (1996): 39–74, at 66, n. 8.

3 Wilson 1996, 39, 54; Carolyn C. Wilson, St. Joseph in Italian Renaissance Society and Art: New Directions and Interpretations (Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2001), 21–47.

4 For which Wilson 2001, 18; Carolyn C. Wilson, “Invention, Devotion, and the Requirements of Patrons: Titian and the New Cult of St. Joseph,” in The Cambridge Companion to Titian, ed. Patricia Meilman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 75–94; Carolyn C. Wilson, “The Cult of St. Joseph in Early Cinquecento Venice and the Testimony of Marino Sanudo’s Diaries,” Studi Veneziani (forthcoming).

5 Susanna Biadene and Mary Yakush, eds., Titian: Prince of Painters (Munich: Prestel, 1990), exh. cat., Venice, Palazzo Ducale, and Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Paolo Parlavecchia, ed., Leonardo & Venice (Milan: Bompiani,1992), exh. cat., Venice, Palazzo Grassi; Michel Laclotte and Giovanna Nepi Sciré, eds., Le Siècle de Titien: l’âge d’or de la peinture à Venise (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1993), exh. cat., Paris, Grand Palais; Bernard Aikema and Beverly Louise Brown, eds., Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Bellini, Dürer and Titian. (Milan: Rizzoli, 1999), exh. cat., Venice, Palazzo Grassi.

Please send comments about this review to