Titian’s Mythologies

Thomas Puttfarken

  • Titian by Charles Hope
    Jupiter Books, 170 pp, £12.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 906379 09 1

If Titian’s reputation were to be assessed by the number and quality of the monographs devoted to him during this century, it would be hard to believe that he was one of the greatest painters of European art history. There are, perhaps, two closely related reasons for this. On the one hand, the crucial element of his art, his treatment of colour, cannot be reproduced in black-and-white illustrations; and, perhaps worse, even the best and technically most advanced colour plates necessarily distort and impoverish the rich harmonics of his colour schemes. On the other hand, the sheer splendour, liveliness and immediacy of Titian’s compositions have seduced generations of art-historians into neglecting the duller, the less exciting aspect of proper art-historical research: the investigation of documents, the search for archival evidence, for contracts, letters etc. Since Crowe’s and Cavalcaselle’s monumental, and still unsurpassed, publication of 1877, biographies of Titian have almost invariably been biographies of his pictorial style.

Charles Hope’s book, although in scope and ambition much more restricted than Crowe’s and Cavalcaselle’s, marks in this respect a most welcome change. It is the first truly informative account of Titian’s life published in English in recent years, based as it is on the author’s vast knowledge of previously unpublished information. Specialists are likely to deplore the lack of documentation. For a detailed study of Hope’s arguments one has to consult Wethey’s much heavier and rather unhandy catalogue, while waiting for the more scholarly edition of his research which Hope is currently preparing. But he has produced a very readable book which will allow easy access to the master’s life and work even for a wider public with little or no interest in the more esoteric discussions about style, chronology or iconography. This does not mean that Hope avoids these issues: on the contrary, he challenges and undermines some widely accepted ideas about Titian’s stylistic development and re-dates and reinterprets quite a considerable number of paintings; and in some of the best passages of his book he offers a new and wholly convincing assessment of the role of workshop and assistants in the production of the later works.

In five strictly chronological chapters Hope describes Titian’s whole career. He starts with the still unresolved dispute about the date of his birth and with his first public appearance in 1507/8, working alongside Giorgione at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. That Titian, at this time, should be seen as an independent artist, not as Giorgione’s assistant, is a major argument for Hope’s proposal to date three important works, among them the ‘Noli me tangere’ in London and the ‘Three Ages’ in Edinburgh, 1507-1509 instead of the traditionally accepted 1512-1513. This proposal is bound to be controversial, but I find it entirely convincing. It offers a much more plausible explanation of Titian’s development up to 1516, when his reputation was so well established that he seems to have been invited to work not only for Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara but also for Pope Leo X in Rome. Hope gains additional support for his new dates from the fact that one of Titian’s most famous compositions, the so-called ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ in the Borghese Gallery, is now fairly firmly linked to the marriage of Niccolo Aurelio in 1514, so that it must precede by a year or two the traditional date of 1515/16. If, as I would suggest, the painting was not meant as a commemoration of the marriage but as a pictorial token of courtship, showing Venus persuading the bride to accept her lover (a common topic of epithalamic poetry), then it could easily have been painted in 1513, and the gap of three or four years between this work and the ‘Three Ages’ in Edinburgh, on which most art-historians have agreed on stylistic grounds, could be maintained.

Whatever his age in 1516, and the accounts vary between 26 and 39 years, Titian had managed to establish himself as one of the leading artists in Venice. During the following 14 years, with which Hope deals in his second chapter, his achievements take on such seminal importance for the art of the next two or three centuries that a whole book, let alone a single chapter, would be insufficient to do them full justice. Not only did Titian develop further the framework within which portrait-painting was to operate for the next two hundred years: he also painted a series of monumental and dramatic altarpieces, among them the ‘Assunta’ and the ‘Pesaro-Madonna’ for the Frari and the ‘St Peter Martyr’ for Zanipolo, without which the development of Baroque religious painting would be inconceivable.

At the same time, he painted his celebrated mythologies for Alfonso d’Este (among them the ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ in London), a cycle for which Charles Hope himself has recently provided the most convincing history and reconstruction. It was an attempt to re-create Classical painting based on ekphrastic texts (Philostratus’ Imagines), and it served as a model for a whole genre of mythological and semi-mythological paintings, from Rubens and Poussin to Watteau and to French 19th-century Salon paintings.

Hope is right to stress the ‘overtly classical figure style’ of Titian’s mythologies. Yet it is classical in a very Venetian sense: if we compare, for instance, the ‘Andrians’ in Madrid, which Saxl called a ‘humanist’s dreamland’, with Roman and Florentine paintings of similar subjects, or even with such ‘dreamlands’ as Watteau’s ‘Fêtes Galantes’ (which belong to a similar genre), we see Titian’s extraordinary power of making these dreams come alive.

During the Thirties and Forties Titian increasingly became a court artist, working for patrons like Alfonso, Federigo Gonzaga of Mantua, the Duke of Urbino, as well as for the Pope and the Emperor. His relationship with Charles V, which had started rather badly in 1529, developed into a close and almost friendly association, and certainly after 1548 patronage by members of the Hapsburg family dominated the rest of Titian’s career. Hope’s comments on the dealings between the artist and his patrons are extremely illuminating. He demonstrates that Titian adapted his style to the taste of his patron and to the requirements of individual commissions: to see his stylistic development as a steady process can, therefore, be misleading. Charles’s taste was fairly conservative: his huge equestrian portrait (another of Titian’s immensely influential innovations) is more restrained in style, less flamboyant in technique, than the earlier portrait of the ‘Vendramin Family’ (London). His son, Philip II, who became Titian’s main patron for the last twenty-five years of his life, seems to have been more of a connoisseur, allowing Titian to follow freely his own stylistic inclinations.

Hope traces very carefully Titian’s technical changes. In the early ‘Noli me tangere’ he detects a combination of Giorgione’s procedure of painting directly onto the canvas without preliminary drawings and the Florentine method of working out a composition by trying different poses, combinations and attitudes. During the Fifties, Titian’s style becomes even freer, more open, almost ‘impressionistic’. Whether this should primarily be attributed to Philip II’s liberal and appreciative patronage seems to me to be doubtful. This was the time when the disegno-colore dispute had come out into the open after the first publication of Vasari’s Vite, which claimed superiority for the Florentine school of painting precisely because of its qualities of disegno: i.e. of draughtmanship, of carefully worked-out compositions, and of a sense of idealism and beauty which depended on a notion of drawing as form abstracted from matter. The Venetian defence, conducted by Dolce in his Dialogue on Painting of 1557, was intellectually feeble, and I cannot help feeling that Titian’s change of style during the Fifties was an almost deliberate attempt to counter – in practice – Vasari’s basic theoretical assumptions about the art of painting. This does not include Titian’s last paintings, among them the ‘Death of Actaeon’: Hope is surely right in claiming that they are simply unfinished.

Hope’s book offers a wide range of new suggestions, illuminating facts and convincing arguments. In one centrally important respect, however, I cannot agree with his views. On numerous occasions, and in particular when he is dealing with Titian’s mythological paintings, he dismisses in an off-hand manner (or disregards altogether) the interpretations offered by other scholars. Even if we allow for the restricted use of footnotes, which may not be the author’s fault, this seems to me unfortunate and unwarranted. The prime objects of his contempt are ‘abstruse iconographical interpretations’, and although most art-historians today share – or should share – a certain disquiet about the method of interpreting paintings offered and implemented by Panofsky and taken to sometimes ridiculous extremes by his followers, we should beware of throwing the child out with the bathwater.

Intellectual or humanistic interpretations, like Panofsky’s or Wind’s, were bound to go wrong, Hope implies, because ‘Titian did not understand Latin, and there is no evidence that he ever took much interest in intellectual matters not directly related to the art of painting.’ Interpretations like Panofsky’s, however, do not depend on the artists’ articulate consciousness of the complex implications of their subject-matter. Hope’s repeated insistence on the ‘visual evidence’ of the paintings themselves is of no help here, for it is exactly the ambiguity and unreliability (stressed so forcefully by Gombrich) of the visual evidence when looked at across four centuries which led Panofsky to define his theory of iconology – as a safeguard against attempts to apply modern criteria to the interpretation of earlier art. Reading Hope’s book, one can see Panofsky’s point even if one resists his methodology: a highly poetic picture like the ‘Three Ages of Mankind’ in Edinburgh is praised for the simplicity and clarity of its erotic implications, while an epitome of female beauty, the so-called ‘Venus of Urbino’, is treated (to put it only slightly more crudely than the author himself) as the Renaissance equivalent of Playboy’s ‘Playmate of the Month’: ‘gazing at us with a startlingly direct and unambiguous sexual invitation’.

One might accuse Panofsky and his followers of two things: first, that too much of their research into the artistic and intellectual background of an artist’s period seems to have been projected as ‘meaning’ into the interpretation of particular works; and secondly, that the ‘general tendencies of the human mind’, by reference to which we should be able – according to Panofsky – to justify our reading of a work of art, seem to be, on the whole, tendencies of a distinctly philosophical kind: conceptual developments which may not necessarily be relevant to developments in other areas, like the visual arts. As a result ‘iconologers’ have been led to favour philosophical, moralistic and didactic interpretations of almost every painting which looks remotely allegorical or mythological. Hope’s interpretations, by comparison, appear to be refreshingly straightforward and simple, and it is safe to say that the erotic appeal of Titian’s mythological scenes has not changed very much over the last four hundred years: but to concentrate on this aspect to the extent of excluding the less immediately evident features does not seem to be an adequate way of approaching these masterpieces. They may not be philosophical allegories, but they are far from simple. They are among the richest and most complicated works of European painting. Iconological interpretations may frequently have gone wrong, but at least they were directed by an awareness of the complexity and density of Titian’s composition which seems to be missing in Hope’s account.

In the case of the ‘poesie’ for Philip II, perhaps the most erotic but also the most artistic series of paintings in Titian’s oeuvre, even the most persistent iconologers have so far failed to suggest a meaning for the whole cycle. And I wonder whether it is for this reason that Hope feels able to be more generous: he admits that they are not just ‘sophisticated erotica’, but ‘a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what the art of painting could achieve’, ‘a manifesto for the art of painting’. Had the author been less inhibited by his opposition to extravagant interpretations, he might have elaborated this crucial point. Previous accounts of Titian’s mythologies may often have provided the correct answers for the wrong questions. But is that a good reason for not asking further questions?