The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has reopened with a small exhibition about Titian’s interpretation of Classical myths. Known as the poesie, Titian: Love, Desire, Death, reunites all six paintings for the first time in centuries. Painted for Prince Philip of Spain, the future King Philip II, these artworks demonstrate Titian’s talent at the height of his career as well as his ability to capture a story. Unlikely to be displayed together again anytime soon, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some of the greatest paintings in Europe.
Titian had already had a long career before he started working on the poesie. Born sometime around 1488, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian was his anglicised name) was the son of Gregorio and Lucia, who, although there is little information about them, were related to notaries in Venice. When he was about ten years old, Titian and his brother Francesco (c.1475-1560) became apprentices of Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516), who were the leading artists in Venice at the time.
While in Venice, Titian met and became the assistant of Giorgione (c.1477-1510), but it was clear to clients that Titian’s paintings far surpassed his master’s. He was also in charge of finishing paintings left by Giovanni Bellini and received commissions to paint the portraits of five Doges of Venice.
After Giorgione and the Bellini’s had passed away, Titian began to come into his own, developing his mature style. For the following 60 years, he was considered the master of Venetian painting. Titian’s first masterpiece was the Assumption of the Virgin, which is still in situ in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari, Venice. He continued to paint for churches for the next few decades, producing many artworks on a religious theme.
During the 1520s, Titian also began to produce paintings on a mythological theme. A few of these artworks were commissions from Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534), Duke of Ferrara, for his private rooms. Titian also worked for Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), an Italian cardinal, for whom he produced one of his famous paintings, Danaë. Titian made several copies of this scene, including one that forms part of the poesie.
As time went on, Titian’s style became more dramatic and vibrant, plus he was a popular choice for portraits. He painted portraits of people high up in society, including royalty, Doges and cardinals, as well as artists and writers. “…no other painter was so successful in extracting from each physiognomy so many traits at once characteristic and beautiful.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)
In 1546, Titian visited Rome and received the freedom of the city, a privilege that once belonged to Michelangelo (1457-1546). He was also in the running to succeed Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) as Keeper of the Seal to the Papacy and take Holy Orders, but he had to return to Venice to work for Charles V (1500-58) and his son, Philip (1527-98).
For the last 26 years of his life, Titian predominantly worked for Philip II as a portrait painter. By this time, he had become a perfectionist and was very critical of his work, often reworking paintings for years until he was satisfied. When Titian met Philip, the 21-year-old prince was on a tour of the European countries he would soon rule over. The first meeting was organised by Charles V, who was then Titian’s patron, to paint a portrait of Philip. Pleased with the result, Philip became another of Titian’s patrons.
The six poesie, produced between 1551 to 1562, were the result of an open commission from Philip in which he gave Titian free reign of the subject matter. Titian produced paintings of both religious and secular themes, six of which were mythological scenes based on Ovid’s (43 BC-c.AD17) Metamorphoses. These six paintings became known as the poesie because Titian considered them to be visual equivalents to poetry. They covered many themes, including, love, desire and death.
When Philip became the King of Spain in 1556, Titian’s importance increased. He was now the painter for the most powerful man in the world. As well as Spain, Philip II ruled over the Netherlands, Genoa, Milan, Naples and a handful of American colonies. He later became the King of Portugal and was briefly the king consort of England through his marriage to Mary I (1516-58). Philip was a great lover of art and filled his palaces and houses with paintings. Since he had no fixed place of residence, there were several buildings to decorate, making Titian and other artists of the time very valuable to the king.
Considered to be one of the first paintings of the poesie to be completed is Danaë, a copy of one of Titian’s earlier paintings. Since there are at least six versions, it is unsure which one he sent to Philip II. In some versions, a nursemaid is depicted with Danaë and in others, she is alone or with the figure of Cupid.
Princess Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, the King of Argos, who had imprisoned her in a bronze tower after learning from an oracle that her future son was destined to kill him. Whilst the tower protected her from mortal suitors, it was no barrier for the Roman gods, particularly Jupiter, king of the Olympians, who had fallen in love with Danaë.
According to Ovid, Jupiter entered Danaë’s tower disguised as a shower of gold, which her elderly maid attempted to catch in the hopes of bringing her youth. Jupiter impregnated Danaë who later gave birth to a son, Perseus. Still intent on preventing his fate, Acrisius forced his daughter and grandson into a chest and threw them into the ocean. Fortunately, Polydectes, King of Serifos, rescued them and Perseus grew up to fulfil the prophecy. At a sports contest, Perseus’s discus struck Acrisius’ head, killing him instantly.
In the story, of which there are several tellings in addition to Ovid’s, Jupiter raped Danaë, but Titian did not depict a struggle. Instead, he painted the nude Danaë lying on a bed, seemingly expectant of events to come as she calmly let Jupiter’s golden shower descend upon her. British art historian, Kenneth Clark (1903-83) claimed in The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Danaë’s body was “clearly based on drawings of Michelangelo … At every point Michelangelo’s grandiose invention has been transformed from an embodiment of spiritual malaise into an embodiment of physical satisfaction.”
Danaë was sent to Philip in 1553 while he resided in either Madrid or Valladolid. There is some damage to the surface, possibly caused during transport, which has revealed some of Titian’s preliminary studies below the paint. It appears he originally intended to include an image of Jupiter’s head, which he later did in another version of the painting.
Diana and Actaeon, now owned by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, portrays the moment the hunter, Actaeon, stumbled across the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, was renowned for being a virgin goddess, so it was forbidden for mortal men to see her naked. Outraged by the intrusion, Diana turned Actaeon into a stag so that he could not tell anyone what he had seen.
Titian painted Diana, who can be identified by her crescent moon crown, hastily covering herself with the help of a black woman. It is uncertain whether this woman is one of the nymphs or if she was Diana’s maid or servant. Given the era Titian worked, it is more likely to be the latter. Nonetheless, Titian has painted the dark-skinned woman with great care. Unlike Diana and the nymphs who have a generic body shape that is common to many Renaissance paintings, Titian may have used a model for Diana’s maid.
Ovid wrote that Diana was enraged with Actaeon, yet Titian did not depict that emotion in his painting. Instead, Diana fixes Actaeon with a glare, causing the innocent Actaeon to realise he has witnessed something he should not. The nymphs are more expressive, reaching for something to cover their bodies or hiding behind a pillar.
Although Actaeon is still in human form, Titian hid a few symbols in the painting to indicate the hunter’s fate. In the foreground, Diana’s lapdog barks at and frightens Actaeon’s much larger hounds. In the background, a small figure is hunting a deer and, on top of the stone pillar, is a stag’s skull, suggesting that not only would Actaeon be transformed into the animal, he will also be killed.
Titian painted Diana in another of his paintings based on Ovid’s story, Diana and Callisto. The scene Titian chose to depict occurs midway through the tale after Callisto has been raped by Jupiter who tricked his way into the nymph’s presence disguised as Diana.
Knowing Diana demanded chastity, Callisto kept the attack secret, but she was pregnant and could not hide it forever. When Callisto was eight months pregnant, Diana and the nymphs decided to bathe together. When Callisto did not remove her clothing, the other nymphs stripped her, revealing her swollen stomach. Although the situation was not Callisto’s fault, Diana, who once considered Callisto to be her favourite nymph, immediately cried, “Be gone! This sacred spring must not be polluted!”
It is this moment Titian captured in paint, revealing the struggling Callisto’s pregnant stomach and Diana’s dismissal of the nymph. Critics claim Diana and Callisto to be the most dramatic painting in the poesie. Callisto’s bloodshot eyes and body language indicate her desperation. She is a rape victim but is being shunned by her only friends rather than supported.
Callisto’s distress indicates her banishment from Diana’s presence is not the end of the story. After Callisto had given birth to a boy, Arcus, Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno discovered her husband’s infidelity. Rather than confronting Jupiter, she took her anger out on Callisto, transforming her into a bear. For years, Callisto roamed the forest until, many years later, she met her adolescent son out hunting. Frightened, Arcus pointed his weapon at his mother, but Jupiter intervened, picking them both up and transforming them into constellations: the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the Herdsman.
Titian’s painting of Venus and Adonis is slightly different from the others in that there is no portrayal of violence, wrongdoing or punishment. It is a scene Titian painted several times, each slightly different, although the figures of Venus and Adonis remained in the same pose.
Adonis was an orphan who had been brought up by Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Known for his good looks, Adonis attracted the attention of Venus, the goddess of beauty, who became his lover. The scene Titian painted shows the pair after a night of lovemaking. Venus, still unclothed, is begging Adonis not to go out hunting. She is warning him of the dangers of wild beasts, but he is insistent on going out with his hounds.
Venus was right to worry about her lover. Instead of heeding her advice, Adonis chased and hunted wild beasts and was killed by a boar. According to the story, Venus found her lover bleeding to death and, unable to save him, shed copious tears. Where her tears fell on Adonis’ blood, red anemones grew.
Titian captured the flexing muscles of the goddess as she desperately tried to prevent him from leaving. Adonis, on the other hand, is painted mid-stride, already determined to go out hunting. Titian included a slight hint of hesitation in Adonis’ stance but his face hints of incomprehension, unaware of his fate.
Titian sent this painting to Philip in London where he had just married Mary I. Titian explained in a letter, Venus and Adonis complemented his painting of Danaë. Both females had a similar, if not the same, body: one shown from the front and the other from the back. When placed together, the viewer could see the complete figure, thus competing with sculptures of a similar nature.
Of Titian’s poesie, his painting of Perseus and Andromeda has received the most damage over time. Sent to Philip while he was residing in Ghent in 1556, it was sold or gifted less than two decades later. In total, the painting has changed hands at least fifteen times, resulting in its poor condition. A lot of the colour has faded, making the paint seem darker than intended. The blue pigment, for example, has become grey in some places.
The story of Perseus, the son of Danaë, is fairly well-known, or at least bits of it, such as how he killed the snake-haired gorgon, Medusa. On his return, wearing winged sandals, Perseus flew across the Kingdom of Ethiopia where he came across Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Offended by this, Neptune, the god of the sea sent Ceto, a giant sea creature, to attack the kingdom. To appease Neptune, Andromeda sacrificed herself as bait for the monster.
Fortunately, Perseus arrived before Ceto could attack Andromeda. Using the head of Medusa, whose gaze turned living beings to stone, Perseus froze the sea monster. Having fallen in love with Andromeda on sight, Perseus had secured her hand in marriage before saving her, and they went on to live a relatively happy life – at least in comparison to the majority of Classical myths.
Titian’s use of expressive brushstrokes helped to capture the movement of Perseus as he swooped towards the sea monster. They also make the sea look violent and dangerous, and the dark rocks forbidding. In comparison, Andromeda’s pale skin makes her appear vulnerable and innocent.
The Rape of Europa was the final painting Titian sent to Philip and thus concluded his poesie. Similar to Perseus and Andromeda, time and handling have damaged parts of the painting, causing some of the blue pigment to turn brown. Nonetheless, Titian’s expressive brushstrokes and detail are still visible.
Europa, the daughter of King Agenor of Phoenicia, had unknowingly drawn the attention of Jupiter with her beauty. While Europa and her friends were relaxing on the beach, Jupiter approached the princess in the guise of a snow-white bull. Fascinated by the creature, the girls gathered around him and Europa, rather foolishly, climbed on his back. Suddenly, the bull took off, carrying her to Crete where Jupiter raped her.
Despite not being the nicest of stories, the myth was widely interpreted in art and literature. Ovid had written about Europa in his Metamorphoses as well as his previous work, Fasti. Titian also used the 2nd-century book The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius for inspiration.
Titian’s rapid brushstrokes emphasise the speed of the bull as it charges through the water. Europa’s hair and clothing appear to be flailing around in all directions as she desperately clings onto the bull so that she does not drown in the sea. Her eyes are wild in fear, but some critics suggest her body language evokes excitement and her red scarf symbolises passion.
To contrast with the rapid speed of the bull, Titian included a graceful dolphin in the background and a couple of cherubs gliding through the air. A third cherub sits upon a fish while another more vicious-looking fish swims alongside the bull, foreshadowing the next part of the story.
The National Gallery included a seventh painting in their exhibition that is not considered part of Titian’s poesie. Titian may have intended to send it to Philip, however, he never completed it. It is thought someone else tried to complete the painting, although they left out the bowstring and arrow held by the female archer.
The Death of Actaeon concludes the story Titian depicted in Diana and Actaeon. After being turned into a stag, Actaeon fled from the scene but was chased by his hounds who eventually caught him and tore him apart. Titian portrayed Actaeon in mid-transformation between man and stag surrounded by a blur of movement to indicate the vicious attack from his dogs.
In the foreground, a female archer, presumably Diana, aims an invisible arrow at Actaeon. In the story, Diana is not involved in Actaeon’s death, so Titian has embellished the myth with his imagination. All the paintings in the poesie featured fleshy women, which may be why Titian included Diana in this scene.
Titian was in his mid-80s when he was working on The Death of Actaeon. He had been working on his poesie for just over a decade. Whilst they are considered to be some of his best works, these paintings did not remain in the Spanish Royal Collection for long. Philip’s successors were prudish and did not like Titian’s nude figures.
While working on the poesie, Titian accepted other commissions, including decorations for churches. He continued to take on these jobs right up to the end of his life. His last painting was a rather dark Pietà, which, along with his other artworks of a similar nature, suggests he was very aware of his age and inevitable mortality.
Titian spent his final days in Venice where the bubonic plague raged through the city. It is not certain if Titian caught the plague, but he passed away after suffering from a fever on 27th August 1576. As it is impossible to determine his exact date of birth, Titian would have been somewhere between the ages of 85 and 100 at his passing.
Before his death, Titian had chosen the chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari as his final resting place. When interred, there was no memorial to mark his grave, although one of his paintings hung nearby. Centuries later, the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Antonio Canova (1757-1822) to produce a monument in Titian’s honour, which remains in the church to date.
Titian left no will, but other documents have revealed information about his family. His first wife was called Cecilia with whom he had two sons, Pomponio and Orazio (1528-76), and a daughter who died in infancy. Sadly, Cecilia died in 1530, and it is thought Pomponio also predeceased his father. Titian remarried and had another daughter called Lavinia, who often modelled for his paintings. A fourth child, Emilia, may have been the result of an affair with a housekeeper. When Titian died, Orazio was his only heir but died soon after from the plague.
Titian produced around 400 paintings of which 300 survive. Many of these ended up in private collections, but galleries have been able to purchase a handful. Diana and Actaeon was bought by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland for £50 million in 2009. Diana and Callisto was bought for a similar amount three years later.
It may seem expensive at £12 a ticket to attend the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death, which only consists of seven paintings, however, it is a once in a lifetime chance to see the entire poesie in one room. Titian is considered to be the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school and earned the nickname “The Sun Amidst Small Stars” from his contemporaries. He was one of the most versatile Italian painters and has influenced generations of artists. This small exhibition allows each painting to be admired in detail, thus receiving the respect they deserve.
Titian: Love, Desire, Death is open until 17th January 2021. Tickets must be bought online in advance. Concessions are available, including for NHS workers.