This 2006 essay, posted here to supplement the review of the Spring 2008 Titian show in Venice, is an attempt, firstly, to analyze the loose finish of Titian’s late pictures as a natural development in his art with roots as far back as the beginning of his career, and, secondly, to provide a contemporary theoretical framework for it in order to assess its aesthetic implications for the cinquecento beholder.
There has been a lot of scholarly controversy surrounding the late Flaying of Marsyas, surely painted in the 1570s and now in the Episcopal palace in Kromeríz in the Czech Republic. Much of this has to do with whether it is finished or not, and whether the studio might have added to it and tried to finish it, in order to sell it, after Titian’s death. Now, the painting is signed “TITIANUS P” at the rock near the lower right corner, which — unless it was faked — shows that the master considered it a finished work. It has also been asserted that the painting is a modello of an earlier, lost composition, probably of the 1550s, preserved in a copy in a private collection in Venice. The signature itself makes this highly unlikely, as does the execution of the painting, as we shall see. It is, however, quite possible that the painting is based on a riccordo, or a lay-in, of the composition of the lost painting, taken up and finished in the last years of the master’s life, just as was presumably the case of other late pictures such as the Munich Crowning with Thorns and the Prado Saint John the Baptist. We know nothing about why it was painted. There is no record of a commission, but the signature indicates that it was dispatched. It is not impossible that it was made for the Spanish court or another part of the extended Imperial family or court.
Titian’s so-called ‘late style’ encompasses paintings of remarkably varying states of finish, even within individual pictures. This is apparent in the Marsyas. While it has been claimed that such finely detailed elements as Midas’ crown are posthumous additions by Titian’s assistants, made to finish an unfinished painting left by the master at his death and sell it off, it contains many areas where strongly varied states of finish are juxtaposed and belie this claim.
An alternative explanation is that he had an assistant specializing in these elements. This carries some weight in that the precision of certain details is crisper than other, similar details in Titian’s late work. There seems, for example, to be a similarity of handling between the jewellery worn by Lucretia in the Fitzwilliam Tarquin and Lucretia of 1569-1571, the still life elements in the Escorial Saint Jerome of the early 1570s, and the armour and helmet in the foreground of the 1572-75 Spain Coming to the Aid of Religion, as well as details of Pilate’s clothing and jewellery in the 1570s Saint Louis Ecce Homo.
An example of the high variety of finish of elements in the picture, surely painted by the master himself, is the finely glazed, richly coloured ribbon running off Apollo’s much less defined back and lower body — one of the most thinly applied areas of paint in the picture. While indeed of very low finish, the overlay of the clearly finished ribbon indicates that Titian did not mind the rough state of it. It should be noted that the left edge of the painting is damaged, which might at least partly account for the lack of definition of the forms along it. A similar juxtaposition to the one between the ribbon and body of Apollo occurs between the roughly executed hand of the small satyr holding the dog by its collar and the more detailed head of the dog, which is clearly finished with Titian’s characteristically pasty lead white highlights.
The thick strokes of yellowish white picking out the flowing locks of the god, as well as the modulations of green on his wreath are typical of Titian’s finish. Nothing could be added there. The fine build-up of the hand, from the rusty brown underdrawing to the thickly applied dabs of pink and white highlights, are similarly typical of the more detailed finish found in parts of many of Titian’s late paintings, such as Lucretia’s foot in the Tarquin and Lucretia, delivered to Philip II and thus surely finished, and a painting which has been held up by some scholars as an example of what a painting like the Marsyas would have looked like had it been finished by the master. Again, one does not have to point to the meticulously painted ring on Apollo’s finger to determine that this part of the painting has been brought to its final state of finish.
Though looser, the broad expanse of Marsyas’ flesh is also clearly finished. The tender pinkish area of flesh running from his navel towards his head is partly achieved by glazing the darker ground with pinkish colour. Care was taken to avoid this area when the more thickly applied strokes of warm yellowish brown, as well as some white, was applied in the surrounding areas afterwards. At some point, a brown glaze was also added to most of the chest area, accentuating the glow of the highlights and deepening the nuance. A similar strategy has been pursued in the rendering of the even looser, almost abstractly rendered patches of sky in the upper part of the painting. Why would Titian have taken such care glazing these areas if he intended to return to them later and “finish” them in the way of, say, the bedsheets of Lucretia?
As a matter of fact, even the Tarquin and Lucretia contains remarkably varied levels of finish; the legs and right foot of Tarquin are for example much looser and less defined than the faces of the protagonists, further displaying Titian’s differentiated approach to finish in this late part of his career. A good example of Titian’s less-is-more aesthetic at this point in his career, evident in both paintings, is his rendering of the blade of a knife. In both paintings, he simply applies a few strokes of thick lead white highlight to a black shape. Especially the blade of Apollo in the Marsyas shows his astonishing economy — a single white line running along a loosely applied black wedge. What more could be added there?
This development towards a looser handling of the brush and a more syncretistic use of colour, where individual elements tend to blend together through the loosening of contour and, at times, restricted colour range that at first glance may appear as almost monochromatic, strikes me as a completely natural development in Titian’s art, which as mentioned goes back to the earliest years of his career. While his works of the first three decades or so are generally bright and brilliant in colour range and demarcation of coloured areas (example from the Feast of Venus, 1518), their subtlety of colouristic modulation and bleed between individual areas is very similar to what we see in the later work. This approach originates at the time of his work with Giorgione and is related to Leonardo’s radical dissolution of contour, but is much less intellectual in its rationale and more varied in its execution.
The pittura a macchia — the thick application of paint Titian would become so famous for only came later. While Sebastiano del Piombo was already applying paint thickly in the first decade, for example in the highlights on the figures of the organ shutters executed for the church of San Bartolomeo in Rialto in 1510-11, Titian only really began doing it in this way in the early 1530s. Looking at copies and considering Aretino’s awestruck description of it from 1537, one gets the sense that the Saint Peter Martyr-altarpiece may have been executed very boldly, possibly with areas of thick macchie. In any case, Titian most likely painted the much smaller, but very boldly executed Saint John the Almsgiver in the early 1530s, and also probably did the thickly rendered New York Saint Sebastian, extracted from the Saint Nicholas-altarpiece, in the mid-1530s, showing that he was on the way to developing this aspect of his technique around this time.
Initially, this development seems bound up with Titian’s treatment of dramatic and pathos-filled scenes, of gigantesque figures, and of his channelling of Michelangelo in particular. He worked intensively with the heroic male nude in the 1540s especially, though the michelangelesque influence as such went back to such early works as the Jealous Husband in Padua of 1511 and the Averoldi Polyptych of 1519-22, and passed by the already mentioned John the Almsgiver, which recalls the majestic prophets of the Sistine ceiling. What we increasingly see in his work during the last three decades or so of his career is a gradual dissolution of the areas of colour in some of his paintings towards the kind of miasmic, all-permeating quality of colour seen in many of the late works, such as the poesie of the 1550s and early 1560s (such as the Rape of Europa, 1559), and especially the late canvases similar in character to the Marsyas, in which it at times becomes almost abstract. One of the first, large-scale instances of the full integration of the michelangelesque (and tintorettesque) figure and dramatic subject-matter is the Gesuiti Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, finished in 1557, in which the spiritual pathos is made palpable through the unified range of colour, with ample use of the kind of ‘dirty’ veneer so often seen in his later work, and the luminosity achieved partly through a dark ground, strong contrast, partly through the thick application of yellowish white in pertinent areas.
The representation of light is crucial. The painting of both natural and divine manifestations of it in Titian’s hands becomes an almost ontological endeavour. This is not the place to offer a detailed examination, but a comparison between what is probably his first major exploration of light, the Frari Assunta completed in 1518, and the representation of light in his late work, supremely exemplified by the San Salvatore Annunciation, finished 1566, will serve to illuminate how Titian’s approach to the phenomenon develops, and demonstrate how this development is one of painterly necessity.
Both pictures describe an irruption of divine light. The Assunta is clear in its articulation of both form and colour. The light, emanating from behind God the Father’s manta ray-like figure, bathes everyone in its glory, from the heavenly choir and the Virgin to the apostles below her, differing in intensity depending on how far it radiates from its source. Being a depiction of the moment of transcendence, this is central to the picture, which engages this premise on several different levels. The downward-radiating light is met by the Virgin’s rapturous upward movement towards the heavens — a movement between the earthly and the divine. She is at this moment of both worlds. Such devices as the apostle reaching towards the sky, barely strafing the heavenly cumulus clouds with his fingertips, and the at first glance rather awkwardly posed — but therefore memorable — putto whose foot almost touches the forehead of another of the apostles, further underscore the notion of transcendence being within us, and therefore of both worlds. Central however, is the sphere of golden, divine light framing the Virgin, which reconfigures the traditional golden mosaic backgrounds of Byzantine imagery through pigment. Possibly inspired by Raphael’s Foligno Madonna (c. 1511-?), this device becomes the very embodiment of transubstantiation in Titian’s hands, in that he has the fleshy angelic choir emerge ever so subtly from it — light becoming flesh through the physical agent of paint.
Titian returns to this device on several occasions through his career, the most notable being the Gloria sent to Charles V in 1554, and the lost early 1530s Annunciation for the convent at Muraro, which provided the basic template for the San Salvatore Annunciation in which it reaches its zenith. For this treatment of the quintessential scene of divine incarnation, the effect is palpably physical because of the way it is rendered in not just colour, but paint. Titian’s handling itself has become part of the point. Calling attention to itself, it engages the viewer’s senses and reflection simultaneously. While the Assunta is more illusionistic in that it, though sensually painted, does not openly show off its artifice, the San Salvatore Annunciation rather than attempting to represent nature, unabashedly replaces it with art.
The notion of the artist replacing sensed nature with a higher nature of his own, his art, was important in Renaissance aesthetics. Most contemporary criticism of art — be it Giorgio Vasari, Paolo Pino, Lodovico Dolce, or Pietro Aretino — stresses the importance for the artist of staying true to nature, but this is never meant in strictly mimetic terms. A famous example is Vasari’s account of how Donatello fashioned a wooden crucifix and was admonished by his friend Brunelleschi for having made Christ look like a peasant, entirely inappropriate for the representation of the body of Christ, which should rather be “…highly refined, and in all respects the most perfect human being that ever lived.” This sentiment is echoed throughout the literature on art of the period, but its precursory example is Pliny’s story of Zeuxis painting the ideal woman on the basis of a number of live models. Pure imitation was generally dismissed as insufficient for achieving the ultimate goal of art: beauty. What was emphasized, ultimately, is the individual artist’s interpretation of nature through his creative genius. It is through this faculty that the artist brings out the ideal truths in nature and thus replaces the imperfection of the sensed world around us with a creation of a higher order, a nuova natura.
Further demonstrating the emphasis on individual genius, the notion that artists would invariably produce images of themselves had generally become acknowledged as a truism in the Cinquecento, where it was condensed into the popular aphorism “ogni dipintore dipinge se” — every painter paints himself — and became essential to Leonardo’s theory of art. For many critics, and certainly for Leonardo, painting was essentially regarded as automimetic — self-representing — without it compromising the quest for truth and beauty in art. At the core of the understanding of art was therefore the creating subject, which consequently also made the appreciation of art a fundamentally subjective endeavour. Although the problem of normative aesthetic judgments versus completely subjective relativism was no less present than it is today, the subjective nature of aesthetic judgment was acknowledged by almost all critics in the period.
In this context, the most famous example is the description in Vasari of how Titian’s mature works “… are executed with such large and bold brushstrokes and in such broad outlines that they cannot be seen from close up but appear perfect from a distance.” And further that “… it is obvious that his paintings are reworked and that he has gone back over them with colours many times, making his effort evident. And this technique, carried out in this way, is full of good judgement, beautiful, and stupendous, because it makes the pictures not only seem alive but to have been executed with great skill concealing the labour.” While the active participation of the beholder is true of any work of art, what is here recognised is the role of not just the senses, but the subjective dispositions of the beholder herself in looking at art. Additionally, it is pointed out how Titian’s art provokes a particularly cogent reaction in the contemporary beholder because it, through its style, calls special attention to the subject who painted it.
That Titian was acutely conscious of his personal style is indicated by an anecdote told by Imperial ambassador Antonio Pérez in 1603, recounting the visit of Charles V to Titian’s studio in 1553. Asked why he painted so broadly and thickly, Titian answered: “I am not confident of achieving the delicacy and beauty of the brushwork of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio and Parmagianino; and if I did, I would be judged with them, or else be considered to be an imitator. But ambition, which is as natural in my art as in any other, urges me to choose a new path to make myself famous, much as the others acquired their own fame from the way that they followed.” While the authenticity of the anecdote cannot be verified, it at least shows the awareness of how personal this style was in the late 16th Century, and in any case corresponds well with the development we see in Titian’s work in the latter part of his career.
The paragone he himself invokes with the greatest Northern and Central Italian masters is not only instructive when trying to understand his self-reflexivity, but, in the case of Michelangelo especially, provides an illuminating counterpoint to his approach to finish in the last decades of his life. Michelangelo left behind an extraordinary number of high-profile unfinished works (example: The Fourth Captive, 1530-33). With the exception of Leonardo, this was unprecedented in the Renaissance, where great importance was almost universally attached to finish, even by Michelangelo himself who, according to his biographer Ascanio Condivi, disapproved of Donatello’s often rough finish. In the case of Leonardo, who was notorious for leaving his works incomplete, it is clear that the many incomplete works left behind were indeed unfinished for practical or technical reasons, whereas with Michelangelo this is much less obvious. Leaving aside the complex discourse on inconsistent patronage, over-ambitious projects, and notions of the artist’s personal aesthetic and temperament, the fact remains that Michelangelo through his many unfinished works was the prime contributor to a new aesthetic of the creative process. As had been the case with Leonardo, it is furthermore clear that Michelangelo’s non-finito quickly became associated with his personality and particular artistic genius.
According to the account in Vasari, Michelangelo abandoned such a large number of works because he recognized that he would not be able to bring them to perfection. While obviously hagiographic, this still to an extent rings true when one considers his propensity for taking on impossible projects like the Tomb of Julius II, as well as the works themselves which often reveal ambitions on the part of the artist that the blocks cannot concede him, and just as often exhibit constant revisions. The passage also resonates well with Michelangelo’s famous sonnet, “Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concetto…,” stating that the block contains every potentiality the artist’s creative intellect can conceive. Adding to the picture of Michelangelo’s reflection on these issues are the opening lines of one of his madrigals, postscripted “for sculptors”, which, coinciding with the notion of automimesis, states that the ideas of the artist already rest within the marble, waiting to be seized and liberated. Whether the act of creation fulfils a potential or realizes a pre-existing idea, it seems clear that Michelangelo thought in terms of some kind of projection of his self into the form exterior to him. Into the Other.
The non-finito of Titian’s ‘late style’ arises out of the same essential issue of self-projection. The absolute control of the brush and the utter self-confidence evidenced by his late work is testament to an artist who had reached and mastered a profoundly personal idiom. Like Michelangelo’s, it is one where the creative process becomes an essential and obvious part of the work as it appears to the beholder. This process further shares with Michelangelo a pattern of constant revision and change, not the least in late works such as the Marsyas and the National Gallery Death of Actaeon, both of which contain many pentimenti (ie. revisions). There are however crucial differences between Titian’s and Michelangelo’s non-finito.
There is a famous letter to Titian from Aretino of 1545 where the poet describes the sunset over the Gran Canal as seen from his window. Summoning the full range of his poetic language, Aretino likens what he sees in nature to a painting by Titian, lamenting that the master was not there to see it and transpose it into paint. Throughout, Aretino emphasizes the modulation of colour and dwells on transient and ephemeral phenomena such as clouds and atmospheric distortion of colour, even going as far as to describe how houses of stone appear to him as if unreal in the evening light. This indicates his understanding of the evanescent quality of Titian’s work and his non-finito, as opposed to the widely accepted Tuscan finito. It also reflects the difference in general conception of nature between the two regions, where the Central Italians, roughly put, conceived of nature as Natura naturata — statically created by God — the Venetians saw it as Natura naturans — a living organism in constant flux. Titian’s non-finito should be seen in this light. Where Michelangelo’s seems to arise from a recognized inability to give the original idea form and thus complete the work, Titian’s emerges from an intuitive attention to the life of the work on the artist’s part, acquired through a life-long engagement with it. One essentially remains forever unfinished, while the other is perpetually in a state of creation.
Aretino already seems to have recognized this in 1542. In a letter of that year, sent to the Novarese architect Giambattista Torniello, probably on Titian’s behalf, in answer to complaints about lack of care in the now lost Nativity altarpiece made for the Cathedral of Novara, which the confraternity had sent back to the master for correction, he writes that if Titian put his hand back on the panel, as they wished, the work would end up “more like a miniature than a painting” contrasting excessive meticulousness with proper painting. Titian’s eye and great experience had taught him when to stay his hand. When to stop.
This is the reason there is such a variety of finish in much of Titian’s work, especially in the last decade and a half or so. If we are to trust his paintings, it seems that he had a very process-oriented approach to them. This is borne out by Palma Giovane’s famous description of the master at work, as relayed by Marco Boschini in 1674, where we learn how Titian would leave his roughly laid-in paintings facing the wall for long periods of time before returning to them and fleshing them out, imbuing them with life, animating them through glazing, blending and dabbing, often using his fingers directly. It should be added that this overtly romanticising description, written many years after the fact, has to be read with caution, but its description of both the process and the build-up of the paintings corresponds well to what we know of, and can infer about, Titian’s late works. Considering these sources while scrutinizing the wide variety of finish in the late paintings reveals to us a mercurial creative process where a painting was finished when it was finished, so to speak. It was a question of Gefühl. Beyond a certain point where the essentials were still lacking, such as in the lira at the lower right in the Metropolitan Venus, and possibly also that of the Fitzwilliam one, both of the early 1560s, this could occur anywhere between the looseness of the Marsyas and the relative polish of the Tarquin and Lucretia.
We do, of course, have unfinished paintings from the final years. The prime example is the Munich Crowning with Thorns, which we are fairly sure was left in the studio at the master’s death and which Palma, via Boschini, described as unfinished. The undefined boy carrying the hooks at the extreme right is markedly less defined than the loosely rendered figures at the left of the Marsyas, and should probably be considered unfinished. But apart from that, the rest of the painting is probably very close to finished. The same goes for the cuirass at the lower left of the Hermitage Saint Sebastian, which was possibly awaiting treatment at the hand of the “still-life painter” in the workshop. It is, however, inconceivable that either of these works were ever intended to look like the Tarquin and Lucretia or other similarly polished pictures of the period. This would simply require too much work antithetical to what had already been put down to achieve.
It should be noted that the remarkable loosening up of Titian’s style during the last decade or so of his career probably at least partly arose out of necessity. He must surely have experienced a deterioration of his eyesight with old age that could only be partly offset through the use of the spectacles he would probably don when picking out details and final highlights of his compositions with a fine brush. There are several contemporary sources that indicate that this was the case, chief amongst them the account in Vasari, in which Titian’s natural faculties are described as being in decline by the time of writing. This is a curious contradiction of the earlier defence of Titian’s contemporary, loose style, which I have already quoted in part.
Charles Hope has suggested that this might be indicative of his theory that parts of the Lives where ghostwritten by Vasari’s literary associates and were not always checked for consistency. While this is an interesting and generally probably correct hypothesis, I do not think it applies in this case. As we have seen, we have documentation going back to at least the early 1540s that Titian’s loose handling caused consternation. Even Aretino himself was taken somewhat aback by the boldness of execution in the portrait Titian painted of him in 1545 and admonished his friend for it in a letter. It is likely that Vasari was making a distinction between this earlier work and what he saw in Titian’s studio when he visited him there in 1566.
Titian’s art is one of synthesis. As we have seen, this synthesis emerges from a conflation of signifier and signified — what we see irrupt from the heavenly breach in the Annunciation is simultaneously light and paint. That this synthesis extends to the more cerebral level of iconography and narrative content in the picture is only natural. The very facture of the paint and the way it is applied to the canvas is constituent of this depiction of the moment of incarnation. Titian is not merely representing but creating one of the archetypical instances in Christian theology of the synthesis of high and low, Man and God. It is one of his supreme statements on a theme that permeates all of his work, and indeed most Renaissance art.
Formulated through Plato’s sundering gesture, the notion of the ideal and the real, which is so central to Western culture and significantly permeates the soul-body dichotomy vital to Christian faith and thought, became the object of renewed focus in the Renaissance, where it was challenged by the new, radical understanding of the autonomous subject as the epicentre of reality. With roots in contemporary synthetic reconfigurations of Platonism and Christianity, as well as new understandings of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics, a new discourse on the subject emerged, of which Titian’s art constituted a natural but highly original part.
In charting the development of Titian’s treatment of the theme, it is instructional once again to go back to the time when he painted the Assunta. A few years earlier, probably in 1514 or 1515, he painted the so-called Sacred and Profane Love, which is now in the Borghese collection in Rome. The object of much scholarly controversy, this painting was commissioned to commemorate the marriage between secretary to the Council of Ten Niccolò Aurelio, whose escutcheon is painted on the front of the well, and Laura Bagarotto, and thus surely comments on that marriage. Many theories have been advanced in defiance of the canonical one by Erwin Panofsky, which is still by far the most convincing. In these times when there is a tendency to take away from Titian too high a level of reflection and iconographic sophistication, one does well to remember a painting such as this one, and by extension to keep in mind that although he did not read Latin, he was part of a social circle of prominent intellectuals throughout his life and by all accounts held his own among them. One of these was the prominent Neo-Platonist Pietro Bembo, who was a life-long friend of him as well as of Aurelio, and who could very well have been directly influential on the picture’s iconography.
Panofsky holds that the two women — who despite various scholarly efforts to assert the contrary are obviously twins — are twin Venuses. One, the nude, divine; the other, richly clothed, natural. That is, two different embodiments of the same basic principle. The concept stretches back to Plato, was employed by Pliny, appeared in different configurations throughout the Middle Ages, and was reactualised in the Quattrocento by Marsilio Ficino and the Neo-Platonists. In Ficino’s Christian interpretation, the Heavenly Venus is the divine intelligence of what he calls the ‘Angelic mind,’ while the Earthly one embodies the power of procreation in the ‘World soul.’ The former embraces divine splendour, while the latter transfers that splendour into the world where, according to their receptivity, the bodies of the world come to be beautiful to the human soul, as it perceives them sensually. We have in us both aspects — one recognizes and worships beauty as it appears to us, while the other induces in us the desire to procreate that beauty.
The pool in the basin can be seen as the pool of Venus with Cupid agitating the waters to have the two principles flow together in this synthesis. That Titian’s understanding of the allegorical conception of the image runs deeper than the mere presentation of the salient elements becomes evident when one examines the composition further. The fact that the Divine Venus looks across to her Earthly twin made Panofsky construe the scene as a dialogue; and while the composition of the painting is clearly dialogical, in the sense that it unifies and balances two positions across a frontal field, the Earthly Venus, however, not only does not look back at her twin, but seems entirely oblivious to her presence. This makes sense when one reads Ficino’s account of the Heavenly embracing beauty and the Earthly promulgating it in the physical world. Central to his argument is the ascension of the human spirit, in the pursuit of divine love, from the physical towards the unity that is God. The physical becomes a gateway to higher things, which in the painting accounts for the typically titianesque outward gaze of the earthly Venus. In meeting our gaze, she — who is closer to our basic level of consciousness — invites us in, so we, through her, can set out on the higher road, whose embodiment is glancing back at us, waiting at the right.
At the same time, the painting is acutely sensual. From the verdant landscape and magnificently evocative late afternoon sky to the precious materiality of the containers on the rim of the pool, and the crystal clear water stirred by the hand of Cupid, the scene is simultaneously vividly sensual and coolly exalted and timeless. And witness such subtle painterly details as the light, undulating dashes of ginger that evoke hair caressing skin, or the sensual depiction of a bare foot sinking into a bed of moist grass. The composition appeals to our senses, but only enough to allow us to fully contemplate its ideal beauty.
There is a third love in Ficino’s cosmology, the bestial, which is a form of insanity, where Man changes to beast — a part of human nature that is detrimental to divine ascension and must be transcended. In Titian, what could be described as the painterly equivalent of bestial love, the purely physical, plays an important role. This is not the least the case in the Sacred and Profane Love; Panofsky, for one, sees the unbridled horse and the violent beating shown in the relief on the front of the basin as representative of this level of consciousness. Set in stone, it has no place in the warm-blooded but sublime synthesis prompted by the stirring of the fresh water, and the hierarchic look of love instigated by the twin Venuses, but it is nevertheless present as a physical intermediary between the two higher forms of love.
Titian’s painting, which invariably straddles the gap of sensuality and closeness to nature and idealization, is here put in service of a theme dealing with the synthesis of real and ideal. There is nothing unusual about this in itself — most Renaissance art deals with this dichotomy on some level, but Titian’s synthesis of the two and its development through his career is both unique and profound. Returning to the Marsyas provides some indication of why. The subject is a fusion of two different myths recounted by Ovid, involving Apollo winning a musical contest against a feral opponent. One is that of Marsyas, who, having found a flute left by Athena, challenged Apollo to a musical duel. Apollo, playing his lyre, won and punished Marsyas for his impudence by skinning him alive, and Marsyas’ blood flowed together with the tears of his people creating the river Marsyas. The other is that of Pan similarly challenging Apollo and winning by the erroneous judgment of Midas, who grew ass’s ears as a consequence of his foolish decision.
While the subject of the painting is easily identifiable, the meaning, intended or otherwise, of the iconographical configuration remains, as befits Titian, ambiguous. But returning to the ideas of the Neo-Platonists and Titian’s treatment of them in the Sacred and Profane Love provides us with an interesting starting point. For Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and other Neo-Platonists of the Florentine Academy, the myth of Marsyas had in the 16th century broadly came to be understood as an allegory of purification and liberation of the soul. Marsyas, half beast, becomes a lucid figuration of the split in Man between bestial and divine. A follower of Bacchus, he as mentioned played the flute, which had long been regarded as a lower instrument, appealing to the uncontrollable, instinctual side of Man. His defeat by Apollo, who played the more sophisticated lyre, an instrument regarded as playing the music of divine order, thus became an allegory of the relative power of Dionysian and Apollonian values, the subsequent flaying being a rite to rid Marsyas of his bestial side — accentuated as it is in the painting by the apocryphal, bloodthirsty dogs (simultaneously reflective of Titian’s humour) — to liberate him from the cage of his body and release his soul to ascend toward the divine. The cosmological significance of music in this context is apparent in the painting. Playing his lira da braccio with his lips parted in song, the musician – sometimes, surely incorrectly, identified as Apollo, sometimes as Orpheus, which makes some sense though I will not go into that here — accompanies the rite with music reflecting divine harmony.
The painting carries deep Christian connotations, the most obvious being the Crucifixion and the concomitant release and ascension of the soul. Marsyas, though he can clearly be seen as a prefiguration of Christ, is however more deeply steeped in carnal reality than Christ is usually considered to be. Titian seems to acknowledge this by hanging him upside-down. This brings to mind the crucifixion of Peter, the most humane and fallible of the apostles, which corresponds well with the physical, profane nature of the composition. Titian has made the figure of Marsyas the central axis of the painting, placing his navel at its centre. He can thus be seen as an inversion of the Vitruvian Man — as most famously depicted by Leonardo — becoming the imperfect man at the centre of all things. In the opening paragraphs on the creation of Man in his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, written c. 1486, Pico della Mirandola describes how God placed Man in the centre of the world in order for him to better observe it and fashion himself in relation to it. Neither of heaven nor earth, Man is bestowed the free will to both degenerate into the lower, brutish forms of life there, or through the judgement of his soul, to be reborn into divine form.
The insistence on the physical in the painting is incontrovertible. If Titian merely wanted to show Marsyas being freed from his mortal coils to soar towards the heavens, one would think the emphasis on his suffering would have been less visceral. Far from stoically accepting his transfiguration, as some scholars have suggested, Marsyas is depicted as an animal in the throes of death, beyond the point of resistance. His smouldering glare, tellingly directed at us — the beholders — seems acutely observed. It is the dark, empty stare of mortally wounded deer seconds before its life expires. It is perhaps Titian’s most relentless, moving, and real rendering of suffering. The painting is a powerful rumination on the bestial side of human nature. Like the very physical agony of Christ’s Passion, Marsyas is simultaneously suffering the reality of existence and ascending to a higher place. The painting — and Titian’s art in general — is a representation of human aspiration, but also of the physical as a condition of that aspiration, and of the bestial as an inextricable part of it.
The ideas articulated by Pico are true on an even more basic level in Titian’s art, however, and especially in his late work, where it reaches its most profound. The present canvas thus goes further towards achieving the synthesis promised by Sacred and Profane Love through its complex and rich amalgamation of artifice: from the wild, almost abstractly suggested sylvan setting, with a riverbank immediately behind the figures, to details such as the splendid, dark purple mantle that runs over Apollo’s back and gently brushes against the ground beneath him — it is very telling that Titian, who often interpreted his sources freely, picked up on this detail, which is vividly described in Ovid. Most remarkable, however, is the rich, deep conglomeration of tone in the torso of Marsyas. Nature has been replaced with something man-made, but equally live. Acutely sensual, this appeals to us not only visually, but to our senses in general, and especially the baser one of touch. It reminds us of our bodies, of our physicality. Congenially monochromatic and dissolute, all figuration in a picture such as this emerges from the same clay. It is an acknowledgment of reality, not unlike the one implied by Leonardo’s sfumato, were we, as beings, are inextricably incarnate in the middle of the world and it is impossible to precisely say where one thing ends and another begins. This is the condition of our existence and Titian’s painting emphasizes it: where Michelangelo’s empty, flayed hide in the hands of St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgment is expressive of a self-aware, emphatic hope for and belief in transcendence, Marsyas is here separated from the skin usually considered to constitute the boundary between us and the surrounding world, only to reveal the throbbing, physical artifice from which he was created.
It is in this engagement with the material world of which he is part that the artist creates. Through his free will, man creates art. Partially congenial to Neo-Platonic ideas of the propagation of love, the Leonardean notion of automimesis holds that the creation of art is an act of love, as the artist creates something true to himself. The creation of beauty is a reproduction of one’s own inner beauty, a projection of the love innate to the subject. But where Leonardo stresses the importance of observation, of external mimesis coupled with logic, the notion of mimesis developed by Titian seems to stem from the recognition of the body as the basis of any transcendental aspiration. In imitating nature, the artist is imitating himself. He simultaneously observes reality around his immediate physical form and projects his self into it, asserting it as his own while regarding it as an Other.
We have seen how Titian’s self-assertive late style is inherently meta-reflexive — the work reflects its own creation. The Marsyas furthermore seems to extend this into the dissolute figuration itself. The contemplative Midas, often seen to be a self-portrait of the artist — can be seen as an figural embodiment of this reflection, while the figure of Apollo vividly recalls Palma’s and Boschini’s account of the master at work, scrupulously moulding the pigment with his hands. His hands concentrated at the richest concentration of colour on the canvas — an area in which Titian possibly used his fingers to smoothen the edges of the brushstrokes and make the colours coalesce — Apollo’s does, upon further scrutiny, not solely seem as an act of destruction, but also one of creation, of love even. This interpretation becomes even more poignant when comparing the picture with the late Pietà, now in the Accademia in Venice. Intended by Titian as the adornment of his own tomb, first in the Church of the Frari, and subsequently probably for the family chapel in his hometown of Pieve di Cadore, this painting is a solemn devotional statement which provides a resonant contrast to the exalted, but grisly Marsyas.
The analogies between Marsyas and Christ have already been touched upon and account well for the similarities in composition. Representing as they both do a moment of transcendence, the paintings approach the issue of incarnation in similar, yet quite different ways. While Marsyas, as explained, is mired in the physical, his exposed flesh densely rendered with tender carnality, the body of Christ — painted with equally abstract, but less smooth touch — is almost ephemeral, as if dissolving into the Lux mundi emanating from within it. Where the Marsyas is a still, almost stifling scene of contemplative horror, the Pietà is open and airy while covering the extremes, being simultaneously a scene of outrage and peace. This makes for quite different end results; while the two pictures are in a way equally sombre, the Pietà carries with it a more explicit promise of resurrection and redemption.
The Pietà clearly must have become a personal painting for Titian. It was initiated in agreement with the confraternity of the Frari, but was, as mentioned, meant for his personal tomb. Just as is the case with the Marsyas, Titian emphasizes his personal stake in the Pietà by inserting himself into it. In addition to the ex-voto propped against the base of the statue of the Hellespontine Sibyl — which shows him and his son Orazio kneeling before the Virgin and the dead Christ, probably in a petition of succour against the plague raging in Venice at the time, which would shortly claim both their lives — the figure of the penitent St. Jerome prostrate before the body of Christ is generally accepted as a self-portrait by the artist. When compared with the Marsyas, the mirror-like parallels between this figure and that of Apollo become apparent.
The Pietà is likely Titian’s ultimate gesture of devotion and plea for forgiveness, while the Marsyas seems to provide further insight into the nature of that plea. The God Apollo, prostrate before tormented Man, is also the artist before the canvas, and thus Man before Christ. By nature, the automimetic creation of art is analogous God’s creation of Nature and Man in his own image, which was the central conceit of any artist working in the period. In addition to whatever human failings Titian might ask forgiveness for, these paintings are addressing the hubris of his — the artist’s — creative acts. The punishment Marsyas received for his hubris ultimately led to transcendence, as well as to the creation of the clearest river in Phrygia, showing that suffering and transcendence are continuous. This is the truth that Titian’s art reveals to us — like God, man is continuously creating his world.
Other writings on Titian at the Metabunker: Late Titian in Venice, Incarnations (Titian in Vienna), Titian — The Last Act (Titian in Belluno), Titian Country (Pieve di Cadore), The Gilding’s Titian (newly discovered portrait), Prototype or Parallel? (on a perennial problem of connoisseurship