Late Titian in Venice

The great exhibition of Titian’s late work shown this past autumn in Vienna has now moved to the Accademia in Venice in a rather amputated, but still beautiful incarnation. Worth seeing alone for the rare chance to see the Kromeríz Flaying of Marsyas and the Accademia’s own Pietà, which did not travel to Vienna, hung next to one another. A constellation singularly revelatory of central concerns in Titian’s late work.

Otherwise, the Venice exhibition unfortunately misses many of the main draws of the Vienna show: the St. Petersburg St. Sebastian, the Escorial Crucifixion, the Prado Danae, the Fitzwilliam Tarquin and Lucretia, and the entire, extremely fascinating section on replicas, are not there. Partially making up for these omissions are three pictures from Naples: the magnificent Portrait of Pope Paul III, the Magdalen, which provides fine comparison with the privately owned one that was also displayed in Vienna, and — most notably — the recently restored San Domenico Maggiore Annunciation. The inclusion of this latter picture makes one wonder why the San Salvatore Annunciation, which was a centrepiece in Vienna, was sent back to its permanent home across the city instead of having it displayed alongside this picture — a genuinely great opportunity wasted.

Furthermore, the installation is depressingly bad. Though by no means limited to Titian shows, the perennial problem of fancy, overconceived or just plain poor installations hampering the experience of the work itself has seemed to proliferate in exhibitions of the master’s works in the last years. In its London incarnation, the otherwise magnificent 2003 retrospective — which I only saw in Madrid (where it was perfectly presented, by the way) — was consigned to the dungeons of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, where many a great show has met an ignominious fate over the years. The Paris portrait exhibition of 2006-2007 was an egregious example of theatrical mise-en-scène, where half the pictures were hard to get a proper look at because of bad lighting and high hang, and the recent offering in Belluno crammed the works into an utterly unsuitable, claustrophobic building, done up for the occasion in Dior pink and charcoal grey. A low point.

At the Accademia the works are consistently underlit, in a few cases leaving them in a murky half-darkness. Making things worse, they are hung on walls placed at oblique angles to each other and scrubbed in a heavy dark grey that interferes with the natural lustre of Titian’s work. To add further insult to injury, a looped drone of enervating choral music from a video on Titian works to be seen around Venice is projected into the exhibition hall. A sad showing.

But the work, of course, is still fascinating. The Naples Annunciation was as mentioned a fascinating novelty, but also a somewhat ambiguous acquaintance. On the one hand, there is no doubt that most of the paint was laid down by Titian, on the other it is exceptionally awkward in its design, lacking the strength of conception so characteristic of even his weaker work. It builds on the powerful idea of depicting the incarnation of Christ in a flash of light that he had originally conceived for the Murano Annunciation of the early 1530s, which was sent to Spain in 1537, and was lost during the French Revolution, but is preserved in an engraving by Jacopo Caraglio. This idea of course found its primary articulation in the San Salvatore Annunciation of 1565-66 (which I wrote more about in my review of the Vienna show).

This Naples version, however, is much weaker in conception than either of those pictures. We have a rather half-hearted version, with four small, doughy putti making up the angelic choir that is so gloriously elaborated in the San Salvatore version. We have a Gabriel who seems to be mostly upper body with stunted legs, and an unattractive profile very similar to Diana’s in the London Death of Actaeon (1570s). And the virgin is of stock type, rather anonymous. It is clear from many of his works that Titian did not always care about getting anatomical detail and such things right — in fact, his compositions often work because rather than despite such inaccuracies. But here he seems to have been uninspired, perhaps working on top of a quick lay-in by a student. What the picture does have going for it is its colouring, however. From the shiny brocade worn by Gabriel to the richly rendered translucence of the Virgin’s veil, this is a painting of acutely sensitive texturing. The background is likewise highly evocative, constituted as it is of what appears to be molten ideas of the elements that make up a landscape.

The inclusion in the exhibition of the Portrait of Paul III (1543) — one of the greatest portraits of the Italian Renaissance — besides all its other qualities, provides the viewer with the wonderful opportunity to chart Titian’s use of deep, resounding red areas of from around this time to the very last pictures. The cloak worn by Paul is appropriately stately; its slightly faded patina reminds one of the long history of his august office. A garment passed down from the past. And Titian’s use of richly dark red for the shading, laid down on top, makes it glow along the contour described by the sitter’s left arm. Furthermore, dashed-in, slightly wet strokes of it interact with the greyish-white nuances of the flocculent beard, creating a compelling flitter. This red continues recurs in the profoundly glowing, almost black backdrop in the wonderful Vienna Tarquin and Lucretia (1570s) and in the slashingly billowing cloak of the outraged Magdalen in the Pietà. The contrast created by its rough articulation on top of the greyish white surface of the stone lion, and its continuation of the explosion of orange-red hair just above it, is a singularly vivid instance of Titian’s colouristic instincts at work.

Concerning the Pietà and its pairing with the Marsyas, writing about them here would quickly get out of hand, so I have instead posted a separate essay that deals with these paintings in some detail, as well as with other aspects of Titian’s late work, including its aesthetic of non-finito, ie. of seemingly being unfinished. In writing about the Belluno and Vienna shows, I refrained from discussing this still rather fraught issue. I did this, frankly, because I think it is about time to put to rest a lot of the more ill-advised scholarly stances on it, which continue to inform almost every discussion of the late work counterproductively. It is as if, every time one addresses Titian’s last paintings, there is an obligation to take into consideration views formulated decades ago (and changed very little since then) that simply do not stand up to scrutiny any longer. And, well, here we are.

As mentioned, the accompanying essay provides a thorough discussion, so I shall constrain myself to noting that the technical research conducted in connection with the Vienna exhibition is another nail in the coffin of the theory that the lack of traditional finish of many of the late works is due to their being simply unfinished. As explained in the catalogue, analysis conducted in connection with the restoration of the Vienna Nymph and Shepherd (1570s) demonstrates technically what many have been able to see all along: that even the loose, almost abstract areas of landscape are carefully worked up through alternating layers of opaque and glazed colour, while each of the two figures is brought to its own, different state of completion, with the nymph being the most finished. The juxtaposition of her meticulously rendered flesh and the dashing yellowish marks denoting the bush in front of her, is part of the picture’s aesthetic. To bring the latter to a state of finish akin to what we see in a painting such as the Fitzwilliam Tarquin and Lucretia — which for certain scholars defines what a finished, late Titian should look like — would necessitate much work antithetical to what has already been laid down.

Another old bugbear rears its head in the texts accompanying the exhibition (though thankfully not in the catalogue), as if the last couple of decades of research had not happened: the idea that the earlier mentioned lira-playing figure in the Marsyas was not painted by Titian himself. This idea, formulated by Agosto Gentili, who was part of the scientific committee behind the exhibition, was based on comparison with a copy of an earlier version of the Marsyas, which is preserved in a private collection in Venice and was recently displayed at the Belluno show. And further on the analysis of a singularly murky x-ray of the picture, reprinted in the present catalogue, which seems to reveal underneath the lira-player a figure akin to the lyre-playing one seen in the copy (a lira da braccia is a bow-and-string instrument, like a violin, whereas the strings of a lyre are played by hand). Gentili’s hypothesis is that the elements in the Marsyas that differ from those in the copy, were added by one of his assistants after his death. He suggests Palma Giovane, who we know touched up the Pietà from the inscription which, paraphrased, states that he ‘finished what Titian left undone.’

As recent research, by Paul Joannides and Miguel Falomír, as well as the technical analyses carried out in Vienna, have shown, it is likely that Marsyas painting started its life as a kind of bozzetto, ie. a rough sketch. Close comparison of the large number of replicas in Titian’s oeuvre reveals that many of them were most likely started at the same time in this way. In many cases, one was sent off while the other remained in the studio only to be picked up years, or even decades, later — the examples range from the Suppers at Emmaus — in the Louvre and a private collection, respectively — both of the early- to mid-1530s, to the Louvre and Munich Crownings with Thorns, the latter of which Titian picked up work on three decades after he had dispatched the former to Milan in 1542. As I explained in my review of the Belluno show, it is therefore more than likely that the Marsyas was initially laid in at the same time as the now lost picture preserved in the Venice copy, probably in the 1550s.

Gentili’s analysis up to that point was both astute and prescient. His further interpretation, however, is less convincing. If one accepts his interpretation of the x-ray, which is very probably correct although it is hard to be conclusive about, there is nothing in the painting to suggest that anyone besides Titian painted in the figures in question, and it certainly is not a bozzetto in its current state — it is a finished, signed painting (again, see the accompanying essay for more).

The lira-player, who does seem to be painted on top of something else, and even — judging from seemingly unmotivated areas of reddish paint to his immediate right – to have been shifted leftwards somewhat, has all the lyrical pathos of Titian’s late, great figures struck in that particular key. His upturned head recalls the St. Petersburg St. Sebastian, while his right hand is painted almost exactly the same way as that of the shepherd in the Vienna Nymph and Shepherd. As to the small satyr with the haunting expression on his face, it is clearly a looser variation of the equally compelling Rotterdam Boy with Dogs (late 1560s, also displayed in the exhibition). There is certainly none of Palma’s firmness of hand in these loosely handled, almost dissolute figures. And to attribute them to anyone else in Titian’s workshop is even more far-fetched. As demonstrated by the selection of studio works in the Belluno show, none of his assistants was even close to this kind of touch.

The one detail that may have been painted by someone else is the crown adorning the head of the pensive Midas, just behind the small satyr. As Jill Dunkerton and others have observed, several of Titian’s late pictures, such as the Prado Spain Coming to the Aid of Religion, the Fitzwilliam Tarquin and Lucretia and the Escorial St. Jerome, to take but a few examples that were present in Vienna, include meticulously detailed objects that seem to differ from the ageing master’s looser hand, and beyond the reach of his failing eyes. It seems therefore that he may have employed someone specifically for that kind of detail work during the late years.

L’Ultimo Tiziano e la sensualità della pittura 26/1-20/4 2008 at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice.

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