Titian — The Last Act

The late work of Titian continues to fascinate. Inner effulgence emerging through broken, smouldering facture. A expressively spiritual presence. These are some of the qualities of the best, late works in paint by the master. Unprecedented in its embrace of colour as clay, of the gesture as art, and utterly devoid of ancillary concerns, yet fully continuous with the rest of his oeuvre, it appears the result of insights attained through a long life of painting as inquiry. A quintessential manifestation of the romantic notion of an Altersstil as the last testament of the singular artistic genius.

The latest affirmation of the late work’s enduring appeal are two ambitious and grandly conceived exhibitions, concentrating on the last twenty years or so of Titian’s career. Without a doubt the most assertive and incontrovertible is “Der Späte Tizian und die Sinnlichkeit der Malerei” (“Late Titian and the Sensuality of Painting,” reviewed here) in Vienna, which opened last week and collects the majority of his supreme late masterpieces under one roof. (More on that once I get to see it) The other is the odder, more idiosyncratic, but nevertheless greatly interesting show “Tiziano — L’Ultimo atto” (“Titian — The Last Act”) in the small town of Belluno in the foothills of the Dolomites, with an outreach to Titian’s hometown of Pieve di Cadore, further on up.

I had the pleasure of visiting the area recently and, as explained elsewhere, seeing the landscape that continued to inform Titian throughout his life was an eye-opener, a particularly poignant example of how visiting the home of an artist can conflate art and life. I also spent a good deal of time in the exhibition, and could not help but wonder whether the regional government and the city of Belluno has not overplayed their cards somewhat. The show is widely publicised, and a lot of money has obviously been invested into attracting visitors and accommodating a show that does not fit the space to which it has been assigned — a converted town house called the Palazzo Crepadonna. This includes an extraordinarily ugly refitting and covering of a small inner court to obtain at least one large, well-lit space in which to exhibit a couple of the largest paintings in the show. The rest of the works are consigned to inadequately lit, low-ceilinged rooms and corridors on two floors of the building. And despite all of this effort, the exhibition contains very little of the prime-quality Titian one would perhaps expect from such a publicised show. What will people, who come expecting the great work of the master that they have been spoiled with in museums across Europe, think when they are confronted with this eclectic assembly of studio productions, replicas, copies and derivations?

It is, of course, at the same time, the large quantities of such rarely seen work, along with a handful of high-quality pictures from the master’s own hand (a good deal of them lent by collections off the beaten path), as well as a fascinating selection of drawings and prints, that makes the show so interesting to a scholar. Here is a chance to see pictures one might otherwise never get to see, and to try out for oneself curator Lionello Puppi’s provocative ideas of the Titian workshop’s scope and approach in the late years. In other words, this is an exhibition for nerds, but a potentially very fertile one, and also one that will hopefully temper and nuance a broader audience’s understanding of the master’s late work. And, in any case, it is Titian and that in itself should keep the flow of visitors steady and hopefully make the show a success.

The exhibition takes the opposite tack to the approach the Vienna show appears to have chosen. Where the Kunsthistorisches Museum is host to some of the most glorious achievements of Titian’s late years (and indeed his career), the Belluno show engages the notion that the studio as a whole worked as an expression of Titian’s genius. In other words, the perpetually difficult issue of reconciling, in the Renaissance, the role of the single artistic genius with that of the age-old studio system. A good deal of Puppi’s work, and the research he has helmed as one of the editors of the newly established, Pieve-based academic journal Studi Tizianeschi, has dealt with issues of Titian’s studio practice, especially in the late years where the studio setup is easiest to reconstruct and the identity of most of the master’s assistants can be established, though the extent of their involvement in individual works remains difficult to determine.

Puppi and the contributors to the catalogue take an emphatically inclusive approach to the question of authenticity, giving to Titian what others on a good day would call studio works and attributing works to the studio that at least this viewer has a hard time imagining Titian would ever sanction leaving his workshop. Upon entering the show, the visitor is thus immediately confronted with four alternate versions of famous late compositions: the Flaying of Marsyas, Virtue Coming to the Aid of Christian Faith, the Entombment and the Perseus and Andromeda. Unfortunately, the Entombment, one of Titian’s greatest compositions — the two best-known versions of which are in the Prado — had not yet arrived when I visited (there was an empty space for it on the wall — it should be there now), and I have not seen it in the Ambrosiana in Milan where it normally resides, so I cannot comment much on it, though it looks to me like a reasonably high-quality studio replica from the 1570s. Concerning the Marsyas and the Virtue, here both credited to ‘Titian and studio,’ I would be hard pressed to see any involvement by — or even sanction from — the master. The Virtue looks nothing like Titian or his studio in execution and is most likely an unfinished copy from the late 16th-century of the version painted for the Spanish king Philip II, now in the Prado, while the Marsyas is most likely a copy of an earlier, somewhat different version, possibly of the 1550s, of the famous composition now in the Episcopal Palace in Kromeríz. This painting is now lost, but is probably identical to one recorded in Venice and Modena in the 17th Century. The most interesting picture in this context is the Perseus and Andromeda, however, because it may provide us with a rare and fascinating record of the practice of making replicas in the Titian workshop in the late years.

Puppi’s identification of the picture, which belongs to the Musée Ingres in Montauban, opens an interesting perspective. He suggests Titian offered it to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II in 1568, as part of a set of replicas of the so-called poesie he had painted for Philip II in the 1550s. With the possible exception of the Vienna Diana and Callisto, it appears that Maximilian never accepted this offer. And in any case, the Montauban picture is obviously a lacklustre effort, even allowing for the deterioration it has obviously suffered. It is flat in colouring and almost naive in its characterisation. I cannot imagine that it was ever touched by Titian’s own brush, and though I would not put it past some of his assistants to produce something like this on their own, it is simply inconceivable that Titian would offer a picture of such low quality to one of the most powerful men in Europe without extensive repainting. It is nowhere near the quality of the already-mentioned Vienna Diana and Callisto (not in the exhibition), for example.

So what is the story of the Montauban picture? In its lack on independence and pedantic execution, it looks like a copy. However, it was not made after the version of the composition that has traditionally been assumed to be the one sent to Philip, now in the Wallace Collection in London (not in the exhibition). It sports small but significant differences from that picture, the most notable being the two-pointed scimitar carried by Perseus. as opposed to the one-pointed blade of the Wallace picture. Since considerable doubts — mostly based on documentation of at least two versions in Spain in the 17th Century -– have been cast on the Wallace picture being Philip’s, a possibility could be that the Montauban canvas preserved the composition of that putative, lost original. That, however, is unlikely — x-rays of the Wallace picture reveal massive revisions to the composition, which perhaps does not absolutely prove, but at least strongly indicates that its basic layout, which is the same as in the Montauban picture, originated on that canvas (add to this that there is some circumstantial evidence that Philip’s picture was composed entirely differently, with the figure of Andromeda on the right).

Further complicating matters is an engraving, also in the exhibition, printed by Luca Bertelli and attributed to Giulio Sanuto. It reproduces the composition as it looks in the Montauban picture, which makes it likely that it was made after it, or on the basis of a drawn copy of it. Both Bertelli and Sanuto were in Venice in the 1560s, making it safe to assume that the print is from that decade. Sanuto seems to have had collaborated directly with Titian sometime around the middle of the decade, when he engraved his lost depiction of Tantalus, painted for Mary of Hungary in the early 1550s. So if the present engraving is indeed by him, it is likely to derive directly from the workshop. My tentative proposal for the identification of the Montauban picture, also allowed for by Puppi, is therefore that it was initially a full-sizericordo of the Wallace picture, made on Titian’s order by one of his assistants, in order to preserve the composition for future replication (and perhaps worked up for sale by the same or another assistant after the master’s death). As such, it is an extremely interesting picture, in that it would be one of the depressingly few surviving examples we have of the ricordi we know Titian kept of his compositions throughout his career.

The questions the exhibition in this way poses regarding Titian’s workshop practice is its major overall asset, even if the curatorial take on what constitutes a Titian and what may reasonably be attributed to the workshop is rather generous. There a considerable chasm between the just mentioned group of pictures, for example, and other paintings in the exhibition also attributed to ‘Titian and studio.’ In comparison with the feeble Marsyas, the mechanically executed Perseus and Andromeda, or the mauve Virtue, the somewhat bland Uffizi Reclining Venus — the least inspiring of the extant Venuses of this type from Titian’s workshop — is of a whole different level of quality, not to speak of the fine studio production of the Venus and Adonis from the Ashmolean, which certainly contains work by the master. The same goes, even, for the somewhat naïve Pitti Madonna della Misericordia, a documented studio production of 1573-74, which shows the master’s hand in certain passages, such as the rich, luminescent white veils, built up from translucent defining strokes, glazed with warm browns and finally given texture by scumbled, thick lead white.

And this is where the concept of the show may be viewed as something of a cop-out. In giving to Titian almost anything relatable to the studio, which as mentioned makes a certain amount of sense in terms of contemporary practice, there is a concomitant risk of critical neglect with regards to quality, which not only runs counter to the documented priorities of many Renaissance patrons, but can result in unacceptable attributions such as the Virtue or the Marsyas. When one deemphasises the distinction between master and workshop, one risks loosing view of what might constitute a studio work. While admittedly difficult, attempts at identifying the hands of individual assistants, as well as that of the master, are essential to understanding the working process and determining what could have been the responsibility of the workshop and what could not.

Interesting in this respect is the inclusion of several works by Titian’s assistants in the later years – most importantly his son Orazio Vecellio, his second cousin Marco Vecellio and his long-time assistant Girolamo Dente — first associated with the studio in 1525 — but also his third cousin Cesare and other more loosely associated painters, such as Emmanuel Amberger, Valerio Zuccato, Simone Peterzano and even the young El Greco (though we have no proof he was ever part of the workshop) are acknowledged. What is immediately striking is how inferior the artists closest to Titian — Girolamo, Orazio, Marco, Cesare – are on their own. Contrary to a Raphael, for example, it has always been evident that Titian was not a great progenitor of new masters. Of the more skilled artists to pass through his studio, only Amberger — who was there in the late 1560s — seems to have stayed any substantial amount of time, while more significant figures such as Paris Bordone and Tintoretto are reported to have quickly fallen out with the master and moved on.

Girolamo, who is a somewhat accomplished painter of figures and exhibits a certain understanding of the master’s handling of texture and colouristic depth, is documented to have been independently active in the workshop in the later years. The others, however, seems to have been kept under tight surveillance by the master until the very late years when he was no longer capable of meeting the demands of his patrons. From the few works included in the exhibition however, it is therefore hard to determine what role these artists played in the execution of the late works. Though the one work included here, the Borghese Venus with Cupid and a Satyr (which sports a clear borrowing from Parmagianino in the cupid), is very little to go by, it seems obvious that Girolamo must have been the central figure until his death sometime before 1572, probably responsible for laying in the many replicas churned out by the workshop — Magdalens, Madonnas, Ecce Homos, etc., but probably also paintings such as the Ashmolean Venus and Adonis, which exhibits a similarly smooth but still rich rendering of flesh to that of the Borghese picture.

In the case of smaller bread-and-butter devotional pictures, there are a couple of superb examples of them in the show; the Sibiu Ecce Homo and the recently resurfaced Mater Dolorosa from a private collection in Seattle. Whoever laid them in, it is obvious that Titian finished them by lending them stirring life. In the case of Christ, the passion of a man worn thin, at breaking point but proud. And in that of Mary, quiet, exhaustive sorrow, expressed through puffed-up, bloodshot eyes and soothingly tempered by the smoky rendering of her veil, as well as the unorthodox deep red of her mantle, build up through violet glazing.

Going by the characteristics of Orazio and Marco’s work in the Belluno show and in the region, especially that in Pieve, which I also had the opportunity to see, it is clear that they were the dominant figures in the 1570s productions. The somewhat formulaic approach to faces, with dark, round staring eyes and strongly defined eyebrows, noses and lips, evident in the already mentioned Madonna della Misericordia, but present in many Titians from the late years, seems particularly characteristic of Marco in pictures such as his Madonna with Child with Saint Mark, Faith and Fortitude in the town hall of Pieve. But it is clearly a shorthand derivation of Titian’s own approach to the human face that can be tracked back to the mid- to late 1540s in works such as the Serravelle altarpiece (not in the exhibition) and the Santo Spirito in Isola Pentecost, now in the Salute in Venice (not in the exhibition), both of which the young Orazio must have worked on. In other words, their similarity of approach and style makes it hard, and perhaps rather pointless to try to separate their individual contributions to the late work.

Orazio, and perhaps also Marco, must have been involved in another of the rarely seen pictures in the show, a Last Supper normally in the collection of the Dukes of Alba in Madrid. The composition dates back at least to the 1540s, when Tintoretto adapted the imposing figure of Judas, on our side of the table, for his San Marcuola Last Supper of 1547, and possibly even earlier — a version of the motif by the Titian studio is recorded in 1533. This version of it poses a number of problems. It takes a markedly different approach to the background than the lost picture preserved in a copy in Milan, which was probably painted for the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in the late 1550s and which provided the pattern for the most famous extant version, sent to Philip in 1564 and now in the Escorial. The latter, severely cut down and extensively repainted, looks like a studio work, but was clearly overseen closely by the master and exhibits passages of rare beauty, especially in the evening sky behind the protagonists.

Apart from a few details, such as the remarkably lively and clearly standout figure, third from left, turning his head towards his companion, there seems to be little trace of the master’s brush in the Alba version. Where Titian achieves depth and luminosity through dark glazing of brightly coloured areas, and increasingly so from the 1550s onwards, the effect here, clearly derivative of this technique, is largely murky. The characterisation is rather formulaic and has the above-mentioned characteristics of Orazio and Marco’s work, particularly in the recoiling figure of Saint Peter to Christ’s immediate left and in the apostle seated at the far right of the table (who looks a lot like the Joseph in Orazio’s Nativity of 1566 in the Church of San Biago in Calzalzo, not in the exhibition).

In the catalogue, the painting is dated to the mid-1540s, based on its similarity to the aforementioned Serravelle altarpiece and the Pentecost, but those pictures are brighter and slicker in their finish than this one. My guess, based on what it reflects of Titian’s own style, would be that it is a variation of the composition for an unknown patron, painted largely by Orazio but overseen by his father, and dating to the 1560s, concurrently with or after the Escorial picture — a time when Orazio was increasingly taking on work of his own.

Also from this period is the bizarre Stigmatisation of Saint Francis, probably finished in 1569 and now in the Pinacoteca in Ascoli. Recently restored, the picture has emerged from relative obscurity and been affirmed as autograph by several scholars. And though it is severely damaged and fairly heavily restored in places, the hand of the master is evident in places, particularly in the landscape, which is rendered with the magnificently expressive touch evident in much of his late work — it looks almost like a Pollock, but denser and richer, when you step up close.

He probably also had some involvement in the figures, especially that of the donor on the right, who has character, but their stiffness and, in the case of the latter, flatness, indicate that they were laid in by an assistant. Also, it is hard to believe that Titian would perpetrate something as awkward as the wooden figure of the Redeemer in the clouds, and the stocked feel of his spatial relation to the figure of the saint also seems uncharacteristic. Apparently the upper area is amongst the most damaged of the painting, and one therefore has to allow for the detraction of whatever inept, later overpainting that may have been applied, but the composition still does fully not convince. Painted at a time when Titian was busy finishing important large-scale commissions such as the San Salvador Annunciation and the late Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence for Philip, I suspect that this painting is a good example of how the master would increasingly relegate compositions to his assistants during these years, and then come in at the end, quickly do the landscape — he must have been able to whip out those in his sleep by this point, and clearly enjoyed doing it – as well as give the figures their final touches.

Testament to his somewhat nonchalant, but sensitive mastery at this late stage of his career is the fully autograph altarpiece of Saint James the Greater from the church of San Lío in Venice (c. 1565), which the exhibition offers the chance of seeing in glorious daylight in the covered courtyard mentioned earlier (albeit mounted in a stunningly ugly accordion-like wooden frame). Despite its rather damaged state and the obvious haste with which it was executed — look at the staff! — it is an inspiring performance. On a backdrop of suggested aridity, clad in slightly translucent fabric with a heavy cloak draped over his shoulders and wearing his pilgrim’s shell, he walks towards us with rare vigour. His body has tangible volume and ripples with strength and resolution. His upturned face, heavenly light playing across the brow, long-fingered elegant hand on heaving chest, conveys a man striding with faith on his breath. Bringing us in because it is rendered with equal faith in the brush.

“Tiziano — L’ultimo atto” in Belluno and Pieve di Cadore runs until January 6, more information here. “Der späte Tizian und die Sinnlichkeit der Malerei” in Vienna also runs until January 6, more information here.

Thanks to Paul Joannides for reminding me that the set of poesie offered to Maximilian were most likely never sent, and may never have been painted, and apologies to Lionello Puppi — should he read this — for my having misinterpreted his hypothesis regarding the Montauban Perseus and Andromeda slightly the first time around. That section has now been rewritten somewhat and is hopefully more accurate now.

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