“The greatness and power of Michel Agnolo, the sweetness and beauty of Raphael, and the very colors of Nature herself”

—An evaluation of the Italian artist Titian by Ludovico Dolce (1508/10-1568), Dialogue on Painting


On until June 16 at the Quirinal Palace’s scuderie, or stables, is a splendid retrospective of the most important Italian artist of the 16th century, Tiziano Vecelli. Known to us as Titian, this precocious talent was born in Pieve di Cadore around 1490 (his exact birth date is not known) into a wealthy family. At age 10 or 12 he was sent, with his older brother Francesco, to Venice to be apprenticed first to the painter and mosaicist Sebastian Zuccato and then to the Bellini brothers, considered the city’s leading painters of the time, especially Giovanni (c. 1430-1516). Still a teenager, Titian became an assistant to the great Giorgione from Castelfranco (1477/8-1510), to whom many of his early works, because of their similar style and subject matters, have mistakenly been attributed.

Prepared by art historian Giovanni C.F. Villa, “Titian” is the last in a series of exhibitions at the scuderie concerning the importance of Venetian painting and its key role in the renewal of Italian and European culture. All were prepared by Villa. The earlier retrospective exhibitions concerned Antonello da Messina and his arrival in the lagoon (2006); the humanist Giovanni Bellini, Titian’s first teacher (2008); Lorenzo Lotto and his psychological introspection (2011); and Tintoretto, with his ever-whirling bursts of colors (2012).

Venice had celebrated Titian, the first truly European artist, in two all-encompassing retrospectives: in 1935 at the Ca’ Pesaro and at the Doges’ Palace in 1990. Other exhibitions outside Venice over the next intervening 23 years zeroed in on one aspect or another of this great master, but never before on the entire span of his 60-year career: from his early days of painting with Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione to the independence that he won with his large canvases for the Doges and the d’Este and Della Rovere families, and ultimately with his imperial commissions from Charles V and his son Philip II. The 39 works of art at the scuderie are on loan from Italy, both museums and churches, and from museums worldwide: the Uffizi and Pitti Palaces in Florence, Madrid’s Prado, Naples’ Capodimonte, the Louvre, Rome’s Galleria Borghese, London’s National Gallery, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Budapest’s Szépumvészeti Museum, and Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, to cite a few. Only one comes from the USA: The Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese at 12 years old (the illegitimate grandson of Pope Paul III who created him cardinal at age 15) from Washington D.C.’s National Gallery. Two different versions (the first c. 1512-13 and the second c. 1522-1526) of The Apparition of the Madonna to St. Catherine of Alexandria, and Saints Nicholas, Peter, Anthony, Francis of Assisi, and Sebastian (known as the Madonna of St. Nicholas of the Frari) are on loan from the Vatican Museums. All the paintings are displayed in chronological order to show the development of the artist’s style: his unique and masterly use of color, especially his reds, and light, and his swift brushstrokes.

The Annunciation from the School of San Rocco in Venice.

The Annunciation from the School of San Rocco in Venice.

“Retrospectives on famous artists run a certain risk,” explains Amanda Ruggeri on her BBC Passport Blog “Venice’s Most Famous Painter Comes to Rome” dated March 7, 2013. “It’s not easy to acquire a real sampling of the artist’s best works, or even those from different stages in the artist’s development. Curators often use pieces by the artist’s peers or students to contextualize the artist or fill in the gaps…Not here. In Titian one showstopper follows the next. Every one of the 39 works on display is by Titian, with the exception of a mosaic by Valerio Zuccato, done after the master’s preparatory design.” There are four great works for each decade of his artistic life, the earliest: The Madonna and Child, on loan from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, dates to 1507 and already reflects his precocious genius. The first floor of the scuderie is mostly devoted to his religious paintings; the second to his mythological canvasses and his portraits. The highlights of his religious paintings are: the spine-tingling, enormous Martyrdom of St. Lawrence on loan from the Jesuit Santa Maria Assunta Church in Venice and especially restored for this exhibition; The Annunciation from Venice’s School of San Rocco; Bishop Jacopo Pesaro Presented to St. Peter by Pope Alexander VI from Antwerp; and The Penitent Magdalene from Florence’s Pitti Palace. Visitors will have the unusual chance to compare iconographically the innovative style and colors of three crucifixion scenes: one on loan from the Dominican church in Ancona which is very dark with the Virgin and St. Dominic, who is embracing the cross, and St. John (1557-8); a second from the Escorial in Madrid (1555-57) of a solitary crucifix with a stormy sky and landscape as background; and a fragmentary third, from Bologna’s Pinacoteca Nazionale, showing a close-up of Christ on the cross, and to the left one of the thieves (1560-70). Titian’s most striking portraits are of Pope Paul III Farnese without his camauro; the architect Giulio Romano; the Doges Marcantonio Trevisan and Francesco Venier; humanist Cardinal Pietro Bembo; and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who wished to be painted, with his dog, by no other artist and declared Titian “il primo pittore” or “the foremost painter ever.”

Portrait of Pope Paul III without his camauro from Naples’ Capodimonte.

Portrait of Pope Paul III without his camauro from Naples’ Capodimonte.

“Titian” opens with a self-portrait on loan from the Prado; another on loan from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie is in the final of the exhibition’s ten sections. (Titian painted both somber canvases at an ­advanced age, “proving,” Ruggeri tells us, “he was just as ­attentive to psychological ­detail when it came to painting himself as when he painted others… Titian wasn’t just talented technically; he was ­penetratingly perceptive, especially of his subjects’ ­emotions and personalities.) Next to the first self-portrait is The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, now estimated to be worth 50 million euros and, according to Villa, “the most beautiful night scene in all of painting…and by itself worth a visit to ‘Titian.’” Nearby is the second self-portrait, one of the last canvases Titian painted just before dying of the plague on August 27, 1576; and The Flaying of Marsyas (on loan from Kromíž in the Czech Republic) which depicts an ancient Greek myth. Titian, recognized by his contemporaries as “the sun amidst small stars” (recalling the famous final line of Dante’s Paradiso), was equally adept with portraits, landscape backgrounds, and religious and mythological subjects. (Titian painted many large mythological canvases known as poesie, mostly based on Ovid, for Philip II; they’re considered among his greatest works. On display here is one of at least four versions of Titian’s Danaë and the Shower of Gold, on loan from Naples’ Capodimonte, and Venus Blindfolding Love from Rome’s Galleria Borghese.

“During the course of his long life,” Wikipedia tells us, “Titian’s artistic manner changed drastically, but he retained a lifelong interest in color, and ­although his mature works may not contain the vivid, luminous tints of his early pieces, their loose brushwork and subtlety of polychromatic modulations are without precedence in the history of Western art.”

Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, the illegitimate grandson of Pope Paul III, from Washington’s National Gallery.

Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese, the illegitimate grandson of Pope Paul III,
from Washington’s National Gallery.

Titian influenced the next five centuries of painters, most clearly Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Gauguin, Cezanne and Delacroix, who appropriately stated: “We are all Titian’s flesh and blood.” This phrase reiterates what Curator Villa says in his introduction to “Titian” in Italian with English subtitles. It’s well worth listening to by clicking on www.scuderiequirinale.it, then on “Mostre,” and on the box “Tiziano: Introduzione alla Mostra di Giovanni C.F. Villa.” Villa explains that painting as we know it today would not exist without Titian and that after his death the next artistic revolutionaries were the Cubists, because Titian influenced the interim artistic movements.

Titian painted nearly 100 masterpieces, so not every one is on display at the scuderie. Luckily one, his mysterious Sacred and Profane Love, is not far way in Rome’s Galleria Borghese, which instead loaned his Venus Blindfolding Love. “Amongst the most notable omissions,” explains Ruggeri, “are the ground-breaking Assumption of the Virgin in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriososa dei Frari in Venice…and his very last work, the heart-wrenching Pietà from the Accademia in Venice, complete with [another] self-portrait of 85-year old Titian as an anguished Nicodemus to the dead Christ.” Close to its completion he is said to have remarked: “I’m finally beginning to learn to paint.”

Titian, who left many works unfinished, died before completing his Pietà. He was the only victim of the 1576 Venice plague to be given a church burial. He was interred the day after his death in the Frari (the Franciscan Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari). Intended for his own tomb chapel, his Pietà was finished by Palma il Giovane. Instead, Titian lies by another of his famous paintings, the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro. No memorial marked his grave until much later when the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Canova to provide its large monument.

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