Aretino and Michelangelo, Dolce and Titian: Femmina, Masculo, Grazia

Article excerpt

. . . you could truly say it was maidenly for a boy or boyish for a girl.-Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.322-23(1)

Between October 1545 and March 1546 Titian resided in Rome under the auspices of the Farnese. Little more than a decade earlier the family patriarch had been elected Pope Paul III and in this capacity named Michelangelo "Supreme Architect, Sculptor, and Painter to the Apostolic Palace."2 Thus, in the winter of 1545-46 Titian and Michelangelo, the "two aging chieftains of Renaissance art," found not only their works but also themselves in the same place at the same time.3 According to Giorgio Vasari, who also enjoyed Farnese largess, Michelangelo one day decided to visit Titian at his Belvedere residence. Accompanying Michelangelo, Vasari would later recall two things about this visit: the painting by Titian he had seen, and what Michelangelo had said about it. The painting seen was the first of several variants of Danae and the Shower of Gold, 1544-46 (Fig. 1 ). As Vasari tells it, Michelangelo commended the work for its colorito but criticized it for a lack of disegno. His purported quip-"it is a shame that good design was not taught in Venice from the beginning"-went on to become something of a stock reference in a long and much discussed history of criticism that has positioned Venetian stylistic sensibilities opposite those of central Italy.4 As the image that prompted the critique, the Danae predictably holds a prominent place in this discussion, as does its presumed pendant, Venus and Adonis (Fig. 2).5 So, too, does one of the undisguised progenitors of Titian's Danae, Michelangelo's Leda and the Swan, of about 1529-31 (Fig. 3), which itself is a descendant of the Medici Chapel Night, begun by 1524 (Fig. 4). And because Giorgio Vasari and Pietro Aretino were to promote Michelangelo by urging Titian's patrons to purchase a copy of the Leda as well as paintings after Michelangelo's Venus Reclining with Cupid, 1532-33, the latter image has also assumed a place in this art historical game of one-upmanship (Fig. 5).6

As is the case with previous studies that focus on any or several of these works of art, this one considers the images and contemporaneous descriptions of them by Lodovico Dolce, a friend and admirer of Titian and one of Michelangelo's more malicious detractors, and Pietro Aretino in relationship to one another.7 Given the circumstances surrounding the making and marketing of these paintings as well as replicas of them, it would be wrong to do otherwise. The competitive sparring between Titian and Michelangelo was very real and the stakes-patronage and status-were high. In the relatively small world of the cultured elite the producers, sellers, and buyers of art inevitably collided as patrons pursued renowned artists of talent and artists sought the favor of wealthy patrons. In this environment it was predictable that Michelangelo and Titian would meet head-to-head.

In 1529, Duke Alfonso d'Este of Ferrara, one of Titian's greatest and long-standing clients, had commissioned Michelangelo's Leda. Undoubtedly, Titian would have felt slighted by the duke's defection, especially since he had only recently produced three images of a similar kind for the same patron. Soon, however, the insult was assuaged when Titian received the patronage of the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V. Yet when Charles visited the Medici Chapel in May 1536 and expressed publicly and without equivocation his admiration for Michelangelo's work-including the already celebrated Night the gauntlet was thrown down. Titian was to remain securely in Charles's favor, yet in 1541 the professional antagonism between the two artists was aggravated anew. In that year Vasari visited Venice, bringing with him copies of two of Michelangelo's paintings: Leda and the Swan and Venus Reclining with Cupid. Vasari hoped to present the paintings to Guidobaldo delta Rovere, duke of Urbino, "another of Titian's most important patrons. To make matters still worse, Aretino wrote to the duke in spring 1542, recommending the acquisition of the Michelangelesque Leda and Venus. …