Titian at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Titian at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


THE National Gallery rightly claims that Titian, its latest exhibition, is the first sizeable British review of that master's work. In all, 276 paintings are attributed to Titian, of which eighty are lost. 196 remain, of which the National Gallery shows forty-two. Eleven come from its own collection, where they could equally well have been studied. Another five were already in this country. Only thirty-one paintings by Titian, or related to him, have been brought from abroad. On such a signal occasion more enterprise was desirable. More than thirty Titians will remain in the permanent collection at the Prado in Madrid when this exhibition joins them in June.

The catalogue of the exhibition is a welcome token that the National Gallery is gradually returning to the scholarly standards set by the catalogues of Cecil Gould, although provenances are not given in full, and its editing is so far from punctilious that Gould would at least have inserted an errata slip. The painting known as Sacred and Profane Love is catalogued in detail as Item 10, but is not in the exhibition. To balance one mistake against another, Apollo and Marsyas, from Kromeriz, is present in the exhibition but absent, except as an illustration, in the catalogue. The three pictures of episodes from Virgil's Aeneid by Dosso Dossi have been confused in a way which shows an ignorance of both Virgil and Dosso. In particular, the one picture of unquestioned authenticity, once in Kenneth, Lord Clark's collection and now at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, is mistitled The Trojans on the Libyan Coast instead of The Sicilian Games. Since Dosso's pictures are barely visible, hung near the ceiling in the comic reconstruction of Alfonso d'Este's study, it would hardly matter, except in making the catalogue unreliable for future reference.

One opportunity the curators of the exhibition did not miss. It was an admirable notion to bring together, for the first time in four centuries, the Bellini and the three Titians from Alfonso's study in Ferrara; although it is surprising that nobody before thought of the simple plan of bringing together two paintings from Madrid, one from Washington and one from London.

Alfonso I presided over a sinister court at Ferrara. Alfonso's uncle Ugo had been executed for an improper association with his step-mother. Alfonso s cousin Nicolo was also beheaded, but buried with the dignity befitting his rank, for contesting the duchy with Alfonso's father. Alfonso himself, worryingly married to Lucrezia Borgia, imprisoned his brother (already blinded for abducting Lucrezia's sister from a third brother, Cardinal Ippolito d'Este) for twenty-seven years for sedition. A minor Ferrarese poet was stabbed to death for an attempted adulterous liaison with Lucrezia. In spite of such atrocities the d' Estes were munificent patrons of artists, poets and scholars. Alfonso's poet laureate was Ariosto and his court-painter Dosso Dossi. He commissioned Giovanni Bellini to paint The Feast of the Gods (Washington National Gallery) in 1514 to commemorate his marriage to Lucrezia twelve years previously. Over the years he added four more pictures: a Bacchanal, now lost, by Dosso and three renowned mythol ogical works by Titian. Although the d' Estes were avid in their search for the best painters, and rewarded them well, what sometimes deterred the artists of their choice was that these absolute rulers insisted on deciding the content of the pictures they asked for. Alfonso's sister Isabella, Marchioness of Mantua, wrote invenzioni, or programmes, for the paintings she ordered. She sent Perugino a sketch for his Battle between Love and Chastity (Louvre) and told him not to deviate from it.

Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods is loosely based on a conflation, perhaps at second hand, of two passages in Ovid: at a feast of the gods (here represented as the marriage feast of Alfonso as Neptune and Lucrezia as the mother-goddess Cybele) the garden-god Priapus was interrupted in his attempt on a nymph by the braying of Silenus's donkey. …

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