Titian

Article excerpt

David Jaffe, ed. Titian.

London, National Gallery Company, February 19-May 18, 2003. 192 pp. 118 illus, all but 4 in color. $39.95 (cl). ISBN: 1-85709-904-4 (cl), 1-85709-903-6 (pbk).

Miguel Falomir, ed. Tiziano.

Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, June 10-Sept. 7, 2003. 443 pp. 220 illus, mostly in color. [euro]35. ISBN: 84-8480-050-4

For Titian lovers 2003 was a bonanza year. Both the National Gallery in London and the Museo del Prado in Madrid held exhibitions of his paintings. Despite the overlap of some works at the two venues, each had its own distinctive character; the London show was aimed at a popular audience, whereas that in Madrid had more scholarly objectives.

The highlight of the London exhibition lay in reuniting, for the first time since 1598, four of the five paintings, by Giovanni Bellini and Titian, that are believed to have hung in the camerino d'alabastro, the study that Duke Alfonso I d'Este created in his castle in Ferrara ca. 1516-ca. 1525. (The fifth work by Dosso Dossi has yet to be plausibly identified). In addition, many of the paintings of the Story of Aeneas by Dosso Dossi for the frieze above the canvases were included.

Many aspects of the extremely complex history of the camerino, including its location, its dimensions, the number of paintings and their artists, and the original iconographic program, have yet to be satisfactorily established. Suffice it to say that the original site is generally believed to have been a small rectangular room in which three paintings hung on a long wall facing windows, with one painting on each of the shorter end walls. The sequence of the paintings in London followed the general scholarly consensus: Bacchus and Ariadne (London) was placed on the short wall to the left (from the viewpoint of one standing with his/her back to the windows). The Bacchanal of the Andrians (Madrid) followed on the long wall, with Bellini's so-called Feast of the Gods (Washington) in the center. Controversy attends the sequence of the fourth and fifth paintings, but placement of Titian's Worship of Venus (Madrid) on the end wall to the right, on the grounds of the direction of the light fall within the painting and the words in capo del ... camerino in a 1598 document, was very plausible. This arrangement left space between the Feast of the Gods and the Worship of Venus for the lost Dosso.

The iconography of sensual pleasure favored by Alfonso contrasts sharply with the moralistic subjects of virtue chosen some twenty years earlier by his sister, Isabella d'Este, for her studiolo in Mantua. The themes of sex and drugs in the form of the fermented grape were embodied by the protagonists of the two facing paintings: Bacchus, lord of wine, and Venus, goddess of love. On the wall between, scenes interpreting the intoxication and carnal desires of the denizens of a golden world of vanished antiquity must have made this radiant cycle deeply satisfying to its original audience of one.

It was wonderful to experience the Bacchus and Ariadne, the Andrians, and the Feast of the Gods side-by-side and to discover the extent to which Titian succeeded in uniting the paintings despite their creation over a number of years. The drunken Silenus asleep on his donkey and portage of wine to the far right of the Bacchus and Ariadne were echoed by similar motifs at the left of the Andrians. Because the paintings straddled a corner, the considerably larger figure scale of Bacchus's followers over that of the singers, drinkers, and dancers in the Andrians was less noticeable than it might otherwise have been. It became clear that, faced with the smaller figure scale of Bellini's protagonists, Titian hoped that the figure scale in the Andrians would mediate between those in the Feast of the Gods and the larger ones in the Bacchus and Ariadne.

Frustratingly, by hanging the paintings much too low, the National Gallery failed to seize this unique opportunity to present the camerino as it was seen in the Cinquecento. …