Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

By Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins | Go to book overview

Vittoria Colonna and the Commission
for a Mary Magdalen by Titian

Marjorie Och

In 1531 Vittoria Colonna acquired a painting of the Mary Magdalen by Titian that may be the Mary Magdalen now in the Palazzo Pitti (fig. 1).1 The Pitti Magdalen is a remarkable image: the penitent saint is represented crying, her reddened and tearful eyes gazing heavenward, her naked body only partially covered by her hair. Unlike the many later paintings of the Magdalen by Titian and his workshop in which the saint appears draped, she is here depicted attempting to cover her nakedness with her long, flowing hair. It is her nudity and what has been interpreted as her eroticism that has been problematic for viewers of both the past and present. Vasari flatly denied the eroticism of Titian's Magdalen, saying, "although she is extremely beautiful, "the painting" does not move the viewer to lustful thoughts but rather to pity."2 But in denying the eroticism of the Magdalen, was he not calling his readers' attention to it? In any case, twentieth-century viewers are generally more open in their projection of the Magdalen's sexuality as represented by Titian. According to Charles Hope, "The enduring popularity of Titian's Magdalens, both lightly clothed and naked, was surely not based on their religious content alone."3 Such judgments have led many to ask what Vittoria Colonna, the "famous Renaissance bluestocking," would appreciate in this work.4

The painting is remarkable for other reasons as well. This was apparently the first of many on the subject of the Magdalen by Titian. In each the Magdalen is placed within a darkened landscape, the walls of her grotto barely distinguishable, with Titian's characteristic blue Venetian sky in the distance. Of Titian's approximately forty paintings of the Magdalen, Harold Wethey identified four main types: the Pitti version is the only one in which the Magdalen is shown nude and without a book; the Naples version is identified by the alabaster or ceramic unguent jar; the Hermitage type is distinguished by the clear glass unguent jar; and finally, in the Escorial type, the Magdalen's book is placed on a small pillow or on a skull facing the viewer, and there is usually a more open distant landscape.5 The popularity of Titian's representations of the Magdalen for sixteenth-century patrons makes the Pitti painting all the more important for its position of primacy in his oeuvre; moreover, an understanding of the popularity of Titian's Magdalen imagery would seem to require a careful examination of the circumstances under which Titian produced the Pitti version and the interests of the person for whom it was painted. Fortunately, evidence of these circumstances and interests survives in the form of correspondence and has been published.6 Although these documents feature prominently in every account of Titian's painting, their interpretation has been treated variously, and no account offers the clarification of Vittoria Colonna's participation in the commission that will be presented here.

There are three aspects of this work that can be explored: the singularity of the Pitti version, namely, the naked Magdalen; the popularity and significance of the Magdalen in

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