Can’t deny des­tiny

Ti­tian’s sub­lime se­ries of clas­si­cal myths and leg­ends are re­united for the first time in cen­turies in this re­mark­able ex­hi­bi­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Visit the Na­tional Gallery’s re­source hub ded­i­cated to the ex­hi­bi­tion at https:// www.na­tion­al­gallery.org.uk/ex­hi­bi­tions/ti­tian-love-de­siredeath.

In the mid­dle of the 16th cen­tury, Ti­tian, the great­est master of the School of Venice, was also the most fa­mous painter in the western world. Even in the ri­val city of Florence, his ge­nius was un­de­ni­able. Gior­gio Vasari, who as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple in­cluded only de­ceased artists in his great se­ries of Lives of the Artists, had made an ex­cep­tion in the first edi­tion (1550) for his hero Michelan­gelo; in the sec­ond (1568) he ex­tended that ex­cep­tion to one other artist, Tiziano Ve­cel­lio.

It was pre­cisely dur­ing the in­ter­ven­ing years that Ti­tian painted a se­ries of mytho­log­i­cal pic­tures for Philip II, who was ini­tially crown prince but be­came King Philip of Spain in 1556 upon the ab­di­ca­tion of his fa­ther, the Holy Ro­man Em­peror Charles V, who chose to spend his last years in monas­tic re­tire­ment. Through his ab­di­ca­tion, Charles had re­drawn the map of Europe: Spain and its pos­ses­sions in the Nether­lands, Si­cily and Naples and the Amer­i­cas were left to his son, and the crown of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire, with nom­i­nal suzerainty over the whole Ger­manic world as well as much of Italy, to his brother Fer­di­nand.

Ti­tian had al­ready worked for Charles V, so it was nat­u­ral he would con­tinue to be pa­tro­n­ised by his son, whose por­trait as a young man he had painted in 1551 and again in 1554. But the mytho­log­i­cal sub­jects, with their prom­i­nent nudes, are a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing choice be­cause Spain was one of the most strait­laced na­tions in Europe, and as the Re­for­ma­tion gath­ered steam at the very time these pic­tures were be­ing painted, it be­came the cen­tre of arch-re­ac­tionary Catholi­cism.

Com­pared to the gloomy and fa­nat­i­cal world of Span­ish re­li­gios­ity, Ti­tian’s paint­ings are brim­ming with the en­ergy, sen­su­ous­ness and in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity of the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance, a cul­ture that had scarcely im­planted it­self in the Penin­sula. That is not to say that they are sim­ply ex­pres­sions of joy­ous­ness: they have their own darker un­der­tones, but their dark­ness arises from an­cient ideas of fate and wil­ful di­vini­ties, not the Chris­tian con­cep­tion of sin.

There were seven pic­tures in the full se­ries, but the last re­mained in Ti­tian’s stu­dio un­til his death: his late mas­ter­piece The Death of Ac­taeon (1559-75), today in the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don. The re­main­ing six, all of which were de­liv­ered from 1553 on­wards, but have been scat­tered since the 18th cen­tury, are at last re­united for a re­mark­able ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don (for those of us un­able to visit in per­son, the gallery’s on­line hub for this ex­hi­bi­tion is well worth­while).

The first work in the se­ries was a new ver­sion of a pic­ture orig­i­nally painted around 1544-46 and now in the Mu­seum of Capodi­monte in Naples: Danae and the Shower of Gold (1551-53). The sub­ject is the con­cep­tion of the hero Perseus: Danae’s fa­ther, warned by the or­a­cle that a son born to his daugh­ter would cause his death, locked her away in a tower. But Zeus, or Jupiter in Latin, was en­am­oured by the girl and im­preg­nated her in a shower of gold – plu­vio auro as Ovid writes in his Me­ta­mor­phoses, which be­came the mytho­log­i­cal hand­book of mod­ern artists.

The Naples ver­sion has a Cupid on the right; this one al­most ex­actly re­pro­duces the fig­ure of Danae, with her at­ti­tude of won­der and sur­ren­der, but re­places Cupid with an old woman reach­ing out her apron to col­lect the gold. As it hap­pens, this sec­ond pic­ture was given by the king of Spain to the Duke of Welling­ton in grat­i­tude for his help in the fight against Napoleon, but was re­placed with the third ver­sion, also with an old woman, that today hangs in the Prado in Madrid.

The sec­ond pic­ture in the se­ries, and the only one still held by the Prado, was also the re­pro­duc­tion of a work orig­i­nally painted pos­si­bly 20 years ear­lier: Venus and Ado­nis, in which the awk­ward but strangely mem­o­rable twist of Venus’s body is bor­rowed from a small an­tique re­lief known as the Letto di Poli­cleto that once be­longed to Lorenzo Ghib­erti.

The twist is mo­ti­vated by the sub­ject, for Venus is try­ing to stop her lover Ado­nis from go­ing off to a hunt in which he will be fa­tally wounded by a boar. Her lament over the dy­ing boy was imag­ined by the Hel­lenis­tic poet Bion, but it has deeper mys­ti­cal echoes as well, for Ado­nis was orig­i­nally a Semitic di­vin­ity, a con­sort of the eastern earth mother who played an im­por­tant role in fer­til­ity cer­e­monies.

Each of these first two paint­ings can serve as an ex­am­ple of the lay­ered and sub­tle way that clas­si­cal mythol­ogy was in­ter­preted in Re­nais­sance art. At the most ob­vi­ous level, it of­fered a col­lec­tion of ro­man­tic and erotic sub­jects that res­onated with hu­man­is­tic con­cerns, an al­ter­na­tive or sup­ple­ment to the scrip­tural sub­jects that dom­i­nated much artis­tic pro­duc­tion.

But mythol­ogy also car­ried philo­soph­i­cal and even oc­cult or her­metic mean­ings, par­tic­u­larly as it was in­ter­preted by the Neo­pla­tonic tra­di­tion. In this per­spec­tive, Zeus’s de­sire for a mor­tal girl could be a sym­bol of the love that draws the di­vine to unite it­self with the hu­man spirit. Ti­tian’s own late and ap­par­ently bru­tal paint­ing of Apollo flay­ing Marsyas alive could con­ceal a mys­ti­cal in­sight into the way the di­vine can pos­sess our soul and as Dante al­ready sug­gests, free us from the prison of the flesh.

The third pic­ture in the se­ries was an orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion, al­though it re­calls the first be­cause its sub­ject is Danae’s son: Perseus and An­dromeda (c. 1554-56). The episode comes near the end of Perseus’s quest, when he is re­turn­ing with the head of the Gor­gon Me­dusa in a

bag, for it pet­ri­fies any who looks at it. The king and queen of Ethiopia have been obliged to ex­pose their daugh­ter An­dromeda, chained to a rock, to be de­voured by a sea-mon­ster sent by Po­sei­don; but Perseus slays the mon­ster and mar­ries An­dromeda.

Ti­tian seems to have taken the com­mis­sion for Philip more and more se­ri­ously, for the next two pic­tures, Diana and Cal­listo and Diana and Ac­taeon (1556-59), are not only com­pletely orig­i­nal, but large and am­bi­tious, and con­ceived as a pair. Both are con­cerned with the god­dess Artemis, or Diana in Latin, and even more specif­i­cally with the theme of the god­dess bathing in a spring, ac­com­pa­nied by her nymphs.

From the ear­li­est myths to a mod­ern painter like Gus­tave Courbet, springs are fem­i­nine sex­ual sym­bols; rivers are gods, but springs are nymphs. And Artemis is a vir­gin god­dess, which does not mean that she is asex­ual, but rather that she rep­re­sents the pow­er­ful en­ergy of po­ten­tial sex­u­al­ity, as dis­tinct from its ac­tive ex­pres­sion in the per­son of Aphrodite or Venus. The spring in which she bathes is a highly charged sym­bolic place.

Both of the pic­tures deal with the vi­o­la­tion of this sa­cred place and im­ply, with­out rep­re­sent­ing, the dire pun­ish­ment that is to fol­low. The story of Cal­listo is also told by Ovid, and read­ers are highly rec­om­mended to lis­ten to Ted Hughes read­ing his own free but elo­quent trans­la­tion of the episode on YouTube: search for Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, Part 1, Cal­listo and Ar­cas.

Cal­listo, ei­ther a nymph or the daugh­ter of King Ly­caon (who was turned into a wolf for his sav­age be­hav­iour), was a fol­lower of Artemis; but Zeus or Jupiter de­sired her and ap­proached her dis­guised as Diana her­self. He be­gan to se­duce her in this form and, when she re­alised the truth, forced him­self on her. She be­came preg­nant of course, be­cause as an­other an­cient lit­er­ary source says, a god never fails in this re­gard.

Deeply ashamed of what she has done – or suf­fered – Cal­listo hides her grow­ing belly un­til the day that the girls, af­ter a day of hunt­ing with their mis­tress, are go­ing to bathe in a pool. Cal­listo tries to re­sist, but is play­fully stripped by the oth­ers; her shame is re­vealed and Diana ban­ishes her as im­pure. This is the mo­ment rep­re­sented in the paint­ing, which is no sense the ex­u­ber­ant cel­e­bra­tion of the naked fe­male form that it may ap­pear to a care­less viewer.

What hap­pens next is for the viewer to re­mem­ber and imag­ine, and this is part of the in­ter­est of these pic­tures: not to tell the whole story, but to tell one cru­cial mo­ment and leave the rest for us to muse over. Af­ter Cal­listo has given birth, Juno (Hera in Greek), who al­ways hates her hus­band’s mis­tresses, will­ing or not, pun­ishes her by turn­ing her into a bear. Lis­ten to Ted Hughes to find out how she comes to be, today, the con­stel­la­tion of Ursa Ma­jor.

Ac­taeon was the son of Aris­taeus, him­self the son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrene, who gave her name to the city and re­gion in Libya.

The boy grew up to be a votary of Diana and thus ded­i­cated to vir­gin­ity and hunt­ing. One day, how­ever, he ac­ci­den­tally comes upon her bathing with her com­pan­ions, and sees her naked body. He too is pun­ished for this in­vol­un­tary trans­gres­sion. The god­dess splashes him with wa­ter from the spring; he is turned into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds.

These are thus com­plex pic­tures, mas­ter­fully con­ceived and ex­e­cuted with breath­tak­ing skill and feel­ing. And they ex­press a world­view that is pro­foundly dif­fer­ent from that of Chris­tian­ity.

This is a world of nat­u­ral and phys­i­cal en­ergy, of de­light in the body and the or­ganic world, but also one that ac­knowl­edges the dark­ness of chance and tragic fate. Trans­gres­sion here is not a mat­ter of sin in the Chris­tian sense and can­not be reme­died by re­pen­tance or for­given by a priest.

Ex­traor­di­nar­ily, these two paint­ings were given away by the newly-in­stalled Bour­bon king of Spain in 1704, and even­tu­ally made their way into a Bri­tish pri­vate col­lec­tion, from which they were jointly ac­quired in 2009 and 2012, af­ter a mas­sive fundrais­ing cam­paign, by the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don and the Na­tional Gallery of Scot­land in Ed­in­burgh. The last pic­ture in the ex­hi­bi­tion was also given away in 1704, but was ac­quired by the leg­endary art his­to­rian Bernard Beren­son in 1896 on be­half of Is­abella Ste­wart Gard­ner, and is now a trea­sure of the mu­seum that bears her name in Bos­ton.

The Rape of Europa (c. 1559-62), an­other sub­lime work, retells from Ovid a very an­cient myth that may go back to Myce­naean times: how Zeus, de­sir­ing the daugh­ter of King Agenor of Phoeni­cia, takes the form of a beau­ti­ful white bull and car­ries her off to the is­land of Crete, where she be­comes the mother of King Mi­nos and gives her name to a con­ti­nent; her brother Cad­mus, af­ter search­ing for her in vain, founds the city of Thebes and ploughs the earth for the first time, mark­ing the end of the golden age. Hu­man life may be sub­ject to in­com­pre­hen­si­ble forces, but it is in­ter­wo­ven with des­tiny and never in­signif­i­cant.

Ti­tian’s works (left to right): Diana and Ac­taeon; Diana and Cal­listo; Venus and Ado­nis

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