Lines and Colors art blog

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)

Many artists, though certainly not all, are obsessed with beauty. Titian, also known by a number of other names, but most properly Tiziano Vecellio, was obviously one of them.

In addition to his desire to create works of great beauty, which he certainly did, was his fascination with the physical beauty of idealized women, as realized in his many canvasses of the goddess Venus. Beyond that, however, seemed to be a fascination with the fleeting nature of beauty and how our obsession with it dominates us.

His famous masterpiece, Sacred and Profane Love (above), which I’ve had the pleasure of being dazzled by in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, was incorrectly titled in the late 18th Century and interpreted to elevate the spiritual above the base concerns of the flesh (“profane love” meaning vanity, not sex). Modern Americans might also look at the painting and mis-identify the figures based on misguided ideas of propriety.

The painting was commissioned to celebrate a marriage. It is the clothed figure of the bride, sitting on a sarcophagus carved with the crest of the of the groom’s family, that represents the Earthly and temporal. Prior to the marriage, she is visited by cupid and Venus herself, who carries the eternal flame of God’s love and represents the sacred and eternal. Rather than condemning one and extolling the other, the painting actually glorifies both aspects of love. These were warm-blooded Italians in the flowering of the Renaissance, not the dour English Puritans from whom we Americans inherited much of our “morality”.

Titian knew that beauty was fleeting, though, and often played with the themes like the Worship of Venus and vanity.

Titian was an enormously influential artist. Rembrandt used one of Titian’s portraits (possibly a self-portrait) as a model for the composition of one his own self-portraits. Rubens copied his compositions, and many other great artists, at the time and subsequently, have been dramatically influenced by his refined color, sweeping compositions and masterful handling of the medium of oil paint. Titian was one of the first to use the medium on canvas rather than on boards.

It’s difficult to tell from the reproductions available on the web, but Titian’s rich, subtle colors were both smoothly blended and applied with ground-breaking visible strokes that presaged the work of later painters. In his later work, however, he seems to almost regress, losing the boldness of his color and adopting a more subdued palette. This may have been an emotional response to the death of his wife.

Titian is almost always mentioned with two other great Venetian painters, Bellini and Giorgione, his teacher and collaborator, respectively. Both are worth investigating if you have the time.

There are currently two exhibits in Europe that feature Titian’s works: Bellini, Giorgione, Titian at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (more here on Art Knowledge News), which I just missed at the NGA in Washington, and From Titian to Tiepopo, a show of Venetian Drawings at the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt (more here on Art Knowledge News).

There are a number of Titian’s works on view at museums here in the US, you’ll find many of them listed on Artcyclopedia. (Several pieces from the NGA are currently in Vienna.)

Sacred and Profane Love is not on loan and still resides in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Collector Sciopione Borghese bought the painting in 1608.

In 1899 the Rothschilds offered to buy Sacred and Profane Love for a sum that was greater then the acknowledged value of the entire Galleria Borghese and all its works.   The offer was refused.


6 responses to “Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)”

  1. Fascinating material!

    Probably worth considering, though, that until the last century most religious Italians (and there used to be a lot of them) on the whole would undoubtedly have identified more closely with the morality of the 16th- & 17th-century Puritans than with the alternative social schemes of our pan-cultural industrial-progressive & positivistic Modern/Postmodern world.

    It’s been popular for a long time to dismiss the various English Calvinists & other Dissenters who have a particular place in early North American history with such blanket labels as your ‘dour’ here, and also to credit them with giving original shape to whatever remains of relatively strict sexual and family moral ideals in American culture today. But neither notion is really correct. The groups we lump under ‘Puritanism’ today have to be seen as part of their 16th- & 17th-century politically & religiously conflict-ridden English context — as part of a complex cultural scene, in other words, that although hardly Mediterranean was anything but cold-blooded. Their particular forms of social & ecclesiastical strictness accompanied particular forms of interest, for instance, in individual-centered political freedom. (Consider that John Locke was raised & educated a Puritan.)

    As for what’s considered conservative morality in American society today, it’s important to realize that much of its substance as social theory depends (with increasingly frank acknowledgement among Evangelicals) on Catholic ethical thought — which, of course, still has its ideological heart in Rome.

    Thanks for all the great art history posts!

  2. Paul, Thanks for your thoughtful comments and the good words about lines and colors.

    You’re right, of course; my little rant is in oversimplification and unfair generalization.

    I think it’s something of an unconscious response to the stories this year of teachers being suspended or censured for suggesting (just suggesting) that students look into life drawing classes or taking students on field trips to museums in which “nudity” was on display.

    I never actually did a post on these, perhaps afraid that it would just be a long rant and be interpreted as political. But idiocy like that, and the general anti-art, anti-science and anti-rationality stance of the current crew in Washington has not stopped bothering me. (Oops, there I go, getting political.)

    Not being a real student of history, I tend to take liberties and use common images of various groups to make a point, which, of course, I would gripe about if done by someone else (grin).

    Other readers may want to check out Paul’s blog, quare id faciam?, his site, and sketches.

  3. What is remarkable about Titian’s life is how long it was. He reportedly lived 99 years – although some disagree and say it was “only” 89 years. As the average life was 30 years at that time, his age would correspond to 220 years in nowadays currency!

  4. Hi, I have just found your comments concerning Titian.
    These date two years back and I would like to ask if you would be interested to have some further comments on Titian posted. My own observations are all completely new. And more impressive than anything else so far published.

    Best regards from Barrie O’Leary.
    Thursday 11 September 2008

  5. hi charley; good general post – but has anuone got anything ‘new’ on this painting? barrie sez that he has got stuff – and barrie – i think i can explain this picture, but incredible that every i contact seems content with the current confusion… what’s the latest jooce on this amazing painting. hint mithraic tauroctony!

    1. I’m not aware of any current news or controversy surrounding Sacred and Profane Love. Here is the page on the official Boughese Gallery site, and a page about the work on WIkipedia with some additional references.