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Titian’s Royal Warnings

Reviewing "Women, Myth, and Power" at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
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Titian is the greatest painter Venice ever produced and the most influential on the European giants (Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt) of the next century and beyond. Working for the Most Serene Republic over an astonishing five decades, he produced highly regarded and much sought-after portraits, stunning altarpieces, and dramatic battle scenes. Yet when princes and monarchs became his patrons, a new vein of inspiration arose from classical myth. One aspect of these myths, the loves of the gods, appealed to these royals. For them, Titian invented a new genre in Western art, the erotic mythology.

Women, Myth, and Power is devoted to the six mythologies the artist painted for his most renowned patron, Philip II of Spain, between 1551 and 1562. After stops in London (2020) and Madrid (2021), this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition has opened in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which owns the last painting in the series. As these paintings are the star attractions of their respective museums, they are unlikely to be seen together ever again.

The eros for beautiful bodies permeates Greco-Roman mythology, driving the shape-shifting gods and disturbing the lives of mortals. Thanks to vernacular translations, the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis, a mock-heroic epic of almost 250 myths, was rediscovered by Renaissance painters and sculptors and became the artists’ alternative to the Bible. Drawing on these tales, Titian called his series poesie, as poetry was the most prestigious art form of the day, one in which the artist had greater freedom to invent than in other genres. He was not the first to use Ovid but is considered the definitive interpreter of these amorous episodes. His preeminence consists, first, in his technical virtuosity. The high-quality pigments available exclusively in Venice provided him with the warm, rich, vibrant colors that make his canvases come magically alive. His eloquent brush transmutes these pigments into any material substance: jewelry, silks, furs, and, above all, female flesh.

His patron, Philip, was both a devout Catholic and a womanizer, commissioning religious paintings as well as the mythological series. At the start, Titian offered the young prince what he wanted: naked female pulchritude. As the artist worked his way through the series, he explored the tragic consequences of eros, showing deep empathy for the vulnerability of human beings to forces beyond their control. Philip, who took upon himself the role of Defender of the Catholic Faith, seems to have appreciated what Titian was showing about the fragility of the human condition.

In the first two paintings, the carnal takes precedence over the tragic. In the Danaë, Titian took one of the briefest passages from Ovid and imagined what it would have looked like if one were a voyeur. The voluptuous princess Danaë languidly reclines nearly naked on her canopied bed. Her father, the king of Argos, has locked her in an impregnable tower after hearing from an oracle that her son will kill him. Jupiter, the lustful king of the gods, finding a tiny crack in the roof, transforms himself into a shower of gold to seduce the transfixed princess. Her elderly female guard, distracted by the rain, greedily holds out her apron to catch as much of the gold as possible. Just as the rain captivates the two women, the princess’s luminous body and noble face bewitch the viewer.

Titian pairs Danaë with Venus and Adonis. As Ovid tells his tale, Venus, the goddess of love, accidentally grazed by one of Cupid’s arrows, falls for Adonis, an exceedingly handsome young hunter. As she is about to leave, the goddess warns Adonis against hunting big and dangerous prey. The painter transforms the story by picturing the goddess, naked and seen from behind, clinging to her lover, who faces us fully dressed. With hounds at his feet, the young man seems determined to ignore her warnings. He will meet his death in the forest when he is gored by a boar, dramatizing the perils of youth and inexperience and the inescapability of fate. Philip, too, was an enthusiastic hunter, so much so that his father directed his handlers to avoid the pursuit of dangerous prey.

In Perseus and Andromeda, the Ethiopian princess Andromeda stands naked, chained to a rock. She is a sacrifice to appease a sea monster, which the god Neptune had sent to ravage the coast of her country. The queen, her mother, claimed that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Titian depicts the hero Perseus, son of Danaë and Jupiter, equipped with winged sandals, swooping in from the top right to kill the monster and rescue the princess. Thanks to the hero’s ex machina intervention, this is the only painting with a happy ending in the series.

The next pair of paintings concern the anger and cruelty of the goddess Diana, and while Titian multiplies the number of female nudes, his emphasis here is the tragic aspect of the myth. In Diana and Actaeon, another handsome young hunter, Actaeon, accidentally stumbles upon the secret bathing pool where Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, and her nymphs are revealed entirely naked. Actaeon’s body language manifests his shock at seeing what mortal men are forbidden to look upon; Diana’s terrifying sidelong glance at the intruder suggests her raging spirit. The skull propped up on a pillar and the deer skins hanging from the trees are ominous signals of the fate of Actaeon. The outraged goddess will lash out at the innocent boy transforming him into a stag to be torn apart by his hounds. Ovid stresses, and Titian shows, that Actaeon is guiltless; he is the victim of fate and Diana’s cruelty.

Ovid recounts that Callisto, one of the favorite nymphs in Diana’s entourage, was raped by Jupiter, who disguised himself as Diana. Nine months later, when the pregnant Callisto declines to take off her clothes while the other nymphs are bathing, Diana commands them to hold her down and disrobe her. This is the scene Titian chose to paint in Diana and Callisto. As Diana’s nymphs must remain chaste, the goddess banishes the nymph for becoming pregnant. In exile, she is punished by jealous Hera, Jupiter’s wife, who transforms the lovely Callisto into an ugly bear. Again, we have an innocent victim, humiliated and ostracized by her peers and twice punished by female goddesses without a shred of empathy. As disturbing as the Diana poesie are, they are paradoxically the most beautifully painted canvases of the series.

The final work in the series, The Rape of Europa, is another story about lustful, deceitful Jupiter, who spies a beautiful young princess, Europa, playing on the beach with her companions. He transforms into a playful and docile bull, charming her into climbing on his back. As soon as she does this, he speeds off, sending Europa dangerously off-balance as she clings with one hand to his horn. Once again, a disturbing story of rape. What makes the picture exceptionally provocative is the forceful gaze of the bull Jupiter, the only character that directly engages with the viewer. Is Philip or the viewer somehow complicit in this tragedy?

As Philip grew older, the monarch faced the enormous challenges posed by his global empire, which reached across Europe to the Americas and the Philippines. Biographer Henry Kamen argues that the king became seriously devout and regretted his wayward youth. Along with the poesie, Philip insisted that Titian deliver specific religious paintings, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Entombment. At night, according to the royal palace librarian, the monarch “would spend lengthy periods [among the paintings], meditating on how much he owed to Christ who bore such a heavy weight on his shoulders for the sins of man and his sin.” Perhaps the mythic paintings constituted a kind of cautionary tale for the king about how not to conduct himself toward his subjects. How could these irresponsible pagan gods be role models for the most powerful king in Christendom?

Joseph R. Phelan has taught at the University of Maryland, the Catholic University of America, and the University of Toronto.