by Roderick Conway Morris

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Galleria Borghese, Rome
Sacred and Profane Love by Titian, 1514

Sacred and Profane Love

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 8 March 1995


Rivers of ink have flowed on Titian's 'Sacred and Profane Love' - and justifiably. For, if his spectacular 'Assumption of the Virgin' in the Frari Church in Venice is the religious masterpiece of the painter's youth, 'Sacred and Profane Love' is surely the secular triumph of his early career. But what has made the painting so continuously and passionately discussed is not so much the mastery of its composition and technique as the sheer conundrum of its contents.

Hidden from public view for over a dozen years while its home, the Galleria Borghese, has remained closed, the canvas itself has undergone a meticulous cleaning program - which seems to have removed a layer of surface gunge and successfully brought the painting back to something like its pristine condition without overdoing the process - and, accompanied by nearly 150 relevant contemporary works, it now forms the radiant centerpiece of a fine exhibition, 'Tiziano: Amor Sacro e Amor Profano', at Rome's Palazzo delle Esposizione (till 22 May).

A private commission executed around 1515, the painting is not even mentioned in surviving documents until 1648. Nor did it acquire its present - and, by general consensus, now misleading - title until 1793, but the name has stuck through the thick and thin of repeated reinterpretation. The picture formed part of the Borghese family collection, which the heirs agreed to sell to the Italian State in the 1890s for 3,600,00 lire. On the eve of the deal's completion, Camillo Borghese offered in vain to give the entire collection to the nation for nothing - if the family were allowed to retain a single work, Titian's 'Sacred and Profane Love', and the right to export it.

The reason for this curious turn in events was that the Rothschilds in England had offered the Borghese 4,000,000 lire for this Holy Grail of Old Masters alone (at a moment when Veronese's works in the collection had been valued at between 4,000 and 30,000, and a Caravaggio at a mere 1,200 lire).

From the 17th century onwards Titian's scene was widely interpreted as a depiction of Sacred Love, in the form of the nude figure, and its earthy manifestation, in the person of the clothed young woman. But the painstaking investigations of a number of scholars in recent times, lucidly presented in the catalogue by the exhibition's organizer Maria Grazia Bernardini (who was also responsible for the picture's restoration), has produced a radically different explanation.

Identification of a coat of arms that appears on the sarcophagos in the painting and research in the Venetian archives has convincingly pointed to the work's origins as a 'marriage picture', commissioned to celebrate the union in 1514 of the Venetian aristocrat Nicolo Aurelio and the Paduan Laura Bagarotto. Thus what the scene broadly appears to show is the arrival of the naked Venus, Goddess of Love, to announce to the young bride that she must now surrender her chastity and yield herself to her husband to enter into the physical joys of matrimony.

This message is elaborately reinforced by the 'moralized landscape' surrounding the figures. As Konrad Oberhuber, curator of the drawings, prints and books sections of the show, explained: 'Behind the clothed figure we see a castle and rider galloping up to the gate to be let in. And, down below, we see some little rabbits which, of course, represent fertility and procreation - which cannot take place until the bride abondons the defences of her virginity. On the other side of the picture is a pastoral scene. In Durer's 'Defence of Virtue Against Vice', also here in the exhibition, the castle symbolizes Virtue and the valley Vice. But in Titian's picture there is a church in the valley, which in effect sanctifies the sensual side of marriage. So, whereas in Durer we have a swamp of Vice, here there is a beautiful lake and an idyllic pastoral couple, indicating that the newly-weds are now embarking on a joyful and fruitful domestic life.'

The picture is made particularly poignant by the discovery that in 1509, when the Papacy and the principal European powers combined to make war on Venice and the Republic lost all its mainland possessions, Laura Bagarotto's father had been hanged as a traitor, on the orders of the Council of Ten, of which Nicolo Aurelio was then secretary. Thus the match dramatically represented the triumph of Love over all odds - a fact noted at the time by the Venetian diarist Priuli. But the picture also has an importance and resonance that goes far beyond the particular circumstances of its making. For it encapsulates the radical shift that occured in Venice in the early 16th century in the manner in which women and the female body were regarded and presented.

Giorgione, Titian and their leading Venetian contemporaries' vision was certainly influenced by classical models of Venus - yet what they came to create were not remote, mythological figures but living, breathing women, and the ideal of a body 'that presents itself in quiet splendor', in Konrad Oberhuber's words. Nor was this new appreciation of Woman purely a matter of physical representation, since the humanist writers and poets of this period of academic and artistic ferment in Venice (prominent among whom was Pietro Bembo, a close friend of both Titian and Nicolo Aurelio), were vigorously promoting the idea of cultivated, educated women as not only an inspiration to men, but also their intellectual equals.

In this brave new humanist world - where Caterina Cornaro presided over her courtly salon in Asolo, and courtesans with refined literary interests were as likely to expect as a gift an Aldine Press edition of Petrarch as an expensive bottle of perfume - woman was no longer seen in the misogynistic terms of church teachings as a temptress and a snare, but as a subject of celebration and exaltation. Here, too, was a world where sex, within marriage at least, was natural, without sin, a key, mutually-satisfying element in a successful parternship, and where consequently women achieved a new-found esteem and value.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023