by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Wallace Collection, London
Perseus and Andromeda by Titian, c. 1554 - 1556

The Naked Truth

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 17 April 2020


'In the greatest age of painting the nude inspired the greatest work,' wrote Kenneth Clark in The Nude, a book still unsurpassed, well over sixty years after it was first published, on a genre he defined as 'not a subject of art but a form of art'.

No painter during the era of the Old Masters contributed more to this form of art than Titian, nor developed his treatment of the nude more radically over his long career. The greatest single cycle of his late nudes were the so-called 'poesie', a set of six paintings he made for Philip of Spain in the 1550s and 1560s: Danaë, Venus and Adonis, Perseus and Andromeda, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Rape of Europa. They have gained a mythical status, enhanced by the fact that they have not been seen together for over 400 years.

The pictures, now scattered between Britain, Spain and America, are at last all in the same place, the National Gallery in London, from which they are scheduled to travel on to Edinburgh, Madrid and Boston. The paintings are also the subject of 'Titian: Love Desire Death', an attractive, readable and richly illustrated account of every aspect of the works, with contributions by a dozen scholars.

Titian first met the 21-year-old Prince Philip in Milan in 1548, six years before the prince succeeded his ageing father, Charles V, as King of Spain. The Venetian painter was his father's favourite artist - according to legend, when visiting his studio Charles had once bent down to pick up a brush Titian had dropped - but most of his works for Charles had been dynastic portraits.

Charles had received a set of four stupendous nudes, known as 'The Loves of Jupiter', from another Italian artist, Correggio, as a gift from Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua in the 1530s. And Titian himself, between 1518-23, had already as a young artist contributed three canvases to a glorious cycle of mythological scenes, abounding in nude and semi-nude figures, for Alfonso d'Este's Ducal Palace in Ferrara (from which the artist's 'Bacchus and Ariadne' is now one of the treasures of the National Gallery's collection).

Philip clearly wanted to emulate his father and establish himself as a patron of the arts in his own right, and he turned to Titian, then in his sixties, to deliver something suitably impressive works, focused on the female nude in all its aspects.

While Central Italian painters had favoured the undraped male, the Venetians led by Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and Titian, had become the absolute masters of the female nude. In 1546, Michelangelo, whose own female nudes tended to look suspiciously masculine, and the art historian Giorgio Vasari visited Titian in his temporary studio at the Vatican Belvedere, where he was painting his first version of 'Danaë', destined for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Michelangelo, who seldom complimented another artist, praised the Venetian's style and colouring.

Before 'Danaë', Titian's most notorious nude had been 'The Venus of Urbino', described by the papal nuncio to Venice, the archbishop of Benevento, as 'a Theatine nun' in comparison with this new one - in which 'Danaë's' immodestly parted thighs and abandoned facial expression are indeed more sexually suggestive.

Philip gave Titian a free hand as to the contents of this new cycle of paintings, but it was well known that Philip's main interests at the time were women and hunting. Titian satisfied the first interest in all of the pictures and the second in three of them. The choice of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' as the classical source for the pictures guaranteed an erotic content, although the artist did not feel obliged to follow the poet's texts closely in any of the canvases.

The term 'poesia', used to describe this type of painting, had been familiar in Venice since the beginning of the 16th century and related to the ongoing debate about the hierarchy of the liberal arts. In this context, the idea that the finest paintings could rival the works of the greatest poets, reflected the classical poet Horace's tag 'ut pictora poesis' (as is painting, so is poetry).

By this time Titian was developing his most impressionistic late style. As Giorgio Vasari wrote of the Venetian in his 'Lives of the Artists': 'While his early works are executed with a certain finesse and incredible care, and can be viewed both from close up and from afar, these recent works are dashed off in bold strokes, broadly applied in great patches, in such a manner that they cannot be seen from up close, but from a distance appear perfect.'

That Titian was notoriously slow in delivering commissions is understandable in the light of the vivid description of the master's working methods provided by his pupil Palma Giovane. Having laid down the first stages of his canvases, Palma told the 17th-century art historian Marco Boschini, Titian 'used to turn his pictures to the wall and leave them there without looking at them for several months. When he wanted to apply his brush again he would examine them with utmost rigour as if they were his mortal enemies, to see if he could find any faults… He never painted a figure all at once and used to say that a man who improvises cannot compose learned or well-constructed verses'.

The first two 'poesie' - 'Danaë', and 'Venus and Adonis' - were based on earlier paintings, probably because of the pressure of commissions awaiting fulfilment. But for the remaining four, he took up the challenge of creating completely new compositions. In addition, there is a mysterious final picture in the same format, 'The Death of Actaeon' (included in the show), which was not part of the original commission; it appears unfinished and was never sent to Philip.

Philip was living a peripatetic existence for much this period, touring the vast Hapsburg domains in Europe that he would soon be ruling, so as the works were completed they were dispatched to various locations. 'Venus and Adonis', for example, was sent to London in 1554, where Philip had recently married Mary Tudor and was, briefly, King Consort of England. In 1556, 'Perseus and Andromeda' were sent to Ghent; and in 1560, 'Diana and Actaeon' and 'Diana and Callisto' arrived at Philip's court at Toledo. Only the following year did Philip, his court and the 'poesie' come to rest at the Alcázar in Madrid.

Ironically, the advanced artistic style of Titian's poesie, which were regarded by contemporary connoisseurs as among the greatest acquisitions of the Habsburg collections, was less of a problem in ultra-conservative Spain than their nude content. Upon the accession of Philip IV in 1621, they were removed from more general view to the royal family's own apartments. When the Italian scholar and patron of the arts Cassiano dal Pozzo visited in 1626, he noted that the nudes had to be covered up when the queen passed by. Ten years later, they were hung in the most private room of all in the palace, 'where His Majesty retires after lunch'.

By the early 18th century, the 'poesie' were beginning to be dispersed, finding their way into the hands of French, British and American collectors. 'Perseus and Andromeda' had a particularly adventurous time, changing hands sixteen times and passing through eight European cities over two and a half centuries. And it only emerged recently that the 'Danaë' at the Prado in Madrid was a later work by Titian, and the original, painted for Philip II, had been hiding in plain sight, in the Wellington Collection at Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner.

Titian: Love Death Desire; National Gallery, London; 16 March - 17 January 2021 (with period of closure due to Covid); Titian: Love Death Desire, edited by Matthias Wivel, National Gallery (£25)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023