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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Titian: Love, Desire, Death

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

National Gallery- London

16 March 2020 - 17 January 2021

Titian, Diana and Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto, National Gallery London and Edinburgh
Titian, Diana and Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto, National Gallery London and Edinburgh

The exhibition reunites for the first time in over four centuries all six paintings of the series “Poesie”, commissioned by Philip II of Spain to Titian, the most famous painter in Europe.

Titian worked for the Medici, the Este, the Farnese and the Gonzaga families, Venetian doges and he painted portraits of Emperor Charles V, and his son Philip II of Spain, who met twice in Milan (December 1548-January 1549) and Augsburg (November 1550).

Philip extended the relationship beyond the portrait commissions, giving Titian carte blanche to choose and interpret scenes from mythology primarily taken from the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.

Ovid’s poems were an obvious choice of subject for the young Philip for whom women and hunting, were two of his personal preoccupations.

Metamorphoses or transformation is a unifying theme in the Ovid’s poems where “In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora” ("I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities").

Accompanying this theme is often violence, jealousy, envy and vindictiveness of gods and goddesses inflicted upon a human victim whose transformation, a divine punishment, becomes part of the natural landscape.

Four of the six works are normally resident in London and the other two are in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. There are two exceptional loans “The Rape of Europa” from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and “Perseus and Andromeda” being lent to an exhibition for the first time since they entered the museums that own them, following the astonishing decision to ignore the terms of its bequests and lend one of its pictures to another gallery for the first time.

Titian called these works his “poesie” because he considered them to be visual equivalents of poetry.

This is a rare opportunity to enjoy some of the greatest paintings in European art.

Combining Titian’s remarkable talent as both artist and storyteller, the mythological scenes capture moments of high drama; a fatal encounter, the shameful discovery, a hasty abduction.

Titian expertly manipulates paint and colours to dazzling effect; capturing luminous flesh, sumptuous fabrics, water, reflection, and atmospheric, almost enchanted, landscapes.

Titian, Danae, Wellington Collection, London
Titian, Danae, Wellington Collection, London

The first of the Poesie is Danae painted by Titian in 1554.

According to Greek mythology, as it would have been known to Titian through Ovid's Metamorphoses, when her father Acrisius consulted the oracle on how he would get male children, he was told that his daughter Danae would bear a son who would kill him. Acrisius then locked up and guarded his daughter. Danae, aware of the consequences, allowed herself to be seduced and impregnated by Zeus, who broke through the defences by appearing in the form of a shower of gold, which in ancient times had already been envisaged as a shower of gold coins, and the myth taken as a metaphor for prostitution as she is complete nude, although the parallels with conventional depictions of the Annunciation were also part of Renaissance awareness. When Acrisius learned of Danae's son Perseus, he refused to believe Zeus's role, and cast mother and child adrift at sea in a chest. Perseus survived and eventually fulfilled the prophecy by killing Acrisius years after, although accidentally.

Titian, Venus and Adonis, Museo Nacional del Prado Madrid
Titian, Venus and Adonis, Museo Nacional del Prado Madrid

In 1554 Venus and Adonis was sent to Philip. Titian felt secure enough to visualise a scene not described in Ovid or any other classical or contemporary source: the action of Adonis extracting himself from Venus´ embrace. Titian presents the goddess with her back to us, demonstrating, in conjunction with the works Danae (The Wellington Collection) and Venus and Adonis, that painting can represent different points of view, in a similar manner to sculpture. Venus and Adonis was quite scandalous to contemporaries that certainly reconised it as one the most erotic of the poesie despite the fact that, unlike the Danae, it does not depict a sexual act. A strong contributor to this effect were the buttocks of Venus, the part of the female anatomy that most excited the imagination of male contemporaries; but it is also likely that it was her scandalous behaviour, this being the only occasion in the series of poesie in which a woman takes the initiative in a movement that merges her desperate effort to restrain her lover with a seductive embrace.

The next couple of paintings intended to be delivered were Perseus and Andromeda and Jason and Medea, but just the first one was completed.

Andromeda was the daughter of the Queen Cassiopea and the King Cepheus. The Queen boasted that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the sea Nymphes, the Nereides. Neptune, the God of the Sea, angry to this insult, sent a sea monster to destroy Cepheus’kingdom. Andromeda was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to appease the monster; but was rescued but Perseus, whom she later married. Perseus is depicted in an innovative and dynamic pose probably influenced by the works of Tintoretto.

In the center of the exhibition there are the two Diana paintings (1556–59), hung here together on the adjacent wall, explore the female nude in groups of intertwined figures of smaller proportions, posing in different postures and receding into a natural setting that unifies the two scenes. Here Titian fully developed his revolutionary painting technique of free, vibrant brushstrokes that look haphazard from close up but take on distinct forms as the viewer moves back. The contours are blurred, the colours blended and the figures fused with the surrounding atmosphere. By capturing the variable quality of objects in nature, Titian conveys the changing states of mind of the protagonists at the moment when Actaeon and Callisto unwittingly offend Diana and are ruthlessly punished.

The first one is Diana and Actaeon. The beautiful Actaeon, after a morning hunt, bursts inadvertently in where Diana, the goddess of hunt, moon and chastity, and her nymphs naked are bathing.

This is an affront to Diana vow of chastity, the goddess furious will turn Actaeon into a stag, who is then pursued and killed by his own dogs. The young and innocent Attaeon appears with scare face, a sense of fatality, an innocent victim of a goddess’ will. The painting has beautiful brushworks specially in the reflections in the glass. The beautiful sky is in lapis lazuli, expensive pigments, coming from the east to Venice.

Close to Diana there is an African origin woman, a maidservant, painted from a real person by Titian to give a much variety and contrast of women in the painting.

Diana and Callisto is another painting of consequence of transgression. It portrays the moment the Nymphs disclose to Diana the pregnancy of Callisto. She was raped by Jupiter and cause to her pregnancy she was expelled from Diana’s nymphs, after which a furious Juno, the wife of Jupiter, transformed her into a bear. Later, just as she was about to be killed by her son Arcas, Jupiter decided to transform her in a star on the sky and she became Ursa Major (“The Great Bear”) and her son Arcas as Ursa Minor “ the Little Bear”.

The two Diana paintings probably were intended to be show together as the lighting is the opposite in the two works.

In the 1560s Titian painted the Rape of Europa. Infatuated with Europa, Jupiter transforms himself into a beautiful white bull and joins near the seashore Europa and her companions. Finding him tame, she plays with the bull in a meadow and entwines flowers around his horns. When she climbs playfully on his back, the mischievous god seizes the opportunity and springs into the sea, spiriting away the target of his affections while she clings to him in terror.

Jupiter races across the ocean and Europa holds on by one horn. Gazing back over her shoulder toward the shoreline, she waves a red silk veil to attract attention. Titian dramatizes her immediate danger of drowning by positioning in the foreground a menacing, scaly sea monster bristling with spines. Nearby a cupid chases after Europa on a dolphin. His pose mimics hers, perhaps poking fun at her plight. The forced union of Europa and Jupiter eventually led to a historic event: the birth of Minos, king of Crete and the Minoans, the first European civilization.

Titian, The Rape of Europe, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Titian, The Rape of Europe, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

The odd one out in the room is the Death of Actaeon, which is late and very different in tone and treatment from the others, and may never have left Titan’s studio. Still, that leaves us with paintings of glorious fleshiness, glowing colour and overt eroticism.

The work presumably of Titian’s old age. One way of looking at the expressionistic treatment of plants, of Actaeon himself, already half stag, of the fleeting paint strokes of the trees, is that it’s unfinished or that his painting had become freer with age; another, that Titian’s eyesight was going. Certainly there’s nothing of Titian in Diana’s severe profile; it’s by a lesser hand.

Despite the importance of the commission, the poesie were together probably in the the Alcázar in Madrid just for 17 years and after they were used as a diplomatic gift to impress other European rulers.

The unique possibility to see all the poesie exhibited together, shows how they were a site for artistic experimentation, a work-in-progress through which Titian elaborated new working procedures and modes of representation.

The poesie established new models of court art, which would be replicated, imitated and emulated by generations of painters who learned from them how to push artistic expression to new limits.

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