Titian, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome – review

What is there new to say about Titian? As Antonio Paolucci writes in the catalogue to this exhibition, his name is synonymous with “painting which is its own reason for existence”. The young Titian dazzles with radiant colour and pellucid light. As an old man, he jettisons brush for fingers and an expressionistic style that hints at inner turmoil. Of late, the clamour around the rescue of “Diana and Actaeon” for Britain’s National Galleries has emphasised his genius for pagan storytelling.

Whatever his subject, the Venetian master always dissolved intellect into imagination; conceptuality into organic compositions. No wonder he is the painter’s painter; the touchstone for Rubens, Velázquez and Delacroix. (The latter said that all great painters were Titian’s “flesh and blood”.)

Yet the Scuderie exhibition complicates this narrative in intriguing ways. The clutch of familiar masterpieces – the Uffizi’s winsome “Flora”, the Louvre’s enigmatic “Man with a Glove” – are a thrill to behold. But it is thanks to a remarkable core of mid-to-late religious paintings that a different Titian emerges: darker, deeper, more explicitly spiritual; anticipating Caravaggio in his experiments with light and shade.

The latest in the Scuderie’s cycle of monographs of Venetian masters presided over by curator Giovanni Villa with an unshowy yet authoritative touch, this exhibition wins the prize for inspirational openings. The first gallery contains just the Prado’s self-portrait Titian made in 1565-66, and his late altarpiece, “The Martyrdom of St Lawrence”, 1557-1566, which has been superbly restored for the occasion.

Painted in profile, Titian’s self-portrait suggests he is both emperor and seer. Veils of paint – volcanic blacks for his doublet, morgue-cold greys and whites for his complexion – bestow a sonorous gauziness that foreshadows Rembrandt. Fixated on some distant truth, he exudes the omniscience of one who has been the pre-eminent witness to a tumultuous era.

Born in the mountains above Venice in 1490, Titian made the lagoon city his home from the age of nine when he was probably apprenticed to Giorgione. In the course of his life he witnessed not only countless wars – and occasionally played the role of diplomat – but also the rise and fall of classical humanism, the threat of Lutheranism and the peril of the Inquisition. Few European powerbrokers did not employ him. (He was court painter to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.) By his death in 1576 he was the most important artist in Europe, yet we know very little about him other than his preoccupation with money. (Almost all his letters have a financial motivation.)

The unusual gathering of paintings in this show gives a glimpse not only into his genius as an artist but also into his sensibility as a man.

Showing the fate of the Christian who refused a Roman emperor’s injunction to bow to pagan gods, “The Martyrdom of St Lawrence” shows the saint prone on the griddle, his arm lofted triumphantly as one of his tormentors prods him with a fork. Set in a world of shadow-swallowed gargoyles and columns, this twilight drama is yoked together with splashes of incandescence – the demonic yellow of the furnace, the flare of a torch, the mercurial flash of divine presence.

Egged on by his younger rival Tintoretto, by the time he painted the Martyrdom Titian was obsessed with light. To appreciate how luminosity became the vehicle by which he could explore life, death, suffering and redemption, visitors should make haste through the disappointing cache of early-to-mid-career works and let the panorama of agony and ecstasy – entitled “The Tale of the Sacred” – stop them in their tracks.

Those who doubt that the same painter is responsible for the two Annunciations, one painted in 1535 from the Scuola di San Rocco, the other made 20 years later for the Church of San Salvador, can be forgiven. Bathed in even light, the mood of the San Rocco painting is one of orderly calm, as Mary kneels demurely on a floor of geometric flagstones while Gabriel declares her fate.

Yet the angel’s billowing robe hints at the wilder sentiments which will make the later Annunciation a tornado of smoky, swirling light. Now Mary leaps back in terror beneath a cloud of cherubs whose limbs melt together in a mystical alchemy of golden pinks, silvery blues and ferrous whites.

Such portentous beginnings forecast the tragedy to come. In the 1558 Crucifixion on loan from Ancona, Mary is an old woman, her face caved in by grief, the midnight-blue of her robe chiming with the thunderous evening sky. In “Christ Crucified”, 1555-1557, painted for El Escorial, Christ is alone in his agony; his body gleaming bone-white under metallic lightning that splits plum-dark clouds under a rind of moon.

On loan from the Prado, Titian’s 1559 Deposition is a fittingly touching last act. Gone are the desolate skies that make the Crucifixions meditations on the loneliness of death. Instead, Titian treats the moment as one of intimate family love by cropping in close on the figures as they lift Christ’s body from the sarcophagus. Diaphanous white highlights weave together a chromatic balancing act – Christ’s nacreous torso and Mary Magdalene’s dress contrasted with the Virgin’s ultramarine cloak and San Giovanni’s raspberry robe – into a paradox of despair and hope.

Interestingly, Titian gave his own visage to Nicodemus – a move which scholars believe reveals him as a “Nicodemite”. This loosely-defined group of Catholics, which included Michelangelo, secretly sympathised with the Lutheran beliefs of justification by faith alone and a more direct rapport with God.

That reading is boosted by Titian’s portrait of Pope Paul III, 1543, which opens the second half of the show. A profoundly enigmatic character, Paul was simultaneously pro-Reform and, with his libertarian lifestyle, one of the reasons it was necessary. By the time Titian painted him in 1543, however, he had rejected change and mobilised the Inquisition. Hunched in his chair, his beady eyes and claw-like fingers give him the air of a hawk waiting to pounce: pitiless, far-sighted, willing himself to power through every thread of his velvet cape.

In an inspired stroke, Villa has finished this show with another self-portrait (1562, Berlin) and “The Flaying of Marsyas” (1570-76, Kromeríz, Czech Republic). Thus we can see that Titian – his visionary gaze summoned in coppery hues – is also present in the Kromeriz painting as King Midas, whose role is to observe the most gruesome torture scene ever painted.

Strung up by his goaty legs to a tree, the satyr Marsyas submits to Apollo, whom he has offended, as the sun god peels the flesh from his torso with a scalpel. Bathed in a jaundice-yellow light, the crowd of collaborators – from the spaniel lapping up Marsyas’s blood to the ecstatic violinist – witness the horror with cold yet intoxicated delight.

This painting has had myriad interpretations; from Titian’s commentary on pictorial technique to a Christian allegory. Yet displayed as a quasi-pendant to the St Lawrence Martyrdom, it feels like a moral observation on the nature of evil. Where Christ is present, salvation is possible, however brutal our behaviour. If we surrender to paganism, Marsyas’s fate awaits us all.

The majestic finale is a last sight of the St Lawrence painting as we descend the staircase that leads us to the exit. That sinewy, victorious arm could be Titian’s own.

Until June 16, www.scuderiequirinale.it

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