Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting

Last weekend, my friend, Josephine, and I attended the opening of a wonderful new exhibit at the Art Institute of Minneapolis.  Josie has been to Venice not once, but twice, and is going again in March.  Lucky girl!  I have not, so being newly exposed to these colossal, Italian masterpieces was a wonderful new experience…..Well, that’s disingenuous.  It would have been wonderful, even if I’d seen them 100 times.

Artemis and Actaeon

Diana and Actaeon by Titian

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon shows the hapless hunter stumbling upon the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, originally Artemis, while she is bathing.  Artemis was a free-roaming, athletic (despite appearances in this painting), virgin goddess.  She can be seen at the right of the painting directing a “bone-chilling” gaze (as I heard it described by an art expert on NPR) at Actaeon from over her arm, while her companions reach for their wraps or fail to notice the intruder.  As punishment, Artemis turned Actaeon into a stag, at which point his own hounds attacked him.  In the background of the painting, one can see the scull of a stag and a deerskin hanging over a branch.  The colors are gorgeous, especially the rose-colored, velvety cloth upon which Diana sits.  This color appears and reappears in Titan’s paintings.  I would like to know more about his palette.

Diana and Callisto

Diana and Callisto

Titian’s Diana and Callisto was painted as a companion piece to Diana and Actaeon. In myth, Callisto was Diana’s favorite companion in the hunt.  One day, Zeus saw her and as was his habit, decided to force the acquaintance.  Callisto became pregnant as a result and in this scene, her condition is uncovered.  Diana banishes her from her presense .  (Now, I know I read somewhere that Artemis was an avenger of wronged women, but when the culprit is one’s own father, apparently justice goes awry.)  In the aftermath of this scene, Calliso was turned into a bear by spitefulness of Hera, Zeus’ wife.  Her son was raised by another, but was named Arcas or Bear in Greek, referring to his mother’s fate.  Poor Callisto was eventually on the verge of being speared when she tried to give her son a motherly bear hug.  Zeus came to her rescue, but instead of turning her back into a beautiful woman, turned her into the Arctophylas or Great Bear Constellation, aka Ursa Major and Big Dipper.

The Birth of Aphrodite

Venus Rising from the Sea

Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea is a simple and elegant subject.  I will make only the observation that Venus is Titian-haired.  The strands she is wringing out have auburn highlights.  So also is the Madonna in the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist and an Unidentified Male Saint (surely Joseph).  This is the hair-color for which Titian is famous.  I will only remark that Diana and her girl corps are blond, as are The Venetian Women at their Toilet by Paris Bordone, and Venus in Veronese’ Mars and Venus with Cupid.  The Venetians definitely had a thing for fair hair.

Holy Family with John the Baptist

The Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist and an Unidentified Male Saint

There is that beautiful rose color again on the exquisitely painted sleeve.

Mars and Venus

Mars and Venus with Cupid

The scale and drama of the Diana paintings and especially their wonderful colors made a lasting impression on me.  I have to say though that the Veronese was my favorite painting in person.  (Why is Mars wearing a helmet!  Can you think of anything less conducive to amour? I imagine it is because otherwise he’d look just like any other gentleman from Verona.)   I think it’s because of the beauty of Venus’ skin and the delicacy of her features.  I looked for the best images of these paintings among the many art cards and books for sale in the Gift Shop.  None of them can quite convey how lovely that Veronese painting is.  You should just go see it

The little spaniel too was wonderful.  Diana has a little spaniel in Diana and Callisto and one of these little dogs figures in Titian’s Danae (not in the show)  as well.  I like to think it was Titan’s dog.  If not, they must have been ubiquitous as companions to ladies.

Little Spaniel from Titian's Danae

Little Spaniel from Titian's Danae

Little dogs are the perfect defender of the boudoir.  Did you know that on Napolean’s wedding night Josephine’s pug bit him?  Bravo Brutus!

2 thoughts on “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting

  1. Erik B.

    Yes, bravo Brutus! Pugs with “small dog syndrome” abhor men with “Napolean complex.” Here’s a bit of poetry that somehow seems apropos to this blog…

    February Flowers

    Her fine hand rests lightly on the glass,
    the candles glow on wood and amber.
    The crimson amaryllis cancels snow,
    the paperwhites bloom fragile against dark,
    the single chords lift gently into melody.
    She almost let her love him.

    But guarding her bed
    is a painting of Echo
    pining after Narcissus,
    who looks only at his reflection.
    How well she knows the blooming plants,
    and holds dear their histories.

    The paperwhite is a narcissus,
    which also lured Persephone to her rape,
    and the amaryllis resembles lilies,
    which were sacred to Hera,
    forever betrayed by Zeus.


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