Venice and Edinburgh might seem as far apart spiritually and intellectually as they are geographically—certainly not opposite ends of the earth, but north-south opposites as far as Europe is concerned.
But the High Museum’s exhibition in collaboration with the National Galleries of Scotland, Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting, helps to remind us otherwise. It makes a certain amount of sense, given the history of trade and the Grand Tour, that the Athens of the North should share with the great galleries of London the guardianship of a significant part of the cultural inheritance of what John Berendt’s 2005 book christened The City of Falling Angels.
Among its many other accomplishments, Scotland conserves its own scholarly inheritance, which includes a concern for Europe’s art-historical legacy. (Scotland’s own marginalized artistic legacy is a separate, but fascinating, topic.) When the National Galleries of Scotland put together the four-city American tour of this exhibition, one goal was to remind Americans that, as it was said at the media preview, Scotland offers the world “more than just golf and whisky.”
And there may be other issues of art politics involved. Titian’s two Diana paintings that are the core of this exhibition form a pair. Although Diana and Actaeon was co-acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery of London in 2009 after a globally publicized appeal, the acquisition of the companion Diana and Callisto is still very much a work in progress. This exhibition will unquestionably help to show why the paintings should remain together.
Other works in the exhibition demonstrate the indignities that Venetian art suffered in the past at the hands of a less sophisticated art market. For example, two paintings for altarpieces by Tintoretto and Veronese were cut into more salable rectangles in 1642 and 1789, respectively.
The two tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrated in Titian’s Diana cycle are part of a suite of six paintings created for the young king Philip II of Spain. As the director of the National Gallery of Scotland unreservedly commented at the media tour, young (and not so young) men are interested in large expanses of naked female flesh, and Titian undertook to provide the maximum exposure for his patron. In the process, he made use of every resource of composition and technique available to him.
Of course, all the sumptuous nudity is presented in dramatic and sublimely horrific contexts: In the one painting, Diana is on the verge of turning Actaeon into a stag as punishment for having seen her and her nymphs bathing in the river, while in the other, the goddess is deciding that the nymph Callisto will be banished as punishment for having allowed Jupiter to impregnate her. (Juno then transforms Callisto into a bear.) Since both parties came upon their fates as victims of chance or deception, the message Titian carries over from the Roman poet is not so much grim moralism as the traditions of tragedy.
The paintings could be discussed not quite endlessly, but close enough. The presence of Diana’s modestly clad black female attendant adjacent to all the voluptuous European bodies suggests the topic of ethnic identity that has been the subject of substantial academic volumes, but that goes curiously unremarked in the exhibition catalogue.
It ought to be stated that from the beginning, Titian painted a greater number of religious-devotional works for Philip than he did mythological ones; an Entombment accompanied the two Diana paintings when they were delivered to Philip upon their completion in 1559.
Thus were spectacular and complex masterworks made possible by Venice’s unique cultural circumstances. In the mid-16th century, the city’s open sensuality and equally open spirit of intellectual curiosity were in no danger of being suppressed by the nascent forces of the Counter-Reformation. Yet it was far from obvious that this city where diverse cultural currents were brought together by the winds of global commerce would prove such fertile ground for openly erotic painting, leavened with humor. There are visual jokes in the Diana paintings as there are in Veronese’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid, where Mars is visibly distressed to have his tryst with Venus interrupted by the intrusion of Cupid and a playful dog.
The religious tensions of the time are suggested by the sheer strangeness of the devotional pieces included in this relatively small but brilliantly selected exhibition. Lorenzo Lotto’s 1504 painting The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome, Peter, Francis, and an Unidentified Female Saint is peculiar even for a young painter’s transformation of the visual vocabulary of his master Bellini. The attributes of the saints are ambiguous, Bellini’s conventional cloth of honor (such as the blue one in this altarpiece) has become an overwhelming dividing curtain, and the Christ child poses more like a wooden puppet than a toddler. Strange psychological currents are afoot, as is also the case with Jacopo Bassano’s 1542 Adoration of the Magi in which the traditionally multiethnic Magi have become a reflection of the crowded cultural variety of Venice. Whatever allegories are intended in such works, they are far from obvious.
The dozen drawings that constitute nearly half of this exhibition deserve close attention in their own right. Some are detailed preparatory sketches for paintings, others are finished drawings, and one appealing hybrid presents an art historical mystery: Drawn on a fragment of a Titian woodcut, Landscape with Wooded Bluffs and a Watermill adds freehand architectural elements to what appears to be a faint offset of a part of Titian’s print of Saint Jerome. Whether this apparent product of a Venetian workshop was an experiment or an attempt by one of Titian’s contemporaries to forge a Titian drawing is anybody’s guess.
The exhibition Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting continues at the High Museum of Art through January 2, 2010.