- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

MADRID — Tiziano Vecellio, known in English as Titian, was a double genius. He was, firstly, one of the greatest of all painters as the major exhibition of his work just opened at Madrid’s Prado Museum makes abundantly clear. Secondly, in an era when high patronage made all the difference between recognition and obscurity, he managed to win and retain the support of some of the most powerful figures in Renaissance Europe. Kings, popes, and the rulers of his native Venice had their portraits painted by him and collected his paintings. At one point, he was juggling simultaneous commissions from both the pope and the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, while at the same time being employed by the doge.

His friendship with Charles V was well documented. The story is told that Titian once dropped his paintbrush in the presence of the emperor, who casually stooped to pick it up, handing it back to the artist — a rare unbending of imperial protocol that flashed round the known world. Charles also chose Titian to paint a portrait of his son, the future King Philip II of Spain, to be dispatched to England so that Philip’s bride-to-be, the Tudor Queen Mary, would be able to see what he looked like. That same portrait is included in the Prado exhibition, which brings together 65 of the painter’s best works from museums all over the world for one of this year’s most important international art events.

Blockbuster exhibitions have become the mainstay of museum programs because they bring in the big crowds, but the Titian show is somewhat different. It is the first comprehensive survey of Tiziano Vecellio in nearly 50 years, so a larger-than-usual number of viewers will be seeing the broad scope of his work for the first time. Critics in London, where the Titian show opened at the National Gallery earlier this year before moving to Spain, rightly observed that it would help reinforce the Venetian Old Master’s place as one of the giants of Western art.

The works on show represent every phase of Titian’s long career from the 1510s to the 1570s. They include the enormous “The Emperor Charles V Riding at Muhlberg.” With its unprecedented depth of character, this work alone is enough to establish him as among the finest portraitists of his own, or any, age.

The emperor is wearing a magnificent suit of armor still preserved today in the royal palace in Madrid. He sits astride a large brown charger gazing at a distant battlefield not shown in the picture. He has beaten the Protestant enemy, but his expression is not one of pleasure at his victory: it is grim satisfaction.

Also strongly represented in the show is Titian’s version of soft porn thinly disguised as classical mythology, which he painted for his highborn clients.

Titian’s nudes reveal his own obsession with women and sexuality — what one London critic called “a kind of religious worship of women.” The Titian female is not the distant classical form painted by other Renaissance artists, but a woman who has shed her clothes, fully aware of the erotic impact of her nudity. In some notable instances, the link with classical mythology was added later by the owner to provide respectable “cover” in the atmosphere of religious vigilance of Europe’s counter-Reformation. Thus the reclining “donna nuda” wearing only her jewelry, completed by Titian in 1538 and acquired by the Duke of Urbino becomes famous as “The Venus of Urbino.”

Titian’s eroticism has been the subject of debate among critics for centuries. The central argument is not whether his work is erotic, but just how erotic. Moreover, the evidence is that his clients knew what they were paying for. According to the scholarly catalog of the show, a visitor to Titian’s studio while the artist was working on a canvas depicting Danae, reports gleefully to the man who had commissioned the work that, compared to this naked lady, the “Venus of Urbino” looked like a nun. The client, in this instance, was Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

The pinnacle of Titian’s erotic genre is a quartet of large works on mythological themes commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este, to decorate a “camerino” or private room. All four paintings were reunited in the London National Gallery exhibition for the first time since the four paintings were split up in 1598.

“The Worship of Venus,” featuring an enormous, busy crowd of putti paying homage to a statue of the Goddess of Love, and “The Bacchanal of the Andrians,” with its sensuous sleeping nude, were on loan from the Prado’s own permanent collection; “The Feast of the Gods” came from the National Gallery in Washington; and “Bacchus and Ariadne” was already owned by the National Gallery itself. The London show even constructed a replica of the duke’s camerino, placing the works in their original locations.

Only three of the works are on display at the Prado. A museum official said the “Bacchus and Ariadne” painting was not included because it was too fragile to be moved. But other works not seen in London have been added from the “Poesie” series Titian painted for King Philip II. In the Prado, this collection of works based on classical myths is represented by Titian’s famous “Venus and Adonis” and another version of his earlier Danae picture.

Although Alfonso d’Este’s camerino was not reproduced in Madrid, the exhibition as a whole is shown off to better advantage than in London because of recent improvements to the galleries, ranging from opening up the ceilings in the galleries to provide controlled natural light to allowing more space between the pictures. Old-time visitors to the once rather dark and overcrowded space will find the transformation remarkable.

Perhaps the other remarkable thing is that it is happening at all. Like other current and planned blockbusters, the show was mounted amid concerns over the future of major museum exhibitions. Many had feared that the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington would frighten museums and major collectors into changing the liberal lending policies that make blockbusters possible.

After the initial shock, the system survived, despite higher insurance rates and subsequent terror alerts. But the underlying unease remains, and museum curators concede that since 9/11 it has become harder to persuade museums to loan works from their permanent collections.

Some institutions have adopted a “no loans” policy, including a few in the United States. A Prado source said the Titian exhibition includes few works from Italy because Italian museums like the Uffizi Gallery in Florence very rarely loan Old Master works following 9/11. One of Titian’s defining works, “Sacred and Profane Love,” showing Cupid with Laura Bagarotto, bride of Nicolo Aurelio, is notably missing from the exhibition. Rome’s Borghese Gallery declined to lend it.

The most rewarding moment for visitors to the exhibition must surely be when they are standing in front of Titian’s equestrian portrait of Charles V that faces open double doors leading into the adjoining gallery of Spanish 16th century painting. On the far wall directly opposite the emperor’s portrait can be seen Velazquez’s masterpiece “Las Meninas”: the royal Princess Margarita with her “court” of ladies-in-waiting and dwarfs. Velasquez facing Titian, his hero and greatest inspiration. This is the essence of art.

WHAT: “Tiziano”

WHERE: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

WHEN: Until Sept. 7

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