Metropolitan Museum of Art, 336 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 328 pp., $49.95 (paper)
Relation: A Performance Residency
Of all New York’s museums, only the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its vast holdings and long reach, could have opened an exhibition of modern and contemporary art with Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Painted nearly half a millennium ago, in 1575, the imposing canvas has lost none of its upsetting power and none of its strangeness. It is a modern work in nearly every useful sense.
Marsyas was a satyr, a homely goat-man who played the panpipes so skillfully that he dared to enter a musical contest with the golden god Apollo, who played the lyre with heavenly skill. Apollo was a handsome god, but mean. It goes without saying that he won the contest, after which, to punish Marsyas for his boasting, he strung the poor creature up and flayed him alive. Ancient statues show Marsyas hanging from a dead tree, shoulders dislocated but skin still intact, and these images are cruel enough.
Titian, however, compounds the cruelty by hanging him upside down, the better for Apollo and an immortal henchman to carve their way into the satyr’s flesh. True to his mission, the god of music exacts his revenge to an instrumental accompaniment: an Orpheus figure stands beside the tree, singing and playing a Renaissance descendant of the lyre called the lira da braccio as Marsyas bleeds to death. Just opposite, King Midas, together with another satyr and a little child, bears witness to the horror, while a sweet little dog laps up a startling crimson rivulet of the victim’s blood.
The Flaying of Marsyas was Titian’s last work, executed shortly before his death from plague in 1576, and probably inspired by an intimately Venetian trauma. In August 1571, the Republic of Venice had lost its dominion over Cyprus when the governor, Marcantonio Bragadin, surrendered his garrison to the Bosnian-Ottoman general Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha, over seventy and smarting from his defeat in the brutal siege of Malta six years earlier. Rather than negotiating a truce by the usual laws of war, Pasha subjected his prisoner to two weeks of unspeakable tortures, including the flaying that began while Bragadin was still alive but killed him in the process.
Two months later, a combined European navy would defeat the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto; but for Venice, that landmark victory was no match for the loss of its stronghold in the eastern Mediterranean. The tragedy of Marsyas is thus, in some sense, the tragedy of the Venetian Republic’s impending decline, and old King Midas, who bears silent witness to the scene, is, like Titian himself, an ancient who has lived to see too much.
The Flaying of Marsyas compels attention not only…
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