Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic
TitianThe Religious Paintings
“Venice in the sixteenth century was not less celebrated for refined culture than Rome or Florence. In Venice—as in Tuscany—painting came to perfection after the heroic period; and the arts have been truly described as the gilded bark which covered the cankered trunk of a luxuriant tree.” The Life and Times of Titian with some account of his family by J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle was first published in 1877 and it remains one of the few nineteenth-century monographs on a Renaissance painter which is still fundamental to the study of its subject. For all its great value it is understandable that no one has had much to say in favor of Crowe and Cavalcaselle as literary artists, yet that first sentence must surely induce some nostalgia in anyone who sets out on an art historical biography today.
As in some authorized Life and Letters of the period, or even more perhaps, as in a solid Victorian novel, the leisurely opening holds out promise of immense readability, and indeed in the fashion of a cunningly plotted work of fiction the hero himself does not appear for several pages: characteristically we are first introduced to him through a glimpse of his birthplace from the top of the campanile of St. Mark, whence “the Venetian Alps soar, ghost-like and half clad in mist above the waters of the lagoon.” It is not only the pace that now seems so remote and so attractive, but also the moral certainties: Ruskin had no use for Crowe and Cavalcaselle, nor they for him, but that “cankered trunk” carries us straight back to The Stones of Venice and reminds us also of Cavalcaselle’s passionate involvement in the cause of the Risorgimento.
It would be pure self-indulgence to dwell at length on these aspects of the pioneering art history of the nineteenth century were it not for the fact that even after a hundred years—and several hundred books and articles (though surprisingly little new information)—Crowe and Cavalcaselle have not yet been supplanted in other respects also. It is to them that we still have to turn if we want to find many of the basic sources from which Titian’s life has to be reconstructed and to understand something of the atmosphere in which he lived.
Many of the more recent books are useful and valuable, but it has for long been notorious that there is no decent monograph that takes into account all the relevant information and is at the same time sensitive, convincing, and readable—nothing on Titian to compare, for instance, with those books, such as Kenneth Clark’s Leonardo or Jakob Rosenberg’s Rembrandt, in which a great scholar has distilled his experience of a major artist into a form which is both serious and accessible. There is no monograph at all on Veronese, so perhaps students of Titian should count themselves lucky: nonetheless, surely there is something wrong with the state of art history today if painters of this caliber can be neglected in this way.
Three new books on Titian arouse, therefore, the highest expectations, but it cannot be said that these are altogether fulfilled. Indeed, the opening lines of Panofsky’s Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic seem to suggest that these expectations are incapable of fulfillment. In the Introduction to these Wrightsman lectures, published alas posthumously, Panofsky wryly compares the art historian who tries to speak about Titian with St. Augustine who, according to the fourteenth-century legend, was meditating on the Trinity by the seashore when he noticed a little boy using a shell to scoop up water from the sea and pour it onto the sand. Upon finding out that the boy was hoping to empty the ocean in this way, the saint concluded that the human mind trying to fathom the mystery of the Trinity was engaged on a task no less futile.
Actually, if anyone could have solved the mystery of the Trinity it would surely have been Panofsky and, in any case, one should not be too ponderous about a houtade designed to introduce a series of lectures which were necessarily restricted in scope. Nonetheless, the implied attitude that even the specialist can hope to understand only a small fraction of the work of a great artist raises serious questions and makes one wonder whether the sort of art history that Crowe and Cavalcaselle helped to inaugurate, embracing aesthetic sensibility, wide scholarship, and strong personal judgments, is now possible to write and, if not, whether it can be replaced by anything of comparable value. For it can be argued that by concentrating only on limited aspects of an artist’s work the historian will necessarily falsify what he discusses.
In different ways all the books under review, however welcome, exemplify these dangers. It is true that Pallucchini’s two large volumes set out to cover all the ground, but the author warns us at once that he is laying himself open to the charge of not paying enough attention to the social and historical background, and in fact his approach to Titian is rigidly formalist throughout. His book, like Panofsky’s, is derived from a series of lectures, and the reader is constantly aware of slide following slide on the screen, each accompanied by brief and pertinent critical comments. This makes for heavy going, made even more heavy by the absence of footnotes, so that the author’s generous acknowledgments to predecessors and colleagues all have to be incorporated somehow into his narrative.
Still the book has many merits and in particular it provides an ample and valuable discussion of Titian’s responses to other artists of his day, both Venetian and Central Italian. Though not claiming to be a complete catalogue the book contains full entries on many hundreds of pictures, and the nearly 700 illustrations, which include many unfamiliar works by unfamiliar artists, will be extremely useful.
Of Wethey’s ambitiously projected catalogue raisonné we have, as yet, only the first volume, devoted to the religious paintings, but his short Introduction makes it clear that he has no intention of providing more than a bare summary of what is already known. Here too a well-established formula—in this case imposed by many other publications of the Phaidon Press, to which all art lovers are so indebted—virtually establishes a pattern of its own, but it does seem sad that Wethey has kept such a rigid control on his emotions and has so relentlessly refused to indulge in any of those refreshing insights or interpretations which proved so illuminating in a monograph such as Berenson’s Lotto.
Few art historians surely have ever been so stimulating as Panofsky. It is not just the fantastic breadth of his learning but the buoyancy with which it is conveyed that always makes his work such a delight to read and that even makes one long for more footnotes. Though he was clearly far more sharp and sensitive when discussing questions of stylistic analysis than is sometimes acknowledged (or than are some of his followers) his greatest impact on art historical studies has been made through his insistence on relating painting, sculpture, and even architecture to complex and often obscure currents of contemporary thought which had hitherto been of almost no concern to the art lover. Again and again he was able to interpret “difficult” pictures not only through an exceptionally wide knowledge of classical and other sources but also through demonstrating that, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance especially, even the most elaborate philosophical conceits could be validly transposed into the language of artistic form.
The special techniques he developed for exploring these problems—techniques which he explained most fully in the Introduction to his Studies in Iconology—were fortunately accompanied by an intense feeling for pictures and a strong dose of common sense, so that (at his best) he never reveled in esoteric learning for its own sake, but used it rather as an aid to new and enriching ways of seeing. His lectures on Titian teem with observations that throw light on the artist and on countless other subjects, and one can only hope that no literary spoilsport will dispose of his theory that Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis may in part have been inspired by Titian’s picture of the subject, which for a time was actually in England (admittedly before Shakespeare’s birth) and which was certainly known through engravings.
Yet this is not one of Panofsky’s greatest books, and the over-all effect is rather disappointing. Partly this is due to the nature of Titian’s art. On the whole the iconographic problems raised by his pictures are not very complex, and the few “difficult” paintings—such as the Sacred and Profane Love in Rome—have already been discussed so frequently that Panofsky can do little more than repeat himself and bring in a few scraps of additional evidence to refute his critics. The consequence is that the book is distinctly patchy and lacks consistency of approach. But partly the trouble lies in the unspoken assumptions that underlie Panofsky’s method and that need more clarification than he gives them.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, when serious art history was inaugurated, the vogue for realism in contemporary art naturally led observers to see in the works of the past the sort of qualities that they looked for in the pictures of their own times, both in style and in subject matter. Crowe, who had himself studied painting under Paul Delaroche, is constantly praising Titian for his “finish,” just as writers today often think that the most satisfying thing they can say about an Old Master is that his “loose, sketchy brush strokes anticipate those of the Impressionists.” It was therefore natural to see in the oeuvre of the High Renaissance masters genre scenes and portrait groups of the kind that were popular in England. France, and Germany at the time. Thus Giorgione’s Tempesta was called “The artist’s family”—which suggests an interpretation not much odder, incidentally, than some of those that have been made since.
There can be little doubt that the attempts made by Warburg and many later art historians, most notably Panofsky himself, to reject this approach and to interpret Renaissance paintings in the light of the cultural conditions in which they were produced have vastly increased our understanding of them, though this has necessarily been achieved by stressing how different the past was from the present. At times the layman will feel frustrated as he watches the enormous battery of learning that may be brought to bear on a picture like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which seems so radiantly simple a portrayal of a familiar mythological scene. To this the art historian can, and does, reply that concepts which seem extraordinarily remote, even absurd, to us were in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries taken so much for granted by educated society that no particular effort was needed by the artist to assimilate them into his painting.