Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic
The 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.
Panofsky touches on this point only in a few cogent lines: “that Titian was not a littérateur does not mean that he was illiterate; that he was not an intellectual does not mean that he was unintelligent…he was indubitably familiar with what was discussed and written about in the sixteenth century much as we are familiar with what is discussed and written about today (say, nuclear physics or psychology).” Nonetheless there are, it seems to me, passages in this book in which Panofsky strains for meanings which are not wholly legitimate in the context of what we know (or think we know) about Titian and sixteenth-century Venice.
To take one example: In his Presentation of the Virgin, still in the room in Venice for which it was painted (in what is now the Accademia), Titian places at the base of the steps leading up to the Temple a hideous old crone with a basket of eggs. On this Panofsky comments that “with a master of Titian’s stature even obvious ‘space fillers’ are rarely without significance,” and he then very plausibly relates the old woman to a group of figures who are similarly placed in relation to the main scene in a woodcut by Dürer of the Presentation, which was certainly well-known in Italy. He establishes that in the Dürer woodcut these figures are Jewish merchants “who sell the offerings required by Jewish law and custom much as candles are sold at the door of a Catholic church today: lambs, small loaves of ‘show bread’ and turtle doves. What is alluded to is, needless to say, the time honored contrast between paganism [represented by a classical idol which has also been discussed] and Judaism both to be conquered by Christianity.”
Panofsky then demonstrates that in Cima da Conegliano’s Presentation (now in Dresden), which was certainly the prototype of Titian’s picture, the Jewish farmer’s wife sitting on the steps “still sells bread and turtle doves in addition to eggs.” But Titian “in replacing the merchants [in Dürer and Cima]—who, though bent on profit, sell things required for the cult—with an old hag selling nothing but eggs—entirely unrelated to even the Jewish ritual—produced the symbol of a mentality not only unenlightened but incapable of ever seeing the light!” In other words, the argument runs, by not including a relatively “learned” symbol Titian was in fact being even more “learned” than those artists who in fact did so….
An argument of this kind, which insists on having things both ways, is necessarily somewhat unsatisfying, and there are also specific objections to it, for (apart from the fact that Panofsky does not mention another possible source for Titian’s egg seller, the old nurse in Carpaccio’s Reception of the English Ambassadors and St. Ursula talking to her father who, though selling nothing, is visually closer than the figures in either the Dürer or the Cima), we do happen to know something about the attitude of Venetian sixteenth-century artists, admittedly at a slightly later date, to the problems of “space filling.”
When Veronese was summoned by the Inquisition in 1573 to explain why he had introduced into his Feast in the House of Levi certain figures which were thought to be unsuitable for such a subject he was closely interrogated about each of them in turn and part of his evidence is surely relevant to the problem under discussion:
Q: What is the significance of those armed men dressed as Germans, each with a halberd in his hands?…
A: We painters take the same license the poets and jesters take and I have represented these two halberdiers, one drinking and the other eating nearby on the stairs. They are placed here so that they might be of service because it seemed to me fitting, according to what I have been told, that the master of the house, who was great and rich, should have such servants.
Q: And that man dressed as a buffoon with a parrot on his wrist, for what purpose did you paint him on that canvas?
A: For ornament, as is customary…
Q: Did anyone commission you to paint Germans, buffoons, and similar things in that picture?
A: No, my lords, but I received the commission to decorate the picture as I saw fit. It is large and, it seemed to me, it could hold many figures.
It is true that Veronese was a different sort of artist from Titian and that his evidence was given under special circumstances. It rings true, however, and to this reviewer at least it helps to explain Titian’s egg seller more satisfactorily than Panofsky’s more ingenious theory.
Yet the problem is more complicated than this may suggest. For Veronese’s trial also shows that even an artist’s contemporaries were prepared to interpret his work in a manner that probably had little relevance to him: “Do you not know,” asked the Inquisitor, “that in Germany and in other places infected with heresy it is customary with various pictures full of scurrilousness and similar inventions to mock, vituperate, and scorn the things of the Holy Catholic Church in order to teach bad doctrines to foolish and ignorant people?” This, of course, was a hostile and insensitive interpretation of poor Veronese’s halberdiers and buffoons, but it seems possible that certain courtiers and scholars (well before our own day) may also have taken pleasure in the very ingenuity with which they themselves could place a variety of abstruse “meanings” into otherwise simple pictures.
Though other instances of this kind of overexplanation could be mentioned it would not be worth devoting so much space to them in reviewing a book which is often so enlightening were it not for the fact that the principle at stake is an important one. Though we know that artists in sixteenth-century Venice were very often given specific instructions by their patrons (we know far less about the “humanist advisers” whose role has been so trumpeted in recent years), the fact remains that on almost every occasion where we do have any literary evidence it tends to show that artists, writers, and even the most cultivated observers treated the subject matter of-art with the most extraordinary casualness. It is certainly interesting—and aesthetically valuable—to try to understand the nature of a painter’s inspiration, whether literary or formal, but in some hands the methods used to do so run the risk of becoming unhistorical and of turning into a sort of crossword puzzle. Tact is as necessary as abstruse learning, and we surely need to balance the iconographical approach with more of an attempt to determine the specific circumstances under which any individual painting was created—though, admittedly, this is more easily recommended than achieved.
Titian presumably, like many other artists, responded differently to different patrons, and if, for instance, we knew for whom the various versions of Venus with an organ player and Venus with a lute player were painted we might well conclude that he was more concerned to exploit—with sublime poetical insight—the maxim that “music is the food of love” than to demonstrate Platonic theories about the relative supremacy of sight and hearing (though, of course, one conclusion does not necessarily exclude the other). It is worth remembering—as Panofsky does—that he recommended his Venus and Adonis to Philip II on the grounds that this would give the king a chance to admire the female figure from the back after the front view that could be obtained in the Danaë.
Even assuming that all Panofsky’s interpretations are the correct ones, we can still regret that he did not take the opportunity of relating Titian to the intellectual world of sixteenth-century Venice and of drawing some general conclusions about the artist’s attitude toward the many problems that are discussed during the course of his book. There would have been an ideal opportunity for him to do this had he substituted such a chapter for the rather routine summary of Titian’s art and life with which he begins his lectures.
At one stage during the course of these lectures Panofsky illustrates Titian’s preoccupation with the destructive power of time by commenting on the famous La Vecchia in the Accademia in Venice, “a picture so early that most modern scholars attribute it to Giorgione.” His comment is startling not because the general attribution to Giorgione is in any way sacred (it is comparatively recent) or even altogether satisfactory, but because the argument with which he tries to substantiate his point is so wholly unlike those used by attributionists today. “Giorgione—the gentle master of Castel-franco—had all the imaginable qualities of a great painter, enhanced by an exquisite taste which recoiled from evil and ugliness, but he lacked the power to terrify…. Titian’s world, however, extended all the way from the idyllic to the tragic, from tenderness to brutality, from the seductive to the repulsive, from the sublime to the almost—though never quite—vulgar. La Vecchia, it seems to me, belongs to the same race as do the horrible egg woman in the Presentation of the Virgin and the equally horrible nurse in the Prado Danaë.”
Bludgeoned by the Morellian technique of attributing pictures exclusively on the basis of the most detailed stylistic parallels, we may well find that Panofsky’s “old-fashioned” psychological approach comes as a pleasant shock. For a moment it seems to offer an escape from the impasse which blocks the way of every Giorgione student. And then, at once, the doubts come flooding back, for how do we know that “Giorgione was a gentle master [who] lacked the power to terrify”? The literary sources are contradictory, but a number of pictures which were already attributed to him in the sixteenth century were certainly famous for the element of violence that they contained, and copies of lost pictures which were probably by Giorgione by no means all indicate that he was such a gentle artist.
The fact remains, however, that apart from the ruined fragment of one detached fresco there is not a single work which can be assigned to Giorgione with the same certainty with which we attribute paintings to Leonardo, Raphael, or Titian—or, indeed, any other artist of comparable standing. Four pictures do correspond so closely to ones described in the early sources that it would be perverse not to accept them: for the rest we can only speculate.
This is what Terisio Pignatti is compelled to do in his handsome new book on the artist, and (like Richter before him in his now unobtainable volume of 1937) he usefully allows us to form our own conclusions by illustrating not only those pictures which he himself considers to be by Giorgione but all those which have been associated with him by other reputable scholars, as well as early drawings and engravings after lost compositions. We are thus given almost three hundred illustrations which will provide an indispensable corpus for anyone interested in the fantastically complicated problems involved—or for anyone who likes to look at a number of very beautiful pictures without worrying too much about who painted them.
Pignatti himself, like others before him and like others—no doubt—to come, aims to build up a convincing picture of the artist and his development on the basis of the miniscule number of works about which we can be relatively sure. His task is surely harder than that of the traditional anthropologist reconstructing primitive man from the odd surviving bone, because the number of possible models is so much greater. And although he explains his arguments with great clarity, his methods (like those of everyone else) unfortunately have diminishing returns. As he moves in a widening circle from the more or less certain to the probable to the likely pictures (established on the basis of their similarity to the probable ones), he is compelled to rely increasingly on hunches which are by no means shared by all other scholars.
This does not, of course, diminish the value of his book, but it is well to realize that Pignatti’s Giorgione had to be created out of the same elements that went into the making of Berenson’s very different Giorgione of 1894 and many other equally different Giorgiones since then: that is to say that it is the product of a qualified and sensitive observer who had to make use of the identical documents that have been available for the last hundred years or so and a relatively restricted number of paintings (and photographs of them) which clearly belong to the early years of the Venetian sixteenth century and which, for the most part, have also long been familiar. Unlike scholars working in certain other fields of art history the student of Giorgione has no better evidence now for forming a judgment than had his grandfather.
But if the evidence remains the same the facilities for weighing it have improved in two respects: better photography and, above all, the custom of the large-scale monographic exhibition. Over a short period of time, which has probably already come to an end, there took place in various European and American cities a number of exceedingly important such exhibitions in which major works by the world’s greatest artists were hung side by side. Pignatti’s book is the first one on a large scale to appear since 1955 when the exhibition devoted to Giorgione and his followers was held in Venice, and he has clearly taken full advantage of the unparalleled opportunities that it offered. The impact of that exhibition on Giorgione studies was perhaps negative rather than positive, and Pignatti fortunately eliminates from his catalogue a number of the daubs that disfigured it. We are left with a list of thirty-one items—including, incidentally, La Vecchia. The overwhelming majority of these are familiar works in the great museums of Europe and America, but there are also two pictures (in private collections in Bergamo and New York) which were not shown in 1955 and which have hitherto only been published in specialized journals.
That some of Pignatti’s Giorgiones turn up again as Titians in Wethey and Pallucchini is not at all surprising in view of the fact that even Vasari contradicted himself when trying to distinguish the two artists. In fact a reading of all these books in conjunction is a somewhat confusing as well as an enlightening experience. Like captains of football teams the authors summon their men: Longhi, Venturi, Berenson, Valcanover…. The experts tackle vigorously, now on one side, now on the other, and if—as in certain countries these days—spectators also can invade the field and join in the match, this reviewer feels tempted to say that, on the basis of photographs, he is not altogether convinced by Pignatti’s two “new” Giorgiones.
But the game is necessarily an endless one, and the rules are not at all clear. “The judgment of the critical eye will always be the last resort despite all other documentation.” wrote that distinguished scholar Hans Tietze a few years ago when publishing as an original by Titians a Danaë which both Panofsky and Pallucchini agree is a school piece. In general Wethey (whose book, when complete, will clearly be of the greatest use despite inevitable gaps and errors) is rather more restrictive than Pallucchini, but the issues involved are not—except for dealers—really vital ones. The pictures about which they disagree refer in virtually every case to works which, if not by Titian himself throughout, are at any rate by his pupils or his immediate followers working in his style on designs provided by him.
Our over-all impression of the artist is thus not seriously affected by the controversies which are bound to arise over certain pictures. But Giorgione…. Give him La Vecchia and he is one kind of painter: take it away and he is another. And whatever the Morellian connoisseurs may say, a final answer can only come through further documentation rather than more critical eyes.