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Titian and the Perils of International Exhibition

Titian 1990 and at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC October 28, 1990–January 27, 1991

an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice June 1, 1990–October 7,


catalog of the exhibition, Introduction by Francesco Valcanover
Prestel/distributed by te Neues, 430 pp., $65.00

A tough dilemma tends to condition the choice of pictures shown at the more ambitious international exhibitions of Old Masters: the institutions that lend the paintings (for the paintings involved now belong almost exclusively to institutions) feel inclined to support such ventures only if they are intended to be “of genuine scholarly interest.” But the borrowing institutions usually wish to promote exhibitions only if they are nothing of the sort, for reasons of politics and prestige as much as of finance make huge attendances absolutely essential. The ensuing compromises are rarely very satisfactory, though cunning work by departments of public relations can help to disguise this effectively enough.

The art of Titian, the subject of a major exhibition being held this summer in Venice and later to be shown in a slightly different version in Washington, presents many problems “of genuinely scholarly interest.” His early development remains very unclear, so too does the nature of the assistance he received from members of his studio; and there has been much recent controversy about the appearance of some of his very late pictures. Were these merely left uncompleted at his death or does the tremulous freedom of his brushwork and the sometimes arbitrary treatment of natural appearances represent a “late style,” through which the painter sought to convey so personal an impression of his deepest emotions that he was prepared to venture far beyond the comprehension of his patrons?1 These, and similar issues, are indeed raised in the catalog, but it cannot be said that the exhibition itself does much to resolve them. On the other hand, Titian painted an extraordinary number of sublime (and relatively unproblematic) masterpieces: some of these are certainly on view in the exhibition, but it cannot be said that the visitor will come away from it with a balanced understanding of the artist’s achievement.

The pictures are displayed in a series of rooms of varying sizes on the second floor of the Ducal Palace, and they are widely separated from each other so as to be easily accessible to the crowds and above all the guided tours—which flock there on Saturdays and Sundays but not, so far, on weekdays. Each painting is hung against a gray background, and is surrounded by gray gauze. Illumination comes from spotlights suspended from the ceiling. Visibility is good, and not harsh, though most of the rooms are otherwise so dark that the general effect is like that of being in a church by night (monuments and murals and coffered ceilings can just be discerned through the gloom)—or in an aquarium. Thus it is impossible to consult the catalog, even if one has the strength to carry it into the exhibition.

The first room is devoted primarily to the famous altarpiece of Saint Mark enthroned with Saints from the Church of the Salute and also to what has survived from the frescoes detached from the outside walls of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (the present Central Post Office). Titian was to claim to his friends and admirers that it was these that first brought him to public attention at a time when he was still a young man working as a junior partner of Giorgione on what must have been the most astonishing scheme of urban decoration ever seen in Western Europe: figures, larger than life and in flaming colors, of female nudes and young men in fancy dress, of political allegories and fabulous sea monsters—subjects whose meaning baffled Vasari in the sixteenth century and have continued to puzzle art historians ever since.

A second room contains other early works, and the visitor then moves into a room designed to commemorate Titian’s first major venture into ancient mythology:2 the three pictures painted for Alfonso d’Este’s “Camerino d’Alabastro” in the Castle of Ferrara. These celebrated paintings—The Worship of Venus, The Andrians, and Bacchus and Ariadne—belong to the Prado in Madrid and the National Gallery in London, and, rightly, remain there. They are represented in the exhibition by seventeenth-century copies which are rather oddly displayed a few feet behind a sheet of white gauze. To peer at them through this gauze will induce in the hypochondriac fears of incipient cataract, while to the more theatrically minded it may recall those first few moments at the opera as the overture comes to an end and the heavy curtains slowly open to disclose in the distance blurred figures of nymphs and sylphs who will only be revealed in all their clarity as a semitransparent film of muslin rises from the floor of the stage like ground mist dissolving on a summer morning.

In the Palazzo Ducale, however, the muslin does not rise and nothing distracts us from what is hanging on the wall opposite: Giovanni Bellini’s recently cleaned Feast of the Gods from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. This is one of the most beautiful pictures of the whole Italian Renaissance, and anyone who finds it easier to travel to Venice than to Washington should hurry to the exhibition, if only to look at this one work. But then having done so, he or she should pause in amazement, dismay, and even indignation at the idea that this, one of the two or three greatest masterpieces of painting in the United States, should have been sent traveling to an exhibition where it is almost wholly irrelevant.

The issue of relevance is in fact not the only one that needs to be considered but it is worth discussing briefly. It was The Feast of the Gods, one of Bellini’s last works, which certainly gave Alfonso d’Este the impulse to commission the three pictures by Titian which have already been mentioned, although before even turning to Titian he had at first hoped to match his Bellini with paintings by Raphael and Fra Bartolomeo. It has also been recognized ever since Vasari that Titian made drastic changes to the original picture, though the reasons for these, the timing of them, and even their extent have been much debated. While it has always been agreed that all that area of wooded and hilly landscape which is visible to the naked eye is the result of Titian’s intervention, the catalog entry makes it clear that some scholars argued until very recently that Titian also modified the simple, rustic-looking figures in the foreground so as to make them more godlike, more erotic, and more up-to-date. The examination and cleaning at the National Gallery have, however, now demonstrated that this was not the case and that it was Bellini himself who made alterations to his figures well before Titian became involved with the adornment of Alfonso d’Este’s room. The picture must therefore have been transported to the exhibition exclusively because of the changes made by Titian to the landscape background—presumably during one of his visits to Ferrara which are recorded in 1524, 1525, and 1529.

One has to assume that the skillful conservators of the National Gallery of Art, who so recently restored to the Feast of the Gods as much of the original quality as had survived the four and a half centuries and more since it was painted, fully approved of its being sent twice across the Atlantic, being twice packed and unpacked, and being displayed in conditions so utterly different from those in which it is usually held; because it is, of course, virtually inconceivable that the director and trustees of that great museum could possibly have been so irresponsible as to reject expert advice on so important a matter. But the decision is a deplorable one, and its significance extends beyond this specific instance.

It is true that great works of art are always at risk even when shown in carefully supervised galleries; and it is also true that (as yet) no international exhibition has been responsible for such terrible damage to the artistic heritage as has been suffered in recent years through vandalism and robbery by museums in London and Amsterdam, Boston and Leningrad. The fact remains that, in private, almost every official closely involved with paintings (and this includes those officials who are given the responsiblity of organizing great international exhibitions) will admit to feeling uneasy about the dislodgment of certain supreme masterpieces—and there is plenty of (anecdotal) evidence to justify such unease. It can be argued that in exceptional circumstances such unease should be suppressed;3 but when decisions to lend pictures are taken as a consequence of international politics or artistic diplomacy (i.e., the hope, as presumably in this case, of winning loans of comparable significance in exchange) unease should turn to outrage.

For art exhibitions have, ever more frequently, been turned into “the continuation of politics by other means.” Détente, “a new spirit of friendship between our two countries,” “a return to the community of free nations,” “wideranging cultural agreements”—what shivers these phrases send down the backs of those concerned about the preservation of treasures entrusted to the world’s museums, and with what nostalgia one looks back to the time, only a few years ago, when improving international relationships were signaled by table-tennis matches rather than by art exhibitions held under the patronage of heads of state. The death of Franco and the arrival on the scene of Gorbachev have probably been responsible for more great pictures being on the move than at any time since the end of the Napoleonic wars, or at any rate since the heyday of Mussolini’s cultural diplomacy.

All this is partly a cause, and partly a consequence, of the fact that exhibitions are now replacing museums as the principal vehicles for the transmission of visual culture, just as museums themselves earlier replaced ecclesiastical institutions and private collections. Very sensibly the Venetian authorities have not transferred two of Titian’s most splendid altarpieces from the Church of the Frari (for which they were painted) to the exhibition (though both of them are included in the catalog). When I visited the church it was quite empty, although at exactly the same time crowds were struggling to squeeze themselves into the rooms of the Ducal Palace where altarpieces by him had been moved from other Venetian churches—the Salute, the Gesuiti, and others. Similarly, queues of Spaniards (and not just foreign tourists) waited patiently for six or seven hours to get into the Velázquez exhibition in the Prado despite the fact that all but a few of the pictures by Velázquez to be seen there are permanently displayed in the museum.

The implications of this development have yet to be fully understood, but some of them are already becoming apparent. Exhibitions flourish at the expense of museums just as museums flourish at the expense of private collections. Every visitor to Italy must have been maddened by the closure, sometimes partial, but all too often complete, of half that country’s museums because of “lack of staff” or “lack of funds”; yet in Venice the Titian exhibition is open every day without interruption from nine in the morning until eleven at night. No one would claim that the catalogs of the permanent collections in the Louvre are even remotely adequate—yet catalogs of exhibitions devoted to major French artists which have been held in the Grand Palais for many years are among the most useful (and the most handsome and the most—comparatively—cheap) art-historical publications to have appeared in France.

  1. 1

    For a general discussion of the so-called late style see Kenneth Clark, The Artist Grows Old, The Rede Lecture, 1970 (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    He had, however, already painted his so-called Sacred and Profane Love, whose exact meaning remains controversial. Surprisingly this magical and immensely important picture is not shown in Venice despite the fact that the Villa Borghese in Rome, to which it belongs, has been closed to the public for years for structural repairs, and despite the fact that the other Titian in that museum—Venus Blindfolding Cupid—is present at the exhibition.

  3. 3

    This argument was probably deployed when the London National Gallery lent the Rokeby Venus to the Velázquez exhibition in the Prado, and it is true that in that exhibition virtually all the artist’s major works were shown (with the single exception of the portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome) and that the Venus constitutes a unique, and surprising, aspect of his genius. It is, on the other hand, less easy to justify sending to London as a quid pro quo Goya’s Maja vestida and Maja desnuda.

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