Tempest over Titian

Le Siècle de Titien: L’âge d’or de la peinture à Venise

an exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, March 9–June 14, 1993

Le Siècle de Titien: L’âge d’or de la peinture à Venise

catalog of the exhibition by Michel Laclotte. others
Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 748 pp., FF 390

Le Siècle de Titien is the fourth major show of sixteenth-century Venetian art in ten years, following The Genius of Venice in London in 1983–1984, Titian in Venice and Washington in 1990, and Jacopo Bassano in Bassano del Grappa and Fort Worth last year, to name only the most ambitious. Venetian painting is beautiful and historically important, but this alone does not account for these four spectacular exhibitions. Equally important is the convenient fact that Venetian artists of this period produced more works on canvas than their predecessors or contemporaries elsewhere in Italy. In most instances curators are rightly unwilling to allow panels to travel, but they have fewer reservations about canvases. Thus this is the only type of Italian Renaissance painting that can be exhibited in quantity.

Even so, many Venetian masterpieces are too large or too precious to be moved, so the number of works available for loan is quite limited. This in part explains why in both Paris and London there were a number of paintings by artists of the Venetian territories on the mainland, and why there was a good deal of overlap with previous exhibitions, with Titian’s late Flaying of Marsyas, for instance, putting in its third appearance. But on this occasion the organizers were able to take advantage of a nucleus of major works from the Louvre, particularly by Titian, and they have managed to assemble a remarkable group of great paintings, as well as an impressive series of drawings.

An important function of shows of this kind is to attract a public that is unwilling or unable to invest the time and money to see the individual works in their normal settings. At the same time, the inevitable risk of wear and tear on the paintings themselves is usually defended on the grounds that bringing them together in one place is a contribution to knowledge. In the present case the claim is certainly justified, since the exhibition includes an unprecedented number of works by or ascribed to Giorgione and his two closest known followers, Sebastiano del Piombo and the young Titian.

The early works of Sebastiano present relatively few major problems of attribution, although three of the smaller paintings exhibited as his in Paris were clearly by other hands. By contrast, the career of Giorgione and his relationship with Titian is the most contentious single chapter in the history of Renaissance art, and this exhibition provides the best opportunity anyone is likely to have of seeing so many of the key works assembled in one place.

The complexity of the problem will be evident to even the most uninformed visitor. Thus the second room contains no fewer than eighteen pictures, all of them ascribed to Giorgione, but no one can fail to wonder how scholars have been able to establish that a group of works so wholly inconsistent in style were painted by the same artist over little more than a decade. The paintings attributed to early Titian, too, seem surprisingly …

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