National Gallery/Yale University Press, 192 pp., $39.95
Madrid: Museo National del Prado, 443 pp., $35.00 (paper)
In 1935, the Fascist year XIII, the city of Venice displayed one hundred paintings by Titian in Ca’ Pesaro, the ruggedly majestic palazzo that had once belonged to his patron Jacopo Pesaro. The catalog for the largest show ever devoted to this great painter was designed as a treasure in its own right, bound in soft royal-blue kid with a blue silk bookmark; a contemporary issue of the magazine Le Tre Venezie picks up the same color scheme amid advertisements for sleek Fiat automobiles, ocean liners, and a gasoline pump that casts a shadow shaped like the fasces: the bundle of rods and axe that symbolized ancient Roman authority and gave the Fascists their name.
Despite the bravado and the streamlined Futurist elegance of the show’s presentation, times were hard—it was the Depression, after all. Ca’ Pesaro’s monumental homage to Titian provided a kind of timeless counterpoint to the driving rhythms of the Thirties, both to the clockwork rush of the machine age and to Fascism’s headlong march into empire, with Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia launched a month before the show closed in November. Venice, a fallen empire in its own right, provided a more measured view of time, power, and survival; the serenity of this erstwhile Most Serene Republic had once been guaranteed by an incomparable navy, but by 1935 Venetian serenity, and survival, depended on the no less incomparable beauty of its canals, its buildings, and its works of art. Like the city where he lived most of his very long life, Tiziano Vecellio had made beauty his means of survival in a world just as full of strife and terror as the world of the 1930s.
Almost seventy years later, two other faded empires have turned to Titian at the beginning of another new political experiment: Britain and Spain, as members of the European Union, have collaborated to mount the largest show of Titian’s paintings since 1935, first at London’s National Gallery and then at the Prado in Madrid. This combination of venues is hardly fortuitous: Britain and Spain are the two places apart from Venice where Titian’s paintings are most plentiful, for good historical reasons; in fact, an appreciation of the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio has been so fundamental to shaping British culture that his name was long ago Anglicized by Grand Tourists, an honor he shares with only two other painters, “Raphael” Sanzio and “Michael Angelo” Buonarroti.
Paintings by Titian began arriving in England with the engagement of “Bloody Mary” Tudor to Philip II of Spain; they were perhaps the happiest outcome of that grim alliance between two unattractive, embattled Catholic monarchs. Philip sent Mary a portrait of himself by the great Venetian master, who, unable to make the dour, scrawny king into a dashing knight, chose instead to give him an aura of pallid sanctity, emphasizing his high forehead and full red lips while downplaying the outthrust Habsburg jaw that proved his pedigree. Mary apparently fell …