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Titian and the Rebirth of Tragedy

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh/National Gallery, London
Titian: Diana and Actaeon, 1556–1559

This autumn two of Titian’s greatest pictures, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, have come to America for the first time, as part of the exhibition “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting,” a selection of works from the National Gallery of Scotland, now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.1 The two paintings, made between 1556 and 1559 for King Philip II of Spain, are among the most celebrated works in the history of European art. They have influenced generations of artists, including such figures as Velázquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt, and they still provoke excited attention and fervent praise. The painter Lucian Freud, for example, recently called them “the most beautiful pictures in the world.”

The ravishing application of paint, the luscious brushwork, and the startling compositions of the two pictures impress all who behold them. But just as fundamental to the pictures’ power is Titian’s poignant exploration of the tragic themes of the myths he represents. Rarely before had any artist looked with such unblinking concentration, and such deep empathy, at the vulnerability and the injustice that are an inescapable part of mortal existence.

Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are two from a suite of six mythological paintings that Titian executed for Philip II between about 1551 and 1562. The other canvases in the series, which Titian called poesie (Italian for poems or poetry), are Danaë (the version now in the Prado), Venus and Adonis (Prado), Perseus and Andromeda, (Wallace Collection, London), and The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). Titian also planned images of Medea and Jason and of the death of Actaeon for the group. The latter is likely to be the painting of this subject in the National Gallery, London; he seems never to have made the other picture.

All the poesie paintings are approximately six by seven feet, with the exception of the first work in the series, Danaë, which is somewhat smaller than the others. It is clear from the letters between Titian and Philip II that the painter imagined the poesie hanging together in one room, although at the time he was making the pictures a specific setting had not been selected for them. Philip II traveled regularly between his residences, as was the custom with Hapsburg royalty, and the paintings did not have a permanent home before 1623, when they were installed in the Alácazar palace in Madrid.

Given by Philip V to the French ambassador in 1704, the two Diana paintings migrated from Madrid to Paris, where they formed part of the legendary Orléans collection at the Palais-Royal until the French Revolution. In 1798 they were purchased by the Duke of Bridgewater and put on view in London, soon after passing by inheritance to the future Duke of Sutherland.2 They stayed in London until the outbreak of World War II, when they were sent to Scotland for safekeeping. Since 1945 they had been on loan from the 6th Duke of Sutherland to the National Gallery of Scotland. In 2009 Diana and Actaeon was sold jointly to the National Gallery of Scotland and the National Gallery, London, for £50,000,000. The two museums have until the end of 2012 to raise an equal sum to purchase Diana and Callisto.

Titian had met Philip II in Augsburg in 1550–1551, and they appear to have come to an agreement that in exchange for an annual stipend the painter would make one picture a year for the king. Before his death in 1576 Titian executed about twenty-five works for Philip, chiefly religious and devotional pictures, such as the Saint Jerome and the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence in the Escorial. The poesie are almost the only secular narratives he made for the king.

Titian had a free hand in selecting the subjects for the poesie, an all but unheard of privilege in the Renaissance when most artists worked according to prescribed commissions. While most of the poesie recount the interaction of gods and mortals, the group does not seem to have had a unifying symbolic program. Still, Titian certainly conceived the Diana paintings as a pair, and the two pictures address similar issues of fate, cruelty, and the fragility of human life.

Titian based both Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto on the accounts of these myths that appear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He did not read Latin, and he almost surely used the translation of the poem that had recently been made by Lodovico Dolce, the most prolific littérateur in Renaissance Venice. Dolce wrote, edited, or translated more than 350 books, including best-selling versions of many classics of Greek, Latin, and Italian literature, from Homer and Virgil to Dante and Castiglione. Dolce and Titian seem to have been good friends: the writer dedicated a book to Titian in 1538, wrote a dialogue in praise of the painter in 1557 that contained a great deal of biographical information nowhere else recorded, and in 1554 he also published correspondence between Titian and Philip II about the poesie.3

Diana and Actaeon illustrates the tale of the unfortunate youth who, while hunting in the woods, stumbles upon the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing in a fountain. Outraged at being seen in the nude, Diana splashes water on Actaeon, magically transforming him into a stag. He flees, but his hunting dogs catch him. He desperately tries to call them off, but he no longer has the power of speech, and the beasts savagely tear him to shreds. Ovid stresses—and Dolce makes clear in his translation—that Actaeon is guiltless; he is simply a victim of fate. This can’t be said of the goddess. “To some,” Ovid states, “she seemed more cruel than just.” Dolce expands on Ovid’s text slightly: “Too cruel to some the goddess seemed, nor did they think he deserved such a terrible martyrdom.”

In the picture Titian shows the moment of discovery. Actaeon at the left is caught in mid-motion: his right foot is advanced as if stepping forward, yet the weight of his body is back, as if he were trying to stop suddenly, and his hands are raised in a gesture of surprise or fear. The naked nubile nymphs, who were luxuriating in the cool water a moment ago, react with terror to his intrusion. One tries to pull a red cloth down for protection; another attempts to dress and run away at the same time; a third covers her breasts with her arm and raises her legs to hide her pudenda; a fourth looks on from behind a stone pier to assess the danger. Diana at the right has begun to cover herself, and she glares balefully at Actaeon. Unaware of what is happening, the nymph at Diana’s feet is still undressing her; the other attendant is trying to protect her from being seen. Everyone is in motion.

It is a dizzying image in which all seems to be spinning and unstable. The lines indicating the space are at disjointed angles. The banks of the river jut upward; the fountain is not level; the supports of the arch, and the stone pier crowned with a skull, do not stand perpendicular to the ground. The staccato rhythm of the gestures adds to the chaos, as do the intensely active brushwork and the vibrant pattern of highlights scattered across the picture. No painting ever before had so strongly suggested a moment of shock and disorder.

Diana and Callisto also depicts an instant of supreme intensity. The myth it recounts is as horrifying as that of Actaeon. Callisto was an ideal female youth—virginal, modest, noble—who hunted with Diana and her nymphs in Arcadia, the land celebrated in classical poetry as the place of human happiness during the mythic Golden Age. But her perfection was rewarded in the most terrible and ironic way: it caught the eye of Jove, who came down from heaven and raped her. Pregnant and ashamed, she became fearful, disconsolate, and solitary—something that Dolce stresses in his translation far more than Ovid does in the original. Still she managed to hide the pregnancy until one hot summer day when Diana and her nymphs went to bathe in a sacred fountain. According to Ovid and Dolce, when Callisto refused to undress, the other girls ripped her clothes away, revealing her condition. Immediately, Diana banished her. According to Dolce’s translation, the goddess says, “Begone! And with your vile and stained body don’t offend the sacred fountain. Never again come into my presence.”

Callisto gave birth to a son, but her sufferings were not over. Juno catches her, and although Callisto begs for mercy, first beats her and then turns her into a bear. The features of Callisto’s physical beauty that attracted Jove now become ugly and monstrous. Like Actaeon she fully retains rational understanding but completely loses the power of speech. She can only growl and grunt. For fifteen years she lives in a state of constant terror, a human in bestial form, and yet not truly part of the animal world. Finally, by accident she encounters her son, who, believing her to be a bear, tries to kill her. To avoid the crime of matricide, Jove transforms both mother and son into stars in the heavens.

Titian’s painting shows the moment of revelation and banishment. But it is important to realize that he may have changed the story slightly. In a letter he wrote to Philip II as he was finishing the picture, Titian said it represented “Callisto, pregnant by Jove, stripped at the fountain by order of Diana by her nymphs.”4 In Ovid and in Dolce, the nymphs strip her first; only then is her pregnancy discovered and she is punished by Diana. If it is right to follow Titian’s wording exactly, the picture shows Diana ordering the nymphs to strip the girl, which makes Diana’s actions seem even crueler.

At the left in the painting, the nymphs surround Callisto and rip her cloths from her body. The complexity of Titian’s depiction of the women is notable. The nymphs are beautiful and yet terrifying in the avidity with which they pounce on their victim, who moments before had been their companion. In his translation Dolce contrasts the fearful solitude of Callisto with the happiness of the “beautiful elect band” formed by Diana’s nymphs; this contrast does not appear in Ovid’s original text.

Titian, too, wants us to feel Callisto’s abandonment and isolation; he shows her isolated and alone in her suffering. In contrast to the elegant coiffures of the other nymphs, her hair is disheveled and unbound, a common sign of rape in classical literature. Callisto’s sweaty face is in shadow, and yet her gravid abdomen is in light, intensifying the sense of exposure. She looks up to heaven, and her eyes glisten with tears. In both Ovid’s poem and Dolce’s translation, she pleads with the gods for mercy, and when this is denied, she curses Jove for his evil. In Ovid, no longer able to speak, Callisto woefully raises her arms to express her anger; but Dolce adds that she also glances up to heaven with pitiful and terror-stricken eyes. Likewise, Titian wants the viewer to empathize with Callisto in her sorrow and desperation.

  1. 1

    The exhibition is on view at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 17, 2010–January 2, 2011; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, February 5–May 1, 2011; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 21–August 14, 2011. This essay is drawn in part from the catalog Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, edited by Edgar Peters Bowron (Yale University Press, 2010). 

  2. 2

    The fullest account of the provenance of the paintings is by Nicholas Penny, National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Volume II, Venice 1540–1600 (London: National Gallery/Yale University Press, 2008), pp. 461–470. In 1704 Philip V of Spain gave both Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto to the French ambassador, the Duc de Gramont, who in turn gave the pictures to the French regent, the Duc d’Orléans, one of the most important collectors in the eighteenth century. They remained with the rest of the Orléans collection at the Palais Royal in Paris until 1792 when the collection of French and Italian paintings was sold to the Viscount Walckiers of Brussels, who soon after sold this collection to François-Louis-Joseph de Laborde-Méréville.

    Laborde-Méréville brought the pictures to London, where he mortgaged them to the English banker Joseph Harman. Under the terms of the loan, the ownership of the paintings passed to Harman in 1798 when Laborde-Méréville was unable to repay the loan. Harman sold them the same year to a consortium of three British collectors made up of the Duke of Bridgewater, his nephew the Earl of Gower, and Gower’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Carlisle.

    Upon Bridgewater’s death in 1803, his share of the pictures passed to his nephew Lord Gower’s second son, who later became the Earl of Ellesmere. The paintings, together with Lord Gower’s own portion of the Orléans collection, could be seen at Cleveland House in London beginning in 1806. The paintings remained in this house (spectacularly rebuilt as Bridgewater House) until the outbreak of World War II when they were moved to Mertoun House in the Scottish Borders for protection. This turned out to be wise, as Bridgewater House was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz. Lord Gower had been made the first Duke of Sutherland in 1833. Beginning in 1945, the 6th Duke of Sutherland lent the principal masterpieces of the collection, including the Diana paintings and other outstanding works by Titian, Velázquez, and Poussin, to the National Gallery of Scotland. 

  3. 3

    Other reasons to believe that Titian would have used this translation: entitled Le trasformationi and published in 1553, Dolce’s Italian edition of the Metamorphoses included an introductory sonnet by Aretino, another of Titian’s friends, and it was dedicated to Emperor Charles V, the father of Philip II. We know, too, that Philip owned a copy of Dolce’s translation, and that Dolce wrote Philip II about his translation in the 1560s. The standard work in English on Dolce and Titian is Mark W. Roskill, Dolce’s Aretino and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (University of Toronto Press, 2000); however much still remains to be done on their relationship. 

  4. 4

    Calisto pregna di Giove spogliata al fonte per commandamento di Diana dalle sue ninfe.” Letter dated June 19, 1559. See Tiziano—Le lettere (Pieve de Cadore, 1977), p. 179. 

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