Titian: The Sacred and Profane

Tiziano: Amor Sacro e Amor Profano

edited by Maria Grazia Bernardini
Milan: Electa, 471 pp., (out of print)

Tiziano Vecellio was one of the European painters who achieved truly international stature in his own day, like Raphael before him and Rubens afterward, and like both those artists he owed a good deal of his fame to his singular ability at portraying women. A distinguished scholar of Italian art, and especially the art of Venice, Rona Goffen brings knowledge and passion to the subject of Titian’s women. She has also brought to this enterprise the ravening appetite for “new approaches” that has now become a characteristic feature of professional art-historical writing. Taken as a whole, Titian’s Women addresses its shifty subject (who are Titian’s women?) with a dizzying unevenness. Were books conversations, this one would be deeply engaging for its range of ideas—good, bad, and brilliant—but books make other, peculiar demands on their writers. Above all, as sustained monologues, books need to anticipate the questions we ask in conversation, especially the questions that help to keep a voluble speaker on track.

Who are Titian’s women? They might include his wife, his mother, his daughter Lavinia, the women who posed for his pictures, the women who paid for them, the women, real and fictitious, who comprise their subject matter. Goffen treats them all at one time or another in a study whose essential point is really to emphasize how sympathetically Titian portrays women even when he makes them look as sexy as an Antonio Vargas pinup. She invites her readers to delight in Titian’s sumptuous oils, ranging scholarly opinion on her side to rescue this most sensual of artists from any charges of rampant machismo.

The project is laudable but questionable, for Titian has always been his own best advocate. He scarcely needs defending against academically minded detractors, whether they be sixteenth-century Tuscan chauvinists like Giorgio Vasari, a painter and biographer clearly taking aim at a Venetian rival, or present-day critical theorists who want to identify and deplore “the male gaze.” An artist of Titian’s ageless popularity learned early to transcend every variety of parochialism, whereas scholarly writing, from Vasari onward, has often made parochialism its salient point. Old approaches or new, scholarship falls flat before Titian’s art unless it is written with at least a glimmer of Titian’s own suggestive power, and something of his universal ability to communicate. Vasari, at least, was a vivid writer, whose Lives of the Artists charms with its anecdotes and lays out its Tuscan aesthetic creed in plain Tuscan speech. Goffen’s excerpts from recent academic writings, on the other hand, often suffer when we turn from their prose to Titian’s limpid images: who, in four hundred years, is going to bother to decipher “the psychoanalytic-semiological preoccupation with the illusionist mechanisms of the classical apparatus” or “scopic as well as ‘orthopedic’ support”?

In a related vein, despite Goffen’s stated aim to elevate Titian above characterization simply as an erotic or even mildly pornographic painter, her analysis returns time and again to “sexuality” (that ambiguous term) conceived in terms psychological, clinical, or critical-theoretical, all of…

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