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 which may contain their grain of truth but which lack Titian’s own delicacy of touch. Grossly described sex was hardly unknown in sixteenth-century Venice—Titian’s friend Pietro Aretino wallowed in it—but Titian himself evokes something quite different, namely, the desire that propels physical longing into the realm of the spirit. Goffen wants to say precisely this, but lingers too long on descriptions of genitalia to make the point stick. Besides, once again, Titian speaks for himself, whereas Goffen obscures some of her most important observations in a welter of less illuminating forays into cinema studies, Freudian psychology, and recent literary criticism—not necessarily bad in themselves, but not necessarily good either, or central to Titian’s own practice as an artist.1

Goffen is right, certainly, to insist on Titian’s quality of sympathy; he was a canny observer of the world around him. If his professional mandate led him to captivate the eyes, his genius impelled him to see how many other senses he could engage along the way. Titian’s women are appealing because they were meant to appeal, but then so were Titian’s men.2 His exiguous youths appeal to the sensual imagination as effectively as his big-bodied redheads (think of that fur-clad young dandy in New York’s Frick Collection, all textures ready for the stroking). Nor are the charms of his painting reserved only for fresh-faced youth. Titian seized on the hypnotically chill blue of the eyes of a mature Francesco Maria della Rovere no less surely than, decades before, another master portraitist, Raphael, had caught them as the essence of the man’s appeal. Rather than muse like Giorgione on women ravaged by age, Titian produced a series of well-seasoned Venuses who serenely beguile the eyes of callow boys; he painted the distinctive features of his daughter Lavinia as lovingly when she had become a matron as he had when she was a girl.


Titian was a craftsman of nearly unrivaled accomplishment, and unrelenting critical attention. He turned paintings to the wall if they weren’t working out for him, returning to them again and again until he got them right, sometimes taking years to complete them. The dense luxuriance of his paint, for all its shimmering pliability, has been subjected to iron discipline: each brushstroke exists only because it means something. Furthermore Titian reliably, repeatedly, maintained the same standard. Unlike his earlier contemporary Lorenzo Lotto, who worked with wild inconsistency to attain some passages of limpid clarity, others of cockeyed expressivity, and a few lapses into sheer bad taste, Titian delivered the goods every time.

Addressing an artist of Titian’s relentless consistency, a consistency frequently pushed to the point of slickness, Goffen would have gained immensely by subjecting her own text to a level of critical judgment more in line with Titian’s rigor. Just as Titian’s Women never quite settles the question of who Titian’s women are supposed to be, and why they bear consideration apart from Titian’s men, the book never quite settles down into any of its many trains of thought.

Among women, furthermore, Goffen chooses to omit the Virgin Mary, with the excuse that her representations are more conventional than Titian’s other female images. But there is probably no single female figure more important to the artist’s career than the Virgin of his Assumption of 1518, painted for the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Through her, Titian exploded onto the visual world of Venice, and did so because Mary’s ecstatic embrace of the opening heavens in this huge painting was so powerfully unconventional and at the same time so convincing. In Titian’s era, the raptures of religious awe exerted a pull for which the raptures of eros were a halting metaphor, and it is impossible seriously to look at his later Penitent Magdalenes without thinking of this first intoxicated, and intoxicating, portrait of beatific possession.

Goffen’s most convincing discussions, at least to this reader, have to do with Titian’s early work, where her sense that the artist had a special feel for women is borne out not only in majestic imagery but also in historical fact, significant elements of which she has discovered herself. She pays much attention, for example, to three frescoes for the Scuola di Sant’Antonio in Padua. Completed in 1511, they rank among the very first of Tiziano Vecellio’s independent works. Commissioned by a confraternity of local worthies from the venerable university town that was Venice’s mainland neighbor, the Scuola paintings portray episodes from the life of the Portuguese monk who became Padua’s favorite adoptive son, Saint Anthony (1195-1231). These hagiographical legends provide grim evidence that women in medieval Padua (and in the sixteenth century) must have had few rights and less respect: a boy kicks his mother and then cuts off his foot in remorse; Anthony restores it. A jealous husband stabs his wife and contritely asks Anthony for absolution, which he receives.

The most striking of Titian’s images, The Miracle of the Speaking Infant, centers on a beautiful noblewoman whose husband doubted her fidelity and the paternity of their child until the baby, cradled in Anthony’s saintly arms, spoke up with miraculous precocity to acknowledge his father. Goffen shows how Titian makes the case for the wronged wife, as he must, by visual means. He does it by making her big: tall, robustly double-chinned, and quietly elegant. Her husband, by contrast, looks shifty and frazzled, nonplussed, or perhaps just embarrassed, by the outburst of his little baby. The wife’s air of tragic serenity reminds us that, vindicated or not, she is still locked into marriage with this wretched man.

They are definite characters, this troubled family, with carefully observed features; although Goffen believes that Titian has used one of his preferred models for the blameless wife, the woman’s round-edged profile, her sturdy build, and her poignant expression are more distinctive than that. If anyone, she resembles a Paduan neighbor, Giotto’s image of Fortitude (painted in 1304) from the Arena Chapel, another figure whose moral consequence is expressed in commanding physical presence—in what our own tastes are more apt to shun as obesity.

Titian trained in Venice with the meticulous Giovanni Bellini, who usually worked with a tiny brush, applying his oil paints to wood panel; when Bellini worked on a large scale, as in his stunning Pesaro altarpiece, the effect is still one of an almost photographic precision, with sharply defined figures and deep-dyed primary colors. 3 Into this visual world of clean outlines against the Venetian mists, Titian and his first large canvas painting, Sacred and Profane Love, took their plunge in 1514, too big and bold to arrive except with a resounding splash.


To begin with, there is the drama of the paint itself, swept in generous, shimmering strokes onto pliant, textured canvas rather than smooth, rigid wood. Titian rarely worked on a small scale (the exquisite Baptism of Christ in Rome’s Museo Capitolino, an oil on wood, is an early exception) and he could never paint without reveling in paint’s texture, color, and suppleness. There is one kind of love about which this ambiguous picture of love reserves no ambiguity whatsoever: the love of painting, with its melding of sacred furor and sensuous delight.

Beyond the scintillating surface, Sacred and Profane Love, which acquired that title only in the eighteenth century, is evidently a painted riddle, a puzzle of classical and Renaissance imagery of the sort that was immensely popular among learned Italians in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Some of these teasers were meant to reveal their answers plainly: others, like Botticelli’s allegories for the Medici circle, were surely meant to keep outsiders at bay. Titian’s composition, by a whole range of visual cues, seems to promise a simple answer, but the answer turns out not to be so simple after all.

The two identical women who dominate the painting, one clothed and one nude, beg comparison in every telling detail. They belong to a class of two-part paintings that normally present the viewer, and usually also a protagonist like Hercules or a personified human soul, with the alternatives of virtue and vice. Titian has supplied nearly all the conventions for such an allegory here: the high road in the background to the left leading to a lofty citadel with a white tower at its summit ought to announce itself unequivocally as the arduous road of right living. The white-clad woman in the foreground, with her gloved hands and jealously guarded covered silver vessel, keeps watch as if she were the white citadel’s virtuous guardian. Virtuous she may be, but not austere: a pair of rabbits placed conspicuously behind her allude to her own part in nature’s endless fertility rite. It is fair to suppose, as viewers of the painting have nearly always done, that the woman in white is a bride, in which case the glamorous plume-hatted horseman who gallops uphill to the citadel’s single gate provides a repertory of metaphors for a bridegroom and his marital charge.

The sculpted relief on the left side of the fountain’s basin, a reused Roman sarcophagus, shows a horse in the midst of a lively bacchanal, but then the white-clad lady is unquestionably erotic for all her reserve, what with the glimpse we have of her wrist above her left glove, her generous décolletage, and the vagrant tendrils of hair brushing across her shoulder. Marriage for her promises physical ecstasy as well as a sacrament, and that is why she represents the “Profane Love” of the painting’s traditional title: the bride represents love as it is melded into the life of the real world.

The painting’s most persistent questions derive from the bride’s unclothed counterpart on the right, whose dignity insistently counters the temptation to identify her with vice. She holds aloft a lamp or an incense burner, looking meaningfully at her satin-clad twin, her own billowing red robe somehow failing to make a scarlet woman of her. All the same, she is surrounded by scenes of violence: on the right-hand side of the sarcophagus-fountain on which she sits, the relief shows a muscular man giving another a savage beating while a naked woman and a third man look on. In the background, a hound in the company of two hunters chases down a rabbit, while a pair of shepherd lovers embrace, leaving their flocks to the attentions of a third companion. The landscape moves downhill into a lakeside village over which the sun has already set, bringing on the blues and yellows of advancing night. Dignified the nude woman may be, but she is ominous as well. Her attributes, taken together—her dignity, her incense burner, and her menace—have induced generations of viewers to place her among the gods. She, then, is Sacred Love.

What knowledge, and how much, would make Titian’s painting mean more? If we knew everything, its spell might break, its air of mystery dissipate into an emblem, or worse, a sermon. Yet knowing something more can also pull the spell of an image tighter: to this end, Sacred and Profane Love, now to be seen in the Villa Borghese in Rome, has already inspired more than its share of written accounts. Its cleaning and restoration in 1995 provided an occasion to assess the persistent mysteries of this early masterwork in the large, colorful show catalog under review that addresses the painting from a variety of viewpoints (including Rona Goffen’s), two of which bear especially on the nude woman’s identity.4 One involves approaching the history of art through the history of society, a subject in which Goffen’s own contribution has been especially strong. The second is altogether more complicated and involves the Renaissance preoccupation with the ancient world of Greece and Rome.

History, as it happens, can tell us quite a bit about Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. Two coats of arms appear in the painting, one hanging on a tree in the sculpted relief of the fountain and one barely discernible in the silver basin that sits on the fountain’s edge. They belonged to the Venetian official Nicolò Aurelio and the Paduan widow Laura Bagarotto, who in May of 1514 became husband and wife. On the previous day, as Goffen discovered, the white satin wedding dress that had formed part of Laura Bagarotto’s first dowry was returned to her by her former in-laws, along with the rest of the dowry itself; the document can still be found in the state archive of Venice. And in fact, as Goffen points out, the white dress in Titian’s painting was an afterthought; he began by clothing the bride in red, itself a reputable bridal color in his day.

Marriage to the powerful Aurelio, who served as secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten, represented an auspicious turn in Laura Bagarotto’s troubled fortunes: most of her male relatives, including her father and her first husband, had been executed in the immediately previous years as traitors to the Venetian state. What brought the couple together is unknowable now, and there is no reason to rule out love.5 Significantly, however, as Goffen shows, Titian’s spectacular painting was paid for by the bride: it seems likely, therefore, that she also commissioned it. The bridal imagery of Sacred and Profane Love therefore has a clear context, as does the work’s imposing size, for their union marked a supremely important transition in the lives of both bride and groom, one, moreover, that proved auspicious for both, as money, reputation, and children all followed on one another. So, equally, did overt expressions of affection.6

Sacred and Profane Love was not by any means the only commission that Titian received from a woman; a significant number of his patrons were married women. Given Goffen’s expertise in matters of archival research and social history, one wishes that her book had devoted real systematic attention to this group among Titian’s women. How did their tastes differ from men’s, or did they? They apparently bought up his nudes as eagerly as their male cohorts, beginning with Laura Bagarotto of Padua and the second, unclothed, protagonist of Sacred and Profane Love.

If social history can tell us about Laura Bagarotto’s white-clad bride and the overall significance of Titian’s painting, it still comes up short in confronting her divine twin. There we must resort to classical mythology, and to Plato. The presence of a winged Cupid dabbling his hand in the fountain announces that the nude divinity is Venus. Plato’s most beautiful and accomplished dialogue, the Symposium, claimed that there were two kinds of Venus in the world, and hence two kinds of love: the common (Pandemos) goddess of sex and her heavenly (Ourania) counterpart, whose wise love pulls the soul to contemplate the absolute beauty of God. Plato’s dialogue was well known to Titian’s contemporaries in Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation; in Venice itself, there were many scholars who also knew it in Greek. Hence the connection between the Symposium and Titian’s double image in Sacred and Profane Love has long been noted, its very dichotomy implicit in the painting’s traditional title.7

By giving bride and goddess identical features, however, Titian emphasizes that earthly and holy love verge into one another. Despite its clear reference to the pagan Plato, his painting suggests that Christian marriage is at once the social fulfillment of a common human impulse and a holy sacrament. The violent license of the sarcophagus-fountain’s sculpted relief has been tamed and reused as an Arcadian fountain (Goffen suggests that the fountain may represent the chastening of lust); the scenes of hunting and herding behind Venus are both ancient metaphors for Christian devotion. For her powerful self-possession and her well-kept wisdom, Titian’s double image of a woman—set at once in the here and now of 1514 and in celestial eternity—thrives on its ambiguity. To reduce her either to an excursus on female sexuality or to a Neoplatonic allegory splits her in half: she is always both, body and soul.

More than that, she is body and soul united by a good mind. Titian’s women, big, buxom, and beautiful, tend to look intelligent as well. Laura Bagarotto must have been a shrewd customer herself, and if Titian’s figure of love is not an outright portrait of her face, it surely captures something of the bride’s true spirit. There is no way at present to know how much say Laura Bagarotto actually had in the formulation of this powerful, hopeful monument to her wedding, and how much of its imagery originated with Titian himself. What we do have is an extraordinary painting, and tantalizing testimony to an extraordinary woman.

When he painted the nude goddess in Sacred and Profane Love, Titian had yet to reach such a degree of self-assurance that he could entrust the portrayal of religious ecstasy entirely to the realm of physical bliss. That turning point came four years later, as we have mentioned, when his 1518 Assumption of the Virgin in the Venetian church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari hurled an exhilarated Mary up into the burnished breach of Heaven; it is hard not to take the title “gloriosa” as referring to the figure in the painting as much as to its ultimate subject.

By contrast, in Sacred and Profane Love, the nude’s pointed glance and hieratic pose give her away as a monitor. She is a prudent goddess, as her twin is a prudent bride. For Nicolò Aurelio as an active politician or for the politically suspect Laura Bagarotto, not to mention for an artist with Titian’s large ambitions, Sacred Love’s prudent admonition, like her bucolic setting, must have had their political aspect.8 In 1514, the Venetian country-side of the painting’s background, the hard-won terra ferma, still bore the scars of a recent past ravaged by warfare. Most families, especially in the region of Padua, must have borne some sort of calamity, if not calamities as dire as those that decimated Laura Bagarotto’s kin.

Shortly after Titian painted his wedding allegory of 1514, pictured puzzles, after more than fifty years of popularity in Renaissance Italy, began to lose ground, their layered mysteries replaced by the flat certainties of emblem books. Art’s claim on the problem-solving, analytical mind gave way in turn to a more direct appeal aimed straight at the physical senses. Titian, with his luxurious handling of paint, made this transition look inevitable, navigating a general change in taste with keen professional skill—but not before delivering himself of some marvelously complex mythological paintings for Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara (and third husband of Lucrezia Borgia): a tumbling carpet of Cupids engaged in the Worship of Venus, and a crystalline Bacchus and Ariadne, centered on the dumbstruck god of intoxication, brought to a sudden halt with all his licentious train by the first glimpse of his future wife.

For Goffen, “Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne reminds us of the violence implicit in the Renaissance conception of marriage as legitimized rape.” But the point of the ancient myth was something quite different: Ariadne, a mortal abandoned by her faithless human lover, found immortality the next time she found love. The jolt that shudders through Bacchus and his train comes from his sudden, wrenching impact with the mystery of death: at this point, Ariadne herself is as evanescent as her youthful beauty, and the god is undone with longing. Indeed the Renaissance was an era consumed with longing of every kind, not only of one lover for another, but also for knowledge, for beauty, for peace, for order, and finally for a divinity envisioned as the pure fulfillment of all these desires. Love expressed that longing in all its variety, whether it was Bacchus entranced with a mortal woman, two mortal lovers, or a mortal’s fixation on the saints, on Jesus, on a transcendent God. As the most central obsession of Renaissance writers, love commanded its ineffable range from sheer lust to ecstatic enlightenment, from Pietro Aretino’s bawdy sonnets and lascivious metaphors to more exalted works: the biblical Song of Songs, the dialogues of Plato, the Gospel of John, the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, the lyrics of Petrarch, and Dante’s Vita Nuova, his testament to the “new life” of love and modern literature. Art showed the same range; indeed, Titian runs the gamut all by himself, in Sacred and Profane Love as in Bacchus and Ariadne.

It must have been just as impossible then as now to draw the line between heaven and earth, in love or in life: take Titian’s series of penitent Mary Magdalenes, some clothed, some nude, each one outrageously voluptuous as she turns her tear-swollen eyes to Heaven. Nothing about these soft, sensuous women fits them for a life of austerity, nothing but the sheer force of will that drives the tears from their eyes in the pain of trying. Yet unlike Donatello’s fifteenth-century wooden sculpture of a skeletal Magdalene, seared by privation to a terrifying specter, these penitent lovers are flourishing in their piety, big, pink, and healthy, teary yet vital. Remorse becomes them, and women apparently liked Titian’s expressive view of penitence as much as men: he received orders from Emperor Charles V, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Vittoria Colonna, a lively widow who wanted her icon nude.

Goffen also writes informatively about the terms in which Titian conceived his own artistry, terms like the paragone (comparison), referring to the ceaseless contest between painting and sculpture that so preoccupied the intellectually ambitious artists of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy. As manual labor of the roughest sort, sculpture could claim only one vocal partisan in the great debate, but when that advocate was Michelangelo, even Titian was compelled to take notice. In the same competitive vein, the word poesie, which Titian applied to his mythological paintings, also meant “poems,” lending literary legitimacy to the painter’s craft. Most of all, though, Titian dealt in colorito, in the real stuff of painting. The word for paint in Italian is colore, and in effect Titian worked with color as if it were a physical entity, just as he would often have spoken about colore as something tangible. Although his style and his technique changed profoundly over the six decades of his career, his intimacy with paint remained constant, the endlessly suggestive constant of his grand creative life.9

The works of Titian’s maturity show that the Old Master’s compositions grew as tight as his brushwork became loose and his treatment of landscape phantasmagoric. The huge crepuscular sky of Titian’s Europa (in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) provides a vast repertory of lustrous pinks; so, on a reduced scale, does the wild ruddy landscape behind his Venus Blindfolding Cupid in the Borghese collection. In this very late work, color, in many respects, has become subordinate to texture: the dab of red-flecked white that forms the perpendicular plane of Cupid’s wing protrudes from the canvas like the feathered limb itself. Close up, it is no more than an abstract slash, but it works.

Ironically, the last two works that Goffen takes into consideration, both from the very end of Titian’s life, are an all-male Flaying of Marsyas and a Pietà, a Virgin Mary, both worked in the strange somber palette and sketchy style of his latest years. In the end, Titian’s women cannot stand alone, for the great painter’s artistry unites man and woman, sacred and profane, soul and body, dark and light. The Old Master is more accurately ageless—ageless and universal.

This Issue

March 18, 1999