Titian’s Altarpieces

What was the importance of these two altarpieces for the development of paintingin Venice, both from a stylistic and iconographic point of view? It has beensaid that Titians Assunta, which adorns the high altar, and Pesaro (on theleft aisle of the chapel of the Immaculate Conception) stand mid-way between thepast and the future of Venetian painting. This infers that Titian drew onestablished traditions learnt from his masters Bellini and Giorgione, and imbuedhis works with a freshness and inspiration not seen before.

Furthermore, itbecomes apparent that his sensitive construction of the works consideringthe authority of his patrons facilitate a depth of interpretation whichhighlight both the sacred and civic concerns of the time. To illustrateTitians progressive role in Venetian art history, I will draw on Renaissancedocumentation, and contemporary research that notes the stylistic andiconographic elements of these altarpieces. In 1568 the Florentine chroniclerVasari wrote of Titian, “Titian…who has adorned with great pictures the Cityof Venice..

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.deserves the love and respect of all craftsmen, who ought to admireand imitate him in many things. For he is a painter who has produced…workwhich.

..will live as long as the memory of illustrious men endures” .

This isa useful starting point for such an investigation: this representation is valid,since Vasari had met and spoken to him while writing the book, and being aFlorentine he wasnt so susceptible to employing the Venetian rhetoric whichcould tend to be biased The contemporary chronicler Ludovico Dolce recorded theshock and criticism the Assunta attracted when it was first unveiled. Suchcontroversy points to its radicalism and supports assertions that it wasinfluential for developing artists: “For all the panels grandeur andawesomeness, the oafish painters and the foolish masses, who until then hadseen nothing but the dead and cold works of Giovanni Bellini, of Gentile, and ofVivarino…, which were without movement and modelling, grossly defamed thepicture.

Then, as envy cooled and the truth slowly dawned on them, people beganto marvel at the new style established in Venice by Titian…” There is goodreason to conclude that the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces rank amongst thefinest and most notary of Titians works. In his book, The Altarpiece inRenaissance Venice, Peter Humfrey claims that the exceptionally large number ofchurches in Venice elevated the prevalence of this style, as they all needed tobe decorated. The lack of fresco painting (due to the humid climate) meant morepanel paintings were constructed, and so “Venetian painters tended toconcentrate their most ambitious efforts.

..on altar painting” Limitations ofthe investigation The lack of primary documentation from this era hinders ourability to place the artwork in its socio-cultural context. When relying on therhetoric of the State-appointed historians, we must consider the bias thatresults from their upholding of the Myth of Venice. Obviously, the valueof these to the research question is limited; being contemporary, they areunable to describe Titians long-term influence on Venetian painting.Definition of key terms When analysing artwork from a stylistic point of view,all visual (not metaphorical) factors are taken into account. Issues ofcomposition, symmetry and asymmetry, colour palette, application of paint, andrendering of forms are all relevant.

Iconography refers to any elements of thepainting that can be left open for a religious or sacred interpretation. Thesetwo points of view are inextricably linked: for example, the placement (re:composition, thus stylistic element) of the Madonna and Child, elevated in thecentre of a devotional painting also has iconographic references: this was theirtraditional position, and portrayed their roles as intercessors between thefigures below, and God in Heaven above. In this context, the altarpiece refersto a painting set behind an above the altar in a Christian church.

Paintedaltarpieces might be accompanied by sculpture, as in the case of TitiansAssunta, which features three free-standing marble figures on the frame. Theterm sacra conversazione refers to the type of composition made popular byBellini, where a group of saints are gathered in a unified space. Anyconversation between saints is solely spiritual and internal;paradoxically, as soon as obvious communication takes place (in the case ofTitians Pesaro), the composition no longer conforms to what constitutes asacra conversazione . Established traditions in altarpiece design Titian waspainting amongst the turbulent climate of the age of Reformation and theCounter-Reformation: this may have influenced his work, endowing it with agreater sense of drama and more overt display of emotion which is evidentespecially in Assunta.

This was a significant development from the entrenchedVenetian style established by Bellini: his altarpieces were characteristicallytranquil and meditive (Humfrey refers to Bellinis Diletti, S. Giobbe and StCatherine of Sienna altarpieces in defining the sacra conversazione). His styleembodies the Venetian ethos of La Serenissima. Stylistic developments inAssunta and Pesaro altarpieces While depictions of the Assumption scene had beenpainted by such names as Vivarini and Palma Vecchio, Titians subjects aremuch more powerfully built and more dynamic in their gestures than therelatively angular and timid figures in the earlier altarpieces. There is a moodof vivacity and upward movement, driven by the shifts in dark and light throughthe three zones (disciples, Madonna, God and angels). The viewers eye isarrested by the raised arms of the disciples, the foreshortening of thevirgins body refuses to let the eye rest, until it reaches the sweeping groupof angels.

Rosand affirms the stylistic importance of this work, in suggestingthat its unveiling heralded the arrival of the classical High Renaissance inVenice. Titians dramatic gestures and breadth of form draws comparisons tothe art of Raphael, and in particular, his Assumption. Some scholars suggestTitian may have seen preparatory sketches for this work around the time hereceived the commission for Assunta , in which case the originality of his workis dubious. However, the fact that he hadnt yet undertaken the artistspilgrimage to Rome and viewed the works of Raphael and his contemporaries,offers credibility in terms of his artistic innovation.

A justification of whyAssunta was not accepted by the patron, Guardian of the Fransiscan order, FraGermano, was because the human forms are too sensual. A highly rhetoricalpassage from a 1910 book by Charles Ricketts, asserts that “the face of Marysatisfies us as expressing ecstasy in a human type” . While being ultimatelysubjective, it sheds light on how people would personally react to it. Theexuberant vitality would have been frightening and even offensive, togenerations used to Bellinis style. The Assunta is notable in combining twosignificant biblical events: the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and theCoronation. The Coronation was a theme most usually represented in a horizontalformat, yet perhaps this extensive thematic content would have offered morescope for drama and innovation when it was to be set in a tall, arched format.Infact, when Titian received the commission to construct this work, it was thelargest altarpiece that had ever been seen in Venice. In the same way, Pesarodemonstrates an unorthodox blending of styles: the altarpiece painting and thevotive portrait style.

He transforms the traditional composition of the sacraconversazione from one of centrality, to asymmetry. Rona Goffen supports thisnotion, claiming there was “no real precedent in earlier altar paintings forthis asymmetrical scheme” . The shift in the Madonna and Childs positioninghas iconographic ramifications, as a central position reflects their supremerole in the relationship with the saints and patrons. They still dominate thePesaro, their elevation conveys importance, and their split attention (Madonnalooking to the left, and the Child to the right) is the key to uniting the twogroups. Titian draws on characteristics of the popular votive picture (paintingsdepicting a patron venerating a saint in a more intimate association) forexample, Titians Bishop Jacopo Pesaro Presented to St. Peter by PopeAlexander VI which include profile perspectives of subjects, asymmetry, andinclusion of things that represent the patron. The advent of x-ray technologyhas shown the extent to which Titian refined, and reconstructed stylisticelements of the Pesaro which were originally more Belliniesque in concept. Thediscovery of underlying pentimenti support this claim, and reveal at least twochanges of plan: the first resembles a Bellini work, with a vaulted loggia-likearrangement.

The second experimented with a curtain slung across and aCorinthian capital, before the final two colossal columns were executed.Obviously he maintained an awareness of his teachers and a connection with thefamiliar, yet he presents a notable departure from the Venetian tradition of theQuattrocento, in the disjuncture he establishes between the realm of the church,and inside the painting. Titian has successfully reinterpreted the relationshipbetween the image and the worshipper, denying access to the observer, incontrast to Bellinis devotional portraits, where the viewer was able toconnect with the humanity of the Virgin Mary by her gaze out of the painting.Iconographic developments in the Assunta and Pesaro altarpieces Much has beenwritten about the role of the columns in the background of the Pesaroaltarpiece.

David Rosand cites historical texts which interprete the columns tobe architectural symbols of Mary, “the heavenly ladder by which God descendsto Earth, so that through her, those men who merit it ascend to heaven” If weagree with this summation of Mary as the stairway to heaven, then thesecolumns can be seen as iconography, rising up to heaven. This appears plausible,since there doesnt seem to be any indication of a natural termination tothese columns. Alternatively, the columns could be a direct illustration of thetext of Ecclesiasticus 24:7, “and my throne is a cloudy pillar”. This has aspecial relevance, since other passages from Ecclesiasticus 24 have been linkedby art historians to the Immaculate Conception, which is the theme of thisaltarpiece. The issue of the Immaculate Conception the idea that Mary wasexempt from original sin at the moment of her conception was the cause formuch antagonism between the Fransiscans and the Dominicans, who preferred tobelieve that like St John the Baptist, Mary hadnt been conceived without sin,but sanctified in the womb. Thus, not only are the columns significanticonography within the altarpiece, but relate to themes which promote theFransiscan theology.

Adversely, Humfrey dismisses any iconographic significancethat these columns might contribute. “Their purpose is primarily pictorial: togive greater structural coherence..

.and to endow the scene with an auraof..

.grandeur.” This alternative appears to supplement the x-ray evidence thatTitian experimented with a variety of architectural solutions to create asetting that would achieve architectural, as well as theological decorum Likemany devotional scenes that depict the Madonna and Child, there are manyreferences to Christs destined crucifixion. It should be noted thatFransiscan theory concentrates on the Passion, which can be read here asevidence of patrons concerns being inextricably linked with the subjectmatter of these works.

Marys gesture towards his raised foot alludes to hisstigmata and the crucifixion. Titian follows popular depiction of St. Francis(patron saint of the Fransiscan order); his open hand alludes to his stigmata,yet is also a tool to allow the eye to travel around the composition. St.Francis position makes him intercessor between the Pesaro family and Christ.These allusions to the Passion become explicit in the depiction of the two puttiin the clouds, who support a large wooden cross.

The extent of the Pesarosiconographic significance can be challenged with the knowledge of the particulartroubles Titian had to overcome regarding the placement of the work. The viewerfirst encounters the altarpiece from an angle, approaching the high altar.Hence, the composition must accommodate not only this view, but a full-frontalperspective. It seems that these conditions would have challenged Titianscreativity, and the question of what stands due to necessity and what stands asiconography in this work makes analysis a complicated issue. With the Assunta,Goffen suggests that the stylistic feature of circular forms carriesiconographic relevance. While they unify the composition within the painting,the curved architecture of the choir screen and the apse, they refermetaphorically to God, “circles being His geometric equivalent” . The goldtones prevalent in the work allow for a similar reading, that golden lightrepresents His divine illumination.

The light becomes more intense and golden aswe cross the boundary between the mundane and the sacred realms, reaching itsfull density when it reaches God. This golden light and illumination embodiesMarys triumph over sin and death. The extent to which the role of patronageinhibited artistic innovation We have an inhibited ability to interpret works asreflections of the artists innovation and artistic development since theywere largely contrived according to the demands of the patrons. In TitiansPesaro, Jacopo Pesaros demands were well documented. The terms of Titianscommission stipulated that he include full-length kneeling portraits of Jacopo,his brothers and nephew . In meeting these requirements, this could perhapsaccount for Titians unusual composition, and if true, it negates theinterpretation of significant stylistic innovation. It appears Pesaro wantednumerous images represented in his altarpiece, supported by Ettlinger whostudied the iconography of the columns: “Pesaro..

.believed that a successfulintegration of all elements could be achieved” . Alongside the depiction ofthe Immaculate Conception (and his veneration of it), the inclusion of hisfamily, and emblems which celebrated his illustrious military career wereinvolved. The presence of so much diverse symbolism complicates aninterpretation of the artworks iconography, which has been demonstrated inthe plethora of scholars explanations in regard to the columns in thebackground of the Pesaro altarpiece. As a Mendicant friar, Fra Germano Casalecould not own property, although he is commerated as the “patron” of theAssunta . The date of unveiling and his name is inscribed on the frame, whichsufficiently serves as documentation of the patronage and commission.

Even ifGermano relied on bequests to the Frari to fund the work, his vested interestsare apparent when we read of his constant harassing of Titian while it was beingpainted. It reinforces the notion raised with the Pesaro, that the presence ofthe patrons places an influence on the outcome of the painting, so much so thatit enables interpretations based on the political and social interests of thepatrons. It is the many possible readings of these works, not only from astylistic and iconographic point of view, that make the Assunta and Pesaro suchenigmatic and monumental works. In capturing the ideals and beliefs from theirtime while exhibiting such progressive artistic features, they hold greatimportance for the development of painting in Venice.Bibliography1.

Anderson, J. The Genius of Venice 1500-1600, in Art International,vol.27 April/June 1984 p.

15-22 2. Ettlinger, H. The Iconography of theColumns in Titians Pesaro Altarpiece, in Art Bulletin vol.61, 1979 p.59-673. Goffen, R. Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian and theFransiscans, New Haven, Yale (1996) 4. Humfrey, P.

The Altarpiece in RenaissanceVenice, New Haven and London (1993) 5. Licht, F. Titian: The Majestic Voiceof All Venice, in Art International no.11 Summer 1990 p.90-93 6.

Ricketts, C.Titian Methuen ; Co.Ltd, London, 1910 7. Rosand, D. Painting in CinquecentoVenice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, New Haven and London (1982) 8. Rosenthal,M. In my view.

.. Titians reputation: the limitations of history, inApollo, Dec. 93 p.

395-8 9. Tietze, H. Titian: The Paintings and Drawings ThePhaidon Press Ltd, London 1950