Titian and the Painted Poetry for Philip II

Firstly, let me begin with I’m sorry for not updating for a while – it’s been a hectic six weeks and now I’m back at university, I’ve got some stability and I’m ready to start writing again. What I want to write about, what’s been running around my head ever since I stepped off the flight a couple of weeks ago, is the beautiful art that lies in Madrid. We spent a gorgeous five days there and were lucky enough to stay across the road from the Museo del Prado (this automatically made me a very excitable tourist), and following on from my love letter to the Louvre, I wanted to share some of the fantastic treasures that can be found here. For me, the jewel in the crown of the Prado are the beautiful, colouristic and sensuous paintings by (one of my absolute favourites) the celebrated Venetian master, Tiziano Vecellio.


The beautiful Museo del Prado on a sunny September day!



Venetian artists during the Renaissance were particularly sought after by foreign patrons – Titian was one of the key artists to benefit from this demand. He painted royal portraits, but in 1548, he was to begin a relationship with a royal that produced what is often seen as the climax of his career. Whilst in Milan in December of that year, Titian met the future Philip II of Spain – Philip was the son of Charles V, for whom Titian had painted, and also the future husband of Mary Tudor, queen of England from 1553-1558. Philip commissioned a set of ‘Poesie’, a series of mythologies, which Titian painted during the 1550s and early 1560s. It is frequently debated whether or not the paintings, thought to have been conceived in thematic and compositional pairs, were executed with a specific iconographic programme in mind, or if Titian simply translated the beauteous imagery of his wild and talented imagination onto canvas of his own accord.

So what was ‘Poesie’? Put simply, it is the idea of the painter as a poet, that painting could produce the same effect on the senses as that of poetry. There are six paintings (two are held in the Prado – though one is a later reworking of an original part of the series) altogether, with the stories taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. During the Renaissance, with the prevailing fascination with humanism and education, a source such as this wasn’t uncommon. Philip himself was learned and, unlike the close eye his father had kept on the fantastical Venetian artist, he was liberal in his patronage. This enabled Titian to use the full scope of his imagination when facing these mythological subjects.

I want to concentrate on the two works that are in the Prado from the series – the beautiful Venus and Adonis, dated 1554, a large oil on canvas painting showing Venus’ soft, contorted back as she twists to stop Adonis from leaving her. The second picture is Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain, a copy of the 1553 painting originally given to Philip painted c.1560-1565. His first painting of Danaë was actually completed in the mid-1540s for Cardinal Farnese, and shows how these images became models for later works – actually, this is quite evident when you go into the room at the Prado to view these images from Poesie, where there are several almost identical Venus paintings also executed by Titian. And let me apologise for the lack of pictures of them – we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the gallery.

What do these paintings show? Specifically, Danaë shows the beautiful princess being possessed by Jupiter, who has hidden himself as the golden rain. The princess’ beauty, and the intimacy of the moment, is emphasised further by the contrast with the old, haggard maid. It is undoubtedly erotic, with Titian using his signature loose brushstrokes (as he aged, his brushstrokes became looser and his style more painterly; if you want evidence of this, look at The Death of Actaeon, executed during the 1560s, in the National Gallery in London) and Venetian colour. Vasari wrote of this style in his 1568 second edition of the Lives of the Artists that the Poesie was

“executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of colour, with the result that they can hardly be viewed from close up, but appear perfect at a distance.”

The pose of Danaë is also important; it is full frontal, her luminescent flesh displayed for all to admire. Titian actually wrote a letter to Philip II that accompanied the Venus and Adonis in 1554, explaining the contrasting poses:

“And as the Danae that I have already sent to Your Majesty was seen entirely from the front, I wanted to vary [the pose] in this other poesia and show the figure from the opposite side, so that the room in which they are to hand will be more appealing to the eye.”

Venus and Adonis actually represents Titian’s artistic imagination coming alive, as he has completely rewritten Ovid’s story; Ovid told of Venus leaving Adonis, not the episode shown in the Prado gallery. Her passion for her lover is unrestrained, and the viewer can almost sense her desperation for him to stay, despite the indifference in his face. Unlike the painterly style seen in the Prado Danaë, here the forms are the perfect marmoreal figures of classical sculpture. Titian supposedly drew upon a marble relief called the Bed of Polyclitus, which makes sense when viewing the figures and also thinking of the Renaissance context. The new presentation of Venus, with her back on full view, and the exchange of glances makes this a beautiful meeting of sculpture, painting and poetry. The sensuality of these two images probably played to the interests of his young and masculine patron.

These paintings are so beautiful – and viewed alongside other similarly executed paintings by Titian in the same room at the Prado, they are not to be missed. Plus, nearby to the Prado gallery, is the beautiful Retiro Park, so it makes a gorgeous place to go and have lunch after you’ve spent all that time admiring the art!


  • I wrote an Art History essay on Titian’s Poesie once, so seeing these paintings in the flesh (so to speak) was absolutely amazing – if you want to do any further reading, either from a studying point of view or just out of interest, some brilliant books I used to write my essay were The Cambridge Companion to Titian (2004), edited by Patricia Meilman, alongside Sheila Hale’s 2012 Titian: His Life and Mark Hudson’s 2009 Titian, The Last Days.


  • A little tip if you plan on visiting more than the Prado – you can get a combined art museum ticket called the Paseo del Arte which gets you entry into the Prado, Museo Reina Sofía (the modern art museum) and the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza (a fantastic museum of a private collection, which includes paintings from all eras, right from the golden religious works of the medieval to 1960s pop art), which saves you overall on admission to all. Alternatively, if you are a student with a valid student card (neither of us had one even though we’re still students – they had expired!) you can get in for free. There are lots of other stipulations like this, so it’s worth checking the websites before you go!
  • Like other museums, the Prado has the coveted late opening hours – but everyday! Monday to Saturday, it is open from 10am until 8pm and on a Sunday 10am until 7pm. On some evenings, it is free, so definitely worth checking!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.