Titian and the Alabaster Room

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Titian. 1520-3, oil on canvas (National Gallery, London, NG35)

I haven’t written a blog in a while and inspiration struck recently when I was flicking through some art books (even though I don’t technically do History of Art anymore, I can’t let it go!) and rediscovered my favourite painting, Bacchus and Ariadne, painted by none other than my favourite artist, Titian. So now I think it’s time to devote a long overdue post to my favourite artist and favourite piece of art!

Titian is perhaps best remembered as a passionate artist who loved women, and it definitely shows in his art – perhaps best evident in the famous Venus of Urbino or Danaë, his female figures are absolutely beautiful, voluptuous and, for a twenty-first century viewer in particular, excellent for body positivity. Titian had an astonishingly long career and a huge artistic output, which is also really interesting as it shows an evolution of style – from the beginning, when his work tended to be confused with that of fellow Venetian artist Giorgione, to the end, when the brush strokes of pieces like Death of Actaeon are so loose it could almost be seen as a move towards Impressionism, three hundred years too early.

He was a Venetian artist through and through, having moved there when he was about ten years old from the small town of Pieve di Cadore. Though Titian’s birthday has never been established, it is generally taken as c.1490. In Venice, he trained in the workshops of Sebastiano Zuccato and Gentile Bellini, moving to the workshop of Gentile’s brother Giovanni upon the former’s death in 1507. Titian was perhaps uniquely placed amongst several talented Venetian artists to establish his far-reaching reputation: having trained with the Bellinis, his close association with Giorgione ended with Giorgione’s premature death in 1510, and the following year, Sebastiano del Piombo, another important Venetian artist, left for Rome, meaning that Titian could establish his independent career without the looming shadows of other talented artists. He worked right until his death in August 1576, having enjoyed a seventy-year career and leaving behind work for several different patrons and in various subjects.

Titian was in his early thirties when he painted Bacchus and Ariadne, now in London’s National Gallery, between 1520 and 1523. The painting was commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso I D’Este, who had previously invited Titian to stay with him in 1516 for a month at his own expense, due to his burgeoning reputation as the painter of and for princes. This would increase later when he worked for the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and Philip II of Spain. The painting was to go in the Camerino d’Alabastro (Alabaster Room) at the Ducal Palace in Ferrara.

For this space, Alfonso had tried to commission contributions from all of the most famous artists of the time. These included Bellini and the Ferrarese artist Dosso Dossi. Michelangelo had refused, and Raphael and Fra Bartolommeo had both died after planning their pictures, so Alfonso looked to Titian to fill the void left behind. For his room, Alfonso had chosen bacchanalian subjects (lots of drunken revelry!), which followed passages from Ovid and Philostratus the Younger. Titian actually repainted sections of the background in Bellini’s contribution, Feast of the Gods, and produced three works in total: Worship of Venus, Bacchanal of the Andrians and Bacchus and Ariadne.

The Feast of the Gods, by Giovanni Bellini and Titian. 1514/1529, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1942.9.1) – read more about it here!

Bacchus and Ariadne shows the moment Bacchus falls in love with Ariadne, with him leaping out of his chariot towards her, cloak billowing behind him as he reaches for her. Ariadne was a Princess who had helped Theseus to kill the Minotaur, as she was in love with him. While Ariadne slept, Theseus then abandoned her on the island of Naxos – you can see his ship on the left side of the horizon. Distraught, she is wandering the beach to try and find Theseus and his ship, but instead happens upon Bacchus, the god of Wine, who falls in love with her instantly. He proposes to her and, as a wedding present, gives her the sky, where one day she will become a constellation of stars, shown in the top left above the clouds. I find the story really captivating and I think the brightness of the painting, with characteristic Venetian colourfulness, heightens the drama of the moment, as well as the feeling of movement, music and dancing from Bacchus’ accompanying party.

The painting shows Titian’s extensive use of the expensive and beautiful blue pigment ultramarine, which he used to emphasise the beauty of the nudes and the silk materials. Actually, one of my favourite parts of the painting is the contrast between the red cloak billowing from Bacchus’ shoulders and the beautiful blue sky: the folds of the cloak look so real it is almost as if you could touch it and feel the silky material instead of canvas. Though Titian, unlike Michelangelo and Raphael, had a highly limited knowledge of classical art and forms first hand, he manages to capture the age of antiquity in the painting and create a wholly new composition that had no precedent.

On show at the National Gallery!

Whenever I get chance to go to London I have to go and see it – I love the fact that it is displayed in a room with crimson walls which contrasts even more with the ultramarine paint, and can only imagine how brilliant it must have looked in the Camerino d’Alabastro. I love Titian’s mythological paintings – particularly his later cycle for Philip II of Spain, poesie, which you can find out more about here. Perhaps the best thing to finish on would be Giorgio Vasari’s description of Titian in the Camerino in his Lives of the Artists: his

“paintings in the room, our best artisans affirm, are the best and most skilfully executed paintings that Titian ever did, and in truth they are most unusual, and, for this reason, Titian deserved to be most generously recognized and rewarded by that ruler”

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