Titian in Paris:
A Master of Finding the Power of the Face in the Faces of the Powerful

Titian knew how to make the powerful look powerful, which is also why they sought him out: a portrait by Titian was worth boasting about. But as an artisan, albeit highly skilled, he could never become one of them. Rather, he was at their service; at times they even neglected to pay him, as if the privilege of recording their power sufficed.

Today that balance has shifted. Now it is because of the painter, not his subjects, that large crowds are visiting Titian: In Face of Power, an exhibition of portraits at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris through Jan. 21. In fact, many of the 16th-century men of power displayed in the show are remembered thanks only to Titian.

True, he was far more than a political painter. Religion and mythology were traditional topics for Renaissance artists, and they attracted Titian from an early age. Later many patrons also commissioned him to paint altar works for their chapels and mythological scenes for their palaces. But portraiture was arguably his greatest gift.

About 100 Titian portraits survive, but he is believed to have painted many more. (An anonymous copy of his almost intimidating portrait of Alfonso I d'Este is included in this show.) His range of subjects also embraced friends — now often identified only as "a man," "a young man," "a gentleman" or "a musician" — as well as prominent Venetian intellectuals, not least the poet and humanist Pietro Aretino.

His 1545 portrait of Aretino, on the cover of this exhibition's catalog, is a masterpiece. As it happens, Aretino complained that it was unfinished. Indeed, Titian captures the light bouncing off his close friend's red velvet gown with quick, almost Impressionistic, brush strokes. But the effect is to focus attention entirely on Aretino's strong forehead, gentle eyes and the gray hairs in his beard.

Titian also painted many portraits of women, with the best-known of the eight in this show, Venus and Love, embracing mythology. His portrait of Judith, showing her ecstasy at decapitating Holofernes, is no less sensual. Several others are of unidentified young women, but most striking is his portrait of Laura Dianti, the mistress of Alfonso I d'Este, who is dressed in vibrant blue, with one hand resting on the shoulder of a child slave.

When he came to paint a 60-year-old matron of the Ferrara dynasty, however, Titian opted for flattery and diplomacy. In Portrait of Isabella d'Este, painted around 1534-36, he depicted her as an eye-catching young woman, so different from whom he was seeing that d'Este herself is said to have proclaimed that, even at 20, she was not that beautiful.

Alongside 35 portraits by Titian, the Musee du Luxembourg is presenting 25 works by Tintoretto, Parmigiano and other contemporaries, as well as Rubens’s small portrait of Charles V, which he copied decades later from Titian’s far larger equestrian portrait of this Holy Roman emperor, now hanging in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The exhibition displays a medallion image of Francis I of France by Benvenuto Cellini; a child’s suit of armor that once belonged to Charles V; and a marble bust of Pope Paul III. These are twinned with Titian's portraits of Francis I (copied from Cellini's medallion), Charles V and Paul III to create a pantheon of the men who ruled much of Western Europe at the time.

Titian himself was in his late 20s when he first became associated with political power. Named in 1517 to succeed Giovanni Bellini as Venice's official painter, his principal duty was to paint each of the republic's new doges, or ruling dukes, upon their election. Two of these portraits — of Nicolo' Marcello (1542) and Marcantonio Trevisan (1553) — are in this show, and in each the doge wears the embroidered cloak of office.

Titian’s fame spread far beyond Venice after he painted the newly crowned Charles V in Bologna in 1529. The portrait of the emperor displayed here was painted four years later and is remarkably sober, as if intent on showing him as serene and self-confident. Many others followed, with Titian's ties to the Hapsburgs confirmed when he later painted Charles's son and successor, Philip II of Spain.

Soon, Pope Paul III and his grandson, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, also summoned the artist. The Musee du Luxembourg presents Titian's Paul III With His Cap, a stunning portrait of the seated pontiff dated 1545-46, along with two portraits of Farnese by other artists, one anonymous, the other Alonso Sánchez Coello. For his own portraits of the Farnese family, which are considered among his best, Titian received no payment.

The demand for portraits from other dynastic families, including the Gonzagas of Mantua and the della Roveres of Urbino, kept him traveling well into middle age. His portrait of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, painted in 1552-53, is a typical expression of power, with the duke's suit of armor at his feet. But it is softened by the presence of his son, Francesco Maria, tugging patiently at his father's gown to gain his attention.

In Venice, though, along with politicians and intellectuals, naval officers were crucial to keep open the republic's trade routes in face of Turkish expansionism. They are represented by Titian's fine portrait of Gabriele Tadino, a one-eyed military hero of both land and sea, depicted here wearing the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem.

What was the secret of Titian's portraiture? By all accounts (with the notable exception of Isabella d’Este), he captured a convincing likeness of his subjects. Giorgio Vasari, the great chronicler of Renaissance art, recounted in a letter how, when one of Titian's paintings of Pope Paul III was placed outside to dry, "passers-by, on seeing it, took it for the pope himself and bowed before him."

In a catalog essay Antonio Paolucci, superintendent of Florentine museums, pointed to the spiritual dimension of Titian's portraits to support his view that Titian, perhaps matched only by Velazquez, was European art's greatest portraitist. "His genius lay in a kind of appropriation of both the physical and spiritual reality of his model," Mr. Paolucci writes, noting that the sitter's existential, cultural and social features are all represented.

The Musee du Luxembourg, owned by the French Senate and operated by a private company, has often been criticized here for organizing "popular" exhibitions. Yet Titian: In Face of Power, a serious and scholarly undertaking, makes it evident that Venice's greatest Renaissance artist still speaks to today’s museumgoers.

(New York Times)

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